September 04, 2008

Krista's Journal: Knowing How to Heal Ourselves

September 4, 2008

Esther Sternberg is a scientist's scientist. She is wary of the commercialized self-help industry and of unsubstantiated claims for alternative methods of healing. Until she began to do the research she describes in this program, she shared her profession's modern bias that emotions — such as the gamut of "feelings" we associate with stress — are distinct and perhaps altogether separate from physical health. Without measurable and logical proof of their direct connection to disease or healing, such a correlation could not be taken seriously.

But in recent years, parallel to her colleagues in many other disciplines, Esther Sternberg underwent a period of scientific and personal discovery. While dying of cancer, Esther Sternberg's mother urged her daughter to ask not only whether stress can make us sick, but whether "loving" and "believing" can help us to live well. Esther Sternberg began to pose these questions for herself when she became exhausted and simultaneously developed a form of arthritis, a disease she studies. Here, she tells part of her personal story and some of the fascinating history of medicine she traced for the book she ultimately wrote: The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions.

Sternberg insists that we'll always need different "languages" to discuss medical fact and emotional realities. And yet she rediscovered that for a thousand years "the balance of the four humours" — blood, yellow and black bile, and phlegm — was a central principle of medical teaching. These were visible secretions and therefore could be taken as windows into the workings of the body. Vestiges of these concepts, Sternberg points out, are buried in words we still use to describe emotional types: sanguine, melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric. Modern scientists are now on the cusp of a new world of understanding, she says, because they now know genes, hormones, and neurotransmitters to be as real and measurable as blood and bile. They know that what we call feelings — both physical and emotional — are caused by myriad biochemical connections.

This conversation leaves me with a helpful and unexpected appreciation of the positive function of the human stress response. It is as old as time, part of our body's in-built capacity to guide us in new environments and protect us from danger. Stress does not make us sick, per se. But prolonged stress sets off a cascade of reactions that can leave us with overstimulated or suppressed immune systems. Memory and perception add to those physiological effects. Knowing such details, we can concretely understand when we need to avail ourselves of medical care and when and how we can help to heal ourselves. Such an approach is at the core of integrative medicine, an approach to health care that is growing across this country and which we've explored in previous programs.

There is a healing paradox in the Esther Sternberg's perspective. Science — with its insistence on what can be seen and measured — took us away from our ancient intuition about the connection between health and emotions. But science now is bringing us back. Esther Sternberg's insights validate the experience of prolonged stress so many of us know. They evoke the full meaning of the phrase, "feeling sick." She even suggests a notion contrary to our culture of constant productivity: that vacations are not luxuries but physical necessities. So, too, are practices that calm and renew our emotions and our spirits together.

Can stress make us sick? Can places of peace, prayer, meditation, rest, music, and friendship help us to live well? Each of us must answer these questions in the context of our lives, with our particular histories and our physical and spiritual details. But what interesting times we're living in when physicians and scientists begin to ask such questions along with us.

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is a rheumatologist, researcher, and author of The Balance Within.