During the first week of this month, I attended a 5-day course in Washington, DC offered by the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) because I wanted to explore a new paradigm for providing health care that is based in science but with a wider embrace than the clinical practice model I have known for 30 years. The defining features of Functional Medicine are looking for and treating root causes of illnesses rather than focusing on the disease itself, applying an understanding of inter-related biological systems (“systems” being the operative word here), and honoring the value of therapeutic partnership in healing encounters.
What does identifying and addressing root causes versus treating the signs and symptoms of illness look like? We can consider this using inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis) as an example. Conventional medicine recognizes the the auto-immune inflammatory process and uses a variety of medications to regulate that and shut it down. Functional Medicine will ask, “What is the source of inflammation? Are there contributing factors that can be corrected or eliminated to improve or resolve the inflammation? Can we extinguish (or at last diminish) the fire at its source?”
When we start to look more deeply, we can see the integration of bodily processes and begin to understand how detrimental, self-perpetuating cycles are initiated. A good example of this is how in response to chronic stress, the receptors for signals of stress up-regulate by becoming more numerous or more sensitive to their chemical messengers. That means that the same number of chemical signals have a higher likelihood of “delivering” their message. This creates a kind of hyper-reactivity that might be adaptive in some circumstances by building the response to an ongoing problem, but over time it causes us to be increasingly sensitive to perceived threats, shifting us even more readily into fight/flight/freeze states that, in turn, rev up our sensitivity even more.
The value of gratitude journaling came up repeatedly during the week, and this made me think about the Mindful Writing series that have been offered by a couple of guys from Washington College here at The Seed House (more about that in a minute). I was also intrigued that Nancy Illman who is teaching a monthly yoga class integrating essential oils that support the theme of the class chose as her November topic: Gratitude—See the Gift in Your Obstacles (learn more here or on MindBody. I know Thanksgiving is coming, and just around the corner behind that is a month preoccupied with gift-giving, so this might not be kind of convergence of events but the interplay of timing and the attention I am paying to enrich my comprehension of the connections between mind and body and practice.
A physician teaching at the IFM course recounted her healing journey after being diagnosed with a particularly difficult form of breast cancer shortly after starting practice at the age of 30. In her rear view mirror, her gratitude journal looms large as a major factor in her recovery. She was really bitter about the unfairness of her diagnosis, and there was something powerful about finding one thing to be grateful for every day and writing that down. What shifts? What do we allow when we think AND write? Nosing around a little bit, I found Robert Emmons, Ph.D. whose career is dedicated to understanding gratitude. Besides the benefits accrued to the individual who practices it (maybe just by writing down 5 things s/he is grateful for each week), he identifies it as a relationship-strengthening, social emotion because “it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”
Back to mindful writing. Dan Teano introduced mindful writing at The Seed House last year, and John Linderman picked it up this year, having experienced it as a powerful and life altering practice with Dan last year. John told me that he’d run into Dan on his way from a memorial service for another Washington College student who had committed suicide last spring and was understandably sad. Dan was on his way to The Seed House when they crossed paths that day, and Dan invited him to join the group and possibly find a place to digest the loss, be among others. John was hooked. Unlke other writing support groups in which the writers share their work, this is more of an interior experience undertaking in the presence and support of a group and place. Topics are offered to structure a stream of consciousness type of writing (I know, that sounds like an oxymoron), but paired with some meditative practices, people have found this to be a safe and amazing way to get ideas down on paper, to reconsider long held assumptions, and to have ways to free the pen on the page. This is not gratitude journaling per se, but they’re not mutually exclusive endeavors. We’ll be re-booting John’s beautiful mindful writing series. You can sign up here on MindBody or here. Surprise yourself, find the gifts in your obstacles.
You can learn more about benefits such as better sleep, decreased blood pressure, more balanced immune response, and positive emotions associated with writing down even 5 things a week for which you are grateful here.