Every once in a while, as a writer, I sort of “disappear” — taking a break from blogging and social media to fully immerse myself in finishing a new book. I’m happy to say, in 2015, you’ll be able to see what I’ve been so busy working on (and why I’ve been so quiet)!
My mom said something recently that really stuck with me. She’s 82. “It used to be that we did everything once, and now we have to do everything twice!” I kind of brushed it off as a subtle sign of aging, but then I noticed, over the next forty eight hours: the washing machine/dryer repair man left (“all done!”) but the washer still won’t progress to the rinse cycle and the dryer drum still makes a clanging sound as if a rock band is hiding in the laundry room. So we called – the repairman is returning for round two.
Hope you can come join me on Sunday June 8th at 1:00 at Baltimore’s lovely Breathe Bookstore and Cafe for a chat and booksigning!
Sunday, June 8th, 2014
1:00 to 2:30
The Last Best Cure — a Discussion & Book Signing
with Donna Jackson Nakazawa
Have you ever found that you just can’t stop thinking about someone and what they did or said, and how bewildered or hurt you were by their actions? When someone hurts us, our children, or someone we love, gossips behind our back, or simply acts crazy in ways that confound us, we can get stuck thinking about it for hours or days. We’re washing dishes, we’re driving, or we’re walking the dogs and we can’t stop thinking about how unkind, untrue and self-centered the things they said were. Their image, their words, keep resurfacing to mind. Five hours, five days, five weeks later, there they are – we see their face in front of us, even when we haven’t seen them in all that time.
(Just to be clear, I’m not addressing how we deal with trauma or abuse here — situations which require professional help and intervention — I’m talking about the day-to-day interactions we have with others that leave us mentally sputtering.)
How can we stop feeling embroiled in other people’s craziness? How can we stop thinking about a person or situation — or what we should have, could have, done differently — when the same thoughts keep looping back, rewinding, and playing through our mind again and again?
Or maybe, for you, it’s not about a person, it’s about what you got or didn’t get, what you need but don’t have, what just isn’t right in your life. (Usually, of course, there is a person involved whom you feel deserves blame for whatever is wrong.)
Toxic cyclical thinking. Most of us know that this kind of ruminating is both emotionally and physically harmful to us.
In fact, studies show that a ruminating mind, a wandering mind, is an unhappy and unhealthy mind. When our monkey mind is unhappily fraught with replaying altercations, resentments or losses, we marinate in a cascade of harmful inflammatory stress chemicals and hormones that are linked to almost every disease we can name. Increasingly, scientists can pinpoint how ruminating plays a role in disease including depression, cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune disease. The stress chemicals we wallow in are far worse for us than the thing that actually happened to us in the first place.
Moreover, toxic thinking just doesn’t feel good. It’s like getting caught on a spinning, centrifugal-force ride at the fair that was fun for a few minutes, and now it just makes you feel sick and you want to get off.
But you can’t.
We work so hard to remove whatever is toxic from our lives. We buy organic, we avoid unhealthy foods, we remove chemicals from our home. We eat green, we clean green. We buy organic cosmetics.
But we put very little concerted effort into trying to go green in our minds. When our thoughts are relentless and pervasive, how do we Green the Mind? What is the green solution for toxic thinking?
In researching and writing my last book, The Last Best Cure, I developed a number of insights on how to stop myself from spinning stories, ruminating, worrying, and replaying thoughts about someone or something.
These fifteen small but powerful sayings work for me – many are based on teachings from today’s leaders in mindfulness psychology and meditation. Choose the ones that resonate most with you.
1. “Less said, More time” is my own personal motto. Saying less and letting more time pass when we’re dealing with a difficult, reactive person is almost always a smart move. It allows us to simmer down, and let it go, take the high road. Often, with time, the thing we’re annoyed about just falls away.
