Getting Real, Getting Started
Let’s get real about staying healthy. Everyone wants to stay healthy as long as possible, but we’re confused about how to do this. Conflicting information keeps appearing, backed up by studies that disagree as often as they agree. Eagerly followed fads come and go. Even very basic questions—is milk good for adults? do eggs increase cholesterol levels? how is obesity connected to type 2 diabetes? why are allergies on the rise?—have been thrown into doubt.
We wind up taking the attitude that life is a gamble, and anyone who stays vital and vigorous for seventy or eighty years has been very lucky. The deeper reason we hold this attitude is that we feel the odds are stacked against us. Life isn’t an upward arc. After your prime years, getting sick is inevitable. Every adult is statistically at risk for heart disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death in this country. Most people’s greatest fear, Alzheimer’s disease, apparently strikes at random and is incurable.
The gambling model for staying healthy is taught in medical school, only in a more scientific way. Despite all the marvels of modern medicine, a great deal remains uncertain. A specific cause of disease like a cold virus only makes a certain percentage of people sick, not everyone. Standard treatments all involve some degree of unpredictability, working better for some patients than others, and sometimes not at all. Reducing risks is how prevention is defined. By eating right, exercising regularly, and avoiding toxins like alcohol and tobacco, a person isn’t actually attacking the cause of major disorders like diabetes, coronary artery disease, and cancer. Instead, the odds of getting sick are going up or down. The average person doesn’t realize that these risks apply to big groups as measured by statistics. They don’t predict what will happen to the individual. There will always be someone who does everything right but gets sick anyway, while someone else who has paid almost no attention to their health dodges the bullet.
Even if you’re blessed with good luck, the day will come when the best doctors in the world cannot help you. Through no fault of your own, there will be a breakdown in your health, and the casino will start to gain its advantage. Here’s why.
Seven Reasons Medical Care Stops Working
• The doctor doesn’t know what caused you to get sick.
• There’s no drug or surgery that will resolve the situation.
• The available treatments are too risky, toxic, expensive, or all three.
• The side effects of the treatment outweigh the benefits.
• Your condition is too far advanced to be reversed.
• You’re too old to treat safely or with much hope of recovery.
• Somewhere along the line, a doctor made a mistake.
When any of these breakdowns in medical care occur, whatever happens next is out of your control, and your doctor’s. After three centuries of scientific medicine making huge strides—a legacy the authors deeply respect—it’s becoming obvious that the gambling model for staying healthy needs to be replaced. Too many unacceptable things are happening:
• People are living longer and yet on average suffer eight to ten years of bad health and one to three years of disability at the end.
• Cancer is still approached with grim fatalism despite the fact that up to two-thirds of cancers are preventable.
• An estimated 400,000 people die every year due to medical mistakes.
• The average person feels helpless, confused, and anxious about getting sick and going to the doctor.
These unacceptable things arise when the gambling model takes hold and you throw the dice with your future. The most unacceptable thing of all is losing control. People dread the notion of falling into the hands of doctors and winding up in the hospital. But there is an alternative. The healing self is the choice maker who steps into the arena of everyday life and steers mind and body toward a lasting healing response. A paper cut goes away after a day or two; last winter’s cold is a distant memory. The healing self, on the other hand, is long range. You set out to become whole, which is the only viable strategy for remaining healthy over a lifetime.
It’s amazing how far the human body has evolved to make healing possible. You now have an opportunity to evolve consciously, making choices that will radically upgrade your immunity to disease, slow down and reverse the aging process, and boost the healing response. These goals aren’t achievable by gambling, but they can be achieved when you adopt a new model, the healing self.
In the new model, everything comes down to the process shown in the following diagram:
Disruption Healing response Outcome
Disruption = Any health threat: an invading virus or bacteria, a physical wound, a stressful event, distortions at the cellular or genetic level, mental distress, and the like
Healing response = A reaction to the disruption that restores balance in either mind or body
Outcome = A return to the normal, undisrupted state of balance
As you can see, the terminology is very general. Any experience can be a disruption, not necessarily a bacteria or virus. The memory of a past trauma can massively disrupt the body, as can losing your job or simply giving in to the impulse to have a double cheeseburger with fries. Likewise, the body’s response to a disruption involves the entire messaging system of the information superhighway. Whatever returns the body to a normal state of balance counts as healing.
This approach is gaining traction in contemporary medicine as the whole-system approach, about which we will have much to say. Whole system is simply another way to say bodymind. It looks beyond the artificial medical-school divisions into separate organs and the old skepticism about the mind-body connection. When a happy event occurs, such as falling in love, the whole system responds as messages course through the bloodstream, central nervous system, and immune system. When a tragic event occurs like losing a loved one, the response is just as holistic, but the combination of chemicals in the signaling process is very different. What you experience subjectively as love or grief must have a precise configuration in the bodymind. If that didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have the experience.
The whole-system approach isn’t just a bright shiny new model to replace the old ones—it comes closer to reality. Nature doesn’t recognize human-made categories. Body and mind are one domain, and every organ, tissue, and cell works toward the same goal: sustaining life. Yet the sober truth is that our bodies haven’t evolved fast enough to cope with the disruptions we’re forcing on them. The whole-system approach reveals holistic problems as well as holistic solutions. Consider the current epidemic of obesity facing all age levels in America. Just one factor—excessive sugar intake—is a major contributor to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and least suspected of all, heart disease. You can eat sugar today and notice no signs of these creeping disorders, but your pancreas knows that the demand for insulin is too high; your digestive system knows that too many useless calories are being converted to fat; your hypothalamus knows that the quick energy of a sugar high throws your metabolism out of balance.
