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Understanding the stress connection

June 23, 2016 | Patricia Harriman
Dr. Shaista Malik

Dr. Shaista Malik


“To optimize physical wellness, it is critical to pay attention to the mind,” says Dr. Shaista Malik, a cardiologist with UC Irvine Health and director of the Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine.

From migraines to heart attacks, drugs and surgery may treat the immediate condition, but do not address the underlying causes. There is almost always a stress connection.

The science of stress

There are more than 1,400 biochemical responses to stress, including a rise in blood pressure and accelerated heart rate. Those areas of the brain that trigger stress responses are fed by stress, causing even more stress, creating a cycle of stress.

“Stress changes the brain,” Malik says. “It shrinks the part that helps us focus and perform, and increases the part that sets off fear and anxiety. Stress feeds on itself, and chronic stress accelerates aging. We’re more resilient when we’re young, but over time, the hormones that help us beat stress are depleted.”

Stress relief: Evidence-based alternatives

Not worrying about your stress helps relieve it, but if you’re not a naturally calm person, you can learn techniques to help manage your reaction to it.

If you can’t change the events in your life that are causing stress, the goal is to change your response to it, so that the endorphins that calm the brain are released.

Malik says there is a growing body of scientific evidence showing that alternative treatments, including acupuncture, tai chi, yoga and meditation, help defeat stress.

She cites the results of a study conducted at the Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine that found a 30-minute acupuncture treatment, once a week for eight weeks, lowered blood pressure by eight to 16 points, which is comparable to the results achieved with medication.

“4-7-8” breathing

Alternative stress relief techniques such as meditation, tai chi and yoga all involve deep breathing. Malik had the opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of the “4-7-8” breathing exercise with CBS2 news anchors Pat Harvey and Paul Magers during a 5 p.m. broadcast in May.

“This changes the brain’s fight or flight response to a relaxation response,” Malik tells Harvey and Magers as they follow her instructions. “Inhale for a count of four … hold your breath for a count of seven … now exhale for a count of eight …”

Try it and let us know how you feel.

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