Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: David Servan-Schreiber

David Servan-Schreiber on Higher Power, Meditation, and Relapse.

David Servan-Schreiber

David Servan-Schreiber, M.D.

Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, the French physician and neuroscientist and a pioneer of “integrative” medicine, died Sunday at 50 of the cancer he’d been fighting for 20 years.

Servan-Schreiber was the author of the worldwide bestselling book Anticancer: A New Way of Life, in which he recounts his experience of finding by accident that he had a malignant brain tumor at age 30. He underwent conventional chemotherapy and radiation, and then a few years later suffered what he called a “relapse.”

Usually Americans with cancer call these “recurrences,” but Servan-Schreiber, a Frenchman, always called his a “relapse.” He used the same word addicts use when their illness becomes active again, and his word-choice always struck me as interesting. Language is powerful, and Servan-Schreiber’s language makes me think of addiction as just another chronic illness, like cancer.

After his relapse, Servan-Schreiber underwent chemo and radiation again, then decided to improve his chances of survival by taking control of his lifestyle choices. He had been told by his physicians that his “lifestyle”—what he ate and drank; how much he exercised; his habits of work and rest; his relationships—wouldn’t make a difference in terms of his cancer’s outcome. But Servan-Schreiber, a neuroscientist as well as a psychiatrist, dove into the medical literature and discovered a great deal of evidence that certain foods (particularly sugar) promote cancer growth, and that exercise, meditation, and loving relationships all support the body’s ability to heal itself and to work along with the conventional treatments to fight cancer and other illness.

His chapters on “The Anticancer Mind” and “Defusing Fear” are worth the price of the book. I covered the chapter about “the anticancer mind” with notes in the margins. Because in my opinion, the “anticancer mind” and the “anti-addiction mind” are synonymous. For example, he writes:

When people have the feeling that their life is no longer manageable, or that it leads to more suffering than joy … the neurological response to this stress is the release of stress hormones like noradrenaline and cortisol. 

(Emphasis mine: Step 2.)

He goes on to say that these hormones suppress the immune system and make it more difficult for people to fight illnesses such as cancer. In my experience, they also make an addict like me more likely to want to control these feelings by using drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling, etc.—thus the term “self-medication.” I suppose it’s just another way of saying that these feelings make it more difficult for people to fight illnesses such as addiction.

To combat this physiological response, he advocates a form of calming the body-mind called “cardiac coherence,” and says practices such as Tai Chi, yoga, and meditation all end up with the same result.

(I use the term “body-mind” because I used to think they were connected, but my experience tells me that they’re actually the same fabric… the science is showing up to support this.)

David Servan-Schreiber The Instinct to HealMy favorite book of his is called The Instinct to Heal: Curing Stress, Anxiety, and Depression Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy. In it he describes my original concept of Higher Power: the idea that the body-mind has an inborn urge toward healing that, if it’s supported—or at least not interfered with—can help us achieve wholeness and contentment.

He lays out the data for seven non-pharmacological methods for easing depression and anxiety. This is what I loved best about him (aside from the facts that he was brilliantly smart, and beautiful inside and out). He wasn’t woo-woo: he was data-oriented, but he also had an enormous heart and a great deal of compassion for people who suffer.

Servan-Schreiber helped found the Center for Integrative Medicine at Shadyside Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh, which, amazingly, is three blocks from where I live. I had a chance to interview him in 2009. A celebrity author in Europe, he called himself “the Andrew Weil of France and Germany” and said he wasn’t out to gain fame and fortune:

My goal is not about reputation. My goal is to influence how people manage their own health and how we in medicine treat them in that respect.

Here is some more of what he told me:

On addictions

DSS: I don’t focus on attacking addictions head-on. One of the things that surprised me very positively and I think is a sign, is that several people have written to me saying, “I read your book Anticancer, and even though it never talks about smoking”—and it doesn’t—“I stopped smoking.” Which is a really interesting consequence. As they became interested in what they were eating and in their relationship to their own bodies, then at some point it just dawned on them that it’s sort of silly to be paying attention to what you eat three times a day and then continue to smoke. So there was a change in their relationship to their body and a new way of managing stress for them to stop smoking.

