Former ABC journalist, Shannon Harvey, was just getting started in her dream media career when, at 24 years old, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. Facing the news that she could end up with organ failure and a lifetime of medication that offered neither a cause nor a cure, Shannon went in search of answers. The one thing that became very clear early on was when she was stressed out, her condition got worse.
Shannon began trawling through research, discovering a powerful connection between the state of her mind and her potential for recovery. She soon realised that in order to change her own health she needed to change her mind.
So Shannon made some serious life changes. She started practicing regular meditation and yoga and prioritising sleep. She moved closer to family and friends, assessed the relationships in her life and let go of the ones that were simply bad for her health. Finally, she sought counselling to address the driving forces behind her unhealthy behaviours and eventually made the decision to leave the deadline-driven world of news journalism.
With each change, Shannon’s health improved and, in 2012, she decided to invest every profitable dollar of her video production company, Elemental Media, into creating a film about her journey and discoveries.
Her Australian-made documentary, The Connection, features world-leading doctors and scientists in mind/body medicine, including Dean Ornish, Andrew Weil and Jon Kabat-Zinn (the man credited for bringing mindfulness to the Western hemisphere), and follows remarkable stories of recovery from a range of chronic illnesses.
“Twelve months of making a self-funded film, premiering it in nine cities across Australia, the US and the UK; having a baby; and running a start-up team from my newlywed home office could have, and should have, been the most stressful time of all,” says Shannon. But years of practicing mindfulness had shifted her response to these stress factors so enormously that she was “much better equipped to handle them.”
Seven months on from The Connection’s grassroots launch, an estimated 100,000 people have watched the film and Shannon says the most surprising response has been from medical and corporate circles who have become some of the film’s biggest advocates.
“Hospitals and health care groups such as UMass Memorial Health Care in the US and St Vincent’s in Australia have organised screenings for staff and patients. Universities, including the University of Nottingham in the UK and Monash University in Australia, have also screened it. I was recently invited to screen the film at Google HQ in Silicon Valley and it’s been screened to staff at Blackmores and Medibank in Australia. There have been 120 community -based screenings of the film in May alone in support of Mindful in May.”
It seems as though her message is being shared and celebrated far and wide, but when asked what changes she would like to see in the traditional medical world, Shannon says, “Imagine a scenario where a patient is sitting in a GP’s room, being told they have a chronic illness, but instead of just being given a prescription, a bill and another appointment, they’re given a whole raft of tools to be able to face their illness. We now have the evidence-based proof that the state of your mind affects the outcome of your illness. We should use that proof.”
A few of Shannon’s simple tips for more mindful health:
1. Start meditating. The evidence showing what happens to your brain when you meditate particularly in relation to your brain’s stress centres is compelling. When you start, I recommend enlisting the help of a meditation course or teacher but there are some great apps too. If the first type you try doesn’t work for you, try something else.
2. Get support. You can’t make major changes in your life without the love and help from the people around you. We’ve evolved to be social creatures, dependent on our ‘tribe’ for survival. The link between social isolation and bad health is scary. If you don’t feel supported, then seriously assess your relationships. You may need to start there before doing anything else.
3. Be mindful. Look for opportunities to be in the present moment without any judgement about whether that moment is good or bad. (The second bit is crucial and takes the sting out of a stressful day.)
4. (Really) eat healthy food. Cut out the crap. Eat more fresh fruit and veg. Be honest with yourself about how much crap you actually eat. Aim for 90 per cent healthy. By that I mean 10 per cent unhealthy, not 40 per cent unhealthy that you say is 10 per cent.
5. Get more sleep. Turn off all screens after dark and dim the lights or use lamps most nights of the week. Allow yourself exceptions once or twice a week or you’d never get to watch the final season of Game of Thrones (or in my case Call the Midwife).