Road to Balancing Act
Perhaps my childhood experiences with my mother influenced my choice in career.
My mother was that special person, who arises in every fortunate large family, who helps a lot of people, all the time. If you had a problem with someone in the family, you would probably go to Melin, which was her nickname. To me, she was “Mami.” She was always a hard worker but has had a frail constitution. One of the early memories I have of Mom is of her in bed resting, recovering from some ailment. There I am, a five or six-year-old standing next to her bed, brushing her hair, trying to comfort her with the words, “when I grow up, I’m going to be a doctor to make you well.” These words turned out to be prophetic.
From then on, I wanted only to be a doctor. Whenever adults asked me the perennial question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” my response was eager and certain: “I’m going to be a doctor.” This belief provided a clear sense of direction in my early life and through high school and college.
No one in my extended family ever tried to become a doctor—still, I believed that I was supposed to be one. It never occurred to me that it might not happen. After graduating from college, I began medical training in Chicago, and later finished a three-year residency in Family Medicine. I became a family physician in 1982.
But I had many misconceptions about medicine.
One misconception was about a physician’s effectiveness in curing disease. During medical training I assumed that, as an American-trained, Board-Certified family doctor, I would be curing 80% to 90% of the medical problems encountered by my patients.
By 1988, after practicing family medicine for six years, I was keenly aware of the much more complicated truth. The reality was that for common medical problems, such as:
- back pain
- other chronic symptoms and conditions
there were no immediate, sure-fire cures. However, for many of these more common ailments, the available treatments usually treated only the symptoms and then, frequently, only with poor responses. Too often, the root cause of pain or other symptoms was not addressed, especially when symptoms were temporarily treated with a medication. Unfortunately, these medications might also have serious side effects, such as stomach bleeding, kidney damage, or addiction.
For the recurrent, long-term medical problem, the quality of the doctor-patient relationship can very well be the deciding factor in how well the patient will respond to treatment.
As a physician, I began to shift from just treating symptoms to looking for underlying causes. I wanted to help patients manage their chronic symptoms and illnesses, and maybe reduce the use of medications.
In an acute problem like appendicitis or a urinary infection, the patient can be diagnosed, treated, cured, and released without forming a relationship with the physician. However, for common chronic diseases that persist, like high blood pressure or diabetes, the patient’s medical outcome mostly depends upon the patient’s lifestyle, rather than what a physician does in a 15-minute office visit. Thus, the doctor helping the patient take care of themselves between appointments is most important when dealing with chronic medical problems.
The newfound importance of doctor-patient relationships was the catalyst of my Self-Health perspective.
Such a perspective questions what actions (or reactions) can enhance health:
- Can patients’ attitudes and behaviors enhance the healing process beyond the best work of the physician?
- Are there non-prescription remedies that can have a positive impact on health, just as prescription medicines do?
My personal journey in mind-body-spirit medicine began in 1986, with the book, Getting Well Again.
Published in 1976, it describes the experiences of the authors: physician O. Carl Simonton, and his wife, psychologist Stephanie Simonton. For years, at a military hospital, they had treated patients with advanced cancer. Their approach was unique, in that they offered patients stress-reduction techniques such as:
- creative visualization
- supportive therapy
and more, in addition to standard anti-cancer care. This eclectic approach improved the survival of some of their patients and increased the quality of life for many others.
The Simontons’ expertise supported the use of non-traditional methods with the more common, less severe ailments seen in my medical practice. The couple also discussed the added benefits of spirituality. I soon found that other health-care providers, such as surgeon Dr. Bernie Segal, were also practicing mind-body medicine with their patients. I began teaching mind-body medicine for stress management and to reduce the use of medications. Eventually, I too turned to spirituality as an added resource for healing and well-being.
The concept of a mind-body connection motivated me to focus on how stress negatively influences one’s health, i.e., how stress causes illness.
Stress is a good place to start when studying the mind-body connection because, in stress, perceptions in the mind leads to an effect in the body. When a person is under stress, you can see the mind-body connection in action.
Recognizing the mind-body connection helped me realize that the body also contains the ability to heal itself—far beyond what I had imagined or been taught. The life force is amazing and remarkable in its healing mode.
In most cases, if you give the body what it needs, it will move toward health.
A simple and very common example of how the body heals itself is when a patient comes in with a cut on the skin that requires a few stitches. I use a special needle and suture to bring the edges of the wound together. When the patient returns a few days later and the stitches are removed, the wound has healed. All the stitches do is bring the edges together. The body does the healing.
Most patients in my practice were born with good health. As they go on in life, they too often pick up mental and physical habits that undermine their good health. A health care provider who understands this becomes a coach and a partner with the patient in removing the obstacles to the natural flow of health.
These ideas influence profoundly how I speak to my patients with chronic medical conditions.
I remind them that I cannot give them health, but I can help them get the health they are entitled to have.
We can influence health and well-being through nutritional, psychological, and environmental factors.
Health-depleting factors such as smoking, alcohol, sugar, stress, and worry are obstacles to optimal health. As a physician, I help patients remove obstacles to health.
This may also mean adding better foods, vitamins, or fiber to their diet. It may mean taking out smoking, junk-food, or imbalanced diet from their lifestyles.
Beyond physical interventions, it may mean teaching them how to worry less
This shift in perspective seems to be more about the art, than the science of medicine.
I recognized that my patients were asking me to heal them: not realizing they already had access to what they wanted. What I needed was a way to help patients access their built-in capacity for healing.
I accepted the fundamental lesson of the Simontons’ book: that the mind and body influence each other for illness and healing. Relaxation exercises, visualization exercises, and other stress management techniques were already being used to manage symptoms such as headaches, back pain, insomnia, and anxiety. Full of excitement about what I was learning, I began to practice concepts and techniques that could help patients help themselves.
In the time allotted, I had to listen to their concerns, examine them, and make the usual medical recommendations. Where appropriate, I would add that their symptoms might also respond to certain stress management techniques. If they were interested, they would also receive some reading material.
After months of attempting to discuss the mind-body connection and teaching relaxation exercises during short office visits, I made plans for a group class, and invited patients to attend free of charge.
In June 1988, I offered my first eight-week class in mind-body medicine and stress management called “Paths to Wellness”.
In class, we would do the following:
- consider the relationship between stress and illness
- review and discuss the research in the mind-body connection
- learned relaxation exercises to reduce stress-related symptoms.
Balancing Act: A Mind, Body, Spirit Approach to Optimal Health derived from the original course book for “Paths to Wellness”. Today, more than three decades later, the class has evolved into “Balancing Act”, a wellness program combining mind-body medicine, nutritional medicine, and stress management.
Balancing Act is a life management book for developing and enhancing the skills you already have. Balancing Act is about life—because health is about life.
Balancing Act presents a practical model of health based on two time-tested observations:
1) health correlates with your personal energy level
2) your personal energy level can be positively influenced using mind, body, and spirit actions that you can already access.
Balancing Act helps you choose energy-enhancing attitudes and actions that will become part of your optimal personal energy program.
Balancing Act is based on three decades worth of life management classes I have developed and presented to thousands of participants.
Balancing Act has mental, physical, and spiritual activities to enhance your personal energy and positively influence your quality of life.
About the Author
Marco De La Cruz, MD, is a board-certified family physician practicing in Chicago since 1982. Dr. De La Cruz has presented lectures and workshops on nutrition and life management to thousands of participants. He lives in the Chicago area with his wife, Ann, and children Nicole, Marco, and Brendon.