The following is a conversation I recently had with Eva M. Selhub, M.D., author of The Love Response (Ballantine 2009) and co-author of Your Brain on Nature (Wiley 2012). Dr. Selhub has lectured throughout the United States and Europe and has trained health care professionals from all over the world. She's a clinical associate of the Benson Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and an integrative medicine specialist in Waltham, Mass.
How did you decide to pursue the mind-body side of medicine?
I was interested in what it was that we could do as individuals to control our health. I was always curious but I was never pushed into looking into the answers until I had my own experience with allopathic medicine. My own experiences with suffering led me to see how allopathic medicine wasn't enough -- it was just treating symptoms. Then I started working for the Mind/Body Institute in Boston, and in 2002 I began studying Eastern medicine. Now I've come up with my own system of healing that's a combination of the methods I've studied.
Allopathic medicine is like putting a Band-Aid on if you're bleeding, but you also need to find out why you were bleeding in the first place!
Everybody is different. How they approach illness is different. Ultimately it's finding homeostasis for each person. People think perfection is not having illness, but really I think it's learning to live with what we've been given and to do that well.
How would you define health?
When the mind-body system is in as much balance as possible. If it's in balance, you experience happiness. Health is feeling good and feeling happy. But most people don't know when their body is not in a state of balance.
You wrote a book called, The Love Response. Can you explain the "Love Response" theory and how you landed on it?
Physiologically, your body experiences what you think and feel as a human being. The stress response occurs when you're being threatened. When you break it down to emotions, every time you're in a negative emotion it can cause illness if it goes on too long. Most people don't know this so they remain in that negative state. When you bring in a positive emotion, that's an indication that the body is in a state of health. So positive emotions like love and joy and trust give you better access to the healing responses your body naturally has.
Love was something I experienced when I was suffering, and in that state I realized it was the same feeling I had when I was meditating. Love brings about that physiological state and brings about allostasis, or the process of achieving stability.
I can relate to that. As a Christian Science practitioner I've seen the benefits of prayer-based healing. Prayer tends to draw me closer to the divine, as Love itself, and to the good that spiritual understanding naturally brings to my life. I actually think of prayer not as a means of getting health, but as an expression of health. It helps to bring out those positive emotions you mentioned -- to be kinder to my neighbor, to feel gratitude and joy, to love more consistently in my life.
Yes, that makes sense because what you experience I call "spiritual love." In the state of love, the body's biochemistry changes such that the stress response is turned off, feel good chemicals are released into the bloodstream and brain, quieting the mind and body, enabling you to access positive thoughts and emotions as well as the belief that all will be well.
What percentage would you give to a person's state of mind -- the health of their thoughts, if you will -- vs. the health of their body for a positive outcome?
First of all, just because a disease has entered the body, doesn't mean it will manifest itself! I think what you do and think about it is very important. I focus on the whole picture-what you eat, your exercise, sleep attitudes, perspectives, emotions. It's nature vs. nurture.
I had a patient with very bad stomach problems and auto-immune issues. She was on a regimen of prescription drugs. We worked through diet, sleep, exercise. We also worked on self and how she perceived herself. That person was off all the medications three months after I first began treating her.
What do you feel is the future of medicine -- and how long will it take to get there?
That's a really tough question! The system is broken in so many ways because it also includes our culture. Everything is fear-based. When anything is fear-based it's not going to work. The current system can only bill for problems rather than preventing problems.
When you're afraid, your body is going to break down. Doctors are walking around fearful. Patients are fearful. Doctors are afraid of not having enough time, of malpractice suits, of insurance companies, etc. Nothing in the current system focuses on being healthy or happy.
I teach doctors at Harvard Medical School how to look at patients through the stress-response model. Most who attend my sessions are there because they're already interested in changing their practice or learning to treat their patients in new, effective ways.
What would you say are the major obstacles you face in your work?
What I've created doesn't exist in allopathic medicine. People don't understand that they need it. People come to me via word of mouth. They come because they want to feel better and they've heard from a family member or friend that my system is effective. But I've found that most people don't want to work for their health. They actually aren't comfortable with being happy. People have to be ready to let go of their state of victimization. They have to create changes in their life in order to have a positive health outcome.
Can you address the issue of doctors redefining their language when it comes to cancer diagnoses? I'm referring to a recent New York Times article, "Scientists Seek To Rein In Diagnoses of Cancer," in which it says, "A group of experts advising the nation's premier cancer research institution has recommended changing the definition of cancer and eliminating the word from some common diagnoses as part of sweeping changes in the nation's approach to cancer detection and treatment." Do you think this will happen across the board?
It's a beginning. I hope it will go through...
I love what you say about the power of expecting good in your recent HuffPost blog, "You Are Not Your Diagnosis." Can you comment on a person's expectation of good in terms of its influence on their health?
When you expect good, reward centers in the brain are stimulated and the stress response is quieted. This has the effect of lowering stress hormones and creating more stability in your body, which means you have more access to your body's natural ability to heal. Research on expecting good includes studies of the placebo response.
I think what you said in your article perfectly concludes what we've been discussing: You wrote: "When my patients understand they are not their diagnosis, nor are they prisoners to it, they start the process of breaking free from limiting beliefs and labels ... They have a choice to expect good."