You Are More than Your Body - The Mind-Body-Spirit Approach to Longevity

You are More Than Just a Body: The Mind-Body-Spirit Approach to Longevity

Dr. Valencia Ray, MD

When you think about aging, what comes to mind? Do you see yourself growing old with some sort of disability, or do you wake up every day with a sense of purpose, feeling vibrant, energetic, and younger than ever?

In this fascinating interview, we spoke with Dr. Valencia Ray, M.D, who specializes in mind-body-spirit medicine, about her holistic approach to anti-aging and longevity. Dr. Ray shared how paying attention to some commonly overlooked aspects of health and wellness can be the key to unlocking greater vitality and longevity.

My view of anti-aging

I am often asked about my “anti-aging” secrets. I definitely understand the sentiment – none of us wants to die early, or spend our later years disabled and in pain. But I prefer to focus on what I’m for, rather than what I’m against. We get what we pay attention to, and so I try to pay attention to what I want more of. That’s why I like to say that I practice pro-vitality, pro-vibrance medicine.

In my practice, I see a lot of highly driven and motivated people, who’ve often reached very high levels in their careers. They apply that same determination to their health and longevity practices. Many of them are primarily interested in things like advanced genetic screening, optimizing their diets, supplements, sleep, and exercise. Indeed, these are very powerful longevity-promoting tools that are essential for a long and healthy life.

However, many people are missing huge pieces of the longevity puzzle. The truth is that human beings are much more than just a physical body. If we really want to optimize our health and stay vibrant for as many years as possible, it’s important to pay attention to all the levels of who we are – mind, body, and spirit.

Tapping into your emotions for optimal wellness

If you’re interested in health and longevity, chances are that you’re aware of the negative impact physical factors have on our lifespan and healthspan. For example, eating processed foods, not sleeping enough, or being exposed to certain environmental toxins can negatively impact our longevity.

Very often, these physical factors make you feel discomfort in your body. This, however, doesn’t mean that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with your body. It may just be a hint that you need to pay attention to what your body needs. For example, you might need to stop eating certain foods, sleep more, or give your body more nutrients to help it process toxins more efficiently.

Mental health is like this too. When you feel emotions like anxiety, stress, or melancholy, this doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with your mind. It may be a sign that you need to pay attention to what your mind needs. You might need to give yourself more downtime, reconnect with your creativity, find greater meaning, and purpose in your life, or learn how to skillfully process your emotions so that they can be released.

Unfortunately, many of us have absorbed some mental toxins from our environment. I’ve seen so many of my patients who are ashamed or embarrassed to share with me that they feel emotions like anxiety or sadness. They’ve absorbed the idea that this makes them weak. Nothing could be farther from the truth – your emotions are simply signals from your mind about things that you need to pay attention to. It’s important to make friends with them, rather than try to push them away.

Stress and the mind-body connection

Of course, the body and the mind aren’t two separate things, but rather integrated parts of a whole.

The body affects the mind – changes in our mood can be caused by issues occurring in the physical body. And the mind affects the body – physical health problems may be caused by emotional stress or anxiety. In fact, psychological stress is a main factor in all the leading causes of death and the underlying cause of many chronic diseases. This is why if you’re interested in longevity, it’s crucial that you pay attention to the different sources of stress in your life.

But how exactly does psychological stress affect our physical body?

You may have heard of the autonomic nervous system, specifically the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system as they relate to stress[1].

  • The sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight” stress response which is activated when we’re under stressful situations. Worrying about finances, relationships, a situation at work, having to go through traffic during rush hour, or simply worrying about what other people may think about you, all these modern life stressors can activate the sympathetic nervous system and lead to chronic stress.
  • The parasympathetic nervous system is our “rest and digest” system and is activated when we feel calm.

In general, the body maintains and repairs itself when we’re in a parasympathetic state. When your sympathetic system is dominant, however, your body goes into crisis mode. This means it doesn’t devote resources to long-term longevity promoting things like tissue repair. Spending too much time in a sympathetic state has been associated with chronic inflammation, which in turn is related to many age-related diseases[2].

When it comes to longevity, emotions matter

Based on my personal journey and the work I’ve done with thousands of patients, I’ve learned that one of the biggest secrets of longevity is making friends with your feelings.

Many people get their connection to their feelings wrong. They believe that they should ignore their negative emotions so that these don’t cause stress. But the opposite is true. When we ignore an important signal like a negative emotion, the brain continues to process it. It becomes an unconscious source of stress and keeps us in a sympathetic state.

The key to releasing negative emotions is to complete the cycle. Fully acknowledging all of our emotions allows us to see them clearly and process them. Once we’ve done this, the brain will not need to keep processing them over and over and they will no longer be a source of chronic stress.

The big paradox is that fully opening up to our emotions doesn’t mean that they start to rule our lives – the opposite is true. When we try to shut down or ignore emotions, they simmer under the surface. We eventually find ourselves blowing up or breaking down due to unprocessed emotions. But when we learn how to skillfully process and integrate those emotions, then we allow them to be released. They no longer control us.

