Mind As Healer, Mind As Slayer: An Interview with Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier

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Mind As Healer, Mind As Slayer
An Interview with Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier

by Holly Prichard

One of the unique things about Pocket Ranch is that we offer several different programs for individuals who are all experiencing the common need for a safe, nurturing, therapeutic environment. With the opening of a new 6-bed facility, The Woodlands, our adult residential treatment program is now capable of serving up to 12 people. This inpatient program provides an alternative to psychiatric hospitalization for those in crisis. The STAR Program is a structured 17-day intensive retreat which addresses childhood issues and adult dysfunctional behaviors through a feelings-based, experiential healing process. The Ranch is also available to individuals desiring a self-directed retreat or to groups sponsoring workshops that foster personal growth.

Although these programs are quite different from each other, there seems to be a common thread that links people who come here, whichever program they choose. Many are feeling the cumulative effects that years of stress have produced on their bodies, both mentally and physically. They feel “burned-out,” and need a safe place where they can process their feelings and “breakdown” (breakthrough), if necessary.

As we see the emergence of more and more stress-related disorders, it is impor­tant to know that there are things we can do to help prevent full-blown stress-related illnesses.

In trying to understand more about effective ways of dealing with stress, I took the opportunity to interview Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier of the Stanford University School of Medicine, who is a Pocket Ranch Board member and a leader in stress management. Author of the best-seller, Mind As Healer, Mind As Slayer, now available in a 1992 revised edition, Dr. Pelletier will be lead­ing a workshop at Pocket Ranch in March called: “A Clinical Application of Medita­tion and Guided Imagery.”

HP:   How do you define stress?

KP: There are basically two different types of stress, one of which is positive and the other is essentially negative. The positive, which I call type 1, is short-term. It occurs when the source of stress is immediate, identifiable and resolvable. Short-term stress doesn’t feel good but it is adaptive. The second type is the long-term or chronic stress reaction, which I call type 2. That occurs when the source of stress is not immediate, not always identifiable, and may not be resolvable. If you think about it, we don’t have a whole lot of biological threats; we are not physically threatened. But job pressure, interpersonal difficulties, financial concerns, loss of employment, in all of these common events our bodies respond in the same way as though it were a real physical threat. The problem is the response goes on and on and on. So in short-term stress, you have an increase in blood pressure and then it falls off. Under long-term stress, you have an increase in blood pressure and it stays up. You can see basically what happens is you take normal, positive responses that are protracted for too long and they become destructive.

HP: Do individuals differ as to which stress level they fall under when faced with stressful situations?

KP: Yes, all of us fall under both. All of us respond to certain things well and appropriately. And then there are other things that bother us. The thing that makes a difference is that the actual external event is not as important as how the person responds. So you and I might be subjected to the same noisy traffic jam or the same downsizing of the company in which we both work, but how you respond and how I respond will be totally different based on our skills and our knowledge and that is going to determine whether or not we be­come ill. That’s going to determine whether or not we have a positive or negative reac­tion to the stressor.

HP: Are the factors involved in how we handle stress things like diet, exer­cise and meditation practice?

KP: Yes. If you are 30 pounds over­weight and you are smoking, have never thought about stress and have a rotten family life, the impact of that stress can be totally different than someone who is psy­chologically minded, reasonably fit, who is not jacked-up on caffeine and who is relatively happy. The impact is going to be totally different on those two people.

HP: What kind of signs does our body give us to indicate that we are experiencing stress?

KP: There is a continuum, some are psychological and some are physical. Psy­chologically the most common ones would be an incessant sense of time pressure, im­patience, sense of nervousness, irritability, being constantly distracted or worried or preoccupied. On a physical symptoms basis, you have things like colds, sweaty hands, tension in the neck, pressure behind the eyes, stomach upset, maybe a slight pain in the heart, intestinal spasms. These are all indi­cations that we are beyond a limit of adap­tation. The longer we ignore it the worse it will become, that’s a certainty.

HP: If someone feels the onset of these symptoms, what can they do to help alleviate the immediate stress?

KP: A lot of things, that’s the good news. Part of it is once you become sensi­tized to what really troubles you or has that impact, a very good strategy is avoidance. If being in rush hour traffic drives you nuts, leave earlier or later. The point is to elimi­nate the stimulus. Secondly, you can prac­tice some form of stress management so that you have at your disposal the means to re­cover after that period of stress. Another is generally being physically fit, even moder­ate exercise really helps. Your blood pres­sure won’t go as high, your muscle tension doesn’t get as great. Another thing is to have friends, or what’s called the social support system, so that people that are in interaction with other people or even animals have a much more positive response to the same degree of stress or demands. Getting appro­priate medical care so that you are not ignor­ing symptoms when they do become serious to the point of where you can not manage them anymore or where you simply don’t understand what is going on anymore. There are a lot of things we can do.

