Author and Medical Researcher, Dr. Esther Sternberg
Who she is: Internationally recognized for her discoveries of the science of the mind-body interaction in illness and healing, Dr. Esther Sternberg has become a force in collaborative initiatives on mind-body-stress-wellness and environment inter-relationships.
What she does: Her books, Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being, and The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, are informative and scientifically based inspirations to doctors and laymen alike in dealing with the complexities and 21st century frontiers of stress, healing, and wellness.
Why she does it: Having studied, and experienced, the science of healing for decades, Dr. Sternberg has an intimate relationship with the art and science of what it means to journey from illness to wellness. “I went through a period of extreme stress when my mother was dying from breast cancer, and soon after I developed inflammatory arthritis. It involved my shoulders, elbows, and wrists, and based on my research, I attributed the illness to the emotional pain I had lived through. Suddenly, too, I understood in a very personal way—and at a level far deeper than I had when I was looking at the intellectual, scientific mind-body connection—exactly what it meant to be ill, and to try to heal yourself.”
DISCOVERING THE POWER TO HEAL YOURSELF
Does the world make you sick? If so, can the distractions and distortions around you, the jarring colors and sounds, shake up the healing chemistry of your mind—and have the power to heal you?
Following is our interview with the medical researcher, who is credited with helping illuminate the possible underlying mechanisms for connections between stress, depression and autoimmune disease.
Be Inkandescent: Dr. Sternberg, you had a personal experience with healing when you developed arthritis shortly after caring for your mother when she was dying from breast cancer. Can you tell us more about what you learned from your own bout with illness, and how it deepened your understanding of the mind-body connection?
Dr. Sternberg: I went through a period of extreme stress when my mother was dying from breast cancer, and soon after I developed inflammatory arthritis. It involved my shoulders, elbows, and wrists, and based on my research, I attributed the illness to the emotional pain I had lived through. Suddenly, too, I understood in a very personal way—and at a level far deeper than I had when I was looking at the intellectual, scientific mind-body connection—exactly what it meant to be ill, and to try to heal yourself.
The good news is that around the time, I moved into a new house and my neighbors were Greek. They came over to introduce themselves and saw that I was writing on the computer what was to be my first book, “The Balance Within.” They told me they had always wanted a writer to stay in their cottage in Crete, and did I want to go.
I accompanied them, of course, and it was a life-altering experience to stay in their lovely cottage, located in a village along the south coast. I was there for only a little more than a week, but day-by-day, I could palpably feel myself healing.
At first I was tired and didn’t really want to do anything but sit around and sleep. I was afraid to walk very much, because my knees felt unstable. But the couple’s daughter changed all that. She was about 20, and asked me if I’d accompany her to the beach. I was hesitant at first, because that would require quite a long walk along uneven ground, and I wasn’t feeling very steady on my feet.
Then she told me that she was blind in one eye, and needed help getting to the beach. So cheesy as it sounds, we agreed that she’d be my legs and I’d be her eyes. As much as the Heidi story as it sounds, that young woman gave me the courage to walk—slowly at first, but every day we made our way to the beach together, and it was the first step in my healing process.
Another wonderful experience came soon after when I met an elderly Greek man who I learned was in the advanced stages of prostate cancer. Despite that, every single day he’d climb a steep hill to get to our little cottage, which was on his way to his ultimate destination—the chapel that was built on top of the ruins to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. And every day of my stay, on his way up to that chapel, he’d stop by to give me a grapefruit or orange.
After a few days of watching him do this, I figured that if he could make the climb, surely I could do it, too. And that got me going. I’d climb to the steps of that chapel where I’d sit and contemplate. I listened to the sound of the sheep and goats and the wind, and the scritch-scratch of the gardener tending the grounds. I didn’t realize I was meditating, but rather felt a deep state of calm as I was present in the moment, aware of nature, and the places and beautiful sites around me.
The love and kindness I experienced there is also an example of the power of being surrounded by altruistic friends, and how that is so connected to our healing. That, plus the walking every day, swimming in the ocean, listening to music, and eating the healthy Mediterranean diet, are activities that can really help you heal.
Be Inkandescent: Making those healthy changes in your life did help you heal, yes?
Dr. Sternberg: They did! My ah-ha moment came at the end of my stay, when it was clear that if I continued on the road I was on at home—working 24-7 and eating cheeseburgers and fries, and not exercising, I’d never get well. I knew I had to make a change, and since my return from Greece all those years ago, I have made dramatic changes and am much, much better for them.
