Welcome to Living Well with MS, where we are pleased to welcome Shannon Harvey as our guest! Shannon is an Australian journalist and filmmaker specialising in wellness, mental health, and optimising wellbeing for those with chronic conditions.

Find out more and listen to the episode here


Overcoming MS  00:01

Welcome to Living well with MS. This podcast comes to you from Overcoming MS, the world's leading multiple sclerosis healthy lifestyle charity, which helps people live a full and healthy life through the Overcoming MS program. We interview a range of experts and people with multiple sclerosis. Please remember, all opinions expressed are their own. If you are able to, we would be grateful if you could donate to help support the podcast and other work of Overcoming MS to help give hope to those impacted by multiple sclerosis. And now here's your host, Geoff Allix.

Geoff Allix  00:38

Welcome to the latest edition of the living well with MS podcast. Joining me on this edition is Shannon Harvey. And Shannon is a journalist and filmmaker from Australia, who's created books and films on the mind-body connection, and is the director of the internationally acclaimed documentary The Connection. So welcome, Shannon. Thank you. So to start off with, could you tell us a bit about your background, both your professional background and your health journey?

Shannon Harvey  01:04

Sure, I'll just start by saying what a big fan I am of the OMS community and what an absolute pleasure it is to be invited to be on the podcast. I guess, you know, the OMS community will be very familiar with my own story. I know that so many people who will be listening to this will resonate with the diagnosis of a chronic illness. But the headlines for me that I was working as a news and current affairs journalist. In my mid 20s, when I was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease, lupus, it's subsequently been changed to a different autoimmune disease called shrogen's syndrome. But whatever the label of it is, I have an overactive immune system that when it flares, it can attack particular parts of my body. And doctors are kind of on red alert for if that might end up resulting in attacking my organs. But so far, my symptoms, arthritis, so insolent inflammation throughout my body in a kind of a wandering way. But I guess, you know, as I'm here talking to you today, I'm completely pain free. And I have absolutely no symptoms. And I think that has a lot to do with the lifestyle changes that I've made along the way. And being a journalist. I've really used my journalistic curiosity, I guess in order to live well with this illness and the films that I've made, and the books that I've written have really all been about seeking answers and finding solutions to in order to kind of live a fulfilled, well life despite being diagnosed with an incurable illness.

Geoff Allix  02:23

So I think probably listeners would know you best for the film The Connection. So this came out in 2014. And I can't believe that was nine years ago. But could for those people who are unfamiliar, could you tell us a bit about what that film is about?

Shannon Harvey  03:33

Sure. So the connection is a film about the evidence demonstrating that when it comes to chronic disease, we need to take a whole person approach. We need to take a mind-body health approach if we want to actually turn the epidemic of chronic disease around. And as you've mentioned, the film was made quite a while ago now. But I think the message in it is still just as relevant today. You have to keep in mind that when I made that film, the idea of a mind-body connection was something that was very much considered to be California hippie do do. And I wanted to make a film that demonstrated that there was this ever growing mountain of evidence that showed that our mind and our body and our whole entire lives are actually massively interconnected. And that, I guess, you know, in some ways, I think when I look back on that whole project, I really wanted to reach the mainstream community, particularly in medicine, in order to kind of start making it okay to start talking about things beyond that very reductionist approach that today's conventional medicine is sort of underpinned by where it sort of, we find one cause of an illness and we treat that one cause and then, you know, miracles happen and people recover. And I think, you know, the MS community and certainly, many other chronic disease communities will be all too familiar with the fact and then the felt knowledge really that that taking that reduction approach reductionist approach, more often than not, doesn't work.

Geoff Allix  05:22

So in The Connection, you talk to some of the top scholars in the world, on mindfulness mind body connection, so including people, I'm sure people have heard of Jon Kabat Zinn and Herbert Benson. And so can you tell us a bit about their work and what you learned from them?

