Parvati Magazine interviewed Dr. Neha Sangwan, the author of TalkRx, on the power of communication to support health.
Parvati Magazine: You seem to have a strong background in science and engineering before you moved into medicine and what now seems to be a holistic approach. How did you get from there to here?
Dr. Neha Sangwan: I grew up believing there were only two career choices: engineering or medicine. When I figured out they weren’t mutually exclusive, I pursued them both. I worked as a manufacturing engineer before attending medical school.
For years, as a dedicated Internal Medicine physician, I worked 36-hour shifts and saw up to 18 hospitalized patients a day. I was so focused on other people’s health and doing what was expected that I rarely paid attention to what my own body was saying. Eventually the grueling pace, erratic sleep schedule and blatant disregard for my own physical, mental and emotional well-being led to burnout. This was my wake-up call to realizing self-care in healthcare.
PMAG: Your TEDx talks are very heartfelt, and you don’t hesitate to allow emotion to show as you share the stories of your patients and loved ones. That seems rare among doctors.
NS: Yes, sharing emotions is rare among physicians and the medical community at large. I would say that getting comfortable with my emotions has given me a new sense of freedom and ease at work and in my relationships. As a result, I dedicated five chapters of my book, TalkRx, to this very subject—where I address the most challenging emotions such as sadness, anger and anxiety. All I can say is I wish someone would have taught me this in med school!
Every patient who was shivering in a paper thin gown in the emergency department or on a gurney was worried, scared and anxious about what was going to happen next. I discovered the way to build trust and connection with each one of them was by leaning in to that discomfort by being present with and addressing their emotions. Not only did it help my patients, but learning to experience emotions is how I was able to reconnect to the meaning of my work as well as to my own heart.
PMAG: You’ve spoken of asking patients, “Why this, and why now?” What is the power in these questions to unlock healing?
NS: Yes, I have a series of five questions I used to ask my patients the night before I would discharge them – what I call an Awareness Prescription.
- Why this?
- Why now?
- What signals might you have missed?
- What else in your life needs to be healed?
- If you spoke from the heart, what would you say?
These questions are a launchpad, inviting patients to speak about whatever resonates with them. All that matters is that they begin connecting their physical well-being with their external circumstances, their patterns of behavior, their relationships, and their emotional truth. For example, if a patient had back pain, maybe he felt as though he had the weight of the world on his shoulders or didn’t feel supported. Maybe he wasn’t standing up for himself.
When the body breaks down on a physical level, it’s important that we look beyond the textbook definition of a disease, the numbers from a blood test, or the results of an X-ray. Often, exploring beyond the malfunction of a specific organ or system reveals an underlying mental, emotional, or social correlation.
PMAG: Your book TalkRx came out this spring. In it, you remark, “A patient’s ability and willingness to communicate [has] the power to vastly improve their health.” That’s big stuff! How did you come to see it?
NS: Well, I knew scientifically that stress causes or exacerbates more than 90% of all illness, but what I didn’t know was—what was at the root of all that stress? So I started asking those five questions to help patients discover what was really ailing them.
And what I started noticing was that the situations my patients were in caused them an inordinate amount of stress. Somewhere along the way, their communication—with lovers, with friends, with co-workers, with family, with themselves—had broken down, and they were unable to bridge the gap. The result was disconnection, loneliness, and isolation. My patients’ inability to communicate was literally making them sick.
PMAG: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about the work you do?
NS: That the way they feel, their ability to communicate effectively, and their relationships are all connected to their health! I learned this lesson—the hard way… so your readers don’t have to. And I would love to keep the conversation going, depending on how your readers learn best.
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Re: Live Events
I’d love to work with them personally in a small group or one-on-one at an upcoming retreat or workshop (doctorneha.com/events/).
There are so many simple, effective ways to resolve your stress, strengthen your relationships and get more of what you want. Join the TalkRx Community because getting healthy is a team sport!
Neha Sangwan, M.D., CEO and founder of Intuitive Intelligence, is an internal medicine physician, international speaker and corporate communication expert. Her private practice and corporate consulting focuses on empowering individuals, organizational leaders, and their teams with the tools for clear, effective communication. She addresses the root cause of stress, miscommunication, and interpersonal conflict, often healing chronic conditions such as headaches, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. She regularly consults with organizations such as the American Heart Association, American Express, Kaiser Permanente, and Google, and has shared her keynote presentation on the stages of TEDx. For more information, please visit doctorneha.com.