Be Inkandescent: What does your day look like today?
Dr. Sternberg: I start off quietly, sitting in the sunroom I built on my back patio so I can have plants around me year-round. I take time to contemplate my day, and my life, as I did sitting at the chapel in Crete. I also swim almost every day, and if I can’t, I make an effort to walk every day for about 30 minutes—which has been shown to reduce the effects of chronic stress on the body, and improves one’s mood.
I also eat a healthy Mediterranean diet, which I wasn’t doing when I got sick. These include foods high in Omega-3, such as salmon, shrimp, scallops, tuna, and halibut, sardines, soybeans, tofu, flaxseed, and walnuts. I also eat Greek yogurt, lots of salads, and fresh vegetables and fruit.
Plus, pretty much the only fat I really eat is olive oil, for researchers — including my colleague and friend Dr. Gary Beauchamp — are discovering that its link to an ibuprofen-like chemical may be one of the reasons that the Mediterranean diet is so good for you. Click here for my Q&A with Gary on that topic.
Be Inkandescent: In your PBS documentary, “The Science of Healing,” you examine the role the brain plays in healing, and address some critical questions, such as: What is healing? Is there a mind/body connection? What happens in the brain when healing occurs? What role does emotion play? Tell us the most shocking, or enlightening, thing that you discovered in your research.
Dr. Sternberg: One of the biggest misconceptions is that most people equate healing with curing. In truth, curing an illness or ailment is something that is very different than healing.
That said, it’s clear that healing means different things to different people. In fact, the experts in the healing community say you can die healed. So to me, healing really is a state of mind. It’s being at peace with yourself and your illness, and accepting it for what it is.
Once you find this emotional completeness of being healed, it’s all the more possible to be cured. But that also depends on the illness. If you have terminal cancer, odds are good a cure is not possible. Nonetheless, people who are dying will often say they feel healed.
I had a healing myself, when finally I understood in a personal, palpable way the difference between going on with my day-to-day routine of taking anti-inflammatory pills, and dragging myself around, versus actually healing myself and making changes in my life. What I have come to know is that healing is an emotional connection to yourself, your loved ones, and the world around you. It gives you a sense of peace that’s very Buddhist. It’s an acceptance—but not a giving up.
Be Inkandescent: Your first book, “The Balance Within,” examines the science connecting health and emotions. In the final chapter, entitled “Prometheus Unbound,” you note that this connection “may sound like utopia, and perhaps be too much to expect from science. But if this new science accomplishes one single thing, it will help physicians speak the language of their patients, and listen to them.” Clearly, this was a problem when you published the book in 2001. But in the last decade, have you found that doctors are more open to the idea of the mind-body connection? If so, how?
Dr. Sternberg: The hard biological scientists are still coming around to this now, but other “green” industries—landscape architects, environmentalists, green building designers, urban planners—have long known about the importance of creating beautiful spaces to enhance our well-being.
Scientists, however, have been looking for evidence to prove that your surroundings are essential for good physical health. Although the notions have been around for a long time, there wasn’t one central place to go to prove it. In my books, I have tried to bridge the gap by gathering the evidence from the fields of neuroscience, sensory neuroscience, and immunology, to show how different environmental features are extremely important in providing a positive—or negative—environment for healing.
Be Inkandescent: What are the ideal settings for healing?
Dr. Sternberg: Places with lots of noise, too much light, too little light, and so forth, can harm an ill patient by triggering the stress response. While the data was out there, the studies in say, 2000, weren’t designed to investigate how the environmental heals.
By and large, we in the scientific medical community have embraced the idea of the mind-body connection. Our challenge now is to bring that understanding to our patients in more profound ways, and initiate what we now call integrative medicine in all of our offices, clinics, hospice centers, and hospitals.
It’s not an alternative, but how medicine should be done—by taking into account people’s emotions, and finding ways to enhance their senses. It’s a very exciting time in medicine. Image above, of the Anne Arundel Medical Center, of the calming healing wall by artist Sally Wern Comport; courtesy of her company, Art At Large, Inc.
