Every life experience leaves an imprint on our brain

In June this year (2023) I was invited to speak at the Australian National Dementia Conference in Melbourne about how to turn the tide of dementia.

I believe our first step is to recognise that every life experience leaves an imprint on our brain: childhood trauma, being bullied, losing a parent at a young age, sexual assault, divorce, or having a car accident, are just a few examples of occurrences that can have lasting effects on our mental and physical health. These life events can literally rewire our brain and recalibrate our immune system so that we are more susceptible to mental illness, autoimmune diseases, cancer, heart disease and dementia throughout our life.

The good news is that we need not be passive victims of our past, our circumstances or our diagnosis. Every choice we make, every day of our lives, pulls us in the direction of harm or healing. This is enormously empowering but it also means we need to learn which choices are damaging and which are restorative. Some things are obvious: soft drinks, smoking and junk food are clearly harmful to our brain and body. But there are many things that modern medicine fails to address that are just as detrimental to our health: living in conflict with our values, feeling lonely, having an argument, and not spending time in nature. All these factors disrupt our gut bacteria, play havoc with our immune system and cause widespread inflammation. A life devoid of meaning, joy and social support is in fact more likely to lead to illness (physical and mental) than unhealthy food choices and lack of exercise.

On the flip side, just because something doesn’t come in a pill, doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful. There is now overwhelming evidence that sleep, stress management, music, meditation, art, gardening and gratitude are all medicine for our body as well as our mind. People are more powerful than pills, and dancing is a better tonic than drugs.

Once we realise this, we can start to view disease as a signal to ask deeper questions about the quality of our lives and the buried sadness, grief or suffering that are exerting physical, psychological and emotional effects on our brain and body. It’s time for modern medicine to acknowledge the inextricable mind-body connection and support people in seeking out root causes rather than simply eliminating symptoms. Symptoms are a sign that something needs our attention. Therefore, the first question to ask ourselves when we’re struck by an illness or unwanted symptom is: What might be going on in my life that has brought about this condition? Is there an emotional or physical need that I’m neglecting? Could my emotional pain have transformed into physical pain? This is not about blame, but about compassionate self-reflection. Merely by being curious, we open the door to healing.

In 2024, I’ll delve deeper into the notion of disease as a doorway to a richer and more meaningful life, rather than an affliction to be eradicated as quickly as possible. True healing begins with contemplating where we are not being true to ourselves and how we can reconnect with our own innate wisdom.

In the meantime, you can watch my National Dementia Conference presentation here.

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