A Functional Medicine Doctor’s Spiritual Check-In

A Functional Medicine Doctor’s Spiritual Check-In

A Functional Medicine Doctor’s
Spiritual Check-In

Apostolos Lekkos, DO, is seeing a shift in health and medicine that he describes as a “waking-up”—not only in how people are treating their bodies, he says, but also in moving toward (often secular) spiritual engagement. It makes him optimistic: Science supports the use of meditation and other mindfulness practices for stress reduction, and he sees a collective de-stressing as an avenue for healing on both an individual and a community level. That’s why Lekkos integrates emotional check-ins into his functional health practice: While medical testing can tell us a lot about the state of our health, he says, our spiritual and emotional status is the power button that turns it all on—or shuts it all down.

For more with Lekkos, tune in to his conversation on The goop Podcast, “The Levers That Keep Us Well.”

A Q&A with Apostolos Lekkos, DO

Why do you work with patients on self-perception and outward attitude?

The way people see themselves is a factor in overall health. If people are walking around carrying negative feelings about themselves (like “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not lovable,” “I’m stupid,” “I’m not pretty enough,” or “I’m not seen”) or about the world around them, they tend to miss out on life because they’re so consumed by worry and fear. Often, these patterns are so established in my patients’ minds that they don’t even notice they have them until I bring it up.

Our thoughts aren’t just fleeting things in our mind. They have power. We’re seeing evidence that the cells throughout our body act in accordance with our thoughts. We’re seeing how thoughts may change the way our genes are expressed. And that’s how we’re seeing thoughts manifest with health and illness.

I’m working hard on getting people to change the way they see themselves, to unload the baggage they’ve been carrying. The stories we tell ourselves aren’t us. They’re not who we are in our core. And to walk around all day in that state of mind makes us sick. We can learn to stop these records playing in our minds and to see ourselves and our world in a much more positive way.

How do you ask your patients to think about stress?

Stress is your perception—a reaction to a real-life experience. And you ultimately have control over it. This takes practice. There are a few ways I ask my patients to think about what’s stressing them out that I find really help.

I love to talk to patients about the one-month rule: When you find yourself in a situation where you’re feeling upset, anxious, stressed, or worried, ask yourself, “Am I going to feel this way about this event a month from now?” Most of the time, the answer is no. And if the answer is no, that’s a sign that you can let this go. The stress you’d endure—over the fight you got into with a friend, the plans that fell through, the traffic you’re sitting in, the takeout order that wasn’t right—would be hurting your body over something that probably isn’t worth it. We can break that cycle.

If the answer is yes, this is something I’ll still be thinking about a month from now, then that’s a legitimate worry. Feel that out. In the meantime, you can still work on reducing the amount of stress you feel around it; easing that stress will help you work more effectively through the problem.

How do you develop that muscle for a healthier stress response?

It takes practice. The first step is awareness. You have to become aware that you are, in fact, stressing out. Then you have to become aware of the way that you’re responding to stress. How are you feeling? How are you holding your body? Are your shoulders pulled up? Is your jaw clenched? Are you holding your fists tight all the time? I have patients check in with themselves every hour. Literally: I have them set reminders on their phone to ask themselves, “How do I feel right now?” every hour. And if they feel stressed out, I have them ask themselves, “What am I stressed about? Can I let it go?”

A good technique to de-stress yourself on the spot is a variation of box breathing called 4-7-8 breathing. You inhale for four seconds, hold it for seven, and then exhale for eight. You do that four times in a row at least—or more, if it’s what it takes to relax you. I find that by the third round, people will start to feel their shoulders drop and their jaw relax, and they feel all of this weight melt off their back.

What are some of the common emotional stressors you see in patients?

For so long, my practice was all about the body. It wasn’t until the last few years that I became more aware of how my sickest patients were the ones who had so much internal angst and stress and trauma in their life.

I started asking patients these questions, because their answers tend to reflect not only their general mind-set but also their state of overall well-being. Just asking the questions makes us take more notice of why we think—and act—the way we do.

  • Have you had childhood trauma? What stories do you still tell yourself about who you are because of your experiences? Does that reflect who you are now?
  • Do you tend to be optimistic or pessimistic? How does your point of view affect the way you react to the world outside yourself?
  • How do you see yourself? Do you have negative chatter in your mind about yourself that you have a hard time quieting down?
  • Do you care what people think about you? How does that affect the way you move through the world? A note: Everybody cares way too much what other people think about them. At the end of the day, no one else cares what you look like or what your body weight is or how you come off.
  • Are you a people pleaser? Are you always adding more stuff to an already overloaded plate?

What’s your experience like talking with men about emotionality as a medical issue?

I think women are more receptive to mindfulness techniques in general, but most men are open to it, too. Men are beginning to allow themselves the space to get vulnerable—and to recognize that ability as a sign of strength.

It’s also the case that sometimes they’re not ready for it. And that’s okay. We don’t force it on them—that doesn’t help. I might call them out on it and say, “You know, I can tell this doesn’t resonate with you, but why don’t you just try it on for size?” I’ll ask them to start with a small exercise. Like, let’s try meditating for just three minutes a day, or let’s try seeing this scenario a little differently, and then we’ll see how that affects their response.

Or if I’m working with someone who talks about things they’re stressed about but generally presents as unemotional, I’ll tell them they need to let that out: Go and scream into your pillow at night. If you’re frustrated, just scream into your pillow—beat it up. Go into your car and grab the steering wheel and scream. Whatever it is, move it out of your body. You don’t need to hold these emotions inside of you. If they follow that advice, they often start to feel better.

It’s those small things that start to chip away at the issue. Once these guys see it’s making a difference and they’re starting to feel better, they’re more open to it. Sometimes I have to really dig in with guys and to get them to open up. But man, when you strip it all down, we’re all the same. We’re all vulnerable. We all just want to give love and be loved.

Apostolos Lekkos, DO, is a functional medicine doctor and the founder of Bios Functional Medicine in Santa Monica. He earned his doctorate in osteopathic medicine from the University of North Texas Health Science Center, has a master’s degree in metabolic and nutritional medicine from the University of South Florida Medical College, and is board-certified in anti-aging, regenerative, and functional medicine.

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