2. “Let’s just wait and see what happens next.” We often feel the need to respond and react to difficult people or situations right away, which is why we stew so much over what to say or do next. Buddhist psychologist Sylvia Boorstein suggests that instead we simply give ourselves permission to wait and see what happens next.
3. Move Away From the Blame Game. Picking apart past events and trying to assign blame (including blaming oneself) is rarely productive. Bad things and misunderstandings most often “happen” through a series of events, like a domino effect. No one person is usually entirely to blame for the end result. Sylvia Boorstein has a saying that helps to remind us of this truth: “First this happened, then that happened, then that happened. And that is how what happened happened.”
4. “Try not to fall into other people’s states of minds.” Another Sylvia Boorstein nugget that pretty much says it all.
5. “Deal with Your Biggest Problem First.” Buddhist meditation teacher Norman Fischer suggests that no matter what’s happened, the biggest problem we face is our own anger. Our anger creates a cloud of emotion that keeps us from responding in a cogent, productive way. In that sense, our anger really is our biggest problem. Deal with yourself – meditate, exercise, take a long walk, say less and give it more time, whatever it takes – before you deal with anyone else.
6. “When You’re Angry it Wrinkles the Mind.” This Sylvia Boorstein teaching follows along the same lines. “You can’t think clearly or be creative or thoughtful about how best to handle any situation when you’re mad. Anger wrinkles the mind. If you want to think clearly, you can’t be mad at anything.”
7. “Don’t Try to Figure Others Out.” This is another Norman Fischer teaching. Ask yourself, if others tried to figure out what you’re thinking, or what your motivations are, how right do you think they’d be? They probably wouldn’t have a clue as to what’s really going through your mind. So why try to figure out what others are thinking? Chances are extremely good that you would be wrong, which means that all that ruminating was a colossal waste of time.
8. Your Thoughts are Not Facts. Don’t treat them as if they are. In other words, Don’t believe everything you think. We experience our emotions — anxiety, tension, fear and stress — keenly in our bodies. Our emotions are physical. We often take this as a sign that our thoughts must be facts. How could we feel so bad if our feelings weren’t true? Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tsokyni Rinpoche teaches that when we’re emotionally hijacked by worry, regret, fear, anxiety, anger, to remember that the emotional and physical state we experience is “Real but not true.”
9. How Can You Grow From This? Insight Meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach suggests that when we are locked in anger, taking offense over something said or done, making judgments, or fuming over how we were treated, we add to our own reservoir of suffering. An event + our reaction = suffering. When we’re able to be present with our feelings, and inquire why we’re experiencing such a strong reaction and what our feelings tell us about ourselves, that’s a learning opportunity. An event + inquiry + presence = growth. Center your thoughts on growth. Green, not red.
10. “Don’t ever put anyone out of your heart, not even you.” A Tara Brach teaching that speaks for itself.
11. You’re Not a Time Magician. When we churn over past events we often search for how we might have done things differently to prevent a crazy-making altercation or regrettable outcome. But what happened yesterday is as much in the past as what happened thousands of years ago in the time of the Mayans. We can’t change what took place way back then, and we can’t change what happened a week ago.
12. Forgive for Your Sake. Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield teaches, “It is not necessary to be loyal to your suffering.” We are so loyal to our suffering, he says, “focusing on the trauma of ‘what happened to me.’ Yes, it happened. Yes, it was horrible. But is that what defines you?” Forgiveness is not something we do just for the other person. We forgive so that we can live free of the acute suffering that comes with holding onto the past. In other words, Kornfield teaches, “Forgive for you.”
13. Occupy a Different Mind Space. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction teacher and psychologist Trish Magyari teaches meditation accompanied by powerful imagery – and studies show that imagery helps us to stop inflamed, stressful thoughts. Here is one image that works for me everytime: “Imagine that you are at the bottom of deep blue ocean watching everything swim by. Just watch all your thoughts go by. Imagine that you are the deep, calm, blue sea.” I always relax when I hear this.
