As a young doctor, I’d understood the difference between health and disease to be a distinct line: here you’re well; there you’re not. The line could be a number, a diagnostic test, or a set of criteria. Sometimes the line would move, depending on the latest clinical guidelines. Either way, if you met x, then you had y; if you didn’t, you didn’t. This paradigm worked.
Until I got sick.
First came autoimmune thyroiditis after the birth of my first baby. In the coming years, this evolved into profound exhaustion and a nervous system in total disarray—chronic fatigue syndrome and dysautonomia. I knew these mystery illnesses lacked good treatment options. What’s more, I hadn’t even believed such conditions to be “real.” Science had no way of measuring them, after all. It took being housebound for two years for me to finally surrender my classical medical training, and rebuild my knowledge from the bottom up.
From a solo odyssey that began on my living room couch, I learned a lot of fundamental concepts. The body isn’t a machine to be fixed, but a dynamic ecosystem to be tended. Chronic diseases aren’t about crossing over to “the other side,” but moving along a continuum. Most conditions start years, even decades, before a diagnosis can be made. Chronic inflammation—a cellular fire stoked by infections and stress and allergens and pollutants—is a common denominator, be it diabetes, heart disease, or autoimmunity. And there’s a big difference between treating and healing. With no good treatments for my conditions, I was forced to learn how to heal.
How You Can Heal
More than a set of actions, healing is a state of being. It requires a shift in mindset, a reorientation toward the mind, body, and spirit. That said, a guideline of actions to follow, if practiced regularly, can open you to this new state of being, transforming your relationship to yourself and your environment.
The first step is always to ask new questions. As I doctor and scientist, I’d been steeped in the belief that we can “fix whatever’s broke,” or think my way out of a challenging situation. But symptoms are the body’s way of saying something isn’t working any more. It’s time to listen. To pay attention to yourself. To open beyond previous beliefs that no longer serve. Because it’s our leaps in consciousness that drive discovery and change.
Here are three healing practices I learned:
1. Inhabit your body.
It’s natural to detach from your body when you’ve had chronic pain or other miserable symptoms. But the dilemma is this: you can’t heal something you’re detached from. When you start to inhabit your body after years or decades of being disconnected, your symptoms may feel more intense at first, because you’re noticing more. Try not to fear the sensations—better yet, move toward them. They’re your body’s way of communicating to you that there are underlying deficiencies and imbalances.
Here are some ways to reconnect the mind and body:
Stimulate the vagus. This nerve is the godfather of the rest- and-digest state of the nervous system, which reduces inflammation and promotes healing. Like any other nerve, the more you activate it, the stronger the response.
Get throaty. Gargle with water several times a day. This action uses muscles in the back of your throat, which stimulates the vagus. Imagine you are gargling from deep within your esophagus.
Belt it out. At home alone, in the shower, or in the car, sing as loudly as you can. This also uses muscles in the back of your throat.
Chew your food. Remove distractions like phones and screens, and pay attention to your meal. By chewing thoroughly until you fully mash the food in your mouth, you not only facilitate the digestive process, you also stimulate the vagus.
Gag yourself. Take a spoon with a rounded handle, or if you prefer, purchase a box of tongue blades from the pharmacy. Don’t jab yourself in the back of the throat. Instead, open your mouth wide and push down on the back part of your tongue with the blade/spoon, activating the gag reflex. Repeat this several times.
Breathe from your belly. Sit quietly, relax your shoulders, and do 20–30 deep, slow abdominal breaths. Abdominal breathing stems from your belly, not your chest, so start by placing your hand over your belly. Feel your belly push your hand out with each inhalation. After each inhalation, hold your breath gently for five to seven seconds, then exhale slowly, using your abdominal muscles to push out as much air as you can.
Finish your next shower cold. Exposure to cold water can trigger the vagus nerve. Try 10 or 20 seconds of cold water. You’re going for a shiver response.
Start your day with a shot of qi. Do a 10-minute qigong practice. Many free guided practices are available on YouTube (my teacher is Master Mingtong Gu).
