Expert Series: Dr Louella Crawford on the mind/body connection in healing
Fourteen years ago, when Dr Louella Crawford was being treated for Stage III breast cancer, she had a “full frontal” realisation – the mind plays an enormous role in your health.
She started to meditate, to have massages, and embarked on more study – enrolling in an arts degree majoring in philosophy of the mind and an advanced diploma in holistic counselling and psychotherapy.
“Fascinated by how the mind is involved in health, I began reading widely on everything I could get my hands on to do with psychology, the role of religion in health, spirituality, quantum physics, physics, quantum biology, neurobiology, neuroplasticity, neuroscience, psychoneuroimmunology, and epigenetics,” said Dr Crawford.
“Medicine is very objective. It’s about fixing things that can be measured and observed and is pharmacologically focused.
“Few doctors have the time to really inquire about what’s happening more broadly in a patient’s life… how is it for you, what is happening at home, what’s going on? And by and large they don’t recognise that stress, or more importantly how one deals with the vagaries of being human and having human experiences – good or bad – affects health. That is changing, but very slowly.
“I was looking for a bridge that spoke the language of science (medicine) and the wonderful and complex story of a person’s inner life… for want of a better word, ‘The Spirit’,” said Dr Crawford.
Evidence-based studies on the benefits of meditation
“Some interested scientists and doctors decided there was something to meditation but realised no one would take an eastern spiritual practice seriously unless there were some tangible studies.”
According to Dr Crawford, there are now thousands of “good studies” on the effects of meditation on all kinds of people, from beginner meditators to Buddhist monks and nuns. Using fMRI machines that look at functional brain anatomy, and EEGs (electroencephalography), measuring brain waves, they have found definitively that meditation changes the brain.
“What these studies show is that meditation, and as little as 10 minutes a day for three weeks, actually changes a lot of parameters physiologically including the way your brain functions1,” she said.
Meditation has been proven to reduce depression and anxiety, and increase empathy, compassion and meaning in life. It increases the depth of grey matter and changes brain waves, increasing coherence. It also increases high-level thinking and the capacity to focus.
Meditation boosts your immune system
“I think what is interesting and important for people who have a cancer, is that meditation actually changes your immune system and been found to increase the number of natural T-killer cells (a type of white blood cell) and one of their functions is to mop up metastatic cancer.
“Meditation also reduces inflammation and there’s a lot of science indicating inflammation is possibly the underlying pathogenesis (development) of many illnesses including cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
“Meditation also reduces pulse rate and blood pressure, and a small but good study of Afro-Americans practising transcendental meditation showed it reduced the incidence of heart attack and stroke by 30%.
“So here we have a practice that is not only free, it has no side-effects, and as a medication, it does an enormous amount of good,” said Dr Crawford.
“If meditation was a drug, you’d have pharmaceutical companies falling over each other trying to get it to market.”
Stress reduces and meditation increases telomerase levels
In 2009, Tasmanian-born Elizabeth Blackburn won a Nobel Prize for discovering an enzyme, called telomerase, that repairs the telomeres2 on the ends of DNA. As we age, our telomeres shorten.
Prof. Blackburn teamed up with psychiatrist, Elissa Epel, who had a theory that stress might have a role in reducing the level of telomerase. Together, they designed a study showing that stress actually did reduce the level of telomerase, which Dr Crawford described as “paradigm changing”.
“Not content with this, they then decided to see if reducing stress via meditation actually increased telomerase levels. They looked at two groups of people – those who meditated and those who didn’t,” said Dr Crawford.
“The results were stunning. Not only did meditation increase telomerase levels, it also reduced neuroticism (the propensity to worry constantly), increased mindfulness (living in the present moment; a very spiritual attribute) and increased one’s sense of meaning in life. Meaning4 can be the simplest moment or action in life; something that gives a person a reason to go on despite the most terrible circumstances.
“What was even more extraordinary was that the increased levels of telomerase were purely and directly related to an increased sense of meaning in life. In other words, having a sense of meaning in life increases the repair of our DNA.
“To me this is an absolutely extraordinary and significant study3 that directly links the qualitative spiritual value of our inner world with our objective measurable physiology.
“How wonderful would it be to combine and marry treatment of our measurable physical problems with understanding and caring for our amazing complex inner worlds? The best of everything… that’s the way forward. It’s not an either/or thing,” said Dr Crawford.
Positive psychology, resilience and spontaneous remission
More than 20 years ago, in the U.S., Marc Barasch and Caryle Hirschberg5, were fascinated by the concept of spontaneous remission from cancer; when someone outlives a dire cancer diagnosis by many, many years or completely recovers.