14. Send them Loving Kindness. Intuitive Medical Healer Wanda Lasseter-Lundy suggests that when you can’t stop thinking about someone who’s hurt you or who’s driving you crazy, “Imagine yourself sending them a beautiful ball of white light. Place them in that ball of light. Surround them with it, holding that white light around them, until your anger fades.” Try it, it really works.
15. Take a 90 Second Time Out. To free your mind, you first have to break your thought pattern. Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel, MD, says that “After 90 seconds an emotion will arise and fall like a wave on the shore.” It only takes ninety seconds to shift out of a mood state, including anger. Give yourself ninety seconds – about fifteen deep in and out breaths – to not think about that person or situation. You’ve broken that thought cycle – and the hold your thoughts had on you. Now, doesn’t that feel good?
Baltimore author Donna Jackson Nakazawa discusses her latest book, The Last Best Cure, on Wednesday, April 16 at 7 p.m. at the Perry Hall Branch, sponsored by the Friends of the Perry Hall Library. The award-winning science journalist and writer recently answered questions for Between the Covers about her book.
Before The Last Best Cure, you authored another book about autoimmune diseases, The Autoimmune Epidemic. What insights or new knowledge did you gain between that book and The Last Best Cure? What was going on in your life prior to writing these books?
The Autoimmune Epidemic focused on how modern chemicals in the world around us and in our diet are overwhelming the human immune system, contributing to rising disease rates and chronic illnesses. The Last Best Cure takes this research a step further and investigates “psychoneuroimmunology,” a new field of study that investigates how mind states, such as anxiety, fear, worry, rumination, anger and pain, can end up damaging our immune function in much the same way as environmental chemicals. Prior to this, I was struggling with my own health crises. The Last Best Cure is my chronicle of a one-year doctor/patient experiment to see if altering my mood state might shift my inflammatory markers and perhaps even improve my physical well-being.
The Last Best Cure has received much critical praise, described as a book that will offer hope for recovery, and change and save lives. What is the most important insight or piece of information you want readers to take away from your book?
I want people to know that there already exists an understanding as to how we can activate the healing potential of the brain. Understanding how to do this gives us powerful tools, ways to change the messages our brain is sending to our cells and our body. Everyone deserves to live the life they want, and these tools can help us all achieve a greater sense of well-being, and even joy.
You were already an award-winning science journalist and writer when you began writing these last two books. What was it like writing professionally about a topic that was also very personal to you? Were there any “aha” moments for your own life as you were writing?
At first, I was only going to write about my personal experiences in the introduction to The Last Best Cure, but my editor thought readers would want to read more about how I also went on this transformational journey myself. She thought it would help convey to readers that we can all take this journey, no matter what physical or emotional health challenges we face. There was so much that I realized along the way about adversity, self-respect and how they play a role in adult illness. Now I’m profoundly grateful to have taken this journey: Life is sweeter, relationships are better and it’s a better, more meaningful way to live.
In addition to being about healing and recovering personal joy, The Last Best Cure is a story about a health epidemic. What steps do we need to take now to secure a better health outlook for future generations?
We need to absolutely, completely and radically change how we view the doctor/patient relationship. If we keep up the current “medical factory” model we’re going to see very little progress in managing chronic health issues. Right now, 133 million adults in America have chronic illnesses, not counting the 22 million with addiction – and these numbers are rapidly climbing. The tools to help patients participate in their own healing and facilitate greater well-being exist; it just requires that physicians incorporate new practices into their doctor/patient paradigm. In order to do this, we must change the way we as a society view treatment, health care and the doctor/patient relationship.
Are there any new books in the works?