Shannon Harvey  05:42

Yeah, I think it was really amazing. interviewing them, particularly at that point in my own illness and my own recovery, sort of story. Those two men, for those who haven't heard of them, were both very instrumental in bringing practices like meditation to the west, and actually starting to legitimize them within mainstream medical practice. So Herbert Benson, is renowned for having discovered the relaxation response, you know, laboratory at Harvard University, in the same location as the same scientist who discovered the stress response, which is quite a lovely, full circle story there. And what he discovered is when while people were practicing meditation is that their systems became very quiet. And since then, other researchers have sort of picked up where he left off, and shown that that, that the biological effects of sitting quietly with the mind can trigger these physiological effects, including now, they're starting to kind of get to the fact that they can switch on and off genes that affect disease. And I can talk more about that, perhaps when we talk about my new film, my year of living mindfully. But I guess just to sort of finish up on Jon Kabat Zinn, why he was so instrumental is that he was a molecular biologist who decided to see what would happen if he took the chronically ill within the hospital system, and put them through an eight week program that he designed, called MBSR, mindfulness based stress reduction, and to see if he could help people who were deeply deeply suffering. And since then, that's become the most studied eight week program, or the most studied meditation program in the world, and has become become quite renowned for sort of being the benchmark from which people begin to investigate the biological effects of Mind Body practices.

Geoff Allix  08:05

So you mentioned that My Year of Living Mindfully, that's both a film and book, and you try out this science on yourself. So how did that go?

Shannon Harvey  08:21

Yes, so that was my most recent project where I committed to practicing mindfulness every day for a year. And I had an entire team of scientists who followed me, as I did that to say, what, if anything would happen as a result. And sort of just to give you some context of this is that I had sort of tried being a regular, you know, practitioner of Mind Body practices, and done my, my 30 Day Yoga revolutions and tried to particularly when I was leading up to giving birth, you know, I'd sit down, and I do hypnobirthing practices or relaxation response practices. But my problem had always been making it stick. Because I knew intellectually that the evidence was demonstrating that these things were really good for me, but I could just never kind of develop, I guess what you would call a lifelong habit. And part of that was because I think there was still a part of me that didn't really believe it would make that much of a difference, to be honest, to be really honest with you. So I guess I wanted to set up once and for all to see whether or not fitting daily practice and a rigorous daily practice into my life was actually worth it. And so I suppose without giving too much away for those people who haven't seen it pretty Yeah. The whole the whole project was really transformational. Yeah.

Geoff Allix  09:58

Is there a big difference in between doing mindfulness rigorously, and maybe doing it three or four times? Occasionally when you feel like it? Is the key to do it rigorously every day?

Shannon Harvey  10:16

Although I sort of traveled around the world, and I interviewed scientists while I was doing this project, and you know, there's other people who have practiced in this other case studies, and we sort of have an abundance of evidence that I can talk about, I can only actually really speak from my own firsthand experience. And I can tell you that the difference between me dabbling in this practice, and me rigorously practicing for a minimum of 45 minutes a day, as well as attending silent retreats, is huge, is monumental. It's just like, it's like saying, you know, is there a difference between going for a walk around the block three days a week, and hitting the gym every single day with a personal trainer? It's like, well, yes, there is a difference.

Geoff Allix  11:21

So also, you've also written a book, The Whole Health Life, and have interviewed dozens of scientists and patients about recovery. So what are the takeaways from from writing that?

Shannon Harvey  11:37

The Whole Health Life came about, really, because when I released The Connection, as I sort of traveled around and attended screenings, and I was receiving all these emails from people, they wanted to know what I was doing in my own life in order to stay well. And so I wanted to write a book that was sort of a way to demonstrate how I could take this science that I read, and these interviews that I've done with, you know, experts, and how it actually applied to my everyday life. And the book is kind of broken up in really all very practical things that the OMS community is already all over, I'm 100% sure. Things like making sure I regularly exercise, get enough sleep, have meaningful connections with the people that I love, and nurture those relationships. And then right through to talking about the fact that making these lifelong changes, is really, really hard. And so the book is also about how we can apply the science of behavior change in order to actually make changes that we actually stick to.

Geoff Allix  12:52

And you can't George Jellinek among your personal heroes. So could you tell us a bit about meeting George over the years.

Shannon Harvey  13:05

So I met George, when I was first shooting The Connection. And to give you an idea of that I, you know, it was very much the beginning of my understanding about the many things that we can do for ourselves in order to live well with a chronic illness. And he blew me away the first time I met him, because, you know, the OMS community will know his personal story so well. And he was really well, you know, despite everything, despite his family history, despite his prognosis, he was just so well, and meeting him, was quite inspirational, because I was thought, I thought to myself, well, if, if he can do it, then he's like a living case study for me to show that I can do it too. But really, I think what landed for me is that I had to film again with him before we released the film, because we needed some additional footage. And, you know, sort of when you meet somebody, you get a great story. And it's all very inspiring, but then you go back to your life, and inevitably, you know, it fades away. But what happened was, in some ways, I met him again. And he was still well, like, really, really, really well. And I'm sure you know, George as well, and those who have met him in the community, you know, he's a really clear eyed, clear thinking person. And so, I guess, yeah, that's why he I still today count him as one of my heroes. But I also want to say as well that I've had the great privilege of meeting many people in the OMS community, as you know, as I've, you know, gone deeper into this world and it's a really incredible community and the wisdom And that is in the community, amongst other experts, not just George. I also find incredibly inspiring as well.

