Recovering From A Health Setback

Sad Woman

A few weeks ago something happened that knocked me for six. For the non-Aussie person reading this blog it’s the best expression I can find to describe an event triggering feelings of sudden unexpected grief that brought everything to a stop. It’s a phrase that refers to the game of cricket where the ball is hit out of the park without touching the ground.

 

I had sleepless nights and anxious days. I reached for comfort foods and returned to old habits. What followed shortly after was a familiar and somewhat scary physical response. I felt flat, exhausted and foggy during the day. My lower back and hips started aching. My muscles became tight. Pretty soon I realized I was experiencing the arthritic inflammation throughout my body that comes with having an autoimmune disease.  I wasn’t surprised at the return of my symptoms, but I was worried. I wondered if I would need to start seeing doctors again and dreaded the thought of more waiting rooms and medical prescriptions in order to ward off the attack of my immune system on my own body.

 

Since I released my film about the connection between our mind and health, I have received many emails and comments from people like me who have a chronic illness and are searching for answers. A common question I get is what we should do when our health takes a turn for the worse, despite the fact we are already doing everything in our power to look after ourselves. My style is to seek those answers in the form of modern science and this week, I looked at research on how our mindset may influence our resilience and ability to recover from a setback.

 

A review of recent evidence indicates that positive emotions help buffer against stress.  We also know that people who are able to regain and maintain positive emotional states are less likely to get sick or to use medical services when faced with stressful events. According to studies like this, the tendency to maintain positive emotions also helps buffer against the advancement of disease and death.

 

But while there is a growing body of work linking positive emotions to positive health outcomes, and also linking positive emotions to better resilience, I was keen to do a deep dive into how these positive emotions might influence our health and ability to recover beyond the simplistic explanation that people who are happy and positive look after themselves more. I wanted to know if encouraging positive emotions, even in times of hardship, would actually influence my physical health in the short term.

 

I came across the work of Dr. Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina; a leading psychologist who is interested in finding direct evidence that positive emotion can aid biological recovery from stressful events.  In one study, Fredrickson and her team brought 57 undergraduates into a lab. They had been assessed using a scale for their natural resilience tendencies and were strapped up to physiological sensors to measure things like their heart rate.

 

After spending five minutes getting used to their surroundings, they were told that they would be given one minute to prepare a three-minute speech on a yet to-be-determined topic. The participants were then asked to assess how they felt about the up coming task. As was to be expected, the participants reported raised levels of anxiety and this was reflected in physiological measurements such as raised heart rate.  They were then told that their speech would be on the topic of “Why You are a Good Friend” and after a short time, they were finally informed that they wouldn’t have to deliver the speech after all.

 

There are two interesting findings from this study. One is that resilient people who experienced positive emotions had faster cardiovascular recovery compared with less resilient people who had relatively less positive emotions.  The second interesting finding is that people who rated themselves at the beginning as having high abilities to rebound from stressful events also demonstrated this physiologically by quickly returning to baseline levels in measurements. It’s an exciting finding because it indicates that the mindset involved with resilience is reflected in the body as well. If our mind believes we’ll recover, our body does too. There are of course varying to degrees to which this is possible, and this study focused only on cardiovascular measurements, but needless to say, I’ll be turning my attention to the role of belief in our health in future posts.

 

I think it’s important to note that this research is not indicating that the key to our health woes lies in glossing over negative emotions. In fact, in Fredrickson’s study, the high-resilient participants still experienced high levels of anxiety and frustration, but they were able to experience positive emotions even amidst these negative emotions. The resilient person isn’t papering over the negative emotions, but instead is letting them sit side by side with other feelings. There’s no reason we can’t be sad about something at the same time as being grateful for another thing.

