People often do a lot to heal their immune systems. Chronic inflammation is a real problem. I haven’t heard from a single patient that their doctor has examined the amount of chronic inflammation they have in their body. It’s just not what we think it is.
And people learned how to deal with stress: how to get out of a chronic fight or flight and move into a more parasympathetic healing state by activating the vagus nerve, not just by knowing how to relax your body, but by being real Connections make others.
Claire is a good example of someone who has made many changes in their relationships. She didn’t do it to live, but she wanted to finish well. She wanted to laugh a lot. She wanted to forgive someone who had criticized her in her life but was also very important to her. Research supports this: when a person does such things and tries to build more authentic relationships, it is good for their physiology and activates their parasympathetic highway which is the vagus nerve. Real eye contact, the sparkle in our eyes when we make real contact with people, a smile – all of these activate the vagus nerve.
It is really good for the body. You cannot be in chronic fight or flight and in the parasympathetic nervous system. When you make real contact with people and tell them something positive – whether it is someone you know well or not well – the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. The brilliant cells of your immune system will wake up and be active and happy when they receive the parasympathetic biochemistry. They work a lot better. When you are chronically secreted with the stress hormones, fight or flight, your immune system – all these brilliant cell subtypes – becomes sluggish.
Another important factor is healing your identity. One of the most common things I’ve been told over the years is that it took an illness to wake up and realize that they had to stop taking care of everyone else. They had to stop responding to others’ perceived expectations and start doing the things that gave them real life and authenticity.
As a doctor, it is shocking to me how often a person reacts to a terminal cancer diagnosis: If I only have twelve months to live, I probably don’t have to go to law school because Dad wants me to. Or when I only have six months to live I’ll do what the hell I want. I don’t have to do what this person wants me to do all the time.
It’s a very different way of life. One of the women I spoke to was sweet, reserved, kind, and very gentle. As she cured her breast cancer, she became more confident. She had a husband who was a bit rough and probably quite difficult to live with. She didn’t begin to care so much about caring about others emotionally and just saying what she believed – to be more confident. I think that was probably great for her physiologically. She believed in herself enough that she was ready to take her place in the world and not just keep caring for others and suppressing her own needs. I suspect it was probably important to her healing. I’ve seen something like this many times.
We need a lot more research on this, but my perception of what happens sometimes is that the death of the old self can be the opportunity to give birth to a more authentic self. The expected death can be a door into a new life that is in some ways unexpected and paradoxical.