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Bernie Siegel

Unlocking the Secrets of Mind-Body Medicine:
An Interview with Dr. Bernie Siegel

By David Jay Brown

Bernie S. Siegel, M.D., helped to create a revolution in modern medicine. He is the author of Love, Medicine, and Miracles, the groundbreaking best-selling book that sold more than two million copies and went to number one on the New York Timesbestseller list. 

In his practice as a general and pediatric surgeon, Dr. Siegel began recognizing common personality characteristics in those patients who did well and those who didn’t. Studying these personality patterns helped Dr. Siegel to understand the important role that thoughts and emotions play in our health, and he began incorporating what he learned into how he treated his patients. In so doing, he helped to create a paradigm shift in clinical medicine that paved the way for what is now commonly known as mind-body medicine.

Dr. Siegel earned a medical doctorate from Cornell Medical College, and he received his surgical training at Yale University. In 1978, Dr. Siegel and his wife Bobbie founded the Exceptional Cancer Patients (ECaP) program in New Haven, Connecticut. This highly regarded and successful program–which incorporates a combination of group and individual therapy–is based upon what Dr. Siegel calls “carefrontation” or “a loving, safe, therapeutic confrontation that facilitates personal change, enpowerment, and healing.”

Dr. Siegel’s book Love, Medicine, and Miracles was published in 1986. As a result of this book’s enormous popularity, Dr. Siegel appeared on numerous television shows, including OprahDonahue, and 20/20. Some of Dr. Siegel’s other books include Peace, Love and HealingHow to Live Between Office VisitsPrescriptions for LivingHelp Me To Heal, and 365 Prescriptions for the Soul. Dr. Siegel also produced a series of popular audio cassettes, including Meditations for Enhancing Your Immune System, and Humor and Healing

Since retiring from clinical practice in 1989, Dr. Siegel has focused his energies on humanizing medical care and medical education. He is especially interested in teaching other health care professionals about how the mind-body connection affects health. Dr. Siegel travels extensively to speak and lead workshops. He recently completed a new children’s book, and is working on a book about how dreams and drawings can be used to reveal the somatic aspects of disease and healing. To find out more about Dr. Siegel’s work visit his Web site: www.ecap-online.org

I interviewed Dr. Siegel on November 12, 2004. I found Bernie to be extremely warm and charismatic. He’s very funny and playful, curious and open-minded, and I immediately felt comfortable with him. We spoke about how beliefs and emotions affect our health, how dreams might offer insights and clues as to how to treat a particular illness, what he thinks needs to be done to help improve the Western medical profession, and he offered a few prescriptions for how to slow down or reverse the aging process.

David: What inspired your interest in medicine, and why did you choose to become a surgeon?

Bernie: When I look back at my life, the number one reason that I come up with has to do with being artistic as a child, and having talented hands, but not realizing you could earn a living as an artist. I know that may sound silly, but as a kid I just didn’t know that. So I thought it would be good to use my hands because they’re skillful. I liked people, science fascinated me, and I liked fixing things. When I looked at what could accomplish all of those things, I realized, hey, you could be a surgeon and do them all.

I can remember taking care of a lot of children with various deformities back in medical school at what’s called the Hospital for Special Surgery. I was intially doing orthopedic work, and the funny thing was I realized that my personality was not to be an orthopedic surgeon–because it took too long for a bone to heal. I couldn’t wait. (laughter) So I became a general and a pediatric surgeon. In other words, I began taking care of children, but with congenital anomalies and other different things, as well as adults, because we had a practice partnership. So I took care of all ages, but I cared for all the children, and I really let the children teach me how to take care of adults.

But I always say that the reasons I became a physician were healthy. They’re not normal for a surgeon, because a lot of psychologists contacted me years ago saying, you’re not a normal surgeon, and please fill out these personality profiles. Then they’d call back and say, we were right–you’re not normal. And yes, I understand that, but I think that’s also what got me into people’s pain. Many students today don’t have anything to do with people in their reasons for wanting to go to medical school. When they’re filling out the form, it says, why do you want to be a doctor? They’ll say the human body fascinates me. When I say to them, draw yourself working as a doctor, they’ll draw pictures with no human beings in them.

It’s just unbelievable to think that you can say to a student, draw yourself working as a doctor, and they hand you a picture with diplomas, computers, instruments, prescriptions, bottles of drugs, and things of that sort. There are no people in the picture. So it’s because I cared about people, as I say, that I got into pain–because you ultimately realize that you can’t fix everything, and you can’t save everybody. It got to be very painful, and none of that is dealt with in your training. They don’t prepare you for loss, and that’s a part of the problem. There’s nowhere to discuss the pain, or share your feelings and help heal.

David: Can you talk a little about how you think our thoughts and beliefs effect the health of our bodies?

Bernie: You can’t separate thoughts and beliefs from your body. In other words, what you think, and what you believe, literally change your body chemistry. So if you have a pessimistic, hopeless outlook you’ll change your body, your immune function, and you can die a lot faster. I have literally seen this. I hear these stories from people, when someone’s hope is taken away. Let’s say they’re told they have a few months to live, but they can go home, climb into bed, and be dead in a week. So it’s really like turning off the “live switches”. When you study survivors you find that relationships, connections, hope and meaning all relate to people staying alive. For instance, just on simple terms, women live longer than men with the same cancers, and this has more to do with the men saying, I can’t work, so what’s the point of living? And the women seeing all the connections in their family, and reasons for being here.

So, as I say, your thoughts, beliefs, all relate to the health of your body, and many doctors literally can kill people with their words, or in a sense, heal them and cure them with words, and give them hope. This was something that I got into years ago, and everybody would yell at me, oh you’re giving false hope. But hope can’t be false. (laughter) If you have hope, it’s real. So there’s no such thing as false hope. Hope is a memory of the future. What they’re talking about is, you’re supposed to tell people what day they’re going to die. But who knows that? If the statistics say there’s six months average survival that doesn’t mean there aren’t people walking around ten years later, you see, who had that disease, and some who died in a week. So you’re coming up with an average. But individuals are not effected by an average. Yes, I might use it to make therapeutic choices. If something can improve your chances of surviving, you’d say, okay, let’s have an operation, let me have chemotherapy, whatever–but it doesn’t say where you’ll be next year or five years from now.

David: How do you think multiple personality disorder sheds light on the process by which the mind effects the body?

Bernie: If you look at the case histories of people with multiple personality disorder one of the things that you see is that there are people who are allergic to something in one personality but not in another. There was one case where somebody was diabetic in one personality and not in another. So, you see, when you change personalities your physiology can change with it. Now, a study was done that shows this operating on a simpler basis. If I give you a role or a script to play, and if it’s a depressing one, it will adversely effect immune function and stress hormone levels. However, if I give you a comedy it will enhance them. You see, it’s like the multiple personality–you’re changing your character. But what impresses me is that in a play it’s not even you or your life. You’re just acting. But still, when you act that part, your body responds to it, and that’s what people have to remember. So this is what I’m always saying to them–rehearse and practice who you want to be. As a physician I see myself as a coach. I try to help people be survivors. I point out to them what the qualities are of those who do better than I expect, so that they can imitate them, and rehearse and practice being a survivor. One doctor wrote of how his patients survived in a concentration

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