Doctors like to tell me that I’m fundamentally a “healthy” person—though I’ve never really believed it. Sure, I lead a healthy lifestyle including lots of time in the great outdoors, running, skiing, hiking, and camping. I eat mostly vegetarian food, don’t smoke, and only drink occasionally. Despite my many healthy habits, I don’t look healthy, especially to those meeting me for the first time. My skin is shocking.
You see, a quarter of my body is covered in thick, red patches of itchy, scaly skin. I have psoriasis, a chronic autoimmune disease that makes my skin cells reproduce much faster than normal, then slough off in dry scales. I’m not alone: Roughly 7.5 million people in the U.S. have psoriasis, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. While my doctors have always been sympathetic, the best they can do is offer creams and treatments, some of which come with dangerous side effects, to alleviate the unsightly symptoms. There is no cure for psoriasis.
The humiliation and discomfort of my condition motivated me to embark on a mission to heal myself. For many years, I invested a lot of money (it’s a $63.2 billion industry) and hours into various healing modalities. From all kinds of cleanses (inside and out) to radical diets to a wide array of alternative treatments, my quest to heal felt like a full-time job. For brief periods—usually weeks, though sometimes a month or two—my skin would improve considerably. But the improvements were fleeting. The best term for describing any autoimmune disease is “stubborn.” It seems that no matter what I do, symptoms persist or return, and sometimes worse than before.
Patients who meditated while in the light box experienced skin clearing four times faster than those who didn’t meditate while in the light box.
I had lost hope of creating any lasting change when I heard about a remarkable study led by the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. The 1998 study compared the healing rates of psoriasis patients undergoing UV-light therapy, a classic psoriasis treatment. But in this study, the patients who meditated while in the light box experienced skin clearing four times faster than those who didn’t meditate while in the light box.
I quickly learned that this study was just the tip of the iceberg of evidence demonstrating the power of mindfulness on physical healing. Australian journalist Shannon Harvey was a busy young professional when her health took a sudden nosedive. Doctors diagnosed her with an autoimmune disease as the cause of debilitating pain and inflammation throughout her body. The course of treatment was unclear, but doctors hinted at a future that included organ failure and wheelchair-bound existence. That’s when the 24-year-old chose to find her own solution.
The ground-breaking research Harvey uncovered and experts she interviewed became the foundation of the 2015 documentary, The Connection. The film brilliantly lays out the latest scientific evidence of the role the mind-body connection plays in healing (watch the trailer here).
“Conventional medicine is great at taking test results and making recommendations based on those results, but it doesn’t really show you how to go about your day-to-day life with a chronic disease,” Harvey says. “Mindfulness is a practical coping tool and it’s always there when all else seems to fail.” That ability to “cope” is more impactful to the healing process than previously believed. But how does it work?
Simply living with any kind of chronic disease, including heart disease, cancer and, of course, autoimmune disease, is very stressful. Regardless of whether the stress is perceived (imagined) or actual (physical)—the prevalence of depression in people living with psoriasis, for example, may be as high as 50 percent, reports the American Academy of Dermatology—all that stress fuels the very disease of which you want to get rid of.
Mindfulness offers the mechanism by which, at any time, you switch off the stress response and enter a state called the “relaxation response” as coined by cardiologist Herbert Benson, M.D., a pioneer in mind-body medicine, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital. It’s only during the relaxation response that healing can happen at the cellular level.
The techniques recommended by Benson, Kabat-Zinn and other mindfulness experts sounded simple enough. Despite my initial skepticism (accumulated after so much trial and error), I gave mindfulness a try with the help of Colorado-based mental health counselor Connie Clancy-Fisher, Ed.D., author of the book, Gift of Change: Embracing Challenges Today for a Promising Tomorrow.
“It’s not so much the stressors, but how you choose to handle them that determines their long-term effects on your body,” says Clancy-Fisher, who uses MBSR with her patients. “Instead of trying to get rid of your disease, focus on accepting where you are right now because the present moment is where the healing takes place.”
One biological explanation for how it works is that mindfulness creates a hormonal shift that has a “cooling” effect on the inflammatory response that fuels the unpleasant symptoms associated with auto-immune diseases (in my case, patches of red, scaly skin).
True enough, within weeks of starting a daily 10-minute seated mindfulness practice and mindful running several days a week, the itching and discomfort subsided. Best of all, I felt more empowered and less victimized by my disease.
It’s helped Harvey, too, who still has all her organs and isn’t in a wheelchair. But, as she points out, mindfulness is a daily practice. It doesn’t have to be all-consuming, as sprinkling mindful moments throughout the day can be hugely impactful.
“One of my favorite times to meditate is when I’m waiting for the kettle to boil. It’s amazing how quickly dark mental clouds can clear in the time it takes for water to boil,” Harvey says.
Mindfulness is now a permanent part of my self-care rituals, which I view as a daily healing practice rather than a destination toward which I must strive.