About fifteen years ago I finally went to one of the top academic medical centres and got official diagnoses for the various very troubling symptoms that I’d had for a long time. Previously, no doctor had been able to explain what was wrong with me. But the advantage of going to one of the very large academic medical centres is that the specialists there get to see all the unusual things that doctors in small community hospitals never see.
Unfortunately, I promptly learned that there were no cures for my three autoimmune diseases and a primary immunodeficiency disease. In fact, there were no good treatments due to the fact that the medication for one condition would be contraindicated because it would worsen one of my other conditions.
I had always been the kind of person who could think outside the box and who liked to solve mysteries. I began to look around to find what I could do beyond getting good medical care and practicing good diet, exercise and sleep habits, all of which I had already been doing. Despite excellent health habits, discomfort, disability, fatigue and malaise were with me more days than not, and I wanted to get beyond them.
I began reviewing epidemiology studies that explored associations between behaviour and health outcomes that looked beyond the usual types of good habits that I already practiced. In studying the published research, a number of large, very well controlled epidemiological studies began to reveal that after controlling for potential confounding variables, there were certain behavioural patterns found in individuals who lived with the highest levels of health and well-being. They’re explored in depth in my book In Your Own Hands: New Hope for People with Chronic Medical Conditions, but I will touch on a few of them here.
Engage with others
One of the problems in spending considerably more time than the average person going to medical appointments and engaging in self-care is that it’s easy to become quite self-absorbed. One of the things I learned was that the more self-absorbed we are, the worse our health outcomes. Conversely, the more engaged we are with others, the better our health outcomes. The opposite of self-absorption, which is curiosity and open-heartedness towards others correlates with better health outcomes. I began to intentionally look for opportunities every day to focus on others with curiosity and compassion, and to connect with everyone I met in an open-hearted way. Immediately, I began to feel better. My symptoms didn’t go away; they just didn’t bother me as much.
Engage in meaningful activities and relationships
Something else I learned was that it’s important to actively do everything possible to be fully engaged in activities and relationships that are rewarding and meaningful. Therefore, I began to bring conscious awareness to every activity throughout the day and to focus in on the activities that were most aligned with my personal life values. Where obligation necessitated certain activities, I looked inward and found new meaning in them and realized that I was choosing virtually all my activities.
Shift your perspective
Never do anything you don’t want to do. We all have obligations and responsibilities. However, when we habitually preface those activities with have to, we disempower ourselves and cause unnecessary stress. I recommend prefacing those activities with I’m choosing to… For example, whenever I find myself saying or thinking that I have to go in for a colonoscopy or other invasive test, I try to remind myself that I chose to make the appointment because I value health, and I rephrase it as I’m choosing to go. Set the intention to look for all the times throughout the day when you make choices. We make choices constantly, but most of them are made without our conscious awareness.
Mindfulness practice is probably the single most life-enhancing practice. Many of us learned to worry unnecessarily about events over which we have little or no control. Every time we allow ourselves to get caught up in ruminative or obsessive thinking, we reinforce the neural circuits that make it more likely that we will experience anxious and depressive feelings and that we’ll have more of them in the future. I’ve found mindfulness practice to be the best antidote for unhealthy thinking. By the way, unhealthy thinking is any thinking that results in increased stress.
Mindfulness training has allowed me to selectively put my attention on the activities of the moment, thereby reducing emotional distress. Mindfulness practice can be learned at meditation centres or through courses such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), both of which are available around the world. As little as eight weeks of mindfulness training creates life-altering changes in the way we think.
When I looked at the results of all the epidemiological studies relating to associations between behaviour and states of health and well-being, the one that tops the list is social support.
Social support can take many different forms. Think of how you feel when you’re around your closest friends. It’s ironic that when we don’t feel well or are depressed, we generally don’t feel like being with other people. Yet, the next time you’re feeling down, reach out and get together with someone in whose company you always feel better. Social support and a sense of belonging within a community of some type seem to optimize immune function and to improve overall physiological functioning.
Read more on how to improve your health in HABITS OF THE HAPPIEST: 12 ways to improve your health by living like the happiest people>>