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2014 Kelly Scholar-in-Residence: Q & A with Joan Borysenko

Joan Borysenko is this year's Bonnie Jean and Joan Kelly Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence.
Joan Borysenko is this year's Bonnie Jean and Joan Kelly Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence.
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St. Catherine University’s 2014 Bonnie Jean and Joan Kelly Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence is Joan Borysenko — a pioneer of integrative medicine and an expert in the mind/body connection.

On campus April 23–25, Borysenko will collaborate with students and faculty from the University’s Henrietta Schmoll School of Health on mindfulness and meditation, interprofessional education and new frontiers in the mind-body-spirit movement.

Borysenko will deliver the address “The Art and Science of Resilience: From Surviving to Thriving” on Thursday, April 24 at 7 p.m. in The O'Shaughnessy. The lecture is free and open to the public but tickets are required and can be reserved online.

In advance of her visit, Borysenko shared some insights on the field of mind-body science and the importance of resilience.

You are a Harvard-trained medical scientist. Can you talk about how or why you made the leap to the more holistic mind-body science?

That’s an important question! I was an assistant professor at Tufts Medical School and about to go up for tenure. My father developed cancer, and that was my field — I was doing cancer research funded by the National Cancer Institute. My father was put on an anti-cancer drug that created a manic psychosis. The result of that was terrible.

At that time, hospitals had no consultation liaisons in psychiatry for someone who was having trouble like that with the treatment. There was just no help for him or the family, and the doctor said, “no we can’t take him off drug because he needs it for his cancer.” My father ended up jumping out of a window. He apparently could not stand the suffering the family was going through.

When that happened, like anyone else who has been through major trauma, I really needed to make meaning out of it and give it a different context so that I could live with it. I felt he died on my watch. I was the only one in the family in the medical field. I really needed to help people with cancer and to help the families of people with cancer.

At the time, I knew so much about cells that are cancerous, but I knew nothing about people. Through very good fortune, I was able to get a second post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard — this time in a new field called behavioral medicine — and then finished the course work necessary to become a licensed psychologist. In collaboration with Dr. Herbert Benson and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, I set up one of the early mind-body clinics at one of the Harvard teaching hospitals.

At the bottom of it all, I am a scientist. I’ve always been fascinated by the chemistry, biology and the immunology of the mind-body connection. My work in the field of psychology — even my work in the field of spiritual direction — come right back to science.

For example, we understand the brain science behind some of the spiritual exercises that have been used for a long time. A simple practice like mindfulness, or a simple practice like concentration meditation, can actually shift the activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. So now there is really no division between biology, psychology and spirituality. They are all part and parcel of the same whole and it just depends what lens we’re looking through.

In a results-oriented age where data reigns supreme, there’s the argument about which is more valued — quantitative or qualitative data. But it sounds like you bring those two together.

That’s exactly what I do. I can remember the days that I ran a clinic at one of the Harvard teaching hospitals and I would get people who came from every walk of life. Frequently, people said, “I would not have come here if this was not based in science. It looks flaky to me, but if you tell me you’ve got the science, then I’m interested.”

And you’re quite right; science has become a demi-god in our culture. I think it’s really wonderful to be able to point out the science to people and it satisfies that part of their minds. It provides extra motivation for a variety of different wellness practices — from exercise to food to learning to manage stress or learning to manage emotions. When I first started out in the field of psychology, there was much less data to base practice on. It’s a very exciting time right now because we have so much more data.

Why is the issue of resilience so critical right now? What will people take away from your lecture?

We are, more than ever, in a time of tremendous change in our society and in our earth. We’ve got everything from lessening social interaction because of the internet, to a much bigger disparity between the rich and poor, to an entire different kind of job market, to things like global warming, pollution of our atmosphere and the disappearance of species. Everything is changing very rapidly.

If we begin to get fearful, we will not be able to bring our best creativity to deal with these changes. All of us, on every one of those levels, from the personal to the planetary, need to have better ways to learn how to be creative and cope with stress.

What I’m going to teach people are techniques that will actually change their brain and their nervous system. On a very personal level, for each one of us, we can feel more emotional freedom — less run by emotions that might afflict us and more able to use those emotions in a creative way that will make us more effective. Not to mention, the part of the brain that makes us resilient — the left prefrontal cortex — is also the happiness center of the brain. Who doesn’t want to be happier?

More about Joan Borysenko

Joan Borysenko is a Harvard-trained medical scientist, a licensed psychologist and a spiritual educator. A pioneer in mind-body medicine and psychoneuroimmunology, she is the founder of Mind/Body Health Sciences, LLC in Boulder, Colorado.

A New York Times bestselling author and blogger for The Huffington Post, Borysenko’s work has appeared in newspapers ranging from The Washington Post to The Wall Street Journal.

More about the Kelly program

The Bonnie Jean and Joan Kelly Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence is one of three programs endowed by Joan Kelly ’46 in honor of her late older sister, Bonnie Jean Kelly, who died suddenly while she was a student at St. Kate's.

Joan Kelly was an English major, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate, and credits the liberal arts education she received at St. Kate’s for her success. The Kelly gift also funds annual student and faculty writing awards.

April 8, 2014 by Sharon Rolenc

See also: Alumnae/i, Healthcare, Leadership