By Lissa Rankin, MD
“There is no illness of the body apart from the mind.” —Socrates
What if I told you that caring for your body is the least important part of your health…that for you to be truly vital, other factors are more important? What if the key to health isn’t just eating a nutritious diet, exercising daily, maintaining a healthy weight, getting eight hours of sleep, taking your vitamins, balancing your hormones, and seeing your doctor for regular checkups?
Certainly, these are all important, even critical, factors to optimizing your health. But what if something else is even more important?
What if you have the power to heal your body just by changing how you think and feel?
I know it sounds radical, especially coming from a doctor. Trust me, I was just as skeptical when I first discovered the scientific research suggesting that this might be true. Surely, I thought, the health of the human body isn’t as simple as thinking ourselves well or worrying ourselves sick. Or is it?
As physicians, we find that things inevitably happen on our watch that science simply can’t explain. Even the most closed-minded doctors witness patients who get well when, by every scientific rationale, they shouldn’t. When we witness such things, we can’t help questioning everything we hold dear in modern medicine. We start to wonder if there is something more mystical at play.
One of the first books I studied, Harvard professor Anne Harrington’s mind-body-medicine history book, The Cure Within, left me feeling physically dizzy and viscerally unsettled. In the book, she refers to the mind-body phenomenon as “bodies behaving badly,” meaning that sometimes bodies don’t respond the way they “should,” and suggests the only way we can explain such mysteries is through the power of the mind.
At the time I was researching the mind-body link, my place in the world of medicine was unclear to me. After 20 years of medicine, I had become disillusioned with our broken health-care system, which required me to churn through 40 patients a day, often scheduled in hurried seven-and-a-half-minute slots, leaving little time for us to actually talk, much less bond. I almost quit when a longtime patient told me in a letter that she had planned to confess to a sensitive health issue she was hiding from me. She rehearsed what she would say for days, with the support of her husband. But when it came time for her to spill the beans, apparently, I never removed my hand from the exam-room door. She told me my hair was disheveled and I was dressed in dirty scrubs. She suspected I had been up all night delivering babies—and I probably had been. Although she knew I was probably tired, she kept praying I would touch her arm, sit down on the stool next to her, and offer enough tenderness and connection to make her feel safe to talk about her concern. But she said my eyes were blank. I was a robot, too busy to let go of the door handle.
When I read that letter, I got choked up, felt a hiccup in my chest, and knew in my heart that practicing this kind of medicine was not what drew me to my profession. I had been called to medicine the way some are called to the priesthood, not to churn out rote prescriptions and blow through physical exams like a machine, but to be a healer. What drew me to the practice of medicine was the desire to touch hearts, to hold hands, to offer comfort amidst suffering, to enable recovery when possible, and to alleviate loneliness and despair when cure wasn’t possible.
If I lost that, I lost everything. Every day of being a doctor was chipping away at my integrity. I knew the kind of medicine my soul wanted to practice, yet I felt helpless to reclaim the doctor-patient connection I craved, as well as victimized by managed-care companies, the pharmaceutical industry, malpractice lawyers, politicians, and other factors that threatened to widen the rift between me and my patients.
I felt like a fraud, a sellout, a cheap, plastic knockoff of the doctor I had dreamed of being back when I was an idealistic medical student. But what were my alternatives? I was the sole breadwinner in my family, responsible for covering my medical-school debt, my husband’s graduate-school debt, the mortgage, and my newborn daughter’s college fund. Quitting my job was out of the question.
Then my dog died, my healthy young brother wound up in full-blown liver failure as a rare side effect of a common antibiotic, and my beloved father passed away from a brain tumor—all within two weeks. It was the last straw.
With no backup plan or safety net, I left medicine, planning to never look back. Selling the house, liquidating my retirement account, and moving my family to the country to live a simple life, I chalked the whole doctor thing up to one big fat mistake and planned to be a full-time artist and writer.
By that point, I had lost touch with what I was here on this earth to do. I spent a few years blogging, writing books, and making art, yet nothing felt as pressing to me as the calling that had led me to medical school. Something in my soul still yearned to be of service. Painting and writing felt too solitary, too selfish even, as if I was indulging creative endeavors I loved, but at the expense of my calling.
I barely slept for months, and when I did, I dreamed of helping sick patients, of sitting at their bedsides, of listening to their stories with no eye on my watch and no hand on the door. I’d wake up in tears, as if I was mourning a piece of my soul.
