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Good health begins with reducing stress on body, mind and spirit

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 25, 2012 - "Taking Care of You: Body, Mind, Spirit" sounds like the title of lecture at a mountain retreat, run by a guru promising to reveal the path to self-knowledge in exchange for a fee.

The title is actually the name of a home-grown program connected to the University of Missouri Extension. The program is an evidence-based approach to helping people understand stress and its indirect impact on health, says Molly Vetter-Smith, an assistant professor and state specialist for health education, with the University of Missouri's School of Medicine and the Extension Service.

"We noticed you could tell people till you were blue in the face to eat this and not that, or go out and exercise 30 minutes a day. But until you help them deal with the real stuff going on in their lives, they aren't going to make the (behavioral)  change."

The "real stuff" centers on stress, and the goal is to show people how it can affect their bodies, thoughts and emotions. That knowledge can help people want to make behavioral changes to tackle health issues, such as obesity, she says.

Mary Wissmann, an extension service health education specialist who works with participants in the St. Louis area, says the research and the program have changed her own views about helping people lead healthy lives.

"This is a really interesting new program because we are looking at health from a new perspective," she says.

She says stress can be as complex as having to cope with a catastrophic illness or a death and as simple as anxiety growing out of being stuck in traffic. Whether induced by simple or complex situations, stress can be harmful. In traffic, Wissmann says, "You begin to notice how your body starts tensing: Your hands might start clenching the steering wheel, while your shoulders start to come up, and your heart starts racing."

In addition, she says, sitting in a vehicle on the highway might lead you to negative thoughts. You might begin to feel "overwhelmed with so many demands on your time, and you're supposed to be doing them all very well. Or you might feel you aren't able to stop and take time for yourself because you're constantly running, running and running."

She says people may be aware of this stress, "but they don't know the physical impact it might be having on their health. We try to give people strategies that they can use in those situations."

In the stressed-filled traffic scenario, for example, she says breathing can be a good antidote. "Just sit and try to calm yourself a bit and focus on breathing in and out, in and out. It can be relaxing. It usually decreases the heart rate and it helps you think a little more clearly. You're breathing on your own, of course, but just paying a little more attention and being mindful of (your breathing) can help reduce stress," Wissmann says.

The Taking Care of You curriculum comes from several sources, including an approach called mindfulness-based stress reduction, associated with Jon Kabat-Zin, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts. In addition the program focuses on research-based positive psychology to help people feel more upbeat and resilient.

The program also points people to healthier ways to enjoy food through what's called mindful eating. Vetter-Smith says research shows that people tend to pay attention to the first two bites and the last two bites of whatever they're eating. Through mindful eating, she says people learn to pay attention to aromas, taste and texture of food throughout the meal. That can make them slow down, enjoy the experience and realize that they might be more satisfied from consuming smaller portions rather than overeating.

The 45 specialists who run the programs charge participants $25 each for the eight-week "Taking Care of You" sessions. They are held across Missouri, each drawing between 10 and 25 participants who meet at job sites, churches, community centers and other locations. About 300 people have completed the program. This month, less than a year after being launched, Taking Care of You won a Priester Award, given to extension service groups nationwide for developing and expanding programs that have a positive impact on health.

Vetter-Smith says the program specialists don't dwell on the bad choices people make but keep the focus on stress and ways to cope with it.

"We're seeing from the feedback how this program is helping people make changes in their lives. They are walking more after work rather than dropping on the couch. They are reading more or doing other things that help them relax so they can sleep better at night. They are finding ways to calm themselves and keep their blood pressure under control."

Some participants talk about how the program made it easier for them to cope with a death in the family or with a catastrophic illness.

Vetter-Smith mentions a women who was diagnosed with breast cancer a few weeks after completing the course. "She sent us a letter saying the program had helped her cope with the chemotherapy, the radiation and all the things she had to go through."

Most participants are women, many of whom are caregivers, taking care of their children or their own parents, Vetter-Smith says.

"They learn that taking care of themselves is important for them to take care of others."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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