Within your body you have a powerful source of self-healing. As proof, think of the many bruises, cuts and blisters you’ve had that your body has repaired. Or the colds, injuries and infections you’ve overcome. This self-repairing biological system has also been proven to cure cancer, relieve pain and shrink tumors. Unfortunately, a high stress lifestyle and repeated activation of the stress response shuts down this healing system.
In past blogs I have discussed the opposing nervous system states, the stress response/sympathetic nervous system (Book Review: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers) and the relaxation response/parasympathetic nervous system (Overcoming Stress by Invoking the Relaxation Response). Through my reading, I came to understand the importance of regularly engaging in activities that stimulate what’s called the parasympathetic nervous system.
It wasn’t until recently, however, that I became aware of a connection between the relaxation response and self-healing. Thank you Lissa Rankin, M.D. for sharing this insight! As she explains in her Tedx talks and book, the parasympathetic nervous system is our intrinsic healing system.
From her book Mind Over Medicine
“When the relaxation response is induced, the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge. Only in this relaxed state can the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms go about the business of repairing what gets out of whack in the body, the way the body is designed.”
The stress response was intended to save our lives when being chased by a large animal or attacked by a vicious tribe. Once the threat passes, the nervous system should return to relaxation. Unfortunately, this is not the case in modern society. Dr. Rankin tells us that we have 50 or more stress responses a day! In today’s culture, the sympathetic nervous system is activated by far simpler threats, such as negative thoughts, financial worries, not expressing your creativity, staying in abusive relationships, living in an unsupportive environment, staying in a hated job, lacking life purpose and feelings of isolation and loneliness.
When you are stuck in the sympathetic - fight or flight - nervous system, the body is being pumped full of harmful chemicals, mainly epinephrine and cortisol, which cause destruction in the body. However, when you are in the parasympathetic - rest and digest - nervous system, the body is flooded with healing chemicals - dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins.
To enable your internal repair system, then, you need to break the cycle of stress and enable the relaxation response. The physiology of the stress response circulates toxins that are breaking down your body, while at the same time disabling your innate self-repair mechanisms from being released via the relaxation response. A perfect combination for pain and disease!
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., harnesses the relaxation response to induce self-healing in his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. Patients are referred to Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s program after standard medical procedures have failed to produce results. What patients learn in the program is how to flip the switch on their nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic drive. The program combines mindfulness meditation, body awareness and yoga, each of which can take the patient out of the stress response and into the relaxation response. This therapeutic approach has benefited patients with high blood pressure, headaches, anxiety, back pain, panic attacks, anger issues, rheumatoid arthritis, heart problems, and more.
Can you relate to this? You feel lousy and aren’t sure what’s wrong, so you take a “wait and see” approach to your health. As the days pass it’s obvious that things are going south, so you schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. After making the call, a funny thing happens: you quickly start to feel better, and by the time you are seen at the clinic, your symptoms have markedly improved. What’s going on? Dr. Rankin would attribute your recovery to activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Once you know help is imminent, you are relieved and can relax, thus allowing your body’s natural healing system to go to work.
If you find this information intriguing as I do, check out Dr. Rankin’s Tedx talks and book. You’ll be amazed at the healing and spontaneous disease remissions she describes. Here’s a link to the Tedx talk that started me down this path. Enjoy!