The symptoms among my previously healthy friends are widespread, from skin flare-ups and back pain to tummy troubles, sleeplessness, nausea and palpitations.
We’re not talking Covid-19 but an array of actual physical afflictions caused by anxiety, stress and sadness.
How timely, then, that Canadian physician Bal Pawa, 60, has written a book helping patients ‘heal [their] pain, anxiety and fatigue by controlling chronic stress’.
She’s devised a simple tool kit for people to help themselves stay healthy, both physically and mentally, despite the stresses they face.
Pawa, who studied mind-body medicine at Harvard Medical School, knows only too well how chronic pressure can impact a healthy person with devastating consequences.
One evening in 1993 after she’d worked a particularly long day helping an expectant woman through a difficult labour, her car was hit by a truck. At the time, Pawa was a mother of two and pregnant with her third baby.
An hour after leaving the hospital she worked in, Pawa was back as a patient. She had fractured ribs, a dislocated shoulder, a torn rotator cuff, multiple soft-tissue injuries and whiplash. Tragically, Pawa also lost her baby.
‘I felt terribly sad and depressed for our loss, which only added to the emotional and physical anguish of the accident,’ she says. ‘On top of that, I would wake up with terrifying nightmares as my nervous system relived the accident over and over.’
Unable to lift her 18-month-old daughter from her cot or play with her son, Pawa felt as if she had lost herself. She could no longer deliver babies, either, due to complications from the injury to her shoulder.
Over the next few years, Pawa ping-ponged from specialist to specialist, and was given all manner of medications and treatments, but it wasn’t until five years later when her daughter brought home a school picture with the words ‘my Mommy is always tired’ and ‘my Mommy’s neck hurts’ that she decided she had to break the cycle she was stuck in ‘to reclaim my power, my health and my personal and professional lives’.
Dr Pawa’s stress warning signs. Do you…
She enrolled in Dr Herbert Benson’s Harvard programme in 1999, exploring the link between the health of the mind and the body.
‘The continuous and excessive release of stress hormones by the body is the reason for 75 per cent of visits to a doctor’s office,’ says Pawa.
‘It affects almost every system in our body and plays a key role in inflammation and illness. One of the most important factors for healing is learning to harness the immense potential of the mind and the nervous system. Getting them working in unison can repair the body. What was supposed to be a career transformation turned out to be the most radical transformation of my life.’
Using her new knowledge and her insight into life as a patient, she set out to be a different kind of doctor. While she is passionate about the need for certain medications and treatments, she also wants to help patients harness their innate ability to heal themselves.
‘Our autonomic nervous systems hold the key,’ she says. ‘You can learn how to put yourself into a state of “rest and repair” – which is where the body can make the healing chemicals many of us are now using external medication for.’
The book looks at all the body’s systems – from the brain to the gut and immune system – and explains why and how these are affected by chronic stress but it’s Pawa’s step-by-step ‘tool kit’ (which uses the acronym ‘Reframe’, below) that can help people back to good health.
‘We can’t change what’s outside our control,’ she concludes, ‘but we can step back and help ourselves.’
Seven steps to help you beat stress
‘By this I mean recognising we are in a state of stress and taking steps to regulate our autonomic nervous system,’ Pawa explains.
She recommends a specific meditation technique addressing breath, the mind and words for ten minutes in the morning.
‘I’ve seen this technique change the brain waves of stockbrokers we were studying at Harvard,’ she says. ‘They didn’t think they could do it when they started but with practice they got better and better.’
‘Motion is lotion,’ says Pawa, who found that among its myriad benefits, exercise helps the body to create resilience to stress.
‘Stressed minds choose bad food, sugary snacks, carbohydrates and alcohol,’ says Pawa. ‘Being mindful about what we eat, when we eat and how we feel when we do so are the keys to optimal digestion and better health.’
‘Technology is also a diet we consume,’ says Pawa, and it affects how much downtime we get.
‘Rest isn’t only about sleep, it’s about being “unconnected” from tech too. Notifications on our phones trigger our autonomic nervous systems. So spend a few hours each day off your phone doing something creative instead.’
Of course, Pawa is also a fan of getting a good night’s shut-eye. ‘Aim for six to eight hours’ quality sleep a night,’ she says. ‘Deep sleep enables the body to rejuvenate.’
‘Thoughts are the language of the mind, feelings are the language of the body so an awareness of both is important,’ says Pawa.
‘What is happening in life when you experience certain pains or sensations? People who learn to connect their feelings with their health experience reduced illness. Thought alone can create stress but it can also promote wellness.’
A healthy mindset is the key to a healthy body but most of us are not born this way, says the author.
‘Relaxation is not automatic, stress is subconscious,’ she says. ‘If you want to rest and repair your body, you have to consciously bring it there by being mindful. And it’s not enough to pay lip service, you have to believe everything is going to be OK.
A little bit of stress is good because it helps us prepare for danger but don’t dwell in it. Entertain trust instead of fear.’
‘Disease is a spectrum,’ says Pawa. ‘If your symptoms are progressing, seek the advice of a doctor to confirm or rule out any suspected illnesses.’
Bal Pawa’s The Mind- Body Cure: Heal Your Pain, Anxiety And Fatigue By Controlling Chronic Stress (Greystone) is out now
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