Relationships and Recovery

THE RECOVERY GROUP

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RELATIONSHIPS AND HEALTH

Did you know that there is scientific proof that relationships affect our physical health .... that love heals???

Dr. Dean Ornish is best known for showing that heart disease can be halted and even reversed through a stringent program of exercise, a very low-fat, whole-foods diet, and stress-reduction methods such as meditation and support groups. In his new book, Love & Survival, Ornish contends that heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses -- even the very length of our lives -- are influenced for better or for worse by the quality and quantity of our relationships with others.

Dr. Ornish discussed this in this short article with an editor from Amazon and I thought it was interesting to learn that loneliness, isolation, alienation, and depression are not just issues that we compulsive eaters deal with ... but that these are almost epidemic in our society.

Here is the conversation between the Amazon editor and Dr. Ornish. I'm going to put this in our Shared Files section and would like to encourage each of you if you run across something that would be helpful to our members for you to do the same. You reach Shared Files by logging on www.egroups.com and clicking Files on the left.

Ben Kallen: It's pretty much accepted that reducing stress is good for our immune systems. But you say we don't just have to reduce stress to be healthier, but to improve our personal relationships as well.

Dean Ornish: In Love and Survival, I talk about issues that go beyond stress. What I want readers to understand is that people who feel lonely, depressed, and isolated have three to five times the rate of premature death and disease from virtually all causes when compared to those who have a sense of love and connection and community in their lives.

Amazon.com: Do you think we've lost the sense of community we once had?

Ornish: There's been a radical shift in our culture in the last 50 years. Loneliness, isolation, alienation, and depression are just rampant in our society. That's why we're facing an epidemic not just of physical heart disease, but what I call emotional and spiritual heart disease. In part, this is due to the breakdown of the neighborhood, the extended family, the church or synagogue, a stable job--all the things that used to give people a sense of connection and community. And while most people realize that we've lost something from the quality of our lives as a result of this, the studies I review in my book show that it also affects the quantity of our lives, our survival.

One study showed, for example, that asking two simple questions before someone underwent open-heart surgery could help predict the outcome. Those questions are: Do you draw strength from your religious faith, whatever that faith might be? And do you have a group of people you meet with regularly, whether it's a church, a synagogue, a civic group, or even a bowling league? Six months after surgery, those who had answered no to both questions had a seven-times higher rate of death. I don't know any other factor in medicine that could affect survival seven-fold.

Amazon.com: Have you found that people can learn to connect with others and have better relationships once they start to try?

Ornish: They can--that's what's exciting. My hope is that as people start to understand these issues, we may have the courage to risk becoming more open to each other, to take the time to spend with each other, to look out for each other. You can only be intimate with someone to the degree that you're willing to make yourself emotionally vulnerable to them. And many people don't want to do that because they're afraid they'll get hurt. But if you understand the consequences of not doing it, then it might make you more willing to take the risk. Research shows that just a few steps down these paths may make a powerful difference in our well-being and in how long we live. In one study at Stanford University, women with metastatic breast cancer were randomly divided into two groups. Both groups got the same chemotherapy and radiation and surgery, but in addition, one group met together once a week in a support group. Five years later, it turned out that the women in the support group lived twice as long. I almost fell off my chair when I saw those data.

Amazon.com: Have you heard people say, "I'm not ready for new relationships, I don't have time for support groups--just give me a pill, and let me go on my way?"

Ornish: We have lots of ways in our culture to "take pills"--we smoke or overeat or drink too much or work too hard, or we channel-surf or spend too much time on the Internet. We have lots of ways of numbing pain and distracting ourselves from pain. But if you just try to numb the pain without paying attention to it and trying to learn from it, it's a little bit like clipping the wires to a fire alarm and going back to sleep while your house burns. You really haven't addressed the problem.

Pain itself can be transformative. I've had patients say things like, "Having a heart attack was the best thing that ever happened to me." Which on the surface sounds kind of crazy, but what they're really saying is, "If I hadn't gone through that experience and that much pain, I never would have been motivated enough to make these changes which have made my life so much more meaningful."

Amazon.com: Are you finding that doctors are becoming more willing to accept the idea of emotional well-being as an essential part of healing and incorporate it into their practices?

Ornish: Twenty years ago, when I began doing research on heart disease, the idea that it was reversible in many cases was considered a radical concept; now it's become much more mainstream. And I think the same will be true with this new book. While some people might question it, if you look at the studies I quote, they're quite compelling.

Of course, in these days of managed care, even doctors who want to spend time talking about the underlying emotional and spiritual dimensions of health don't have the time to do so. If you have to see a new patient every eight minutes, you won't have a chance to talk about how things are going at home. That's why so many people are seeking out alternative medical practitioners--because they're not getting that sense of caring from their traditional doctors, and alternative practitioners tend to spend time with patients and listen.

Amazon.com: Can you sum up the most important changes people can make in order to live longer, healthier lives?

Ornish: To the degree you can, try to eat a diet consisting primarily of fruits and vegetables, grains and beans. Walk, meditate, quit smoking. And learn to open your heart to other people. These are simple choices we make in our daily lives, but the effect they have on our health and our well-being can be extremely powerful.

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