Yes, one due out at the end of next year called Childhood Interrupted: How Adversity in the Past Writes the Story of Our Future – And How We Can Change the Script (Atria/Simon & Schuster). It’s a deeper, more extended study of how childhood adversity can create changes in the brain and in our immunology that impact our health long into adulthood – and what we can do to reverse those effects as adults. I’m telling cutting-edge stories of science, about how even very common forms of childhood adversity can reset our immune system to be more stress-reactive, sparking a state of chronic low-grade neuroinflammation for life. I want to help readers understand how the stress we meet in childhood can determine our lifelong “set point” for emotional reactivity, inflammation, disease and depression – and what we can do to reverse the impact of early adversity and trauma years later, in adulthood, to regain our physical and emotional well-being.
How long has the Baltimore area been home to you? What do you like best about living in this area?
My family moved to Baltimore four years ago from Annapolis; my mom and my husband’s parents were already living here, so it just made sense. What I like best about Baltimore is its people. Baltimoreans are real, genuine, honest, intellectual, creative, smart and energetic. They’re committed to their community and engaged in making this a better place to live. We love it here. It’s a vibrant place to be.
I wrote this for the PBS website, Next Avenue, and have recently had a number of requests to share it. So, I’ve included the essay here, and a link to the original below.
I’m Not Cured, but I Am Healing
After years of pain and chronic illness, an author finds relief through breakthrough research on how the brain affects the body.
Donna Jackson Nakazawa is the author of the award-winning Autoimmune Epidemic. Her new book is The Last Best Cure: My Quest to Awaken the Healing Parts of My Brain and Get Back My Body, My Joy and My Life.
More than 133 million American adults — 1 in 2 of us — suffer from a chronic condition, including autoimmune disease, fibromyalgia, digestive disorders, migraines, back pain, depression, diabetes, cancer and chronic pain. A recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that those of us in our 40s, 50s and 60s are twice as likely as our parents were to suffer from debilitating chronic conditions in middle age.
I’m one of those statistics. I’ve spent much of the past decade navigating my life around health crises. Twice I’ve been paralyzed by Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease similar to multiple sclerosis, but with a more sudden onset and a wider array of possible outcomes. Other diagnoses — low blood cell counts, thyroiditis and the need for a pacemaker — have also complicated my health and my life.
When my kids were younger I coped with bouts of being bedridden by turning my bed into a playground, scattered with board games, Legos and books like A Wrinkle in Time and The Lord of the Rings. One day, my son’s grade school teacher sent home a paper in which she’d circled a line he’d written: “My Mom is the most determined person I know. She’s more determined than Frodo.”
Above all I longed for a normal, ordinary life, that lovely, irreplaceable, gorgeous mess of moment-to-moment reality — to play hide-and-seek with my kids again, to bandage and kiss a skinned knee while rushing to get out the door to a meeting.
I was sure that if I could walk again, tie my kids’ shoes, drive, cook dinner and type, the joy of living would return in high definition. If I could just get back to ordinary life, it would be miracle enough.
But I was wrong. Even after I’d regained the strength to haul myself up the steps — albeit by death-gripping the rail — and drive, cook and write, I was different. Yes, I was profoundly grateful, but it still felt like a half-life. A maybe life.
One day I found myself lying down at the top of the stairs, exhausted by carrying up the laundry basket. That’s when it hit me: These should be the best years of my life. My time to enjoy my kids, who would all too soon be gone. My most productive work years. But the days were whizzing past.
Illness, I realized, had become my joy thief.
New Ways to Activate Healing
As a health science journalist, I’d authored an award-winning book, The Autoimmune Epidemic, on how modern chemicals were overwhelming the human immune system, contributing to rising disease rates. I’d been working with the chronically ill for years, lecturing to groups and exchanging thousands of emails with patients. I knew how many Americans were suffering, despite having benefited from the best that Western medicine had to offer.
Like me, their lives had been saved, but they felt robbed of joy.
Recently, I’d been investigating “psychoneuroimmunology,” a new study of how mind states, like anxiety and pain, trigger a cocktail of stress hormones and inflammatory chemicals that damage our immune function in much the same way as environmental chemicals. Research has linked high levels of stress-related inflammatory biomarkers to a greater risk of chronic pain, depression, heart disease, digestive illnesses, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis.
