This past Saturday, I sat in circle with a group of wise and compassionate women and men: doctors, nurses, practitioners, therapists, and healers – each deeply concerned about the state of health care. Knowing that so much healing is being lost amid the beaurocracy of our current system, this wellness alliance is seeking authentic, compassionate, and effective roads to wellness. As health professionals we see clearly how the treatment of symptoms is only a part what ultimately helps a patient to heal. To create wellness we must consider the body, the mind, the environment, and the society in which we live.
Over the past few months, this group of health professionals has met together, not in the halls of the hospitals, but rather in our own homes and businesses, on our own time, to answer a deeply troubling and persistent question: “How can we heal our broken health care system?”
Together we are seeking solutions to systemic problems… problems that sometimes feel too big to even comprehend: rising health care costs, decreasing access to care, mechanistic care that neglects the emotional and social needs of patients and their families, massive physician burnout, a huge epidemic of chronic illness, social and environmental threats to our individual health as well as the health of the planet. As overwhelming as all these problems are, we know that we cannot sit idly by and wait for someone else to fix it. There is no government, no army, no corporation, and no fearless leader that will swoop in and magically provide an answer.
We must all be a part of the solution. When I consider these problems alone, I am overwhelmed by their sheer magnitude, but together, in community, I find strength and hope and possibility. I know that greater health and wellness are possible in our world. And I know that we can only get there together. I believe in what the Hopi elder famously stated, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
At our most recent meeting, one of the members from our wellness alliance, Gretchen Schodde (Founder of Harmony Hill Retreat Center) shared a reading from a book written by a neurosurgeon named Dr. James Doty who is the director of the Center of Compassion and Altruism at Stanford University. In his book, Into the Magic Shop, Dr. Doty writes, “There is an epidemic of loneliness, anxiety, and depression in the world, particularly in the West. There is an impoverishment of spirit and of connection with one another. Studies show that 25% of Americans have no one that they feel close enough with to share a problem. This means that one out of every four people you see or meet today has no one to talk to, and this lack of connection is affecting their health. We are wired for social connection – we evolved to be cooperative and connected with one another – and when this is cut off, we get sick. Research has shown that the more connected we are socially, the longer we will live and the faster we will recover when we get ill. In truth, isolation and loneliness puts us at a greater risk for early disease and death than smoking… In other words, we get sick alone, and we get well together.”[i]
We have a tremendous amount of evidence to support Dr. Doty’s statements. In fact, the scientific evidence shows a strong association between social isolation and the increased prevalence (and worse outcomes) in many diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer, infections, and autoimmune disease.[ii] ,[iii],[iv],[v],[vi][vii] Our very immune cells – the ones that are there to protect our body – have a weakened response when we are chronically stressed, isolated or depressed.[viii],[ix],[x] Social genomics researcher Steven Cole at UCLA has even demonstrated a shift in the expression of certain genes, especially those involved in the immune and inflammatory response, in chronically lonely individuals and people experiencing unsupported social adversity and stress.[xi] The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that social isolation is deleterious to our health, and yet many of us with chronic health challenges struggle alone with our symptoms. What if we could change that?
There is also a large body of evidence that suggests that kindness, compassion, and being connected in community actually promotes and enhances healing. Psychologist David McClelland at Harvard University found that performing acts of kindness, receiving acts of kindness, and simply witnessing acts of kindness all help the immune system function more effectively.[xii] Researchers such as Stephen Post and Jill Neimark are also demonstrating that kindness and helping behaviors are associated with greater health, wellbeing, longevity and mental health.[xiii],[xiv]
All of this leaves me wondering, what would it look like to enhance wellness and healing in community? How can we as health practitioners offer the skills, support, and structure that will truly serve people as they create significant health improvements and help their bodies to better recover from health challenges?
For us to be truly whole and complete, we need one another. None of us are islands unto our own selves. Wellness blossoms not only when we focus on specific steps to promote healing in our bodies, but also when we do so with intentional support, guidance, and with a sense of belonging. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Please let me know what is important to you in the comments below.
[i] Doty, James R., Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart, Penguin Random House, 2016.
[ii] Anderson, BL, Kiecolt-Glaser, JK, Glaser, R., “A Biobehavioral Model of Cancer
[iii] Stress and Disease Course,” Am Psychol. 1994; 49, pg. 389-404.
[iv] Lutgendorf SK, DeGeest K, Bender D, Ahmed A, Goodheart MJ, Dahmoush L, Zimmerman MB, Penedo FJ, Lucci JA, Ganjej-Aar P, Thaker PH, Mendez L, Lubaroff DM, Slavich GM, Cole SW, Sood AK, “Social Influences on Clinical Outcomes of Patients With Ovarian Cancer,” J Clin Oncol. 2012; 30, pgs. 2885-2890.
[v] Nelson EL, Wenzel LB, Osann K, Dogan-Ates A, Chantana N, Reina-Patton A, Laust AK, Nishimoto KP, Chicz-DeMet A, DuPont N, Monk BJ, “Stress Immunity, and Cervical Cancer, Biobehavioral Outcomes of a Randomized Clinical Trial,” Clin Cancer Res. 2008;14, pgs. 2111-2118.
[vi] Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Miller, G., “Psychological Stress and Disease”, JAMA, Vol. 298, No. 14, pg. 1685-87 (2007)
[vii] Vedhara, K., Irwin, M., Human Psychoneuroimmunology, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press: 2005
[viii] Levy SM, Herbermann RB, Whiteside T, Sanzo K, Lee J, Kirkwood J, “Perceived Social Support and Tumor Estrogen/Progesterone Receptor Status as Predictors of Natural Killer Cell Activity in Breast Cancer Patients,” Pyschosom Med. 1990:52, pgs. 73-85.
[ix] Sephton SE, Dhabhar FS, Keuroghlian AS, Giese-Davis J, McEwen BS, Ionan AC, Speigel D, “Depression, Cortisol, and Supressed Cell-Mediated Immunity in Metastatic Breast Cancer,” Brain Behav Immun. 2009;23, pgs 1148-1155.
[x] Kiecolt-Glaser, J., Garner, W., Speicher, C., Penn, G., Holliday, J., Glaser, R., “Psychosocial Modifiers of Immunocompetence in Medical Students,” Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol. 46, No. 1, pg. 7-14, (1984)
[xi] Cole, S., Hawkley, L., Arevalo, J., Sung, C., Rose, R., Cacioppo, J., “Social Regulation of Gene Expression in Human Leukocytes,” Genome Biology, Vol. 8 (9) R189 (2007)
[xii] McClelland, D., Kirshnit, C., “The Effect of Motivational Arousal Through Films on Salivary Immunoglobulin A.” Psychology and Health, 2 (1988) 31-52.
[xiii] Post, SG, “Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good,” International Journal of Behav Med, 2005;12:2, pgs 66-77.
[xiv] Schwartz C, Meisenhelder JB, Ma Y, Reed G, “Altruistic Social Interest Behaviors Are Associated With Better Mental Health,” Psychosomatic Medicine, 2003;65 pgs 778-785.