It takes a village

Nov
13
2015
by
Lynne McTaggart
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Although we consider heart attack, cancer and stroke our biggest killers, the grandfather of all illness is so-called ‘stress’. The term was coined by the little-known Hungarian medical student Hans Selye, who observed that many of his patients, despite having radically different diagnoses, nevertheless manifested virtually identical symptoms. As a group, they simply had the pallor of the unwell.

Selye was the first to define the condition as ‘general adaptation syndrome’, when the body’s hormonal ‘fight-or-flight’ response is unable to cope with the demands placed upon it. Ultimately, he discovered that, when unabated, the condition could lead to high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, allergies, autoimmune disease and the raft of illnesses we now understand to be the standard medical disorders of modern times.

Although we consider heart attack, cancer and stroke our biggest killers, the grandfather of all illness is so-called ‘stress’. The term was coined by the little-known Hungarian medical student Hans Selye, who observed that many of his patients, despite having radically different diagnoses, nevertheless manifested virtually identical symptoms. As a group, they simply had the pallor of the unwell.

Selye was the first to define the condition as ‘general adaptation syndrome’, when the body’s hormonal ‘fight-or-flight’ response is unable to cope with the demands placed upon it. Ultimately, he discovered that, when unabated, the condition could lead to high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, allergies, autoimmune disease and the raft of illnesses we now understand to be the standard medical disorders of modern times.

Selye’s initial term, ‘stress’, was a misnomer because of his poor command of English; he inappropriately had borrowed it from physics, where the term refers to having a high degree of malleability.

Selye later agreed that he should have used the physics term ‘strain’, which describes the changes or deformation of a substance when force is placed on it. Nevertheless, he went on to become a leading authority on the subject, particularly as regards the relationship between the endocrine system and stress-related diseases.

Failure to adapt

UK nutritional pioneer Dr Stephen Davies once described illness to me in similar terms as a ‘failure of the organism to adapt to its environment.’

He described what is often called the ‘rain-barrel’ effect: individual stresses such as poor diet or chemical pollution can be tolerated on their own, but as the barrel fills and spills over, we become ill because there are too many stressors, including environmental toxins, electromagnetic fields and emotional difficulties.

The latest evidence is that stress has everything to do with our response to our life’s events and, indeed, our response to how we perceive our place in the world.

The stress of being separate

One of the greatest and most underappreciated causes of bodily illness is a feeling of isolation—from others, from our family, from our God. I have become convinced, by the copious evidence I wrote about in The Bond, that as individuals, we were never meant to be alone, but always to exist within a larger whole.

Researchers from Brigham Young University recently concluded that social isolation was equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. ‘This effect is not isolated to older adults. Relationships provide a level of protection across all ages,’ said lead researcher Timothy Smith.

As we perceive a strong sense of our own separation and as our inherent need for community remains unsatisfied, so we then fall ill.

Consequently, the greatest healer of stress is re-establishing a connection. That sense of community may come in various forms—whether through a pet or an entire congregation.

For instance, in one study, a group of Americans in the lowest income brackets suffered virtually no stress so long as they had two factors in their lives: a strong religious belief, and, even more important, regular church attendance and a strong religious community.

Clearly, even when engaged in the everyday struggle to survive, we can manage so long as we don’t have to do it alone.

Belief in something bigger

An important part of this sense of connection is believing in something greater than ourselves. The research has found that stroke victims with strong religious beliefs have less anxiety and depression and can cope better with their illness those who are agnostic or atheist.

And the case of Croatian war veterans surviving their country’s recent violent civil war, those with strong religious had less chronic post-traumatic stress than those with no faith and less tendency to commit suicide.

But having a spiritual belief doesn’t even have to include regular church attendance or even an orthodox religion. Studies have found that people who held some sort of religious or spiritual belief without belonging to any organized religion enjoy better mental equilibrium and lower blood pressure than atheists or agnostics.

The major cause of 20th-century illness is not bad luck or not enough money, or the host of other problems we are heir to, but only our emotional response to them. We become ill quite simply because we are thinking the wrong thoughts. We allow our sense of separation, fanned by media stories of recession and apocalypse, to seep into our very bones.

I have come to believe that the most profound healing comes from changing the everyday thoughts we think. Cultivating our own ‘village’ of like-minded individuals, thinking thoughts that inspire a sense of connection, is possibly our most potent self-prescription.

Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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