In a corner of South Kensington, anticipation is building around the blue lights of the Odeon. OMS posters and billboards are going up, final sound tests are being done, and the voices querying the saturated fat content in popcorn are drifting onto the street.
It is the London premiere of The Connection - a feature documentary about ‘how the latest scientific research is proving that there is a direct connection between your mind and body’. I busy myself with two hundred flyers onto seats. It may not be so much the red carpet as a slightly worn blue one, but that matters little. The event is sold out.
Power to heal
The film follows journalist Shannon Harvey as she searches for a cure for her autoimmune disease – in her case, lupus. She meets people from Sydney to New York with incredible stories of recovery from a range of chronic illnesses: heart disease, infertility, back pain, terminal cancer and yes… our own George Jelinek and Multiple Sclerosis.
Harvey also interviews numerous world-renowned medical professionals. They talk science, aided by clear and simple on-screen graphics. They talk with certainty. And they all agree: the mind has the power to heal.
But how does our mind affect our body?
99% of tigers are in our mind’ Most of us know the stress response, also known as ’fight or flight’ response: high heart rate, rapid breathing, increased sweating. When faced with an imminent danger such as a tiger, this is very handy.
The modern day equivalent could be a traffic jam or an imminent deadline. As Dr Craig Hassad points out: most tigers we run from are in our mind.
A prolonged state of stress leads to increased wear-and-tear on our bodies. Same as when we drive our car too hard, we can’t be surprised when our parts need repair.
The ‘relaxation response’ counters the stress response: slower heart rate, breathing and brain waves. Incredibly, a form of the relaxation response has existed in all cultures and religions from the start of mankind.
Shots of Buddhist monks in meditation, Christian nuns lighting candles, Hasidic Jews chanting, and Muslims folded in worship illustrate this point aptly. Common to all is repetition, disregard of other thoughts and a focus on the present moment.
Each person featured in the film recovered from their chronic illness by finding the relaxation response most suitable for them.
Some through prayer. Some through yoga or meditation. They have each learnt how to switch off their individual stress receptors. As Scott Stephens says about his recovery from stage four melanoma: it wasn’t miraculous – it was hard work and perseverance.
The Healing Response
Yet, going through the motions (or your weekly yoga workshop) isn’t nearly enough. If you really believe something will help you, it very likely will. Often dismissed as ‘just the placebo effect,’ the very existence of this phenomenon shows how important it is to have belief in your own healing.
Dr Andrew Weil prefers to call the placebo effect ‘the healing response’. And says it’s what doctors should be trying to make happen. As it relies on belief by not only the patient, but also the doctor.
‘Meditation can change the structure of the brain’
If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘MS runs in the family there’s nothing I can do,’ please think again. The film presents evidence that diet and lifestyle have the power to override our DNA – for good or bad. The incredible disclosure by Dr Herbert Benson of Harvard University is that our genes are not fixed and unchangeable. They can be switched on and off. Astoundingly, a change in our genes can happen the very first time we meditate.
'Creatures of community’
And yet, all of this – meditation, belief and the ability to engineer our own genes - is not enough by itself. We also need the connection of other people. In the 1950s, the Italian immigrants of Roseto, Pennsylvannia lived in ‘old school ways’.
They often lived three generations under one roof and were active members of community groups. They had the healthiest hearts in the USA despite their jobs in the quarries, high-fat diets and liking for unfiltered cigars. The conclusion was: they were ‘nourished by each other’. By the 1980s, the people of Roseto were gone from their in-laws houses.
Also gone were their healthy hearts. They had aligned with the rest of the country. It is now commonly accepted that depression and loneliness will cut our lives short. We need our friends and our family. We need to feel connected and supported.
Did our elders know best?
The film confirms what all ancient wisdoms believed unquestionably. That the mind and body are connected. But in the development of modern medicine – where everything needs to be seen to be believed – this sadly got lost. We’ve come to believe that everything should be curable by drugs and surgery.
Of course we still need these medical interventions. But Dr Benson says it best: ‘we need surgery, need drugs, but we also need the power of the mind.’ The Connection is inspirational and empowering. The medical testimonies and scientific evidence give credibility to a topic that can too often be dismissed as ‘hocus pocus’. The central message is that WE influence our health outcomes.
The beauty of this film is that everyone will take something different from it. You may find yourself signing up for a local yoga class, another may reassess their work schedule.
You might even find yourself inviting the in-laws round for Sunday lunch. Whatever it is, chronic illness is a time for us to take stock of our lives and figure out what isn’t working. Whether that be our job, our relationships, unresolved issues from the past, or our management of everyday stress.
As Shannon concludes: ’It wasn’t until I got sick, that I could get better.’ Help us to spread the word! Visit www.theconnection.tv/spread-the-word/ to learn about how you can share the trailer online, blog about it or host a screening in your own community. The DVD of The Connection is launched globally on 15th October.