Mind-Body Fitness to Empowerment

By Pamela M. Peeke, M.D., M.P.H.

New York, N.Y. Stress can be your friend or your foe.  When stress fuels the spark of personal achievement, it can work to your benefit by making you more perceptive and productive, acting as a motivator and even making you more creative. But when stress flames out of control – as it often does for many of us today –  it can take a terrible toll on your physical and emotional health, as well as your relationships.

While stress is not considered an illness, it can cause specific medical symptoms, often serious enough to send women to the emergency room or their health care professional’s office.  In fact, 43% of adults suffer adverse health effects from stress, and 75 to 90% of all physician office visits have stress-related components, according to the American Psychological Association.

Assistant Professor of Medicine Pamela Peeke of the University of Maryland spoke.
Photo: David Lynch Foundation.

In today’s fast-paced world, women are experiencing more stress at every stage of their lives than ever before.  Juggling job pressures, family schedules, money issues, career and educational advancement and child and elder-care concerns are only a few of the common stressors confronting women.

Research indicates that women’s biological response to stress is actually to “tend and befriend,” i.e., make sure the children are safe and then network with other women in stressful times; whereas men’s biological reaction to stress is to go into the “flight-or-fight” mode. Studies indicate that the hormone oxytocin, which has a calming effect, is released during stressful events or periods in both men and women.

Pamela Peeke presented an amazing speech at the symposium “Women, Violence,
and Meditation” in New York City. Photo: David Lynch Foundation.

Estrogen may enhance oxytocin release, while testosterone may diminish it; this may be one reason that women seem to seek social support more often than men when under stress. However, women have also been socialized from an early age to look to their social group, particularly their female friends, for support when under stress, whereas men tend to engage in activities, such as exercise or even using substances, when under stress.

All this can strain the heart and artery linings.  In fact, if you already have coronary heart disease, stress might lead to chest pain.  Plus, the increased tendency for blood to clot during stress may lead to a clot in coronary arteries, causing a heart attack.

Other physical dangers of stress include stomach problems as bowel and intestinal muscles constrict, and depression and anxiety.  While stress doesn’t cause these mental illnesses, it can activate them in people who may already be prone to them.

Stress can also cause what has been termed “toxic weight gain.”  Cortisol, a hormone released when you’re under stress, is an appetite trigger.  Those extra calories are converted to fat deposits that gravitate to the waistline.  These fat deposits, called visceral fat, are associated with life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer.  Too much stress can also affect your immune system, weakening it and making you more susceptible to colds, coughs and infections.

Panel discussion sponsored by the David Lynch Foundation upon the Intrepid in NYC.
Photo: David Lynch Foundation.

It is important to distinguish between the acute stress response – when your heart beats faster and your breath comes faster as you get a rush of adrenalin – and the chronic stress response, in which you are continually under stress.

This chronic stress response is the one that causes the most problems as it literally wears out your body functions, leading to disease.  A common trigger is trauma.  One of the most important methods to combat the stress of trauma is through meditation, specifically transcendental meditation (T.M.). Research shows that with consistent practice, T.M. can calm the stress response axis in a woman’s body, while enhancing her executive functions, centered in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the brain.

The “restful alertness” of T.M. can lead to a blissful experience of transcendence which in turn channels a positive physiologic response in the PFC resulting in heightened mindfulness, vigilance and the ability to rein in impulsivity, impatience and irritability.  As well, over time and with practice, depression and anxiety, often associated with chronic stress, is lessened, allowing for enhanced enjoyment with life.

Pamela M. Peeke, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.P.  Pamela Peeke is Pew Foundation Scholar in Nutrition and Metabolism, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland and Fellow of the American College of Physicians.  Pamela is WebMD’s chief lifestyle expert and chief medical correspondent for Discovery Health TV.  A stress researcher, Pamela’s studies helped confirm the toxic stress-abdominal fat connection.The symposium “Women, Violence, and Meditation” was held at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City, March 31, 2012 sponsored by the David LynchFoundation and Third Fire Films.  Every nine seconds, a woman is assaulted or beaten in the U.S.  One in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime around the world.  Most often, it is a member of her own family.  Over 19,000 women veterans have been victims of military sexual assault during the past year.

Healing and Empowering Women and Girls. For more information on how you can help secure funds to support outreach to women and girls, please contact the David Lynch Foundation’s Women’s Initiative, 654 Madison Avenue, Suite 805, New York, N.Y. 10065 or by e-mail.

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The Editors
The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness is the communications platform of The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation (www.lucefoundation.org). There are now more than 100 contributors around the world to this publication.

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