A Practical, Holistic Approach to Stress & Wellness in a High Pressure World

Posted By SHL Librarian

Presented by: Nadia E. Haddad, MD, MS
Clinical Instructor, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
April 14, 2016

Stress is an undeniable aspect of modern life. Though everyone experiences and responds to stress in an individual way, stress is defined as physical and psychological pressure that causes a disturbance in your body’s natural equilibrium. It’s actually an important short-term adaptive response for meeting natural threats: The stress response prepares the body to fight or flight, a protective mechanism that could save your life.

But the daily trials and tribulations of managing a career, making ends meet, or taking care of a family can cause our bodies to activate the same physical reaction, turning on that fight-or-flight response indefinitely. The effects can damage your health if you don’t find a way to address the root cause or learn to manage your stress.

“Stress in itself is not a bad thing—but how you manage it is key.” said Nadia Haddad, MD, MS, L.Ac, a clinical instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who spoke at a presentation sponsored by the Stanford Health Library. “There is a message encoded in our stress, and to manage it we need to understand the message and respond.”

Dr. Haddad specializes in integrating modern science with Chinese medicine’s holistic approach to health and well-being. She looks at the relationship between the mind and body in a field known as integrative medicine, which combines conventional and complementary approaches to address the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of health and illness.

Ongoing Stress
Dr. Haddad emphasized that, in the short term, some stress can help you meet daily challenges, keep you motivated, and enhance learning. But she sees a glorification of stress in modern society, with people boasting about how many hours they put in at work or how little sleep they need. “The current mentality is, if you’re not stressed, you’re not working hard enough,” she said. “There’s also a regular bleed of work into daily life as email, text and cellular phones give us easy access even when out of the office.”

The result is chronic tiredness, an overactive mind, and poor sleep, which in turn leads to decreased work performance. People often overcompensate with caffeine or energy drinks to address their tiredness, medications to fall asleep, or stimulants for focus.

“Many of us have a control mentality, as in, ‘my body and mind should do what I want them to when I want them to, and willpower and self-medication are my tools.’ But ignoring stress is not the same as controlling it,” she said.

Maintaining Balance
The body has a set point to function efficiently, a natural balance of pH, oxygen, carbon dioxide, temperature and other physical mechanisms that work in conjunction with complex factors like sleep, activity, diet, and social interactions. Together, all biological systems work in conjunction to regulate this homeostasis and maintain physiologic rhythm. Stress applies pressure to this programmed equilibrium and can hamper virtually every aspect of health, from contributing to heart disease to causing weight gain. Stress has also been associated with the development of certain types of cancer.

Dr. Haddad recommends developing an awareness of your body’s messages to learn how to regulate its balance. An important internal rhythm is based on your circadian clock, a biological timekeeper that synchronizes chemicals, hormones, body temperature, and sleep patterns. This biological clock induces “larks” to go to bed early and wake earlier in the morning, and “owls” to stay awake later into the night, often with difficulty waking up.

Studies show an increased mortality risk for those reporting less than seven hours of sleep per night. Most of society is based on a lark schedule, which creates a long-term mismatch for owls’ sleep cycles. This mismatch can affect alertness and performance, and chronic sleep deprivation can cause obesity, depression, high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack.

Management Tactics
She suggests that you try to establish a regular wake-up time that fits your circadian clock and maintain a regular sleep schedule all week. If sleep is problematic, avoid the vicious cycle of taking stimulants like caffeine, which can affect sleep no matter how early in the day you drink it: Studies have shown that caffeine in the morning can affect sleep the following night. You might consider switching to a less-potent stimulant like tea, and avoid alcohol, which disrupts sleep patterns. Some people respond to melatonin, which helps to shift the natural sleep cycle (she recommends 3-5 milligrams taken an hour before bedtime). Exposure to early morning light can also help adjust the body’s circadian rhythm.

Another important body rhythm is controlled by eating, which maintains metabolism and energy. Dr. Haddad recommends eating a wide variety of nutrients, avoiding processed foods, and increasing your intake of foods rich in omega-3, such as flax seeds, and fatty fish (sardines, mackerel, salmon). Incorporate physical activity and exercise that you enjoy into your daily routine, and take classes to expose yourself to new ways to move your body.

She also suggests you build in some downtime to relax and enjoy being in the present, such as breathing exercises, stretching exercises, yoga, or meditation. Attune yourself to external rhythms through music and dance, which can alter your brain waves, lower blood pressure, and improve immune function. Stress also can come from interpersonal friction, so seek meaningful connections with people you enjoy.

Fine-Tune Your Rhythm
People who have trouble identifying their emotions may benefit from short-term psychotherapy, though it’s important to find a professional you can relate to. Acupuncture is designed to support both balance and rhythm, and can improve sleep patterns, reduce inflammation, and diminish perceptions of pain. Massage with moderate pressure has also shown to reduce the effects of stress.

To make positive, permanent changes, choose two small, measureable steps for one week, such as reducing coffee or meditating for 10 minutes a day. Become aware of your circadian rhythm and modify your sleep accordingly.

“We have important internal cues that help us navigate the world.” Haddad said. “The key to reducing stress is to get to know yourself to help support your body’s internal rhythms. Handling stress better means handling our bodies better as well.”

About the Speaker
Nadia E. Haddad, MD, MS, is a clinical instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who specializes in merging traditional science with Chinese medicine. She received her MS in Oriental Medicine from Dongguk Royal University in Los Angeles, her MD from the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and she completed her residency at Stanford, where she joined the faculty in 2015. She is board certified in psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry & Neurology.

For More Information:

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About Dr. Haddad

Center for Integrative Medicine

Dr. Haddad’s Blog

Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

Stanford Center on Stress and Health