 

I’ve written in the past about how I view my health as an ongoing journey, or to put it another way, to see this as an evolution rather than a revolution. After taking the advice of Professor George Jelinek who is featured in my film because of his remarkable recovery from Multiple Sclerosis, I’m careful to use the word recovery and not cure. The word cure implies it’s done and dusted. Recovery means an ongoing process. While I may have positive, optimistic blood tests one month as I wrote about here, I’m aware that how I feel both in the short term and the long term is ever changing based on complex interactions of everything from the amount of sleep I get, to the environment I’m in, to the nutrients I put in my body and the emotional turbulence of being human. I also recognize that I have a genetic predisposition towards having an overactive immune system and I am grateful that I live in a modern time where if the illness becomes progressive, there are medical options for me to explore.

 

As for my own recent setback, I felt flat and empty but I kept up my meditation and yoga practices. To be honest, sometimes this helped but sometimes it didn’t. Although it was the last thing in the world I felt like doing, I also kept writing in my gratitude journal and for a few minutes a day at least, I felt better. Based on my research into the  effectiveness of gratitude, I knew it would help in the long run. Knowing the importance of community, I reached out to my close friends and family. I accepted their support and kept nothing bottled up. My mindfulness practice also remained strong. In the weirdest way, I was mindful of my fog. Soon it cleared and was able redouble my efforts to eat well, get to bed early and stick to my healthy habits.  As I write this piece I feel well and I am grateful that this recent flare up seems to have passed relatively quickly.

  • Delma

    I recently had total knee replacement surgery and experienced many of the symptoms described by Shannon including an exacerbation of my scoliosis symptoms mainly in my hip and back. As of the incredible pain in my knee/leg wasn't enough. And I became depressed. Possibly a side effect 0f the narcotics for the pain. I've kept up my meditation practice and stayed in touch with people who were caring towards me including my meditation group sometimes giving little dharma talks . I was surprised that the surgery and recovery affected me so dramatically and negatively. And I have a completely new appreciation and understanding , compassion for/with people who have chronic and severe pain.

  • Anna

    Dear Shannon,
    I've watched the screening 'The Connection' at Qi Freshy a few months back and loved the movie so much, it was my default Xmas gift for friends and family last year :)

    Thank you for your courage and honesty in this blog. I can relate to what you are currently going through so much!
    It seems there is no way of controlling life ups and downs and at times it can appear like a bit of a roller-coaster where you never know where the next turn may take you… I have had Psoriasis (skin related autoimmune disease) since I was a child and even though I hate the way it affects me physically and emotionally, I have learned to embrace it as 'feedback tool' on how mindful I am going through life at any given time. I know that my main trigger is stress (work) which then affects many other areas of my life, where I don't look after myself enough, like not sleeping enough, eating badly, alcohol, too much on socially or withdrawing… Even though I LOVE my work!

    Maybe it is a female thing that we are more likely to beat ourselves up, when we get off track and make it all worse by being harsh and dismissing towards ourselves for being 'so weak'.

    I could not agree more with you on your take how to best move through these rough patches…Compassion with myself, is probably my biggest thing. Accepting that it IS a journey. Or as my meditation teacher put it so beautifully "You can't be ahead of where you are at."

    Similar to what you write, I try and actively make the choice to do things that are good for me. Like Meditation, enough sleep, being in nature, cooking healthy meals,…

    Again, thank you for sharing, Shannon. And good to hear that you are feeling a bit better.
    Anna x

  • Michael

    THanks for your writing Shannon. It is very helpful to read an experience that is not glammed up. It somehow seems to go further into my mind and makes me reflect more deeply. The story also somehow relaxes me – like there is no pressure…no guru status to obtain. And that really engages me. Great work.