Be Inkandescent: In your 2009 book, “Healing Spaces,” you tackle another aspect of the mind-body connection when you talk about how your surroundings impact wellness and health. You write: “Does the world make you sick? If the distractions and distortions around you, the jarring colors and sounds, could shake up the healing chemistry of your mind, might your surroundings also have the power to heal you?” Please tell us more about this premise, and how yoga and sitting by the sea, and living and working in a beautiful bright room, can affect how quickly we heal.
Dr. Sternberg: The bottom line about healing yourself is that we all have the wonderful opportunity to find our own healing spaces everywhere in the world. I have recreated a little piece of Greece in my sunroom. But your healing space might be in a garden at your church, at a special spot near where you work, or under a tree in your backyard.
The result is great for all of us because, increasingly, healing gardens and artful spaces are being built in public places—in parks and hospitals, schools, hotels, and office complexes. Healing wall by, pictured above, by Sally Wern Comport, Art At Large, Inc.
The magic of a healing space is that it makes you feel at peace. It’s a place where you can sit, relax, and get in touch with the natural world that surrounds you. This is how you heal yourself.
Be Inkandescent: It sounds as if, from your own experience in researching this topic, and having an illness yourself, there’s a balance that must be struck in our lives.
Dr. Sternberg: Most definitely. And I can tell you that I am fortunate in that when I got sick, I plugged myself into an NIH program that tested my genes. I also had a knee biopsy to tell me more, and now I know scientifically that I have a gene that predisposes me to mild to moderate inflammatory arthritis.
From that point of view, I am very fortunate to realize that I don’t have a lot of genes that predispose me to severe autoimmune disease.
That said, I also know from experience that lifestyle can change the balance in terms of whether you get sick or not—and how sick you get depending on the illness you develop.
In my case, the load of genes that I have is manageable—so long as I take care of myself. When I feel myself overdoing it, stretching it, and getting really stressed, I know to pull back. About a decade into it, I know what will trigger me into a relapse, and I can pull myself back from the brink.
But I’m only human. I lapse into not swimming every day, but one thing I want to make clear to everyone is that if you can’t do it—if you can’t heal yourself—don’t feel guilty. It could be that you carry too large of a load of bad genes, and that you simply can’t heal without medication.
Indeed, that’s why we have medication—and that’s why we call it integrative medicine. There are various approaches that couple healing strategies with advances in pharmacological care, and the combination of those two essential tools is the key to healing more people.
Be Inkandescent: Last, but not least, can you share with our readers a few of the most effective things they can do to heal what ails them?
Dr. Sternberg: Absolutely. Here are four of my favorite ways to heal myself, and I think these tips are universal.
1. Stimulate your five senses.
What gives your senses pleasure? Is it a bouquet of flowers? Is it a beautiful view? Is it pictures of your family? There is a physician in Ireland, professor Sean McCann at Trinity College in Dublin, who brought bone marrow transplants to his country. In treating his patients, he realized that to truly heal, they need to be comfortable and calm. So he created a project called Open Window. He set up webcams and worked with artists, art curators, and art historians to develop a menu of images that patients would like to look at. In addition to modern and ancient art, they’d tell him they wanted to see images of their family, or nature—of animals grazing, like cows and horses. They also liked pictures of canoes going down the water with the landscape going by. These are hypnotic and relaxing, and he made it possible. So do your own self-interview, and ask yourself: what would you like to look at, taste, touch, smell, and hear? Then surround yourself with all of those beautiful things.
2. Go offline, literally and figuratively, to escape from your daily grind.
Go snorkeling or hiking, or take a walk in your favorite park. Or, like me, just go sit in your sunroom each morning. Start with a simple mindfulness meditation three days a week. Sit in a beautiful place, calm yourself down, and breathe. Do it for five minutes for a week, then add additional minutes in week two. Believe it or not, it’ll become a great way to spend a bit of time each day.
3. Begin a healthy diet and exercise program.
Eat all the things you know you should—fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, a little meat, and use olive oil. It’s easier than you think. And once a day, swim, walk, ride a bike (in your house or outdoors), or run. Just move your body, and you’ll see the benefits of a calmer mind, and healthier body, in a very short period of time.
4. Surround yourself with people you love—and people who love you.
Friends and family members are great healers, so don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. Odds are good that even if you don’t ask, those who love you will show up when you need them to. This is especially important if you are a chronic caregiver, surround yourself with others who can help take the burden off of you. Remember, you don’t want to run yourself into the ground, or you won’t be there to help your loved ones.
For more information about Dr. Esther Sternberg, visit www.esthersternberg.com.