On the benefits of meditative practices (step 11) for adults and kids

DSS: Cardiac coherence hasn’t met the mainstream yet. Although in some ways it has been in the mainstream for 10,000 years. Because when you do Tai Chi exercises, or qi gong, or yoga, you’re inducing cardiac coherence. So there have been a variety of folk methods that have been widely practiced for thousands of years that are a form of cardiac coherence; we just didn’t know they were.

It’s a short-cut. A lot of people do tai chi and they don’t feel anything. One of the reasons is we’re so out of touch with our body and our sensations that we do a few tai chi movements, and so what? If I can show you [through data] that it actually impacts in a highly visible and profound manner the one health parameter that is most linked to long-term benefits such as reduction of mortality—there is no other health parameter that is so powerfully linked to health. Cholesterol is peanuts compared to cardiac coherence. 

For children, the immediate benefit is a better management of their emotional states, which a lot of what we’re trying to teach our kids is about. To delay gratification, to not fight back in anger, to not curse, to not hit, and so on. We’re trying to teach them about emotional management. … We forget about this, but kids identify with stress very readily. They have exams, they have other kids who [bully] them or spurn them—they have a lot of stress. And when you tell them about stress and about how to manage their emotions so as to let stress glide on them like water on a duck’s back, they get it immediately, and they’re very interested.

Does everyone have access to the Instinct to Heal?

DSS: I think it’s part of how we’re made up. I think sometimes it can be very strongly inhibited or constrained. Because of what people have lived through, for example. Multiple traumas in childhood; estrangement from parents; abandonments—all of these impair the instinct to heal in some way.

G: You can’t just say “cut down on tobacco and alcohol”—if you’re an addict, you have to quit and change your life.

DSS: I completely agree. Which is the main problem of the mainstream message about prevention and cancer. They just say, “Well, don’t be obese, don’t drink, and don’t smoke.” Which is precisely what people cannot do. They have no control over that. They use their relationship to food, to alcohol, and to smoking as a way to manage their emotions. And you can’t strip that off of them. So you need to teach them new ways to manage their emotions. And then progressively teach them things they can add to their lifestyle instead of focusing on what they need to remove from their lifestyle.

The God Thing: How God Changes Your Brain.

I am acting like an addict and eating through the rest of the sugar in the house. I know this is what I’m doing; it feels the way it felt eating through the rest of the drugs I had before I went into detox two years ago. I know I need to change my behavior because I’ve come to this awareness in sitting meditation.

Lots of people say they can’t meditate—they can’t sit still; they can’t keep their bodies from fidgeting; they can’t quiet their minds. Most of all, they say they don’t know how.

There are so many instruction books and CDs out there. I should post a list sometime. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s are great. He’s on iTunes and other places.

How God Changes Your BrainI’ve been sitting each day for about 15 minutes since late July. It began as an experiment: I wanted to try what Andrew Newberg M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman suggested in their book, How God Changes Your Brain. They say that just 12 minutes of meditation practiced daily for eight weeks can reduce stress and “anxiety” (fear) and also slow the aging process.

And “God” can, in their estimation, constitute any force of your choice outside of yourself: but it has to be positive and loving. Their studies show that a fearful “God” can be extremely damaging to the brain.

(Sound familiar?)

Further, after having studied advanced practitioners of meditation and prayer (Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns, etc.), they concluded that “activities involving meditation and intensive prayer permanently strengthen neural functioning in specific parts of the brain that are involved with lowering anxiety and depression, enhancing social awareness and empathy, and improving cognitive and intellectual functioning.” In other words, meditation and prayer, if practiced diligently and long enough, can PERMANENTLY decrease fear and sadness, and make us smarter and more compassionate.

