By Lissa Rankin
CURED Tip #1 Activate The Relaxation Response
As I described in detail in my book Mind Over Medicine, one of the keys to mind-body-spirit medicine in general and the field of psychoneuroimmunology specifically relies on making lifestyle changes aimed at creating nervous system regulation, flipping the nervous system from disease-inducing “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system stress responses or “freeze” dorsal vagal parasympathetic responses to the homeostatic healing state of the ventral vagal parasympathetic “relaxation response.” Meditation, prayer, making art, ritual, and being in nature can activate the relaxation response, but even more importantly, making lifestyle changes that take you out of retraumatizing situations that activate the stress responses are essential to maximizing your chances of being a health outlier.
Those with radical remissions were often VERY proactive. These healings were not usually “spontaneous.” They got treatment for longstanding traumas. They freed themselves from toxic jobs that required them to sell their soul or tolerate abusive bosses. They left or set very strong boundaries with poisonous relationships. They quit making excuses and finally went after fulfilling the dream they had long put off. They opened their hearts and engaged in radical forgiveness over grudges they had long held, which were festering in their nervous systems. They sought out spiritual counseling, engaged in intensive spiritual practice, and put their heart and soul into healing spiritual disconnection. They went all out to create a relaxation response-inducing life their bodies would love, living fully, loving well, and their efforts paid off in ways that can be measured.
New research on telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of your DNA strands that shorten with age, suggests that we have some control over how long our telomeres are. It’s no surprise then that those whose bodies live in relaxation response the majority of the time have nice long telomeres and those whose nervous systems are chronically in stress response develop short, frayed telomeres that damage both your health span and your life span. While we tend to glorify stress, even bragging about it as if stress means “I’m a busy, productive person making my mark on the world,” physiologically speaking, stress means premature disease, disability, and death, whereas relaxation equals a higher chance of reversing disease.
This doesn’t mean you can’t do intense things and still have good health. It’s all about how you perceive your situation. Two people in the same situation may have entirely different physiological responses to the same life event, depending on whether they see it as growth-inducing and feel gratitude for the initiation or whether they feel like a helpless victim at the mercy of a hostile universe. This is not about “spiritual bypassing” or emotional repression, artificially putting a silver lining on traumatic experiences that cause real suffering, or applying positive psychology principles and denying your authentic experience when you feel like shit. It’s about moving through those emotions authentically and vulnerably and then moving beyond them, rather than getting stuck in disease-inducing ways.
As Jeff describes, the degree of agency and autonomy you feel regarding stressful situations has everything to do with how you perceive those situations. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that instead of getting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as the result of traumatic situations, some resilient people experience post-traumatic GROWTH in ways that can make them more likely to have exceptional health outcomes. So perception is everything when it comes to your physiology. To some degree, stressful experiences are unavoidable when you’re incarnate in a human body, and painful events inevitably cause painful feelings. We can’t avoid the inevitable, but we can be proactive about changing the things that are within our control, and then when difficult events inevitably arise, we can lean in, rising to the challenge and remind ourselves, “I’m growing here.”