by Larry Berkelhammer, PhD
In living a life with chronic health challenges, it's essential to get good medical care. However, I've found that medicine doesn't have any cures for my three autoimmune diseases, immunodeficiency, severe malabsorption syndrome, and other conditions. Once I finally realized that there were no cures and that no cures were likely to come in my lifetime I began to look around to find what I could do beyond medical care and the usual things such as good diet, exercise, and sleep habits. Despite good health habits, discomfort, disability, fatigue, and malaise were with me more days than not, and I wanted to get beyond them. From work with clients, literature reviews and personal experience, I learned quite a bit and came up with these 4 tips for training your mind to promote healing.
1) Focus On Others
For those of us who need to spend considerably more time than the average person going to medical appointments and engaging in self-care, it's easy to become self-absorbed. One of the things I learned was that the more self-absorbed we are, the worse our health outcomes and that the more engaged we are with others, the better our health outcomes. The opposite of self-absorption, which is curiosity and open-heartedness toward others correlates with better health outcomes. I began to intentionally look for opportunities every day to focus on others with curiosity and compassion, and to connect with everyone I met in an open-hearted way. Immediately, I began to feel better. My symptoms didn't go away; they just didn't bother me as much.
2) Bring Conscious Awareness To Every Activity
What we now know from psychoneuroimmunology research is that beyond the usual good health habits related to diet, exercise, and sleep, the most important thing we can do that improves physiological functioning and health is to actively do everything possible to live a life where we are fully engaged in activities and relationships that are rewarding and meaningful. I began to bring conscious awareness to every activity throughout the day and to focus in on the activities that were most aligned with my personal life values. Where obligation necessitated certain activities, I looked inward and found new meaning in them, and realized that I was choosing virtually all my activities.
3) Practice Mindfulness To Promote Healthy Thinking
From new advances in psychology, we now know that the brain not only determines how we think, but that how we think creates anatomical and physiological changes in the brain. Therefore, it's important to form healthy ways of thinking because the way we think influences our state of health. When we go around thinking we "have to" do things, we reinforce neural circuits that make it more likely we will continue to think that way in the future.
Many of us learned to worry unnecessarily about events over which we have little or no control. Every time we allow ourselves to get caught up in ruminative thinking, we reinforce the neural circuits that make it more likely that we will experience anxious and depressive feelings, and that we’ll have more of them in the future. I've found mindfulness practice to be the best antidote for unhealthy thinking.
Attention is one of the primary determinants of subjective well-being and even physiological functioning. Because every thought has physiological correlates, some form of daily mental training is important for health. We all engage in thinking that triggers feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, or joy. Most of the time, we don’t consciously choose where to put our attention, resulting in unnecessary emotional and physiological stress.
I now set an intention every day to pay attention to the type of thinking I'm unconsciously practicing. When I notice that I'm engaging in negative or judgmental thinking, I give myself permission to step back from those unhealthy ways of thinking. Increasingly, I'm able to see the humor in the way my mind automatically seems to gravitate to ways of thinking that create stress. With mindfulness training, I've learned to disengage from thinking that doesn't feel good, and to intentionally think in healthier ways. This requires vigilant daily practice.
Attentional or mindfulness training has allowed me to selectively put my attention on the activities of the moment, thereby reducing emotional distress. Mindfulness practice can be learned at any Buddhist meditation center or at a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class, both of which are available around the world. As little as eight weeks of mindfulness training creates life-altering changes in the way we think. When daily practice is continued, healthy changes can occur in physiological functioning, subjective well-being, and even in health.
4) Choose To Take Control Of Your Health
The ability to recognize all the times throughout the day that we make choices can improve physiological functioning, subjective well-being, and health. We make choices constantly, but most of them are made without our conscious awareness. Awareness of choice and actually making conscious choices throughout the day allows us to cultivate a true sense of control and mastery. I've taken on a practice that sounds too simple to be profoundly life-altering. Yet, I've found that more than anything else I have done, the following very simple practice has given me a better quality of life. Throughout the day, I simply preface every action with the phrase: I am choosing to… For example, at the moment I am writing this, I am in the middle of drinking four liters of polyethylene glycol in preparation for an esophagogastroduodenoscopy and colonoscopy tomorrow morning. Each time I drink more of the solution, I say to myself, I'm choosing to take care of myself by drinking this. When I scheduled the appointment, I told myself, I'm choosing to make this appointment because I care about my health.
I recommend making an earnest and repeated effort to consider the limitless choices with which you are presented during every waking moment. Living by conscious choice is extremely empowering and makes us masters of our destiny.
You don’t ever have to do anything. Instead, choose to do everything.
Larry Berkelhammer, PhD, is a researcher and psychophysiologist who uses his blog, LarryBerkelhammer.com, to show how learning to live with conscious intention can maximize health and well-being.