I think possibly the “improvements in cognitive functioning” can have to do with simple awareness and insight. Meditation has brought more awareness to my life. In meditation, I just let go of thoughts as they come by. It’s the discipline, the training of the mind to Let Go. I don’t look for any feeling to happen, I just let go. Just as exercise has benefits throughout the rest of the day, so does meditation. In letting go, during my day, other information can come in. This is awareness…

What I wanted was to be the Queen of Serenity, Rocketed Into My (Preferably Pink) Fourth Dimension of Recovery. What I got was an awareness that I need to quit sugar. It’s bad for me. Part B of this awareness: I might not be able to just “cut down.” Part C: Quitting might be a pretty painful process.

There is a certain serenity in all this. It’s real, for one. It’s not Pink.

Meditation opens my mind so I can accept, or at least entertain, these formerly threatening ideas.

The authors also give eight exercises to improve brain function. The top three, which they suggest are the most important and must be worked together, are 1) Having Faith (or, basically Being An Optimist), 2) Dialoguing With Others (or, basically Being Social), and 3) Aerobic Exercise (or, basically Getting Your Butt Off The Couch, Dude). Number Three, they say, can include yoga.

You know what, this is totally nothing new. It’s “no big shakes,” as my Dad used to say. Maybe the scans showing improved blood-flow to certain brain-areas are news. But the results are stories we’ve been hearing about for a long time, and I’m coming to the conclusion that all the books are basically saying the same stuff:

Meditation | David Servan-Schreiber, a physician and cancer-survivor who wrote The Instinct to Heal: Curing Stress, Anxiety and Depression Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy, recommends “heart coherence” breathing exercises (which I’ve trained in, and which are tantamount to meditation). Servan-Schreiber has recommended regularly practiced cardiac coherence as the single best way to protect longevity, stimulate the immune system (a project in which, as a cancer survivor, he’s particularly interested), and control anxiety and depression. He also recommends Aerobic Exercise and Being Social.

The Present Moment | Jon Kabat-Zinn, another physician, has written many books about the benefits of meditation for people struggling with chronic pain and other illnesses. His book and CD collection, Wherever You Go, There You Are, trains people in mindfulness and how to “wake up” and be fully aware in the present moment—a concept that is the centerpiece of meditation.

The Power of Now + Ego Deflation | Eckhart Tolle writes about all the same stuff in his Oprah-endorsed book. Tolle also adds a great deal of emphasis on the need to “smash the ego” (sound familiar?) except Tolle would never use such violent language. He might recommend, instead, becoming aware of the deep stillness within, the power that resides within each of us, and that as soon as we find that source, this disempowers the ego.  To accomplish this, however, we need to be practitioners of some sort of meditation, to foster awareness.

I could go on and on. There are a hundred books that have each sold a million copies out there that all say the same stuff:

  • Meditate/pray
  • Release resentment and fear—old stuff, and current stuff
  • Wake up to the present moment
  • Take care of the body

Big news: this is what the Big Book says, too! I mean the way of life the 12 steps advocate is the same kind of way of life these other teachers are advocating. It’s all the same stuff, it’s not Weird or a Cult, and it’s not rocket science.

It’s not hard to overcome these problems. The solutions are plain.

So: “God” (i.e., the good inside me, the little Dear Abby inside that gives me good advice) tells me I need to eat good food.

Got six sessions left on my yoga card. Gonna use them before the end of the year.

My best friend had her birthday yesterday. We took the afternoon off and watched It Might Get Loud (great flick, love Edge) at her place, after a game of tennis. We exchanged presents. Hers to me: one of those stretch-straps you attach to a door; when you stretch it, it’s supposed to build your lats and your abs and stuff. Great for winter-workouts. Also: a 5-lb. barbell so I can do curls while I watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

“Let the reps begin,” she said.

Yes ma’am.

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