Surprising Science: Medical Proof that Doing Work You Love Could Save Your Life

Written by Scott May 7, 2013

love your work to live a long life

“Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease.” – Hippocrates

The Health Benefits of Loving What You Do.

I believe doing work you love will change the world.

But a lot of people still spend their lives filled with stress, anxiety and despair about how they spend the majority of their working and waking hours. As many as 80% of the world lives this way (although I’d like to think our Revolution here is beginning to push that number down).

Yet despite the constant pain and frustration, we find reasons to push off change one more day. One day turns into a year, which turns into forever.

But as we’re about to see, there are serious risks in putting off the change you know you so badly need to make.

The biggest risk of all? Life.

Yes, there is real scientific and medical proof that doing work you don’t enjoy will actually shorten your lifespan.

So for those of you on the edge, or who know people on the edge, today I hope to offer a wake up call that trumps all others. But I’m not qualified to tell you about it. Instead I’ve brought in an expert and good friend who’s hard to deny.

Lissa Rankin, M.D. studied medicine for over twelve years and then spent another decade seeing patients in her clinical practice. Then frustration set in – she realized most of her patient work and prescriptions weren’t actually helping people. So she left it all, sold the second home and gave up a very profitable business to go on a quest to discover why some patients experience miraculous cures from seemingly incurable illnesses, while others remain sick even when they receive the best medical care. She scoured medical journals and data from some of the most reputable medical establishments in the world, including Stanford and Johns Hopkins.

What she found blew a lot of minds.

Diet and exercise, while important, were not at the top of the list.

What was? Things like time around close friends, laughter, the health of your marriage and wait for it… doing work that genuinely fulfills and excites you. 

She didn’t just find stories and anecdotes of this stuff being the case. She found real peer-reviewed medical evidence proving it to be true. She recently published her findings into her third book, Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, which launches this week.

This is the evidence I’ve been waiting for.

Lissa now devotes herself full-time, as a mind-body medicine physician, to her mission to heal our broken health care system, both by helping patients play a more active role in healing themselves and by training physicians how to facilitate, rather than resist, such mind-body healing. She is the founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute, which includes guest faculty such as Martha Beck, Christiane Northrup, Bernie Siegel, and Larry Dossey. She also has two of the best TEDx Talks I’ve seen on health, medicine and the power of the body.

I believe in possibility.

I believe that in most cases ‘the impossible’ is a state of mind.

Lissa’s work puts proof to this belief.

In my eyes she is doing some of the most important work on the planet.

Lissa’s experience, friendship, support and proof that the impossible is not only possible, but often controllable, could not come at a more important time right now for me personally. I’m grateful to have her in my life.

Enter Lissa Rankin M.D. 

Lissa Rankin MD Mind Over Medicine

You probably know that having a toxic job that stresses you out and sucks the soul out of you isn’t exactly good for you. As a physician who has experienced work stress myself, as well as witnessing it in my patients, it’s obvious to me that work stress is poisonous and can translate into physical symptoms. You know this already. Anyone who has ever gotten a migraine after a deal went bad or stiff shoulders after the boss criticized him can attest to that.

But did you realize that work stress can actually kill you?

In Japan, they even have a word for it – karoshi – which is defined as “death by overwork.” Karoshi usually happens to relatively young, otherwise healthy people who are burning the candle at both ends in a less-than-dreamy work environment.

The first case of karoshi was reported in 1969, when a worker died of a stroke at the age of 29. But it wasn’t until 1987 that the Japan Ministry of Labor began collecting statistics on karoshi. Since that time, Japanese officials estimate that approximately 10,000 cases of karoshi occur each year.

This should be big news! Some lawyers and scholars even claim that the number of karoshi deaths in Japan equals or exceeds the number of traffic accident fatalities each year. But when was the last time your doctor added “Alleviate work stress” to your preventive maintenance or treatment plan?

What Happens Physiologically When People Die of Karoshi?

Karoshi is not a single disease. It’s a constellation of what are believed to be stress-induced physiological changes that usually lead to either sudden cardiac death or stroke, most likely caused by repetitive triggering of the “fight-or-flight” stress response that activates the sympathetic nervous system, raises blood pressure and heart rate, and overstresses the cardiovascular system.

Just before dying, most karoshi victims complain of varying combinations of dizziness, nausea, severe headache and stomach ache. In 95% of karoshi cases, death occurs within 24 hours of the onset of severe symptoms, though milder symptoms sometimes precede the severe ones. (If you’re stressed at work, do any of these symptoms sound familiar to you? If so, listen up. That’s your body telling you your work could be harming your health.)

Death by Overwork in the United States

It’s not just the Japanese who are working themselves to death.

Although most of the data on karoshi comes from Japan, the International Labor Office released statistics showing that the United States far exceeds the Japanese when it comes to overwork. Our doctors and our government have yet to recognize karoshi as a distinct disease or award workman’s compensation benefits the way the Japanese do, and because we don’t track it, it’s hard to say how frequently work stress manifests as death in the United States.  But you can bet it affects the health of many.

One study found that one in five Americans come to work, even though they were ill, injured, or seeing a doctor that day. The same sort of work obsession keeps about a third of employed Americans failing to use accrued vacation time. This failure to use vacation days has actually been proven to predispose to early death.

One study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2000, looked at 12,000 men over nine years and found that those who failed to take annual vacations had a 21% higher risk of death from all causes, and they were 32% more likely to die of a heart attack. Yikes!

It’s not just early death that work stress can cause. Another recent study found that disenchanted, burned out employees developed heart disease at a 79% higher rate than those who liked their job.

And there are financial costs to all this burn out! The New York Times reports that health issues related to job stress costs the American economy $200 billion annually – roughly the economic cost of Hurricane Katrina. It is an epidemic that just might be affecting… you.

