Some time ago, while writing this book, I did what I call ‘stress mapping to see where, in my life, I collected the stress that later erupted into lung cancer and other problems. Of course, stress was probably not the only contributor to my health problems, but I am convinced it was the major trouble-maker. To understand my health – and I recommend you apply the same ‘stress mapping’ technique in your life – I needed to know where and how I fell into such a trap of self-induced stress.
For me, I realized, it began on the day that I chose to study medicine, in 1964. By the way, I believe that this is self-induced, ‘stress trap’ is common among many of my fellow physicians. I loved medicine, but I also placed myself under enormous pressure to do well. Instead of attempting to balance the huge amount of information that was necessary to move on to next year’s curriculum, with a modest exercise program and eating healthfully, I drove myself so hard that by the end of that first year, I was already feeling the negative physical effects. Again, with the use of rear view mirror it is easy to see the errors made in the past. When I was in medical school, I was not prepared to cook for myself, had little understanding of healthy eating, and could only afford to eat basic starchy foods, so called comfort foods processed meats and casseroles. My diet which was devoid of fiber and green vegetables played a major role in my developing diverticulosis later in life. Of course when diverticula (weakness in the wall of the colon that look like micro balloons) become infected the condition that follows is a serious one called diverticulitis. Full disclosure, I was chronically constipated throughout medical school because of my unhealthy lifestyle. The strain on the colon from attempting to have a bowel movement combined with lack of sleep, a GI tract that felt abandoned, led to my early diverticular disease.
I had unwisely charted a super-ambitious course of study, and then created a wild and feverish pace that could not be sustained. Actually, I had little choice if I wanted to achieve my dream of becoming a doctor. I was young, felt invincible and almost immortal and thought of it as heroic, as though I was doing a ‘white-knight’ thing. It would come to pass that it was almost a ‘good-night’ thing, though, because the seeds of illness were in place. I managed to get through medical school and residency, but the sneaky thing about stress and physical disease is that it can be cumulative, and stay coiled and dangerous as a snake in your system for years.
There was no single cause of my lung cancer, but I believe that stress dating back to my quest to become a doctor, medical residency with inhuman hours of work leading to chronic sleep deprivation, eating poorly on the run and a practice of a difficult specialty tending to the sickest patients, planted the earliest seeds.
Recovering from that surgery was for me, a godsend. This time I was so weak and debilitated that I had no choice, but to rest. I cannot tell you a magic moment, or book, or inspiration quote that sent me toward a deeper understanding of the complete melding of body-and-mind. All I know is that it happened. As I lay there, I finally felt sure that my suspicion that stress played a large role in the development of disease. There was a close tie between emotional and physical health. I actually got excited because I instinctively knew I was going in the right direction. I began to do the ‘stress-mapping’ of my own life in my head, lying there in bed, healing in a more powerful way than I ever could have imagined. A light went on and I ‘got it’, I finally understood where the key to my own health was hidden – it was in my own head, in my new belief that relaxation and accepting myself and the world in a loving way – and it was incredibly transformative. I am now healthy, for the first time since I can remember.
When I began to practice some of the things we talk about in the next chapter, my body reacted immediately in a healthy way. Before this, my health problems, as you’ve read, could have filled a medical book. I took pills, had surgeries, went through countless hours of rehabilitation, but none of these ‘remedies’ turned out to be more important than learning how to get rid of my internal stress and then practice those ‘mindful’ things that help keep stress away. This proved the best RX for my immune system and it is a major reason this chapter is so long. I wanted you to know that no matter what illness you or a loved one might be suffering, there are ways to triumph, especially if you keep your end of the bargain with your immune system! Keeping our immune system strong should be one of the primary focuses of our lives. One of the great things about moving toward a lifestyle of low stress is, it is far more enjoyable to live that way! It’s a positive upward spiral and those are the best kind.