Powerful as the innate healing response is, it depends on evolution before a major shift can occur, which is far too slow. The only viable strategy is to intervene with conscious choices that the bodymind can absorb and adapt to. A double cheeseburger with fries is known to cause inflammatory markers to appear in blood plasma (the straw-colored liquid that is left in your blood after the solid part, chiefly red blood corpuscles, is removed), along with floating particles of fat. This happens within a few minutes and lasts upward of six hours. During that time, your body is experiencing a disruption. In response, your liver will rev into gear to process the excessive load of fat, and your immune system will attempt to combat the surge of inflammation. The immediate outcome is likely to be very undramatic and seemingly innocuous. But the drip, drip, drip of such disruptions has long-range damaging effects.
If you live your life unconscious of what’s happening to the whole system, you are adhering to the gambling model of health. If you become aware of the downside of a double cheeseburger with fries, you might swear off such an indulgence, and your body will thank you for it. But temptation is constant and giving in takes only a minute, not simply with a cheeseburger but with all kinds of fatty, salty, overly sweet, processed, and junk food.
The only way to get real is to make a major shift into a healing lifestyle, one that isn’t chopped up into small temporary choices—even very healthy ones—but rises to the level where the whole system is cared for.
What Can the Healing Self Do?
Imagine for a moment two patients, A and B, who feel feverish and go to the doctor. Patient A encounters a full waiting room and is told that the doctor is running late by thirty minutes. In reality, the wait is over an hour, and when A gets to see the doctor, she’s feeling a bit tense and put out. In a business-like way, the doctor takes her temperature, does a cursory exam, and writes a prescription for antibiotics.
“You might have a low-level infection,” he says. “Let’s see how this works for you. If you’re catching a cold or the flu, your fever will get worse and then get better. See you in two weeks. The nurse out front can make an appointment.”
This scenario is fairly typical of everyday visits to primary-care physicians, and each of us knows the routine. Nothing A’s doctor told her is untrue or outside normal practice—she got routine care.
Patient B finds an empty waiting room and sees the doctor immediately. He asks about her fever and wants details about when it started and how badly it might have affected her sleep, her mood, her energy level, and her appetite. He investigates to see if B has had similar fevers in the past and, if so, how they were resolved. Did they go away on their own or were medications necessary? This interaction takes more than a few minutes, but the doctor looks interested and never impatient. Patient B finds his manner reassuring.
“Most of the time this kind of low-grade fever is the symptom of a cold or the flu,” the doctors says. “Over the next few days, call me whenever you feel a need. Once we monitor what’s going on, we’ll have a better idea of what to do.”
The second doctor sounds ideal, but there’s one hitch: he’s a fantasy. Few if any patients receive the kind of unhurried, sympathetic attention that our fictitious Patient B encountered—and things aren’t going to change anytime soon. There is certainly a strong reason to consider the medical profession a caring one, but even at the best of times doctor visits involve waiting, being resigned to only ten to fifteen minutes with the doctor, and getting treatment based on a snapshot of the situation.
There is an alternative. You can accept the role of the healing self. Consider the qualities of an ideal doctor, which would include the following:
An open mind
Vigilance over changes in the patient’s condition
Detailed knowledge of the patient’s history
Thorough medical knowledge and expertise
Only the last item on the list is exclusive to the medical profession. Everything else is something you can provide yourself, either through self-care or in conjunction with a good doctor. Certain things like constant monitoring are available only to you (or by being admitted to the hospital). Most of what’s on the list are things you are probably doing already, even though you aren’t aware of acting as a healer. Maximizing them will be very important, because awareness needs to be an everyday habit, even a skill.
By the same token, the bad qualities we’d hate to see in a doctor are often present in how we treat ourselves from day to day. Millions of people approach their health with one or more of the following:
Denial that pain and other symptoms need attention
Worry and anxiety
Lack of information
Undertaking needless or ineffective treatments
Clearly these are things that everyone wants to avoid, but we fall into self-defeating responses all the time. We worry needlessly or pretend that nothing hurts. We guess at what’s wrong and then reach impulsively for something we hope will work—usually this means grabbing a bottle from the medicine cabinet or kitchen cupboard. Most of the time the impulse is temporary, so we go back to waiting and worrying.
You are in a position, starting now, to adopt the role of self-healer. By going deeper into the power of awareness, you can activate the hidden potential of the healing system that you already depend upon every day. We hope this all sounds exciting, because some major life changes lie ahead. But first we need to make very clear what this book is not about.
A Realistic Baseline
We won’t show you how to overcome a chronic illness like arthritis, type 1 diabetes, or congestive heart failure.
We don’t have cures for incurable diseases like Alzheimer’s.
We aren’t promising a cure for cancer.
Nothing we advise lies outside proven medical practice—we aren’t talking about faith healing, placebos, or magical thinking.
Once you have developed symptoms or a full-blown disorder, you must seek qualified medical care.
Where Are You Now?
Some will be disappointed that this book isn’t about curing a full-blown illness on your own. But the advantages of the healing self are immense, because you learn how to consciously remain in a state of well-being that increases for your entire life. As big as this concept is, healing comes down to personal experience today, tomorrow, and the day after. To that end, we are asking you to pause and take two quizzes. The first quiz will assess where you are now—in other words, your starting point for your healing journey. The second quiz will assess how great your potential is—how far healing can take you.
Quiz #1: Where Are You Today?
For each question, consider your experience in the past month. Mark each item according to how often an experience has occurred, as follows:
1 = Not at all or once at most
2 = Sometimes
3 = Fairly often
4 = Often
___ I was depressed.
___ I felt worried and anxious.
___ I had to go to the doctor’s office.
___ I was in pain but didn’t go to the doctor’s office.
___ A chronic health problem was present.
___ I ate the wrong foods, fast food, or junk food.
Copyright © 2018 by Deepak Chopra, M.D.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.