How to Think Yourself Well

PHOTO: The way you think and feel affects your health.

What if you had the ability to heal your body just by changing how you think and feel? I know it sounds radical, coming from a doctor. When people are doing everything "right"—eating veggies, avoiding red meat and processed foods, exercising, sleeping well and so forth—we should expect them to live long, prosperous lives and die of old age while peacefully slumbering, right? So why is it that so many health nuts are sicker than other people who pig out, guzzle beer and park in front of the TV?

I consider myself one of those health nuts. I drink my green juice, take my vitamins, hike and practice yoga daily, get quality sleep, see a doctor and avoid harmful toxins. And yet I have come to believe that the purely physical realm of illness—the part you can diagnose with laboratory tests—is only part of the equation. It's a big part, mind you, but not the whole shebang. My experience with patients (as well as my personal background) has led me to the conclusion that whether they become sick or stay healthy, as well as whether they remain ill or manage to heal themselves, might have more to do with everything else that's going on in their lives than with any specific health standard they abide by.

When Healthy Habits Aren't Enough

Five years ago, I started working in an integrative medicine practice. My new patients were some of the most health-conscious people I've ever had the privilege to serve. Many of them ate a vegan diet, worked out, slept soundly each night and took vitamins every morning. But some of them were also mysteriously sick, complaining of fatigue, aches, gastrointestinal disturbances and other symptoms. I was baffled! I ran batteries of tests, and occasionally I would pick up something that eventually resulted in the complete resolution of a patient's symptoms. But more often than not, I would find nothing.

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I was really motivated to solve the puzzle of why these "healthy" patients were so sick. Instead of focusing exclusively on physician-recommended behaviors, medical history and other traditional factors, I dug deep into their personal lives. I asked them questions: "What do you love about yourself? What's missing from your life? What do you appreciate about your life? Are you in a romantic relationship? If so, are you happy? If not, do you wish you were? Are you fulfilled at work? Do you feel like you're in touch with your life's purpose? Do you feel sexually satisfied? Do you express yourself creatively? Do you feel financially stable, or are you stressed about money? If your fairy godmother could change one thing about your life, what would you wish for?"

My patients' answers often gave me more insight into why they might be sick than any lab test or exam could. They were unhealthy not because of bad genes or poor habits or rotten luck, but because they were lonely or miserable in their relationships, stressed about work, freaked out about their finances or profoundly depressed.

On the flip side, I had other patients who ate junk, forgot to take their supplements, rarely exercised and enjoyed seemingly perfect health. Their responses revealed that their lives were filled with love, fun, meaningful work, creative expression, spiritual connection and other traits that differentiated them from the sick health enthusiasts.

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What's Really Making You Sick?

That's when I narrowed it down to two questions I would ask patients at their appointments: "What do you think might lie at the root of your illness?" and "What does your body need in order to heal?" Occasionally, they answered with conventional health-related insights, saying, "I need an antidepressant" or "I need to lose 20 pounds." But more often than not, they said introspective things, like "I hate my job," "I need more 'me' time," "I must divorce my spouse," "I have to finish my novel," "I need to hire a nanny," "I need to make more friends," "I need to forgive myself," "I need to love myself" or "I need to stop being such a pessimist." Whoa.

While many patients weren't ready to do what their intuition told them their bodies needed, my bravest patients made radical changes. Some quit their jobs. Others left their marriages. Some moved to new cities or towns. Others pursued long-suppressed dreams. The results these patients achieved were astonishing. Sometimes, a list of illnesses would disappear, often quickly. Even smaller steps, like talking to a boss about workplace problems or seeing a marriage counselor, helped. I was in awe.

But I shouldn't have been surprised: I had healed myself in much the same way. By the time I was in my 20s, I had been diagnosed with multiple health conditions, including high blood pressure and precancerous changes on my cervix. At 33, I was burned out, thanks to my career in a busy obstetrics and gynecology practice. I wound up leaving my job, selling my house and liquidating my retirement account. My husband, baby and I moved from chaotic San Diego to a small, sleepy town in Northern California, where I spent two years digging into the root causes of my illness, diagnosing what needed to be changed and mustering up the courage to take action. As a result, my health conditions either completely resolved or drastically improved.

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The Get-Well RX

This is not "woo-woo" metaphysics here. The scientific evidence I have uncovered in major medical journals backs this up: The lifestyle choices you make can optimize your body's relaxation response, counteract the stress response and result in physiological changes, leading to better health. The body doesn't fuel how we live our lives. Instead, it is a mirror of how we live our lives. So if you're not feeling well, despite doing all the "right" things, take a deep breath and ask yourself: What do I think might lie at the root of my illness? What does my body need in order to heal? If you're honest with yourself, the answers could save your health—and your life.

Adapted from Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself by Lissa Rankin, MD (Hay House, May 2013). Dr. Rankin is a physician in Marin County, Calif.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

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