  • Isabelle Ting

    Thank you, Shannon. I recently screened your doco on the Sunshine Coast where it was well received – of course! I've pretty much recovered from MS (dx 2001) and was already following George Jelinek's recommendations and others, however these past 6-12 months, I've been fairly stressed and it's getting to me, with an accompanying flare up in one or two symptoms. Your blog post has renewed me and I feel the symptoms will clear as I take time to clear my mind and continue to follow the recovery recommendations <3

  • Cassie Schindler

    Shannon, the thing that makes you so credible and lovable is your honesty and willingness to be vulnerable. You've worked so hard to give gifts to the world that will help align others with their wellness. As you've experienced, sometimes that effort can bring on a reminder (subtle or strong) to dip back into the well. For what it's worth, I've thanked M.S. many times for the reminders she's delivered throughout the years – each time I ramp up higher than the boundaries I've set for my nervous system (even when that ramping is in the wellness arena!). I guess it's a checks and balance system and it's no less a miracle than the rest of life. Sending you wishes and energy for a return to balance (whatever that means to each of us). Be Well~!

  • Kaye

    I have watched "The Connection" 4 times now and this week will be my 5th time of viewing. I teach a 6 week mindfulness meditation course and at the end of the course I have a film night where the participants come to my home. We have some healthy treats, watch the film and have some discussion. Everyone makes a donation to the Gawler Foundation as I am teaching meditation to raise money for the Foundation. The DVD is totally inspiring and I applaud you for making it. Well done in moving through your recent setback. Sharing of your human experience is so encouraging as I guess we all have low times even when we have "recovered" from illness
    Kaye

  • Beata

    Dear Shannon,

    I am one of those persons that have to admit you are right. I am just recovering from a MS flare:( Now I see clearly that I did everything wrong – being put under a huge stress for a quite long period, I totally ignored the signals of my body – I was all the time cold, could not sleep at all, ate the right food but sometimes I skipped even that, working for more 14 – 16 hours a day, I stopped doing yoga, etc….I fully agree with Anna – it is maybe that "wrong" female perception and our drive to do everything and at every price to prove that we are not weak (to prove to whom?). Now I am promising myself that I will do everything possible not to put myself again into similar condition. I know that in my case the trigger is the stress connected with the work and it will come again…But I have to learn to cope with it. Thank you for your posts that may help me and people like me to realise how important it is to take care of ourselves, it is really inspiring.

  • Joe Draper

    I Have had Ulcertive colitis for 20 years, and after taking Cannabis oil, I have seriously thought of seeing on getting a bag, the surgery is a toss up, but after seeing life for the first time in 20 years, via the cannabis oil,( Ohio cant seem to just follow Co. Medical Marijuana laws), I want to stop the feeling of being a criminal. Besides all that, God I just want to live. Most people can't sit in my shoes let alone walk in them, not because my walk is so hard, it is b/c we are all different in handle a chronic illness, nothing compares to it, or prepares you for it, but you must gut it out, for yourself.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Michael, I'm so glad that this resonates with you. The integrity of the science is so important to me and I'm glad you appreciate an honest voice.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Thanks so much for hosting a screening Isabelle. I'm so glad this post helped. If you're already onto the OMS program you're on the right track. Keep at it. We'll inspire each other.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Cassie, honesty is so important to me on this project thanks for noticing. It was one of the major things I've held to going into the release of the film. Even though it would be easy to market this as a 'cure' as many things in the health space do, I am so conscious that the audience is very vulnerable. I am that audience after all. We're all just looking for answers and I never want to give people the impression that I'm anything other than human or have more answers than anyone else. We're all in this together.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Wow Kaye. I'm so impressed that you've see the film 4 times. That is so great that you fund raise for The Gawler Foundation too. Your work is so important. I'm so grateful for people like you working to spread the word.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Beata, I know exactly what you mean about work stress. It is so easy to go into the work 'trance' and it's taken me a long time to discover that the cost is just too high. I hope you find ways to manage the stress and if so, please share them with others on this blog. Wishing you wellness. Shannon

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Anna,

    Thanks for writing. I love that expression that you can't be ahead of where you are at.

    Thanks also for sharing the film with your friends and family.
    Interestingly our data is showing that the film is being found by people
    primarily through word of mouth and that's because of people like you!

    I know that psoriasis is a very difficult autoimmune disease having seen it in a close family member. There's no doubt that it's a very visual and very immediate physical response with your body practically yelling at you when things are out of whack.