Go for a swim, or take a bath. Being immersed in water is a sensory experience that can awaken the body. Add 5–10 drops of lavender essential oils for a heightened sensory experience.
Walk outside, barefoot. The soles of the feet have more than a hundred thousand sensory nerves that send signals to the brain. When we always wear shoes, our brain loses out on these connections with the body. A walk on the beach, among the different textures of sand and water, is an ideal place. Your backyard works, too.
2. Change your thoughts, change your genes.
What you think can turn certain genes on and others off, and change the patterns by which your neurons connect. Here are some ideas and practices that can get your brain out of the vicious stress cycle, which generates inflammation, and into the healing state.
Mix things up. Rearrange furniture and decor, eat with your non-dominant hand, sleep on the other side of the bed, walk or drive a new route.
Learn or revisit a musical instrument. This doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. Borrow a ukulele or buy one for $20 and learn a few songs via YouTube.
Listen to music from a time in your past that was positive and life-affirming. If you can’t think of such a time, listen to music that feels life-affirming to you.
Identify harmful thought patterns. When they arise, note them, tell them to stop, and redirect your thoughts to some- thing positive. Some harmful patterns: obsessing about your health, trying to predict how you’ll feel in certain situations, engaging in negative self-talk, self-blame, addictive behaviors, justifying negative beliefs.
When you catch yourself in these negative patterns, infuse your mind instead with a positive experience—this must be visualized and embodied. Here is a visualization adapted from the Dynamic Neural Retraining System by Annie Hopper:
Think of a positive memory. Experiences in water (swimming, jumping into a lake) are especially effective for this exercise. Describe this memory aloud in present tense and imagine it with all your senses. (What does it feel like on my skin? What does it smell like? What does it look like? What sounds do I hear?) You’re going for evoked sensations, like goosebumps, a shiver, or a warm sensation in your body. Only then have you triggered the vagus nerve. Anchor this experience with a positive mantra (I am strong!, I am healthy!, I am living my life!). Practice this daily. Twice a day if possible. Repetition is the key to rewiring your brain. And eliciting the visceral experiences is key to healing your body.
3. Practice pleasure. It’s serious work.
Play can shift the mind and body from stress to healing, releasing the body’s natural painkillers, lowering blood pressure, and increasing immune function. Yet it is one of the most underrated activities in our work-driven culture, and when we feel threatened or stressed or unwell, play and pleasure are among the first things to go. If you’re serious about healing, play needs to be a priority—even if at first it feels like work.
Make a list of things that once brought you pleasure. Choose 1 or 2 from that list and commit to doing them once a week, minimum (ex: reading books you once loved, caring for a pet, keeping fresh flowers in your room).
Go to YouTube and search under “funny videos.” Watch a few and laugh along—whether your laughter is fake or genuine, it doesn’t matter. But you have to have a smile on your face and laugh from your belly for your body to release endorphins and other anti-inflammatory chemicals into your bloodstream.
Practice “laughter yoga.” Clap your hands in a regular rhythm. Say “ho, ho, ha ha,” in time to the clapping. Move around the room as you do this. Take deep breaths and release them with belly laughs.
Thank yourself. You’ve just practiced pleasure, changed your gene expression, and inhabited your body with this simple step! Commit to giving this to yourself on a daily basis, and you’ll feel the difference.
Cynthia Li, MD graduated from The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and has practiced internal medicine in settings as diverse as Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, San Francisco General Hospital, St. Anthony Medical Clinic for the homeless, and Doctors Without Borders in rural China. Her own health challenges led her to functional medicine, a paradigm that addresses the root causes of chronic conditions. She currently serves on the faculty of the Healer’s Art Program at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, and has a private practice. She lives in Berkeley, CA, with her husband and their two daughters.
Connect with Cynthia on Facebook @dr.cynthia.li and visit www.cynthialimd.com. Brave New Medicine: A Doctor’s Unconventional Path to Healing Her Autoimmune Illness is available September 1, 2019 in paperback at Amazon and other retailers.