Woody Allen is a famous director, writer and screen actor who in the late 1960’s and early 70’s became famous for the “stressed and neurotic personality type” who’s movie character always sought therapy to try to enhance their quality of life. Thankfully for me, as I am in the field, he made seeing a “shrink” as popular as being seen at Studio 54; “the en vogue” thing to do for people in the know!” What Mr. Allen may or may not have been aware of then is that de-stressing the mind can have a direct effect on your health and wellbeing!
By now it is widely known that stress in the body can cause disease. There were numerous studies that corroborated these facts. So mainstream is this view you can actually watch a documentary currently being aired on Netflix entitled Stress and the Brain. Robert Sapolsky (a neuroendocrinologist at Stanford University, Ca.) monitored stress levels utilizing the hierarchical structure in the African baboon population and found that when mammals are stressed it directly correlates to an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, secretion of stress hormones and that these factors directly related to their overall health. Furthermore, Sir Michael Marmot (University College Medical School, London) expanded on these studies and followed 28,000 people over 40 yrs regarding social structure and stress in the British Civil Services known as the Whitehall studies. He also concluded through such variables as rank and job stress that stress directly effected length of life and undermines health.
Pretty amazing findings considering stress is Subjective; meaning how the mind views events in one’s life is individual. But, stressors are universal as well. People can experience similarities with in their perceptions of reality as well as vast differences. This is why some people will get sick and others do not after being exposed to common variables. The amount of stress perceived or currently being experienced can effect how the immune system works. Hence, the mind- body genre that includes names like Deepak Chopra, coined the phrase: “Dis-Ease causes disease”.
Interestingly, writing this article actually jarred a memory of mine regarding a behavioral experiment that I had witnessed at my Al Mater being conducted on rats by the psyche department over 30 yrs ago. They gave intermittent shocks to rats to see the effects of stress on their system; they grew tumors on their bodies. I remember feeling sorry for them as I watched them shake uncontrollably in their boxes with anticipatory anxiety and now having been conditioned to expect but not know when the next inevitable shock wave would happen. Oddly, it was difficult to find studies to prove that de-stressing the mind utilizing psychotherapy techniques was a direct causal factor regarding the enhancement to a person’s immune system and increased to their overall health. But, there were many studies suggesting great benefits. My guess is too many variables, especially since the view of what causes someone stress is unique to the individual. So, I decided to go directly to the source and spoke to 2 women who are survivors of breast cancer to see how some people under extraordinary circumstances had dealt with their recovery process and if or why someone should seek counseling to enhance their healing.
First I spoke to Peggy Sherry who is the founder and director of the Faces of Courage Foundation (FOC) that “provides day and overnight camps for women and children dealing with any cancer type” and who is a 2x survivor of breast cancer herself. Peggy talked about the low incidence of survivors seeking psychotherapy because they are forced to immediately “go into survivor mode to get through the fear that goes along with being diagnosed then dealing with the treatments and their side effects”. For many this can be a long and grueling process. Afterwards, they understandably “just want to forget, go forward and get back to their lives”. However, everyone deals differently with their lives as we know but the ones who do get support, change their outlook on their life in general, begin to process things differently than before and are willing to do so for their own self growth find they are “healthier” afterwards. For instance, she reports “we see a lot of change in survivors after they have a brush with death, they may take a look at their life, relationships and stressors and then those who made changes view a significant survivor benefit and enhancement to their quality of life as a whole.
The experience at camp is one spoke on the healing wheel, it gives survivors a break from dealing with their disease and provides a community with similar life experiences, an opportunity to share information and have some fun. Peggie’s camp motto is “Cancer is Serious and Camp is Serious Fun!”
Another avenue for healing was experienced by Miriam Zimm. Miriam is a breast cancer “Champion” of a rare type called Triple Negative and who’s mother also had been diagnosed but did not survive. She designed for herself an adjunct healing protocol in addition to her medical protocols; she felt she had to “amp up her care”. This entailed sessions of individual psychotherapy, yoga, swimming, pilates, took herbal supplements, attended the women’s FOC camp, and is writing a book of her experience in hopes to help others. Miriam said that she decided to step up her program and “took charge of what was going to happen with her body”.
Of great benefit was her individual therapy sessions that allowed her to focus on self and help her manage her life and create a feeling of “taking back control of your life during a time when you feel out of control”. She further states that “ you still have to take care of not only the crisis of being diagnosed but still have to manage relationships, your family and professional life. These things still happen regardless and it helps to set time aside for you so can manage your whole life”. After clearing stressors past and present, and dealing with core issues in my life, “therapy then kept me present of what was going on today.” Today Miriam is healthy and is excited about trying to have a baby.
It is clear that taking time for you and doing those things to escape the “rat race” has great benefit to your overall health. Do it for yourself, do it for your immune system! Make that appointment for a massage, enroll in a meditation class, exercise, start a new hobby and seek a trained /licensed therapist to help you achieve a greater sense of peace and balance to your world!