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Getting Well And Staying Well

Shannon Harvey

The first thing I am often asked after someone sees The Connection is 'so are you well now?'   The answer is yes?   The next thing I am asked is 'what did you do?'  

The answer is that it's not what I did, but what I continue to do.   It's been nearly 10 years since I was first told I had what the doctor suspected was Lupus and a 3 year journey to make the film. Over that time I have learned that the latest science has proven that when it comes to my health, balancing my mind and body is as essential as the air I breathe. These days I am really well and I don't need to take any medication. How? Why?  

At the time I fell ill I was working as a news journalist on hourly deadlines, living away from my family and friends. Although I was very food conscious and eating a plant based, plus fish diet as well as exercising regularly, the mental side of my life was way out of balance. There were people in my life going through very difficult times and I had invested myself in their troubles. I felt their pain and took on their worries but there was nothing I could do to change them or fix their problems.  

When I got sick I went for seemingly endless blood tests and sat in countless waiting rooms as doctors ran late and gave me 15 minutes of their time, some never even looking up from their computers to look me in the eye.  The medical system was draining and despite diligently taking the medication they prescribed, I didn't get better. Autoimmune disease runs in my family. I am genetically predisposed to falling ill and looking back and knowing what I now know about the impact long term stress can have on our health and the importance of feeling supported in a loving community and even the impact the words a medical professional can have in our health outcomes, I now see that I was in the perfect position to not only to get sick, but to get even more sick.  

I knew one thing. The more I felt stressed, the worse I felt. I intuitively knew there had to be a connection. As I started researching the science of mind body medicine, it prompted me to make small shifts to restore balance. I introduced a regular yoga practice. (Countless research papers find that yoga is good not only for overall mental balance and fitness but also can impact our health right down to a cellular level)  I started writing. (The work of Dr. James Pennebaker about the health benefits of focused writing is compelling and shows that it leads to fewer visits to a doctor and improved immune function.) I moved back to Sydney where my family and friends were so I could surround myself in a loving supportive community as per the research findings of people like Dr. David Spiegel. I changed my job from having to meet daily deadlines and started my own business so that I could determine my own hours. And while running a small business came with a whole new level of  challenges (and still does), there was something about being in control of my business that meant those challenges were less stressful.  

But it wasn't until I started meditating regularly that the real change in my health came. I knew that the science of meditation was compelling. Just to start with, world-leading neuroscientists like Dr. Richard Davidson are looking at the positive changes in brain structure that arise from meditation. The work of people like Dr. Sara Lazar at Harvard is showing the region of the brain responsible for our stress response shrinks over time when we meditate. But I had told myself that I couldn't do it. My mind was too busy. I felt uncomfortable every time I tried and didn't enjoy it. Then I came across the work of Dr. Craig Hassed. He talks about not trying to get into a meditative state. He talks about practicing just being. And if just being meant that my mind was busy and active. That was ok. He says that over time, quieting the mind gets easier, but that like anything, you need to practice to get better. I decided to give meditation a real go.  I traveled to India and did a yoga and meditation retreat where I practiced every day. By the end, I not only felt like I could meditate. But I felt like I needed to meditate.  

Within 6 weeks of the retreat, all my autoimmune disease symptoms were gone. There was no pain in my body at all. Soon after that my husband and I were delighted to discover that I had surprisingly become pregnant. People with autoimmune issues can often have trouble conceiving and here we were pregnant, by happy accident.  I meditated all through the pregnancy, which was also when we went into production on the film. And despite the film being the biggest challenge I'd faced in my professional life and the difficulties that come with making a feature film were by no means small, the meditation made all the difference.  

When I look at my life now and compare it to what it was before, it's like looking at a different person. The health benefits I receive from putting in to practice mind body techniques are just the start. I am less emotionally responsive to life's challenges. I am less invested in other people's problems. I feel more balanced. I feel more focused and more productive. And while I'm not perfect and still have what I call 'flare ups' from time to time where my joints and muscles ache and I feel exhausted, these flare ups always coincide with a period in my life when I am not meditating and practicing regular yoga. It's like clock work.  

For me now, practicing techniques to balance my mind and body is not an optional extra that I should do more. These techniques are things I must do. If I don't, I have no doubt that my immune symptoms will return. I don't want to live the prescription given to me by that first doctor I saw who warned I could end up in a wheelchair or with organ failure. As Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn told me, 'We have more to say over how healthy we will be than even our doctors'.


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