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A Cultural Anthropology of Illness: How Words Can Make You Sick

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What would happen if physicians transitioned from mechanics who repair the body to teachers who explore the causes of health, and from mental health practitioners who treat psychopathology to guides who show how to navigate the vicissitudes of life?

Would that solve the conundrum? Not quite, because patients must become active participants in accessing their unique causes of health as well as take professional opinions as empirical questions to be tested rather than sentences without options.

Far from criticizing, I am inviting life science professionals and their patients, to question the mechanical paradigm they are coauthoring based on Newtonian physics that works well with engines and reductionist philosophies that continue to separate mind and body from their cultural history.

The liberation from labels of hopelessness requires becoming mindful of the causes of health, and giving up the mindless routines that teach illnesses. But the paradigm shift I am suggesting requires decisions based on evidence from the sciences that study healthy brains, healthy emotions, healthy longevity, and the power of inclusive love. The new mind body sciences are discovering that growing older is not an irreversible process of diminishing function, that yoga and other forms of gentle movements, at any age, can enhance anti-anxiety neurotransmitters in the brain, and that family illnesses are merely propensities to be neutralized by lifestyles of personal empowerment.

Based on my work with healthy centenarians (100 years or older) from five different continents, I argue that growing older is the passing of time, but aging is what we do with time determined by the cultural beliefs we assimilate. Thus, just as words pontificated by cultural editors (authorities given power in a given context) can make you sick, hope from the sciences that investigate the causes of health, can heal beyond the law of averages. The brain thrives with mental challenges, and the body delays aging when it engages meaningful physical activity. I am reminded of how a centenarian I interviewed met both requirements brilliantly: She decided to learn German and take tango lessons at 102! That is the beauty of the mind-body wellness I invite you to embrace.

I also propose that the immune system is more than a defender against pathogens. It responds positively to exalted emotions such as love, compassion, and empathy, while negatively to fear-based emotions such as envy, resentment, hatred, and reluctance to forgive. Thus, I argue, the immune system confirms the beliefs we embody, and the actions we choose to deal with our challenges.

When in need of professional help, seek scientists who are open to unconventional evidence, and avoid technicians who only believe what their instruments can measure. Healing is a journey -- not a quick fix goal.