Their study on spontaneous remission found a series of human qualities, including resilience, termed ‘hardiness’ in 1979 by Suzanne Kobasa, one of the first people to look at positive psychology. These qualities enabled people to respond appropriately and cope under stress.
They had a sense of control about how they responded to a situation (different to being a control freak); they lived wholehearted lives (they had spiritual qualities like gratitude, forgiveness, living in the present moment, a sense of awe); they had a sense of meaning in life, and they had a sense of not feeling alone… in other words, they felt connected to something, be it friends, family, animals, the divine, or even nature.
“What I find fascinating,” said Dr Crawford, “is the huge crossover here between the study of positive psychology and resilience, and what they found in spontaneous remission in cancer”.
Dr Crawford now works as a GP concentrating on mind/body medicine through the practise of ‘process work’6 – a form of psychotherapy that sprang from Carl Jung’s work and believes the mind and body are not separate, but simply different sides of the same coin.
“The more I practise, the more I absolutely know this to be true… the mind and the body are completely in sync. Obviously, it’s also what you eat, whether you exercise and what genetic predispositions you have.
Epigenetics and our DNA
“I focus on trying to speak the language of science and there is now an overwhelming number of studies in the area of psychoneuroimmunology that joins up psychology, the immune system and neurology, as well as epigenetics that says genes aren’t the only things that determine people’s health.
“Bruce Lipton7, one of the pioneers of epigenetics, says our beliefs, thoughts and feelings are entwined and affect the expression of our DNA.
“Epigenetics teaches that the DNA is like a set of architect’s plans that needs a builder to decide which parts of the plans to implement. This is incredibly empowering, to think that we may have some input or control over the expression of our DNA,” said Dr Crawford.
“Epigenetics is a burgeoning field that needs to be incorporated into medicine. It explains and looks at how we interact with our environment on every level, including nutrition, exercise, thoughts, beliefs and feelings, and how these affect the expression of our DNA.
“Nothing is the complete answer… it’s a very broad collection of a whole lot of things.
“In my practice, I advise people to meditate, but you’ve got to do the work on the stuff that you bring with you, and we’ve all got it – baggage.
“I have lots of anecdotes about people who changed how they viewed the world and how they existed within the world and environment, and it made a dramatic difference to both their psychological wellbeing and health.
Louella’s personal experience with cancer
“For me, it took the drama of being diagnosed with cancer before I thought – what’s going on here?
“I felt very grief-stricken on a whole series of levels. I’d get in the shower every morning because it was the only place I could cry without upsetting my children and husband.
“I was lucky. Friends gave me interesting books such as The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying8 and intriguing books on the mysteries of quantum physics. These stimulated my interest in areas of thought I never knew existed and began my quest into understanding the mysteries of our minds.
Finding peace enables healing
“However, it’s those hidden emotions – sadness, grief, anger, powerlessness, etc., and their expression that is the beginning of what is not an easy journey, but one that is so important to take… to find the peace that, at the end of the day, is all any of us wants. It is my belief that it is this peace that also allows our physical body to function and heal as best it can.
“I began to listen to myself and to my intuition, and to do what did and didn’t feel right for me. I learnt to say “no”. This is not being selfish, as we so often think – it’s about self-care.
“Before cancer, I always did what other people wanted me to do. I was completely disconnected to my own inner world and never listened to what I wanted or what I felt.
“I went into my healing space, and if people rang me and said, ‘can I come and visit you?’, I’d think to myself, I don’t have to say ‘yes’ to this, so I could say ‘no’ without guilt. And it was like – oh my god, this is so fabulous. I’d never realised you could say ‘no’ and it felt so good.
“Of course, this was my journey. Everyone has a different path to travel but whatever it is, it’s important.
“The difference between me now, and 14 years ago, is the awareness I have about my mind.
“In my practice, I teach three things that you need:
1. Awareness about how you exist in the world (this is where my practise as a psychotherapist is enormously helpful)
2. A will to want to change, and
3. You’ve got to practise it.
“Practise is what changes your brain and your physiology.
“In my view, how we exist within and respond to our world and environment, and how we incorporate every aspect of our mental and physical worlds, including our genetic makeup, nutrition and exercise, is what determines our health.
“And that is what science is starting to tell us. This is a truly holistic approach to living a long, healthy and happy life.”
Here are some mindful meditations – simple guided exercises – for people with cancer.