Donna Jackson Nakazawa had a list of illnesses so extensive I can’t name them all. A partial inventory included vasovagal syncope (a fainting and seizing disorder), small-fiber sensory neuropathy (an autoimmune disorder), pancytopenia (low red and white blood cell count), von Willebrand disease (a clotting disorder), thyroiditis, Guillain-Barré syndrome (she’s suffered this twice), and eczema that leaves her with an itchy rash all over her body.
At 51, married with two teenagers and a solid career as a science writer, Donna was sick of being sick. She told me, “At that time I felt a sense of two competing feelings: Having been so very ill for so long, I had come to an intersection between my natural proclivity of ‘I can do this’ and total resignation that I was never going to get better in the ways I thought I would.”
Enter Anastasia Rowland-Seymour, M.D., a traditionally and alternatively trained clinician and assistant professor of internal medicine at Johns Hopkins, who asked Donna one simple question that changed the course of both her treatment and her life.
Changing the Traditional Medical Model
Medical schools have historically taught that the mind and body are completely separate—that they do not interact, nor do they affect each other’s experience. Of course, outside the traditional medical model, many theories (and, more recently, scientific proof) suggest that the mind and body do share an enormous feedback loop that generates both positive and negative outcomes. In her first meeting with Dr. Rowland-Seymour, Donna expected her to pore over her two-inch-thick medical file, but the doctor had other plans. She neglected the file in favor of asking, “Did anything happen in your childhood that could have contributed to all this?”
Stunned, Donna replied that her father had died unexpectedly when she was 12. Simultaneously, she lost her mother to grief. The doctor’s question was disconcerting. Donna explains, “I couldn’t put together the pieces of this doctor with this respected institution with this context of a physical exam asking me such a psychological question. It made me think something new, and this question opened up a space in me because I was so surprised by it.”
Dr. Rowland-Seymour’s motivation for such a question comes from research suggesting that brain-body stress (the precursor to inflammatory responses) often activates in childhood, leading to illnesses in adulthood. As she explained to Donna, early traumas affect psychological and cellular networks. Treatment focuses on rewiring the brain-body connection to soothe the stress-induced inflammatory response and immune system. Dr. Rowland-Seymour suggested a novel treatment approach: Maintaining the integrity of the traditional medical therapies already in place, she invited Donna to embark on a one-year odyssey of incorporating the alternative methods of mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and acupuncture. Together they would scientifically track the results.
Your Brain Is Your Last Best Cure
The yearlong experiment—documented in Donna’s wonderful book, The Last Best Cure: My Quest to Awaken the Healing Parts of My Brain and Get Back My Body, My Joy, and My Life (Hudson Street Press) —was divided into two parts. The first six months were devoted to practices of the mind, the second to practices of the body. Dr. Rowland-Seymour ordered a battery of tests to create a baseline against which to measure future results. Simultaneously, Donna worked with psychologist Marsha Sanzone, Ph.D., developer of the Sanzone Joy and Contentment Quotient test. Analyzing the prevalence of Donna’s positive and negative moods, the test supplied an emotional baseline relative to Donna’s “joy index.”
Looking back on the start of the year, Donna recalls that she didn’t have enormous expectations. “I just hoped to stay the same or not get worse,” she says. Preliminary tests completed, Donna launched into a dedicated year of developing daily mindfulness and meditation and then weekly yoga and acupuncture practices.
By the end of the year, the eczema had cleared, Donna’s energy had dramatically increased, her major headaches and frequent IBS had ceased. She no longer experienced the debilitating effects of chronic back and pelvic pain or tendonitis. Her overall white blood cell and lymphocyte counts are higher, as are her complement factors (proteins that help fighter white blood cells adhere to abnormal proteins so they can be destroyed). This last fact is of huge importance, indicating a substantial decrease in Donna’s inflammatory response.
In addition to these positive results, Donna’s Sanzone Joy and Contentment Quotient improved enormously. For someone who didn’t expect much, Donna rejoiced at the changes. As she reflects on her experience today, she says, “We don’t have to be on the Pain Channel, in a state where our thoughts are hijacking us with fears and insecurities and being mean to ourselves. With the kind of discipline I chose, it is possible to be in a place where life looks really sweet and to experience that sweet spot as a deliciousness and a joy that just makes you keep going back for more.”
Donna is a woman with a childhood trauma who decided to put her adult mind to healing through methods available to anyone. “It looks so complicated,” she encourages, “but you can begin by just finding three things a day that make you feel good. It could be a five-minute sitting meditation that you download, a ten-minute walk with your dog, a ten-minute hot bath, listening to a piece of music, keeping a gratitude journal, or deep breathing. Take that time to get in the sweet spot ever so briefly in whatever way works for you. Eventually you begin to notice what makes you feel good. Do self-experiments to discover what lifts your mind. You’ll discover that you’ll do it more and that will make a difference. I couldn’t have done this alone. There are local teachers everywhere for yoga and mindfulness. Go to a community center or take a class.”
The results of Donna’s experiment prove that given the right circumstances, the plasticity of the brain and body can be tapped to bring about fantastic change despite decades of illness, stress, and strain. If you’re wondering whether you, too, can turn your life around and experience the sweet spot, she offers this encouragement: “If I could do it, anyone can. I mean that so fervently. I’d been stuck on the Pain Channel for a very, very, very long time—and now I’m not, so I know it is possible for others to change, too.”