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Who’s the Boss of Your Body?

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Who’s the Boss of Your Body?

How to practice radical self-healing.
Lissa  Rankin M.D.
Lissa Rankin M.D. More by this author
Sep 03, 2013 at 10:00 AM

For many years as a physician, I operated under a false assumption. I spent 12 years training to become a doctor, ostensibly so that I would know more about the bodies of my patients than they did. Doctors are body experts, right? I was trained that patients come to doctors because they are broken and, supposedly, we know how to “fix” them.

Growing up with a physician father, I thought only doctors cured sick people. I didn’t believe they could cure themselves. As a medical student and resident, I believed it was my responsibility to diagnose what was wrong with a person’s body and prescribe the right treatment. If they got better, I credited myself. If they didn’t, I blamed myself.

As a practicing physician, I felt the weight of my job—to make the right assessments, settle on the right diagnoses, and deliver the proper treatments without ever making a mistake. Aside from hoping my patients would participate in lifestyle modifications like smoking cessation, exercise, and a better diet, I didn’t expect much of them. I certainly didn’t expect them to heal their own bodies. That’s what I was there for.

It’s only recently that I had a sneaking suspicion I might have it all wrong. After all, who knows the patient’s body better than the patient? While doctors may better know the names of the arteries in the hand or the muscles in the leg, in some cases, especially those related to stress, the patient is actually the best diagnostician. Perhaps, instead of believing we doctors know what’s best for the body, patients should be diagnosing the root causes of their illnesses and writing their own prescriptions for what needs to change in their lives.

I invited some of my patients to write what I called “The Prescription” for themselves. If they needed antibiotics, I wrote the script. If they needed a mammogram, I ordered it. But once we dealt with the lab tests, drugs, and procedures a patient might need, I invited them to take their healing process a step deeper.

I didn’t just leave them to fend for themselves while writing The Prescription. Many were excited about the idea of partnering in their own care, but some expressed reservations or felt scared. My patients wanted direction and support as they navigated the process of making The Diagnosis and writing The Prescription for themselves.

Certainly, as a doctor, I believe it’s my job to order the appropriate diagnostic tests and educate patients about the treatment options available. Herbert Benson promotes the idea of what he calls the “three-legged stool” of healing. One leg of the stool is medication, one leg is surgery and other medical procedures, and the third leg is self-care. His vision is that, one day, modern medicine will value all three legs of the healing stool equally, encouraging patients to play a vital role in their own health care. He suggests that treatment with self-care, would solve 60 to 90 percent of the problems that bring people to doctors, leaving the other two legs of the stool to round out the health-care experience.

After what I’ve learned in the process of researching and writing my book Mind Over Medicine, I’m going to go out on a limb here and take Benson’s idea even a step further. I would argue that medications and surgeries shouldn’t even be given two whole legs of the whole health stool; that self-care, or, as I call it, “radical self-care,” should bear much more than one-third of the weight. In our current system, if it’s addressed at all, self-care is afforded little more than a brief mention after the drugs have been prescribed and the surgeries have been discussed.

Also, the self-care that may be discussed by physicians often stops short of addressing the many issues that contribute to disease. While nutritious food is medicine, exercise is vital, tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs can be poison, and taking your vitamins fills your body with what it needs to repair itself, these forms of self-care are not enough to counterbalance the effects of repetitive triggering of the stress response.

If you’re lonely, you’re stuck in a toxic relationship, you’re full of resentment for people who have hurt you, you’re cheating on your partner, you’re selling your soul at work, or you feel spiritually bankrupt, no amount of veggies, gym visits, 12-step programs, or vitamins is going to cut it. Radical self-care also involves things like setting boundaries, living in alignment with your truth, surrounding yourself with love and a sense of connection, and spending time doing what you love. You need radical self-care, not just in your health habits, but in the rest of your life.

It’s time for a serious paradigm shift, with doctors playing the role of educators, helping patients optimize all that Western medicine has to offer, teaching them about nutrition, exercise, and other preventive health strategies while also addressing lifestyle issues that may contribute to health problems, such as loneliness, work stress, financial worries, and pessimism. It’s also the responsibility of health-care providers to educate and encourage our patients to make lifestyle choices that improve health, such as meditation and other spiritual practices, creative expression, sex, and healthy social interactions. Once we do our best to diagnose, educate, and deliver any conventional medicine treatments the patients choose, perhaps we belong in the back seat, leaving the patient in the driver’s seat, with the doctor serving more as a trusted consultant than as the boss of the body.

About Author
Lissa  Rankin M.D.
Lissa Rankin, M.D. is an integrative medicine physician, author, speaker, artist, and founder of the online health and wellness community Discouraged by our broken health-care system, Dr. Rankin set out to discover why some patient Continue reading