Linking Physical Activity, Therapies and Mindfulness for Healing

Three years ago, I began providing private mindfulness meditation sessions to a young man who was on the road to recovery from what had been a mysterious and difficult-to-diagnose illness. In fact, it took the collaborative efforts of physicians from a variety of specialties over an 18-month period to determine the root cause of what had become a chronic illness with a wide range of debilitating symptoms. Prior to 2016, David (not his real name) had been an academically gifted high school student, physically active, civically involved and looking forward to attending college.

His mother explained to me that beginning in early 2016, David began exhibiting mood and behavioral changes following a strep infection. His behaviors were “OCD-like” in nature: excessive tooth brushing, hand washing and showering. Within a two-month period, he began repetitive hand motions through his hair, ear prodding, over-the-top hand gestures while speaking, and exaggerated mouth and tongue movements. This unusual behavior caused a loss of hair, skin irritations, a 25-pound weight loss and, by the summer, he had lost his ability to speak coherently.

David was eventually hospitalized and received tests and treatments from nearly 50 specialists in his home city. Additionally, his family traveled with him to major medical centers in Chicago, New York, California, Connecticut, Washington D.C. and overseas to Israel. During these trips, he underwent multiple invasive medical tests and procedures, yet his symptoms grew to become life-threatening, and included inflammation in his brain and severe neurological damage to his hands and legs. Eventually, David became non-verbal and his only means of communication were hand gestures: thumbs up, thumbs down and a slice of the hand, which was interpreted by his caregivers as “no way.”

Unfortunately, many of these tests and procedures led to several incorrect diagnoses, both biological and psychological. David’s parents were initially told that he suffered from anxiety compulsion, which led to a diagnosis of Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcus (PANDAS), which is the sudden, rapid-onset of obsessive compulsive behavior, as well as possible movement and behavioral abnormalities, following strep infection. He was given blood plasma therapies, antibiotics and a host of other powerful medications. He even underwent a tonsillectomy because of his past strep infection and chronic issues with swallowing and lack of speech. Initially, the treatments for PANDAS generated some minor improvements; however, after the tonsillectomy David’s symptoms worsened.

Desperate for answers, David’s parents began to look for supplemental resources and alternative treatments that might provide David some physical comfort and to save his life. During their trip to Israel, they received a recommendation to seek one-on-one sessions with a Feldenkrais practitioner. The Feldenkrais Method is based on principles of physics and biomechanics, and an empirical understanding of learning and human development. It includes Functional Integration, which are one-on-one lessons in which the fully clothed student is guided through touch, movement and verbal instruction. Physical movement is the primary component of the Feldenkrais Method and it also has a strong mind/body component, which contributes to participant improvement both physically and mentally.

It was during a Feldenkrais session that the practitioner learned of a trip that David’s family took to Muir Woods in California prior to the onset of the initial strep infection. Remaining true to their scope of practice, the practitioner did not offer medical advice; however, they did inquire if David had ever been tested for a tick-borne disease since the onset of his symptoms occurred immediately after the family trip to Muir Woods. After receiving this information, David’s parents immediately returned to the US and found a specialist skilled in diagnosing and treating tick-borne diseases. After 18 months of unanswered questions, blood tests determined that David and his parents carried the Babesiosis tick infection; however, David was the only one who developed severe symptoms. Although all three were treated with the appropriate medications and antibiotics necessary to eradicate the infection, these medicines did not repair the damage to the cells of David’s brain, muscles, and tendons. His subsequent road to full recovery required a team of professionals from these diverse treatment modalities:

This has been a full-time and grueling undertaking for both David and his family. Five years later, David no longer needs all these modalities. In fact, he is remarkably close to his age-predicted physical, mental and emotional baseline, with some lingering but minor movement and language issues. David continues speech, physical, massage and occupational therapies throughout the week. These sessions are fortified by his continued work with a personal trainer and yoga and mindfulness meditation practices.

Like David, many people experience extreme physical and mental trauma before reaching adulthood. There is a great deal of research-backed evidence suggesting that mindfulness practices can be an effective component of the healing process, and it is important to recognize the links between physical activity, therapies and mindfulness practices. The human body is physiologically designed to deal with stress first (fight or flight) and healing second. Here are the lessons I learned from David’s journey:

  • Exercise is medicine.
  • These modalities provide self-regulation strategies in a variety of circumstances.
  • Commitment to the modalities increases confidence and emotional strength.
  • Combined, these modalities enhance quality of life, lessen pain and reduce anxiety.
  • Exercise and stress reduction along with nutrition are essential for healing.

Many communities are beginning to integrate mindfulness training in elementary educational curriculum and youth sports, and to mitigate negative youth behavioral issues. For example,  Stephen Buzzard of St. Michael’s Episcopal School in Carmichael, Calif., a basketball coach and physical education (P.E.) teacher, told me that the faculty there was trained to implement various forms of mindfulness into their classes and programs. These include meditation and yoga.

He began his P.E. classes with two to three minutes of yoga poses accompanied by soft music to allow the kids to decompress. By the end of the school year, the students had learned to master approximately 20 yoga postures. While this process required a great deal of faculty preparation, he noted an overall improvement among students throughout the school year. Although they did not conduct formal surveys for measuring success, he was confident that 95% of the students understood the benefits of the training. Coach Steve runs a newly reinstated basketball camp in Sacramento, Calif., (COVID-postponed) and plans to use the tools from this school experience into all his programs where the kids range in age from 7 to 13 years.

David could have ended up with permanent disabilities, both physically and emotionally; however, he is now a full-time second-year college student successfully maintaining a 4.0 GPA. His story is important for anyone, not just those who have been diagnosed with a catastrophic illness.

Many people struggle with chronic stress, which is known to have negative health effects, so learning how to utilize mindfulness practices and being open to the benefits of a wide range of modalities and incorporating them into one’s lifestyle may offer significant benefits for everyone—including you and your clients.