In 2009, I began blogging about what I missed about medicine, what I loved about medicine, what originally drew me to the practice of medicine. I wrote about how I consider medicine a spiritual practice, how you practice medicine the way you practice yoga or meditation, like you’ll never fully master it. I wrote about how the doctor-patient relationship, when treated with the awe it deserves, is sacred, and how I longed to reclaim it. I wrote about how medicine had wounded me, and how, in turn, I had inadvertently wounded others.
Patients and healers of all types started writing me e-mails, telling me their stories, and posting comments on my blog, and something in me lit up, something that felt like an opportunity to be of service. The tribe of people I attracted started healing me.
Around this time, remarkable stories of patients who healed themselves from “incurable” and “terminal” illnesses started trickling in from around the world. In spite of my initial resistance to getting sucked back into the world of medicine, I found myself drawn to the conversations happening on my blog.
I wasn’t searching for a way back to medicine. For the first few years, when signs from the Universe began pointing me back to my calling as a healer, I shook my head and hightailed it in the other direction.
But callings are funny that way. You don’t get to choose your calling. It chooses you. And while you can quit your job, you can’t quit your calling.
One serendipitous event after another led me down an unplanned, uncharted path, as if birds were dropping crumbs, blazing a trail to my Holy Grail. Books fell off the shelf. Physicians appeared on my path with messages for me. People in my online community sent me articles. Unbidden visions appeared like movies in my mind while I was hiking. Dreams appeared. Teachers called.
I started waking up from the deep anesthesia my medical education and years of practice had induced, and, in my groggy haze, I began to see the light. One question led to another, and before I realized what was happening, I was knee-deep in journal articles, trying to ferret out the truth about what was happening in the body when the mind was healthy and why we get sick when the mind is unhealthy. I realized that I didn’t have to order lab tests, prescribe drugs, or operate in order to be of service as a doctor. I could help even more people by discovering the truth about how to help people heal themselves.
What followed was a deep dive into the gospels of modern medicine, the peer-reviewed medical literature, where I sought scientific proof that you can heal yourself in journals like the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association. What I found changed my life forever, and my hope is that it will change your life and the lives of your loved ones.
Is there scientific data to support the seemingly miraculous stories of self-healing that float around? There’s proof that you can radically alter your body’s physiology just by changing your mind. There’s also proof that you can make yourself sick when your mind thinks unhealthy thoughts. And it’s not just mental. It’s physiological.
A Radical New Kind of Patient Intake
I started digging deep into the personal lives of my patients, asking questions most doctors had never thought of. Is anything keeping you from being the most authentic, vital you? If so, what is holding you back? What do you love and celebrate about yourself? What’s missing from your life? What do you appreciate about your life? Are you in a romantic relationship? If so, are you happy? If not, do you wish you were?
Are you fulfilled at work? Do you feel like you’re in touch with your life purpose? Do you feel sexually satisfied, either with a partner or by yourself? Do you express yourself creatively? If so, how? If not, do you feel creatively thwarted, like there’s something within you dying to come out? Do you feel financially healthy or is money a stressor in your life?
If your fairy godmother could change one thing about your life, what would you wish for? What rules do you follow that you wish you could break?
I discovered that my patients’ answers often gave me more insight into why they might be sick than any lab test, medical record review, or X-ray exam could. The diagnosis was often crystal clear in a way I previously had missed because I wasn’t asking the right questions.
I came to see that these patients were unhealthy, not because of bad genes or poor health habits or rotten luck, but because they were gut-wrenchingly lonely or miserable in their bad relationships, stressed about work, freaked out about their finances, or profoundly depressed. Most, when I asked on my intake form “What’s missing from your life?” wrote a long list. And when I asked the same question in person, the majority of these patients wept. Something was going on that had nothing to do with vegetables or exercise or vitamins.
On the flip side, I had other patients who ate poorly, exercised rarely, forgot to take their supplements, and enjoyed seemingly perfect health. When I read their intake forms, they revealed that their lives were filled with love, fun, meaningful work, financial abundance, creative expression, sexual pleasure, spiritual connection, and other traits that differentiated them from the sick health enthusiasts. They were, in essence, happy. And even though they didn’t take the best care of their bodies, their bodies responded with good health. 
This excerpt is an adaptation from the book Mind Over Medicine by Lissa Rankin, MD, published by Hay House, 2013. Available at bookstores or online at: hayhouse.com. For more, see the free Self-Healing Kit at MindOverMedicineBook.com.
Lissa Rankin, MD, is a physician who is committed to helping patients heal, connect, and thrive in their bodies, hearts, and souls. She resides in Marin County, California, with her husband and daughter. More at LissaRankin.com.