March 8, 2013 — Most Americans say they have higher stress levels than they believe are healthy, according to the American Psychological Association’s recent Stress in America survey. One in three report living with extreme stress. Such stress can take a big toll on health: Chronic stress has been linked to health problems from heart disease to asthma to ulcers and more, and the cardiovascular health risk stress poses is not dissimilar to the risk from cigarette smoking, according to Laura Kubzansky, associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).
Kubzansky was one of four expert panelists who discussed the effects of stress on health and well-being at a March 5, 2013 Forum at Harvard School of Public Health event, presented in collaboration with the Huffington Post. Other panelists included Lilian Cheung, editorial director of HSPH’s Nutrition Source; David Eisenberg, associate professor in the HSPH Department of Nutrition; and Ellen Langer, professor of psychology, Harvard University.
Representing a diverse array of approaches to stress and health, with backgrounds ranging from psychology to nutrition science, the panelists explored the underlying causes and consequences of stress—particularly the “physiological wear and tear” that occurs when people undergo repeated periods of stress. And they emphasized the role that mindfulness plays in combating stress and choosing healthy behaviors.
“We eat less thoughtfully when we are stressed,” said Eisenberg. “When we are in a good place emotionally we make better choices.” Cheung, an expert on mindfulness—being actively aware of the present moment—shared her own “three steps to bliss”: “Mindful breathing, mindful eating, and mindful movements.”
Addressing stress from a public health standpoint, the panelists said, is key to establishing systems that will better prepare people to cope with stress. Although stress is pervasive in our lives, there is currently no systematic medical approach to prevent and treat it. Among the panelists’ recommendations: Doctors need to be trained to better recognize and respond to patients’ stress and help them practice healthy habits; and experts should develop systems and tools to help children more effectively manage stress.
photo: Aubrey LaMedica