Experiencing delight as well as sorrow is vital to your well-being, says Priyanka Wali, M.D., an internist in California and a stand-up comedian. Here, the cohost of the podcast HypochondriActor, where notable guests share their medical tales, explains how to harness the curative influence of feelings.
Shape: Your podcast merges medicine, comedy, and celebrities. What makes it effective?
Priyanka Wali, M.D.: Occasionally I can’t believe my luck. Yes, they’re stars, but they’re also human beings with some kind of ailment. I’m there to respond to their inquiries. However, it goes beyond that. The podcast demonstrates that doctors possess other facets. My aim is to convey the notion that doctors are multifaceted individuals who might also aspire to perform stand-up comedy or engage in artistic pursuits. We must revive empathy in the field of medicine. This begins with how people perceive doctors.
Shape: Does laughter have healing effects?
PW: There is well-documented research concerning the physiological advantages of chuckling. It reduces cortisol levels, alleviates stress on the body, and essentially diminishes inflammation. It also stands in contrast to the scientific, methodical, and unbiased nature of the medical establishment. Laughter is an entirely spontaneous physical expression. It balances the controlled medical setting.
Shape: Why are adverse feelings crucial?
PW: Suppressing specific emotions can lead to physiological alterations in the body that can give rise to illness. If someone experiences melancholy, they are more susceptible to enduring chronic pain. However, our medical system has not fully acknowledged the connection between emotional well-being and physical maladies. Consider fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Not long ago, these conditions were not acknowledged as established diagnoses. Patients, often women, were informed, ‘There’s nothiing amiss with you.’
Now the medical community recognizes that fibromyalgia and IBS are bona fide conditions. Nonetheless, the medical practice still revolves around ordering blood tests or conducting a physical examination. If the test results show no abnormalities and the examination does not reveal anything starkly evident, then you are informed that nothing is awry. This is why alternative forms of healing have experienced such significant growth over the past two decades. I believe we are on the precipice of a major shift in the way we perceive illness and the realization that there is an undeniable link between the body and mind.
Shape: You struggled with depression earlier in your life. Did that influence who you are?
PW: Part of the reason I started pursuing stand-up comedy — and made the commitment to continue it — was that I had gone through the depths of depression, contemplating suicide at my lowest point in medical school. Once you hit that rock bottom, you never want to go back there again. Stand-up taught me how to prioritize my healthcare.
I still go through periods of melancholy just like anyone else. But now I acknowledge that I have plenty of emotions, and it’s my duty to make space for them. I view sadness as a teacher. When it appears, it’s a sign that something isn’t aligned.
In our society, it’s not necessarily acceptable to be sad. We’re informed that feeling happy is normal. However, a part of being human is to experience the entire range of emotions and allowing room for both joy and sorrow, anger, and awe.
Shape: You work in fields dominated by white males. How do you cope with that?
PW: Medicine taught me a great deal. I underwent residency surrounded by a lot of Caucasian males. As a person of color in this male-dominated system, I have to exert twice the effort to prove that I’m equally intelligent or humorous. Medicine truly trained me to stay focused on my goals and not let any white man hinder my progress. It gave me a solid foundation to counteract the patriarchy. By the time I entered comedy, I had already dealt with it.
I’ve realized that setting intentions is incredibly important. A person of color will face numerous challenges. And you have to know in your heart and soul why you’re pursuing what you’re doing.
Shape: What’s your advice for achieving success in difficult situations?
PW: Determine the emotions you experience. Take ownership of them. We all have shadows and darkness. Put in the effort to comprehend yours and their origins. You must know yourself. The better you do, the better you’ll be able to navigate the journey.
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