Over the last three weeks I was presented with an opportunity to observe and reflect on just how important it is to pay attention to the mind over matter paradigm.
Anyone reading this who is also a dog owner can totally empathize with what I am about to share. We love them as true members of the family, they are literally the only beings providing us each with absolute 100% unconditional love, all the time, no questions asked, no expectations, and even if disappointed by us, will show up again the next time with that same devoted loyalty that we have come to rely on. True givers of just pure love.
I totally get why dogs are used for psychological therapy to victims of trauma, because it is that unconditional love that energizes you and connects you with that same quality that each of us has within ourselves too, even if it is hidden at times.
After owning dogs for over 40 years of my life I ought to be used to it by now. Receiving the news that your beloved companion has a health condition that he may or may not be able to recover from, that your help may be reduced to not letting him suffer, and making that ultimate decision.
I have been at this crossroad many times before, and it has the same raw intensity each and every time. Never gets any easier. But this time around I did become aware of something else that probably has been there every time, I just had not paid any attention to it.
Something so subtle, yet so powerful it can shape just exactly how we are equipped to deal with life’s challenges. And here was a basic lesson in this invaluable life skill being played out, right in front of my eyes.
As our family reeled from the news that Duke has “a mass” in one of his lung lobes and we were caught up in figuring out what our options are, I could not help but notice how completely un-phased Duke was by all of this. Here we are, emotions unraveling each time we look at him, and he is simply his old self (lapping up all the extra attention of course), as happy, carefree, inquisitive and rambunctious as ever.
And then it dawned on me, here was a true example of the “mind-over-matter” paradigm.
He has no clue what is going on, what this all means.
Every now and then he coughs. That’s it. No irritation with it, no exasperation, still bouncy, just doing what is needed, adapting his lifestyle to accommodate what for us would be an annoying, maybe even painful, nuisance by now made ten times worse by a labyrinth of worrying about potential outcomes.
He is showing us how to simply be in the present. No melancholic reminiscing of the good life he has had, no anxious worrying about what the future might hold in store. Just being here now. Still giving us that unconditional love we have come to expect as part of our daily therapy.
What a dignified and graceful lesson!
What if he knew?
When he does witness an action that his mind will associate with a negative memory, his whole body language visibly does change, it physically affects him. Anytime one of us starts packing a suitcase, he droops. Ears, eyes, shoulders, tail, just hangs low, ignores eye contact, lethargic, demonstratively lies in the middle of the way.
Mind over matter. Mind affecting how we mentally perceive and physically as well as emotionally respond.
So why is the mind so powerful? Very simplistically said, it is directly connected to your nervous system, your mother ship. Your NS controls all the other bodily systems in your body by way of chemical messengers – hormones – that are being sent all over non-stop even during your sleep phase, and at record speeds we cannot even grasp mentally. Excuse the pun.
Every thought, and every emotion, triggers the release of such chemical messengers that evoke a physical consequence – a health-supporting one or a balance-disrupting one. Every cell is affected, right down to its genetic material.
Numerous studies have shown that negative thinking can systematically depress the activity of our NK (Natural Killer) cells, a vital component of the attack part of our immune system. This can, for example, cause cancer cells to slip by the watchful eye of our internal defense machinery.
Not just that, relentless stress, in the form of the stress hormone nor-epinephrine, has been shown to stimulate cancer cells to release a chemical called “vascular endothelial growth factor”. This in turn promotes a process called angiogenesis, which is when a tumor is able to attract blood vessels to itself to supply it with oxygen and nutrients.
So stress, originating from the mind, can turn physical to such a degree that it can pave the way for, and provide the fuel for, cancer cells to grow.
You are familiar with the saying: You are what you eat!
Let’s add to that: You are what you think!
There we have it again, the multi-dimensional approach. One is not more important than the other. They are equally important.
What you eat is your choice!
What you think is your choice too!
Just as the food you put in your mouth can act as a pharmacy, so can your mind become instrumental in contributing to how your genes express themselves. This affects how your cells function overall. This affects how your body parts function. This affects how you as a living organism can deal with what you are exposed to.
Being alive means being subjected to stressful situations, it is part of our normal existence and it has ensured our long-term survival. Knowing how to respond to a life-threatening situation has ensured we could get ourselves out of dangerous situations, and this reaction has been due to the fact that we have mechanisms in place to deal with stress.
We are programmed TO respond. But we are not pre-programmed HOW to respond.
That is our choice.
We may be conditioned to respond in a certain way, due to what we have gotten accustomed to, or how we have seen others react. Often it is habit, we fall into the same behavioral patterns maybe our parents did without realizing that we are doing it.
If you feel yourself slipping into an anxious moment, consciously call STOP and ask yourself if reacting in the way you are about to serves a purpose to help the situation. More often than not the answer will be no. Then let it go. Get back to basics, and ask: what would be most helpful now. You will need to practice this, but it will ultimately become a habit.
Another strategy I use is always finding one thing each day for which I am grateful, and I challenge you to do the same. If you struggle to remember, don’t judge, just set a timer in your smart phone. That is what I initially had to do to remind myself of setting a daily intention. It helped, particularly on weekends when I have a different daily routine.
Ultimately it is within our power to DECIDE to react in a certain way. I am glad to say that this is what distinguishes us from our beloved four-legged mates. Even when we know what is going on, we have the choice HOW we mentally deal with it. And this is a hugely powerful tool we have at our disposal 24/7.
Let’s use it to our advantage! Let’s also live in the moment, embrace what we have this very second, enjoy that sip of hot tea, scratch that itchy calf, focus on the activity we are currently busy with, and just be here.
Even if we know what is really going on.