    Wishing you wellness and lots of gentle 'you' time.
    Shannon

  • Cecilia Peter Freeman Strous

    Hi Shannon,

    You may wish to consider:
    1. That before delving into detail like e.g. omega 3s, we should work out if we are omnivores, carnivores or herbivores from a health perspective. Looking at detail first we might confuse ourselves as we will be missing the context, the big picture, that the results of our study into detail should be seen in. That is where our Western culture really has got it wrong I believe.

    I.e. we talk about omega 3s, sugars, fats, proteins etc but we do not eat that way. We eat processed food, animal based food and plant based food. The associations of the omega 3s, sugars, fats, proteins etc. might well matter and will be ignored if we are looking at detail.

    E.g. the omega 3s in greens might not be the same as the omega 3s in fish. And they are not. The fish version comes with cholesterol, animal hormones, animal proteins, highly concentrated oils, is high in calories lacking of vitamins. Greens are low in calories and abundant in vitamins.

    You may wish to consider that the populations eating traditionally a lot of fish (Inuit and Japanese) had their own health problems: a high number of strokes. Up till 1981 strokes were the leading cause of death in Japan till westernisation helped to put cancer and heart disease on the first place. I believe that it is through the assumption of us being omnivores that mankind (including our specialists) are all confused. Assuming things is not good science but unfortunately it drives a lot of commercial interests which is another enormous issue. – I hope this makes some sense.

    2. Meat and Dairy food clogs up the arteries and make it harder for the blood to flow, fish + omega 3s thin the blood making it easier again for the blood to flow. But so does warfarin (rat poison). Balancing one bad thing with the opposing bad thing still upsets the natural health balance.
    For references see: http://users.tpg.com.au/freestro/heartdisease.pdf

    3. Roy Swank, the grandfather of successful MS treating diets, in his The Multiple Sclerosis Diet Book writes about experiments on animals that induced auto immune diseases: Injecting them with tissue from the nervous system from another animal caused the immune system to attack its own nervous system. As far as I understand that is the only way we have induced auto immune diseases in experiments.

    So in our human case why do we get auto immune diseases? It looks like a "leaky gut" sometimes allows undigested animal proteins to get into our bodies and that starts the process off. If we ate only food containing high vitamin levels per calorie (i.e. plants) the gut will be in optimum condition and there will be minimum or no animal proteins in the diet that could induce an auto immune disease or make it worse again.

    Best of health,
    Peter.

    Peter.

  • Wayne Rankin

    Hi Shannon,
    I haven't read, so far, any discussion about grains and mycotoxins that result from yeast/fungi that contaminate our food. The roll of these toxins, that survive the cooking and processing phase, may be the trigger in so called autoimmune responses. Yeast and fungi are more sophisticated than bacteria and viruses but get far less attention. They produce toxins that antibiotics are derived from because they are so effective in killing other organisms that may be in competition with them. Mass storage of grains, corn, peanuts, and others crops in damp environments contribute to the spread of fungi and the resulting toxins, as I mentioned, are not eliminated by cooking. There is a growing field of thought that it's more likely that our body's are reacting to these guys and not simply suddenly turning against ourselves for some unknown reason. Given the spread of this type of illness, as you pointed out, noninfectious, it seems more likely that the cause isn't our inherent genetic weakness, but an over response to a poison. How disempowering to believe that we are flawed at such a basic level when elimination of these toxins from our diet may be the key. And many have discovered just that.
    Thanks for bringing light and awareness to so many.

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About the author: Shannon Harvey

Shannon Harvey is a journalist and producer who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 24 years old. Although doctors meant well, none could offer her a cause or a cure. Since then Shannon has been researching the latest scientific research linking her mind and body to health outcomes. Nearly 10 years have passed since her diagnosis and today Shannon is well and not taking medication. Shannon has worked as a television, radio and online journalist and producer and has a Master’s degree in Communications. She worked for the ABC and Fairfax before starting her own production company, Elemental Media. Shannon is the director of the feature film The Connection.

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