On the other hand, patients who practiced meditation, mindfulness, yoga and breath work showed decreased inflammatory biomarkers. Brain-body techniques, like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction — learning to quiet the churning mind through yoga, breathing, loving-kindness meditation and noting and naming our moment to moment habits of mind — help us to separate ourselves from our thoughts, calm our nervous system and change our biology. Our worries and ruminating thoughts no longer cause the same inflammatory stress reactions. Almost two-thirds (61 percent) of patients with rheumatoid arthritis who underwent training in this technique achieved at least a 50 percent reduction in pain.
I was intrigued by the idea that here was something I could do, without taking a pill or risking side effects, that might help activate the healing potential of my own brain. Could mindfulness, meditation and yoga alter my stress response, brain and cellular activity?
To find out, I teamed up with Dr. Anastasia Rowland Seymour, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Program in Integrative Medicine. We embarked on a one-year experiment to see if altering my mood state might shift my inflammatory markers and perhaps even improve my physical well-being. I chronicled the experience in my new book, The Last Best Cure.
I wasn’t expecting miracles. I simply wanted to turn off what I’d come to call the “Pain Channel” and tune into the “Life Channel” before the best years of family life were gone.
Echoes of Childhood Stress in Adult Illness
Along the way, however, something unexpected occurred. I stumbled upon an important new area of research linking what are known as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, to a greater likelihood of facing chronic health conditions in adulthood. ACEs include experiencing, before the age of 18, emotional and physical neglect or chronic humiliation, sexual or physical abuse, living with a depressed or alcoholic parent or suffering the loss of a parent to death or divorce. For instance, women who have experienced ACEs face a much higher likelihood of being hospitalized with an autoimmune disorder as adults. Similar relationships exist between adverse childhood experiences and heart disease, chronic fatigue, diabetes, depression, cancer, heart disease, migraines and stroke.
The research was profound. When the developing brain is repeatedly thrust into a state of hyperarousal or worry, the state of fight or flight causes deep physiological changes to take place. Small chemical markers adhere to genes that oversee the proper production of stress hormone receptors in the brain, tipping it into a state of constant hyperarousal. Stuck on autopilot, inflammatory chemicals keep coursing through the body, like a leaky faucet, building up corrosive effects that, as the years go by, have lifelong consequences for our health.
In other words, the emotional loss we suffer when we are 7 or 12 or 16 lives on forever in our cells.
Although I was reluctant to see myself in the research, I realized I’d had my own adverse childhood experiences. When I was 12, my father died, overnight, from a medical error. In the traumatic aftermath the world as I’d known it fell apart. It suddenly made sense that at the age of 51, it still felt as if every decision might mean life or death. My body was stuck in the same state of fight or flight I had known since I was 12.
As I continued my yearlong quest, I practiced mindfulness, meditation, yoga, laughter yoga and nature bathing, as well as psychotherapy and acupuncture. At the end of the year, we retested my blood. The results stunned us: My stress biomarkers had gone down. My white and red blood cell counts fell in the normal range for the first time in a decade. When I showed my doctor that I could stand on one leg, in the yoga tree pose, she stood to catch me. But she didn’t have to. Instead, she smiled as I moved into one-legged dancer pose, then eagle pose.
With fewer medications and doctors’ visits I even saved money.
It wasn’t that all of my symptoms had disappeared. I still faced limitations. But something more profound had changed. I had healed. I’d gained a new ability to cope with my challenging physical realities by dismantling some of the layers of the psychological distress and anxiety and even the fear that so often goes hand-in-hand with coping with illness.
And that, it turns out, was what I’d been searching for all along.
Healing, I believe, takes different forms for different people. We may think of it as taking place on a physical level, but even recovery on an emotional level can dramatically change our lives and allow us to occupy another, less reactive mental space.