And it’s not just things that have happened recently that can affect you. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study showed us how deferential traumatic events that occur before age of 18 can be. People who experience stressful events in childhood get more chronic diseases as adults, and they get them earlier in life[3].

When you start to open up and make friends with your emotions, you might find yourself processing things that happened long ago. This is a good thing – it means you’re finally feeling and releasing emotions that may have been ignored for a long time. It’s important to allow this process to occur, so that these emotions don’t continue to affect your health.

Connect to something bigger than yourself

As human beings, we have a strong need to connect with something bigger than ourselves. This is what spirituality is all about – finding our purpose for being here on earth and feeling how we fit into the bigger picture.

When we don’t feel that our lives have meaning, we can easily get trapped in a cycle of trying to find fulfillment through external accomplishments, which will never quite be enough. We’ll always feel an underlying sense of unease and stress. There’s always something else we need to achieve to feel good about ourselves or about our lives.

Feeling connected to the larger universe and having a sense of meaning and purpose makes a huge difference in how you handle the challenges of daily life. This connection in turn reduces your stress and improves your health and longevity.

I know all too well the price we pay for ignoring this aspect of our lives. Decades ago, I developed a serious heart condition that could lead to heart failure. I’d become so busy with my career and external accomplishments that I’d completely neglected my spiritual side. Between the heart condition and the depression I was feeling from the overwhelming stress, my young life could have been cut short.

This is what really set me on the path to taking my spiritual care as seriously as I take breathing and eating. Thanks to learning how to heal the emotion that was blocking my feelings and embracing my spirituality, the heart condition spontaneously resolved. Over many years of working with patients, I’ve seen that this is very often a key missing piece in the health, wellness, and longevity puzzle.

The anti-aging power of meditation

When I first started meditating, it was still considered pretty “out there” by most mainstream scientists and was even ridiculed by some. I had to find my own way into this practice.

Fortunately, the situation has changed, and the science is catching up. Neuroscientists are even putting Buddhist monks into MRI scanners – and discovering that their brains are actually protected against aging[4]. Meditation has become a lot more accepted in mainstream circles, including studies that examined its connection to cellular aging and longevity[5].

So, if you’re looking to explore meditation, there are tons of resources available to you.

Meditation can be used to connect with something that’s larger than yourself. When you get very still and quiet, the boundaries of self can dissolve. You become aware that you’re one part of a much larger whole. When you’re meditating, you’re also practicing making friends with your emotions. You watch whatever is arising, simply accepting whatever may be without judgment.

Express your creativity

Creativity is another important aspect of being human. For me, music, art, and dance are all important ways to connect with the universe and allow the flow of energy through me.

When I’m engaged in one of my creative practices, I’m fully present in the moment, open to whatever arises. All of us have this urge to create, to express ourselves.

Unfortunately, it’s very common for people to stifle their own creative urges. They may start to believe that whatever they’re creating isn’t good enough. Many of us have been taught that being creative is only worthwhile if you’re a professional artist, and that it’s a waste of time otherwise.

This is another mental toxin that we can absorb from our societal environments, and it causes many people to completely neglect their creativity. That’s what happened to me, until my heart condition woke me up and made me realize how important this aspect of my life truly was.

I encourage you to try making some space for creativity in your life. Remember that the point of the practice is the process, not the product. You’re just giving yourself a chance to open up to whatever wants to flow through you. Try not to judge whatever you create, and just let yourself be present in the moment as you enjoy the process of creation itself.

Finding your own path

If you’re interested in longevity, it’s important to take your emotional and spiritual health seriously, and to give these factors the space that they deserve in your life.

Many of us are so busy that we feel like we don’t have any time to spend on processing emotions or enjoy a spiritual practice. But in truth, we can’t afford to ignore these things. I’ve seen it time and time again, in my own life and in the lives of my patients, simply giving yourself a little time and space to get quiet and feel connected will work wonders for your long-term well-being.

Human beings are multidimensional, and if we want to live long and healthy lives, we need to pay attention to all levels – the mind, the body, and the spirit. One or more of these may be your missing longevity link, which helps you unlock greater vitality over many years to come.

  1. McCorry LK. Physiology of the autonomic nervous system. Am J Pharm Educ. 2007;71(4):78. doi:10.5688/aj710478
  2. Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI J. 2017;16:1057-1072. Published 2017 Jul 21. doi:10.17179/excli2017-480
  3. Sonu S, Post S, Feinglass J. Adverse childhood experiences and the onset of chronic disease in young adulthood. Prev Med. 2019 Jun;123:163-170. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2019.03.032. Epub 2019 Mar 20. PMID: 30904602.
  4. Nagesh Adluru, Cole H. Korponay, Derek L. Norton, Robin I. Goldman & Richard J. Davidson (2020) BrainAGE and regional volumetric analysis of a Buddhist monk: a longitudinal MRI case study, Neurocase, 26:2, 79-90, DOI: 10.1080/13554794.2020.1731553
  5. Epel E, Daubenmier J, Moskowitz JT, Folkman S, Blackburn E. Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009;1172:34-53. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04414.x

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