Geoff Allix  15:11

Yeah. So because Craig Hassad was on the connection as well, wasn't he?

Shannon Harvey  15:15

Craig Hassad was in The Connection. He actually started the whole thing for me. So it was, I stumbled across a paper that he had written for medical students on about page 30 of a Google search, when I was trying to find answers for myself. And the paper referenced all of these scientists who I then went off to interview. So Craig was also very instrumental in really changing my life.

Geoff Allix  15:44

And you're working on a project that asks the question, "what if mental illness was preventable?" So is that another project after The Year of Living Mindfully, it's a new project is it?

Shannon Harvey  15:57

Yeah, I'm really excited about it. It's a new film project, and book project and multimedia project, there's going to be some exciting things happening this year on it. Yes. So it's a project that I'm really personally dedicated to because my whole family has a history of mental illness and addiction and suicide. And now that I'm a mother, and I'm the custodian of the childhood of two little humans. I guess it's this personal question that I've got, which is, what is it that I can do now as I raise them in order to prevent their suffering later in life? And I think, yeah, this the question kind of became even more burning and salient while I was making My Year of Living Mindfully, when I learned that so much of mental illness actually begins before the age of 20 or 22, I think it is. And that if you develop mental illness at a young age are significantly more likely to develop it later on in life. And if you've developed it a second time, it greatly increases your chances of developing a third time. And so I'm really personally interested in this idea of prevention. But I'm making it at the moment. So I can't tell you any of the answers because I don't have them.

Geoff Allix  17:29

Hopefully, it's not "No, it's not worth it."

Shannon Harvey  17:32

Oh, no, I'll just say that there are a lot of experts doing really terrific work. And I'm, I'm really looking forward to elevating their voices onto a global platform, which they very much deserve.

Geoff Allix  17:47

Okay, so I think, just so some takeaways, I just say, The thing I've learned about this as the rigorousness that's something I definitely will do from this is actually saying, Okay, I do need to do this every day that mindfulness is not just because almost actually if you do it, when you've when you've got time for it, and you feel like you're free doing it at the time you need at least,

Shannon Harvey  18:08

you know, actually, yeah, just to add to that, when he said to me about, about practice, when I was sort of asking you about how long I should meditate for, he said, look, you should meditate for about 45 minutes every day, unless you're really, really stressed. At which time you should meditate, meditate for about two hours.

Geoff Allix  18:38

Yeah, that's a lot to our but yes, I would say definitely, that's, that's a big takeaway for this. But the other thing is just the work that you've done. So My Year of Living Mindfully, and The Connection, so how can listeners find out about watching those reading those notes as well, but is there a good location to go see?

Shannon Harvey  19:08

Yeah, the easiest place to start is my website, which is ShannonHarvey.com. And there are links to be able to see the film. I have a standing policy that if somebody's got in a financial situation, and they are unable to pay for the film, or you know, stream or download than just to flick an email to through the website, and we always provide a copy for free. But if people are in a position to be able to buy the film or the books, then please do because that enables me to keep making new ones.

Geoff Allix  19:51

Okay, brilliant, and there will be links in the show notes. So with that, just I'd like to thank you very much for joining us Shannon Harvey. You He's looking very much to the new film coming out.

Shannon Harvey  20:03

It's been my pleasure. And I just want to wish everybody who's listening to this all the very best with their own health and recovery. And if ever you're feeling like you need a little bit of inspiration to keep at it, just know that like, everybody's struggling, we're all in the same boat together. And I think sometimes that really helps to know that nobody is actually a superhuman.

Geoff Allix  20:32

Thank you very much.

Overcoming MS  20:36

Thank you for listening to this episode of Living Well with MS. Please check out this episode's show notes at overcomingms.org/podcast you'll find useful links and bonus information there. Have questions or ideas to share? Email us at podcast@overcomingms.org or you can reach out to Geoff on Twitter @GeoffAllix. We'd love to hear from you. Thanks again for tuning in and see you next time for tips on living a full and happy life with MS. Living Well with MS podcast is for private non commercial use and exists to educate and inspire our community of listeners. We do not offer medical advice for medical advice please contact your doctor or other licensed health care professional