HP: It is really about taking respon­sibility for our own healthcare.

KP: That’s a big part of it. A respon­sible partnership, and I always couple that together because just being responsible may not be enough. You may have to be respon­sible with your surgeon, you may have to be responsible with your pharmacologist, you may have to be responsible with a friend or minister but the idea that you can handle it and be an island unto yourself is one of the great fallacies of stress management. People think, “Well, I’ll practice these methods and become super person,” and that’s just not it.

HP: One of the ways people can relieve stress is to meditate. What advice would you have for someone who may not know much about meditation? How can they start?

KP: Meditation has been made into something mystical when the reality of it is the first step is simple mental and physical relaxation. For physical relaxation the sim­plest thing a person can do is take a few deep breaths when they find themselves being anxious and breathing what is usually very shallowly and very erratically. Another is that they can change their posture and free up their breathing. Or set aside a period of time in which they are in a quiet room. The point is to do anything that allows you to become physically quiet and removed from stimulation. Mentally, you can focus on a word like peace, or love, or God, or it doesn’t matter what it is. Or you can focus on a sound or a piece of a melody you like and focus your mind on that or a prayer or a poem or a phrase that you remember so you basically allow your mind then to become quiet and focused.

HP: So you see meditation as an integral part of the “Sound Mind/Sound Body” philosophy?

KP: Yes, when you become more still, it allows you to make better choices about lots of things. What you eat, what you do, where you go, who you associate with. It allows you a still place from which to make all kinds of other decisions about how to develop a more fulfilling life. It is a means to an end, it is not necessarily an end in and of itself.

HP: In your workshops, you deal with the idea of “optimal health.” What is your definition of “optimal health?”

KP:   It is a process of becoming in­creasingly fulfilled in body, mind, spirit and environment.  It is very subjective.  With that definition, you could have a quadriplegic who would be healthy and an Olympic athlete who wouldn’t be. We need to get beyond the biological, Olympic model fixa­tion that that is health. And very often it simply isn't.

HP: What are the characteristics that exist in people who have “optimal health?”

KP: It is hard to give a simple answer to that but there are certain characteristics. They make appropriate use of medical and psychological care, when necessary. They all seem to have some form of stress man­agement and they all have a connection or support system. It may be to one person, a small group of people, animals or even plants, but they all have some connection to something beyond themselves. Another characteristic is that they almost always commit or devote themselves to a larger cause or issue. So they may be environmen­tal activists or they will be for equal rights amendments or they’ll be out feeding the hungry or trying to house the homeless but they are always doing something to give back, to be of service to others. That is a very clear characteristic of them. Another characteristic is that they seem remark­ably capable at handling what other people would call crises by seeing them as chal­lenges that they need to figure out in an innovative way. Also, almost all of them articulate some higher or greater sense of purpose to their lives. It is not usually expressed in terms of religion, but it is expressed in terms of a very strong purpose beyond just their own individual satisfac­tion.

HP: Are there a lot of people who have obtained “optimal health?”

KP: Yes, not only are there a lot of these people that we don’t recognize or realize but what they do is not extraordi­nary in the sense that it is not out of the realm or out of the grasp of anyone who chooses to try. Nothing that we have found is so remarkable or so unusual that you’d say, “Wow, I could never do that.” Quite the opposite.  Everything was quite within the range of most people’s grasp.

HP: In looking ahead to the workshop that you will be leading at Pocket Ranch, what can people expect? Why would they want to come?

KP: Several reasons. One is a knowl­edge base that offers the latest scientific findings that really provide a confirmation of the mind/body approach. Secondly, there will be the opportunity to personally practice what you learn. We will be doing a lot of things ourselves because when you use such methods, if you are not using them yourself, your patients or the people you work with know it and they aren’t going to find it very convincing. Thirdly, for therapists there will be things that they in turn can use in their professional practice. So it will go from knowledge, to personal experience, to appli­cation in their practice.

HP: So there will be experiential exercises that they can learn from and take with them.

KP: Yes, I would say certainly half and half, if not more experiential. I will also talk with people the first day we meet to find out what their expectations are and try to meet those and adapt the content to the expecta­tions of the people who show up.

HP: I suppose that anyone could benefit from this workshop.

KP: Sure, you don’t need to be a professional therapist to benefit from this.