Doctor on mission to revitalize people's resiliency
Deepak Chopra. Dr. Oz. Drew Pinsky. Dr. Phil. Dr. Ruth.
Most people are familiar with at least one of these names. They’re doctors whose names have made it into mainstream media —pop-culture phenoms who have their own TV or radio shows, or who get frequently invited to dispense their particular brand of wisdom on 24-hour news channels.
Dr. Amit Sood. Heard of him?
The answer is likely no, but there are a lot of people who hope that will soon change, and for good reason. Sood’s not some celebrity wannabe peddling an unobtainable lifestyle for fame and money, but he does have one big goal, which is to bring, for lack of a better word, happiness to seven billion people — the planet’s population. Sound crazy? Sood doesn’t think so, and neither do those who know him, including his employer, the Mayo Clinic, who not only supports his work but is partnering with him to bring that work to a much larger audience — more on that later.
Currently, Sood runs Resilient Living — its online home is stressfree.org — an organization with a goal to help people overcome their “neural predisposition to suffering.” It’s something he knows a little about because, like others who genuinely want to make the planet a better place, it’s a conviction Sood comes by honestly and organically.
Suffering & Stress A Signal
Sood grew up one of four siblings in a close-knit family in Bhopal, a mid-sized city in central India that is probably best known as home to the Union Carbide pesticide plant. On Dec. 2, 1984, around 30 tons of methyl isocyanate, a highly toxic gas, was released into neighborhoods, many of them severely impoverished, around the plant. This catastrophe, known simply as the Bhopal gas leak tragedy, is commonly thought to be the worst industrial accident in history. Death estimates have always varied, but the generally agreed upon number is around 15,000. Hundreds of thousands more were sickened, many critically.
Sood was a 17-year-old medical student at the time. Though he was physically unaffected — his family lived far enough away to escape harm — the experience would change the course of his life. “I went to the medical school on the third day after the event to see if I could do something. I was only given small tasks — distribute glucose, eye drops, take accounts of what happened — but I saw a lot of suffering that no 17-year-old should be seeing. And I didn’t know how to process all that at that time.”
What it did bring him, Sood says now, is a sort of resilience — a word that comes up often in his programs — a knowledge that life is tough. “You just have to tie your shoes and show up at work no matter what. Don’t think too much about what’s happening and do your best.”
So that’s what he did. Sood finished school and, in 1995, eager to experience medicine “at its cutting edge,” accepted an opportunity to come to the U.S. for specialized training. The U.S., he believed, was one big Disneyland — a view that would be challenged almost immediately. He settled for a time in the Bronx. “It was the height of the HIV epidemic, the height of drugs. People were really miserable,” he says. It occurred to him that no matter who you were or what your circumstances, life had a way of making happiness seem out of reach. This thought would send many into the same crashing depression as those around him. For Dr. Sood, it piqued a curiosity. What if there was a scientific way to figure out why human misery seemed like such a given, and then change that?
It was a thought that he would have to put on a back burner. At the time, Sood was pulling 15-hour days completing his residency. He still was weighing his options, considering a career in cardiology or medical oncology, but the suffering around him, combined with his memories of the Bhopal gas tragedy, would not escape his psyche, and he kept coming back to the same thought: “When I can, I will figure out why this is happening.”
It would not be until years later — after a stint in a medically underserved area followed by a six-month “thinking break” trip overseas with his wife, meeting different spiritual leaders and studying healing practices — that he landed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, to pursue a master’s in clinical research. It was there that his “signal,” as he calls it, began to ring louder and truer. He was ready to confront the issue of global unhappiness.
“I asked myself: Is this a big enough problem that the whole world will care about it? Is this a big enough idea that I can risk investing my entire life in it?” he says. “And the answer I got, multiple times, was yes.”
That was around 2008, he says, and “from there on, things started moving faster.”
Sood’s years-long research has focused on how our brains operate. We are prone to function in what he calls “default” mode — that is, our brains wander from one subject to the next, which leads to a sort of ill-focused unease. When we operate in focused mode, Sood says, we are much calmer, much happier.
To that end, Sood has authored a number of books and offers courses, both online and in person, through is Resilient Living program. These tools, he says, can help people learn how to reshape their neural pathways toward better resiliency. Sood’s metaphor for this often involves the part of a highway shoulder that causes your car to shudder when you’ve gone over the white line. Learn to measure your response to your brain’s default mode in much the same way you’d correct your car’s course and, he reasons, you’ll be a much happier person.
The simplicity of Sood’s message resonates with a lot of people. A number of Denver-based medical professionals have taken Sood’s Transform course and say it has helped them both personally and professionally.
Rose Medical Center’s Dr. David Thiel is one of those. Thiel says he had gotten to where he was “getting twisted in knots by very mundane situations throughout the day.” He’d been ill, plagued by persistent pneumonia that, when combined with an “unrelenting work schedule was leading me toward emotional and physical exhaustion.”
He enrolled in Sood’s Transform course, attending a two-day program in April, followed by a six-month phase two that involved self-study, monthly conference calls with Dr. Sood and weekly emails. It was, he says, a life-changer. “I am now able to reframe challenging situations and not let them drain my energy. I am happier,” he says. He’s still not exactly the Dalai Lama — “I still get angry. I still get impatient,” he says. But then? “I laugh at myself and let it go.”
Sood’s program already has had great reach, with people in far-flung places like Guatemala, Barbados, Mexico, Ghana, Saudi Arabia and, appropriately, his homeland of India, taking his courses. Later this year, he will partner with the Mayo Clinic to found the Mayo Clinic Resilience Program, which he hopes will give his program an even broader reach. He’d like to bring it to kids, schools and police departments.
If it was his early life and travels that brought him to the place he’s in now, it’s his daughters, 12 and 5, that keep him on this path. “Lot of people have doubts about what to do with their lives,” he says. “My north star is, ‘What will be right for our kids?’ Anytime you have doubts, think about what will be right for our planet’s children. I think about which action will help them most, and that’s what I do.”
Sood, Thiel says, is the embodiment of true humility. “He lives for humanity,” he says simply.
Yes, all seven billion of us.
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