Dr. Dean Ornish Headshot

Shining a Light in the Darkness

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Dr. Dean Ornish Headshot

Shining a Light in the Darkness

Posted: Updated:

Although many people believe that the primary emphasis of my work is about diet, it's not. What we eat is important, of course, but what comes out of our mouth may be more important than what goes into it.

Intimacy is healing. Study after study have shown that people who feel lonely, depressed, and isolated are three to 10 times more likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who have strong experiences and networks of connection and community.

In part, this is because people who feel lonely and depressed are more likely to overeat, drink too much, smoke cigarettes, and abuse themselves. As a patient once told me, "I've got 20 friends in this package of cigarettes; they're always there for me, and no one else is. You want me to give up my 20 friends? What are you going to give me instead?" In part, it's via mechanisms that are not fully understood, but are real.

There has been a radical shift in our social networks during the past 25 years. We all know that this affects the quality of our lives, but it also affects the quantity of our lives -- our survival. I don't know any other factor -- including diet and smoking -- that has a more powerful effect on our health, well-being, and longevity.

The need for love and intimacy is a fundamental human need, as primal as the need for food, water, and air. Yet because of the breakdown of social networks in the past 25 years, this need often goes unfulfilled.

In business, when you can meet an unmet need that is this primal, even meeting it in a superficial way can create a multi-billion-dollar business, e.g., the chat rooms in AOL when it first came out, or the lounges in Starbucks, or the billion people who are on Facebook, even though these are hardly the most intimate of life experiences.

Trust leads to intimacy, which leads to healing and meaning. We can only be intimate to the degree we can make ourselves vulnerable. But when we open our hearts, we can get hurt. So in the absence of social networks that feel safe -- an extended family, a stable neighborhood you've lived in for years, a church or synagogue, a job that feels secure -- it's easy to keep our walls and emotional defenses up all the time.

If we have nowhere that feels safe enough to let down these defenses, and no one we trust enough to open our hearts, then the same walls that protect us can also isolate us if they're always up. Ironically, what we think protects us may actually threaten our survival.

In our research and in our clinical programs for reversing heart disease and other chronic illnesses, patients come for four-hour sessions. They receive an hour of supervised exercise, an hour of stress management techniques (yoga and meditation), an hour of a group meal with lecture, and an hour-long support group.

When we're willing to acknowledge and talk openly about our errors, it frees us from the stress, anger, guilt, shame, and humiliation, allowing us to see things more clearly and to avoid making new ones.

In my first study, conducted 35 years ago, I put 10 men and women with severe heart disease in a hotel for 30 days and gave them the support to follow this program of comprehensive lifestyle changes. At that time, I envisioned the support group as a place where they could exchange recipes, types of running shoes, and other advice to help them stay on the diet, exercise, and stress management techniques.

What I soon realized is that I had inadvertently created a powerful community. Over time, I learned to help create an environment in which it felt safe for people to let down their emotional defenses and to talk openly and authentically about what was really going on in their lives.

Our feelings connect us. So, we encourage people to pay attention to what they're really feeling (not what they think they should be feeling) and to express those feelings to others in the group. People listen carefully, then share what feelings this brings up for them. Everything is completely confidential, as feeling safe is essential to this process working.

For example, one man said, "I may look like the perfect father, but my son is on heroin." Instead of replying, "Oh, why don't you send him to a drug rehab program?" which would only make the man feel even more isolated, someone else replied, "I used to have a drug problem." Another person said, "My daughter just got her third DUI." And so on.

Suddenly, you don't feel so alone and ashamed. The son still has a heroin problem, the daughter still has her DUIs, but now you have more compassion for yourself and those you love.

This experience is so powerful that many people in our support group continue to meet years, even decades, after the study ends.

When you grow up in an extended family, or in a stable neighborhood with two or three generations of families who live there, you feel seen. Not just the good things you've done, the stuff you put on your resume. You know they've seen you in your dark times, when you've messed up -- but they're still there. As in the movie, Avatar, "I see you."

In that spirit, Dr. Brian Goldman's TEDTalk is not just interesting, it's powerfully healing. "Healing" comes from the root "to make whole." "Yoga" derives from the Sanskrit meaning "to yoke, to unite, to bring together, union." He has the courage to shine a light in the darkness, to share his mistakes as well as his failures. This gives other health professionals permission to do the same.

Paradoxically, when we're willing to acknowledge and talk openly about our errors, it frees us from the stress, anger, guilt, shame, and humiliation -- which are the most toxic emotions -- allowing us to see things more clearly and to avoid making new ones.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email tedweekends@huffingtonpost.com to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.