And that makes room for, well, more joy. It turns down the “Pain Channel” and puts us back on the “Life Channel.”
The year was an important lesson for me, not just in how I live, but how I think about disease. We may set out seeking to be cured when we may need to focus instead on being healed. Being cured and feeling better often overlap, but they are not the same thing. Our health is affected by a range of emotional components that impact us at a cellular level in ways we still don’t completely understand. But scientists now know the impact is real and that efforts to shift our state of mind from pain and fear to joy and well-being don’t merely make us feel better, they induce healing responses in the brain that affect our biology in lasting ways. We know that meditation, mindfulness, psychotherapy, yoga, laughter yoga, nature bathing, breath work and acupuncture help chronic conditions, even if we are still working on the why.
Sometimes these efforts will result in a cure and sometimes they won’t, but they can help us experience a greater sense of joy in being here, right now. If we are lucky, we might just find both.
The original version of this essay appears in the PBS online journal, NextAvenue. http://www.nextavenue.org/article/2013-04/im-not-cured-i-am-healed
Thank you readers, I just found out that last night THE LAST BEST CURE hit #10 on AMAZON in BESTSELLING BOOKS IN HEALTH MEMOIR! That made me smile, and I realize I have all of you to thank for spreading the word, one woman, one reader at a time! In gratitude, I thank you.http://amzn.to/1dIIyVd
I really enjoyed a great discussion today with Dan Rodricks, the host of the NPR show, Midday, on WYPR, Baltimore’s Public Radio station. Dan is smart, genuine, and asks great questions. We really delved into why I wrote The Last Best Cure, the science behind it, and how I hope it can help readers with chronic conditions. You can listen to the entire show by clicking on the podcast at this link: http://wypr.org/post/last-best-cure.
This photo has nothing to do with this show — I am just reposting it here because I like it and it makes me smile!
We all grow up thinking that a successful life is about trying to get from Point A to Point B. From right here where we are to some distant point or goal in the future. And yes, having goals and aspirations is important. That’s why we set so many resolutions in the New Year.
But as I spent the holiday with my family and reveled in having our son home from college, and our being all together again, and seeing friends we rarely get to see, I realized that what I am slowly learning — late in life — is how to get from Point A to Point A. From being here to being right here.
Letting go thoughts about getting to Point B, wherever it might be.
Savoring the very small movement from Point A to Point A.
I spent this weekend at a two day meditation event with one of my dearest friends, and together we soaked in the amazing wisdom of Syliva Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg, who came together to teach as a duo on this snowy, rainy weekend in Washington DC.
My favorite nuggets:
Sylvia Boorstein’s teaching, “May I meet this moment fully, May I not complicate it, May I meet it as a friend.”
Sharon Salzberg’s teaching: “The most important moment of meditation is the moment you sit down to do it.”
And Syliva Boorstein’s teaching about how to handle being in busy, harried family life and not lose one’s hard won peace in the midst of it: “Try not to fall into other people’s states of mind.” I find this really wise as I raise teenagers…
My deepest gratitude to these two wise teachers.
I am particularly grateful that at the end, I received the joyful gift of a warm hug from Sylvia Boorstein, who was so kind to say such lovely things about The Last Best Cure when it came out last spring. As I told my friend Elizabeth, who is one of those wonderful kinds of friends who always keeps me honest with myself, as I grow older, I hope to become more like Sylvia Boorstein — she pretty much glows with metta. And to please remind me, when I am overreactive and small of mind, by saying, “Remember, you want to glow like Syliva Boorstein.”
Sometimes, just to meet someone whom you admire so much, whose teachings you follow, and to see how their presence changes those around them — because their compassion and loving kindness comes from such a deep wellspring the whole room can sip from it — well, that is a teaching in and of itself. Thank you Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg (whose fabulous new book is just out, Real Happiness at Work).