How Your Toxic Job Can Harm Your Body

You probably know that work stress isn’t good for you, and you probably know that if you hate your job, stress reduction would be a plus. But do you understand how work stress harms the body?

Here’s how it goes. Your boss yells at you when you did nothing wrong, and you get pissed. Or you’re on the floor of the stock market – or in front of a jury – screaming until you’re red in the face. Or you’re up all night, faced with the repetitive stress of performing a perfect surgery when you’re exhausted, like I did for over a decade. Or someone steals your idea and doesn’t give you credit. Or your job requires you to try to sell cigarettes – and when you do, you also sell out your integrity.

You keep quiet when you want to speak up.  You lack the power to make the change you know needs to happen. You’re trying to please an office full of narcissists. Or whatever.

Sound The Alarm

It doesn’t matter what the stressor is. All that matters is that the amygdala in your lizard brain reads “THREAT!” and signals the alarm that lets your brain know you are in danger, probably because a tiger is chasing you. Your amygdala isn’t very smart. It doesn’t really listen to your intelligent forebrain and fails to realize that your boss isn’t actually a man-eating tiger. (Or maybe she is…)

Either way, your amygdala sounds the alarm and the “fight-or-flight” physiological stress response is triggered, flipping on your sympathetic nervous system, exposing every cell to harmful stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, elevating your heart rate and blood pressure, and worst of all – deactivating the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms, the ones that kill cancer cells, fight infections, repair broken proteins, slow aging, and help you live to be a hundred.

The Relaxation Response: The Solution…

Fortunately, your body has a natural counterbalance to the potentially poisonous stress response, which Dr. Herbert Benson famously named the relaxation response, which is also the title of his bestselling book from the 1970’s. The relaxation response shuts off the stress response, turns on the parasympathetic nervous system, and flips on the body’s self-repair mechanisms so the body can do what it does best – heal itself.

The Power of Living Your Legend

So if you think work stress might be putting your health at risk, what can you do?

Well, you’re already doing just what the doctor ordered by being a part of the Live Your Legend community, getting inspired about how to get out of any job that sucks out your soul and starting to engage in work you love.

As it turns out, the most effective way to optimize the health of your body is to reduce stress responses.

The average American has over 50 stress responses per day. But when you’re doing work you love, feeling a sense of mission and purpose, helping other people with the work you do, staying in alignment with your integrity, feeling a sense of personal power in an entrepreneurial business, working with people you admire, and expressing your creative gifts, you naturally experience fewer stress responses – and the body’s self-repair mechanisms have a chance to do their business.

But What If You Can’t Quit Your Soul-Sucking Job?

Still mired in the cubicle or married to the golden handcuffs? Don’t worry. You can start today – before you quit.

To prevent death by overwork, you’ll need to implement a two-fold strategy by reducing stress responses in the body, while simultaneously activating relaxation responses.

To Activate Relaxation Responses:

  • Meditate. And here’s some good news. According to Dr. Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response, you don’t even have to close your eyes and sit down to meditate. He has proven scientifically that the body responds favorably when all you do is pick one word and repeat it while passively disregarding other thoughts. This means you can activate relaxation responses while running, driving, or grocery shopping. Cool!
  • Laugh. Even if nothing is funny, the act of laughing triggers relaxation responses. And you’ll feel so silly, you’ll probably laugh some more.
  • Play with animals.
  • Express yourself creatively. You don’t have to paint or play an instrument to get the health benefits of creative expression. Even setting a beautiful dinner table or gardening can relax your nervous system.
  • Get it on. Need I say more?
  • Dance. Even if you’re dancing by yourself to a Pandora playlist.

To Reduce Stress Responses at Work:

  • Set healthy boundaries. Skip the 12 hour days. Be willing to have a heart to heart with your boss, even if you are your own boss. No amount of job security or money is work dying young.
  • Take vacations. People who fail to use their vacation time are 32% more likely to die of a heart attack.
  • Stay in integrity with yourself. If you’re selling your soul for a paycheck, your body will suffer.
  • Do what you love. When you’re motivated by a sense of mission and purpose, your nervous system relaxes and your physiology responds positively.

In my book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, I walk you through the 6 Steps To Healing Yourself that include not only how to reduce stress responses, but very specific actions you can take to activate more relaxation responses – things like meditation, laughter, playing with animals, hanging out with friends, getting a massage, doing yoga, attending services as part of a spiritual community, giving to others, or hugging someone.

Ultimately, it’s all about the ratio between stress responses and relaxation responses in the body, so if you can’t reduce stress responses, you can still add relaxation responses – and my book will teach you how to do that.

The big question is…Is your work hurting you, or do you love what you do?

Share your stories in the comments below.

– Lissa RankinMind Over Medicine Lissa Rankin

Lissa Rankin, MD, is the creator of the health and wellness communities LissaRankin.com and OwningPink.com, author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself (Hay House, 2013), TEDx speaker, and Health Care Evolutionary. Join her newsletter for free guidance on healing yourself, and check her out on Twitter and Facebook.

*****

Thank you for doing the work you do Lissa – and for your contribution. The world is a lot better (and healthier) because of you.

For those of you who’ve been putting off a change, I hope this will be the last wake up call you need.

We’re here to help any way we can.

To doing what matters & living a full life,

-Scott

For the comments: I’ll see if I can get Lissa to chime in on any specific questions that come to mind. Something tells me she’d love to help. Please ask away!

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“It was 18 months ago when I came across Live Your Legend and it just completely blew my mind. I was living this life thinking I have to kind of just do this. Then it was like a kid on Christmas Day with my wife thinking ‘we don’t have to do this anymore.’ It was literally a life change. It opened so many doors. Thanks for everything you’re doing.”

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