No one can avoid the gray malaise that hangs over everyday life right now. The constant flow of 24–7 media thrives on anger, anxiety, and angst in a time of never-ending Covid-19 surges, climate change worries, mass shootings, and Russia’s insane invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, politics churns along in an angry and divisive rut, and the isolating effects of pandemic lockdowns have added to higher rates of depression, domestic violence, and suicide, especially among teenagers.
As bad as the impact is for our daily lives, it might be even worse for our health. When we hold on to anger and lash out at others, even the people we love, we hurt ourselves in ways we hide from and deny. The body responds physically to emotions, and the damage caused by festering anger, resentment, and anxiety accumulates over time. This is scientifically proven: persistent negative emotions get translated into impaired functioning of the heart and digestive tract, for example, and make a person prone to being immune compromised. Special attention is now being paid to contributing factors that take years to develop into symptoms, such as stress and low-level chronic inflammation, thought to be a key factor in cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and more.
All the research data points to low-grade stress and inflammation preceding chronic illness by 10 to 20 years. If you can address these largely invisible culprits, you can potentially prevent most chronic disease. Prevention begins by choosing to feel better about things, if you can.
If you counteract the early warning signs of anxiety, depression, and anger to focus on love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, your body shifts for the better biologically. When we hear that love is the ultimate healer, it turns out that there is a biochemical reason for this that reaches to every part of the body through the central nervous system. Brain scans reveal that the signature neurological expression of love overrides the impact of stress. This rather amazing confirmation could be life-saving.
Here are some ways to practice self-healing.
Embrace empathy and kindness. Be a better tipper, give to a charity, listen to others, and express sympathy. If you find a stray dollar bill on the street, give it to someone who needs it, says William Mobley, chairman of the Department of Neurosciences at the University of California at San Diego. Research shows an act of kindness gives the brain a shot of oxytocin, the “love hormone” that can lower blood pressure and help social bonding; along with a surge of dopamine, which offers a euphoric “helper’s high,” and serotonin, which can improve mood.
Reduce stress. Constant everyday stress increases levels of the hormone cortisol, which ultimately kills nerve cells and penetrates the brain to spark inflammation. Do five minutes of meditation in the morning, renew your faith, take long walks outside, watch a comedy that makes you burst out laughing, have an all-hands family dinner on Sundays. In a word, find a healthy stress antidote that works for you.
Form bonds with others and avoid loneliness. Studies show that feeling lonely can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, says Dr. Douglas Nemecek, chief medical officer at Cigna. He sees loneliness as a long-term health risk tantamount to tobacco use. It increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, raising the potential for premature death at least as much as obesity, as shown by a meta-analysis of 70 studies covering 3.4 million people. On the other hand, greater social connection leads to a 50% lower chance of early death, according to a review of 148 studies involving 300,000 people, reports Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University.
The problem is worse than most of us suppose: a Cigna survey found that the 75 million Americans ages 18 to 37 feel lonelier than other age groups. These people, although in the prime of life, also report feeling in worse health than their elders.
Take a timeout for gratefulness. Life is better and richer than we take the time to acknowledge. Choosing to believe this, no matter what lies in the future, can make us live longer, stronger, and happier lives. In a conversation with Dr. William Li, author of the bestseller “Eat to Beat Disease,” Cindy Crawford, the still-luminous supermodel from 30 years ago, tells of waking up every morning, stepping outside, and taking a few moments to feel grateful for what she has.
Self-healing has risen to become at least as important as relying on doctors to cure what ails us. The essence of self-healing isn’t the same as prevention, which is typically based on risks. Risk generates fear, and fear is a poor motivator in the long run. Far better is a healing program based on what is most positive in your life. It involves turning away from the automatic response of gloom and apprehension that has seeped into our lives. We aren’t designed to be anxiety robots, but to choose a better way to live. The path to a better way lies through what we most value in life: love, compassion, creativity, insight, and hope. Such a path has always existed and can never be closed—it is one of the greatest gifts of being human.
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