Why do some people have remissions from stage IV cancer? Who are the people that experience a complete resolution of their Diabetes? How is it possible that some people achieve complete and sustained remissions from autoimmune disease? Why is it that some people who have severe heart disease live well for many years despite being given only weeks or months to live? How can it be that some people who suffer through years of chronic debilitating pain are able to rid themselves of their pain for good?
When I was in the depths of my own illness, I found myself asking all of these questions and more. I realized that these questions essentially boiled down to one overarching, burning question: what were these people… (the ones who got better), what were they doing?
In the medical literature, the cases of people with dramatic unexpected positive outcomes are often referred to as “spontaneous remissions.” But to me, something about the word “spontaneous” just doesn’t seem right. How could something so amazing as a reversal of a debilitating and life threatening illness be spontaneous… as if it just dropped out of the sky to land on the lucky few? No, something bigger than a random, fortuitous event has to be at play.
Some might think of spontaneous remissions as miracles. Indeed, it would be easy to chalk up these incredible recoveries from illness to the miraculous. But then again, if you think about it, life is filled with miracles. The mere fact that trillions of cells can work together in a coordinated, dynamic way to fuel this thing called “the body” is a miracle. The fact that we can eat a turkey sandwich and our bodies can transform that sandwich into the molecules of fuel is a miracle. The fact that a tiny sperm and a glorious egg can come together to create a new human being is a miracle. It is awe inspiring to think about a seemingly miraculous healing from illness, but the scientist in me asks: how in the world does it happen?
We have studied the human body and discovered the organs, the tissues, the cells, the DNA, the proteins and the molecules that compromise our bodies. We have studied digestion and the complex production of energy within the body. We have studied fertilization and embryogenesis and the development of a new life in utero. I firmly believe that we should be studying the people who heal in the face of illness so that we can understand what is happening within their bodies, and within the context of their lives, to augment the healing process. We should uncover, describe, and examine what it is that they are doing. And, we should ask if this can it be replicated and reproduced in others?
Although mainstream medicine has yet to embrace, (and significantly fund), this line of research, there is scientific data becoming available from major reputable medical institutions describing some of the factors that contribute to the healing potential within our bodies. Institutions like the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, and the Center for Mind Body Medicine at Georgetown Medical School, are just a few of the academic medical centers that are leading the way. Like a gigantic puzzle, many thought leaders and scientists are helping us to understand fragments of that which contributes to healing.
After spending the past 3 years pouring through the evidence, I can sum up the data that I have found by saying that the people who thrive, survive, have remissions, and get better in the face of illness are learning and practicing the skills of resilience.
Each healing path is unique, just as each person is unique, but there are commonalities among the skills that resilient people use. The skills of resilience can empower a person in their healing process and help them to maximize the chances of bouncing back from illness. Resilience is NOT just something that a person is born with. The skills of resilience are learnable and can be used to create more health, energy, and vitality in our lives.
Health challenges can push us past what we think are our limits. They can be painful and heartbreaking and overwhelming. Yet, many of us have never tapped into our deepest strengths and our deepest abilities until we have been forced to do so through a major adversity. To be resilient is to realize that you are the author of the story of your life. You have the power to write this story. We may not be able to choose everything that is going to happen to our bodies or in our lives, but we can choose who we will be in spite of it. A health crisis is an opportunity to say, “this is who I am going to be in the face of it all.”
Instead of blindly accepting the story that goes along with a particular diagnosis, a resilient person tells himself, or herself, this story, “I am going to rise to this challenge. I am going to get the help I need. I am going to do what it takes. I am going to rise up. I am going to overcome.”
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