Managing Stress – Tools For a Healthier Mind

Did you know that earthquakes and Mondays double the incidence of heart attacks? More and more, scientists are learning how strongly stress is linked to disease.

But science is also finding the opposite, namely:

  • A healthier mind-set can lead to a healthier body, and
  • There are proven tools that can buffer the impact of stress.

Healthy Mind, Healthy Body

In the Behavior Change Program at the Pritikin Longevity Center, Dr. Coral Arvon, psychologist and Director of Behavioral Health and Wellness, teaches guests how to use their minds to:

  • Improve their health
  • Turn healthy new habits into lasting ones
  • Enhance overall well being

Staying Sharp

There’s more good news. Healthy habits are not only fueled by a healthy mind-set, they do some amazing brain fueling of their own, and can help us stay sharp in our 60s, 70s, and beyond.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, for example, recently studied 201 men and women ages 45 to 88, analyzing their lifestyles as well as their brain health with positive emission tomography. They found that daily walking or jogging was linked with significantly lower risk of Alzheimer’s, and even appeared to change the course of the disease if it had already begun.1

Research from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm also underscored the cognitive benefits of living well and maintaining normal weight. Studying decades of data on more than 8,500 men and women who were now age 65 and older, the scientists found that those were overweight at midlife were 80% more likely to be diagnosed with dementia later in life than those of normal weight.2

People who were obese in middle age were almost four times more likely to suffer from dementia diseases such as Alzheimer’s in later years.

Job Stress

A healthy lifestyle like the Pritikin Program may also mitigate the stress we feel in our daily lives, particularly job-related stress. Examining data from more than 102,000 men and women in Great Britain, France, and other European countries, scientists discovered that job stress certainly increased the risk of heart disease, but living a healthy lifestyle dramatically decreased that risk.3

The healthy behaviors that offset job stress were exercising regularly, not smoking, maintaining a normal weight, and staying away from heavy alcohol drinking.

Over the course of 10 years, reported lead researcher Dr. Mika Kivimaki at University College London, “The risk of coronary artery disease was highest among participants who reported job strain and an unhealthy lifestyle; those with job strain and a healthy lifestyle had about half the rate of this disease.”


Stress, Mind, Body – 10 Q & As

Below are 10 questions that guests at the Pritikin Longevity Center frequently ask about managing stress, living better, and achieving a healthy mind and body. Pritikin’s Director of Behavioral Health and Wellness Dr. Coral Arvon provided the answers.

1. Where does stress comes from?

Stress comes not so much from situations but from how we as individuals perceive those situations. A new business venture, for example, could really stress some people in negative ways but may in fact invigorate you.

2. When we are stressed, which major area do we experience stress the most?

When we are stressed, we experience its negative effects in all major areas of our lives – physically, behaviorally, emotionally, cognitively, and even spiritually. That’s how damaging stress can be.

3. Exactly how does stress affect me physically?

No matter what the stress-inducing situation is, whether we’re running out of a house on fire or obsessing about a possible divorce, a wide array of physiological reactions kick into gear, and they are called the Fight or Flight response. Here are just a few of the things that happen:

  • The adrenal glands pump out hormones like adrenaline that can suppress the immune system.
  • The thyroid pumps out thyroid hormones, stepping up metabolism, and often causing insomnia, exhaustion, and nervousness.
  • The hypothalamus releases endorphins, which reduce pain, but constant stress can deplete them and worsen back pain and headaches.
  • Progesterone in women and testosterone in men are reduced, causing decreased sex drive and/or infertility.
  • The digestive tract slows down because all blood goes to the muscles to fight or flee, resulting in problems like stomach pain and a dry mouth.

4. But isn’t stress an inevitable part of life?

Absolutely. And it’s a very important part. When, for instance, you’re fleeing muggers or you need quick reactions to get out of the way of an oncoming bicyclist, the Fight or Flight response is perfect!

The problem is modern-day chronic worry – when we are continually activating the Fight or Flight response for everything from ornery sales people to rush-hour traffic to “what if” worries.

This chronic stress can eventually result in chronic problems, including muscle tension, gastric distress, headaches, and anxiety. Your ability to concentrate and make decisions may also be affected.

5. What are the basic ingredients for a healthy mind?

There are three basic ingredients for a healthier mind:

  1. Taking charge of your thoughts and feelings,
  2. Managing stress, and
  3. Improving your relationships with yourself and others.

6. What does having a healthier mind have to do with Pritikin eating and exercise?

Having a healthier mind means that you’ll likely have an easier time reaching your health and lifestyle goals. When your mind is at ease, you’re less likely, for example, to fall into emotional overeating.

On the flip side, when you are constantly experiencing stress, your thinking is less clear, you struggle with unpleasant feelings and physical symptoms, and you may overeat, socialize less, and have difficulty sleeping, all of which can seriously derail your efforts to eat, exercise, and live well.

7. What mental skills are important for heart health?

One skill that is really important is resilience, that is, the ability to bounce back from an adverse event. One key way to develop resilience is to take time out every day to simply relax.

Another key way, as our guests at Pritikin learn, is to “catch” negative, irrational thoughts and replace them with positive, rational self-talk. This field of psychology, called cognitive behavioral therapy, empowers us to better cope with life’s ups and downs.

8. I’m a worrier. Does worrying affect my health?

Yes. Worry rarely leads to positive action; it’s just painful.

Worriers, like pessimists, tend to focus on negative outcomes, and their thoughts are fueled by anxiety and “what ifs,” such as “What if I lose weight and still have sleep apnea?” or “What if my knee acts up and I can’t exercise?”

Learning how to comfort oneself and calm down in the face of challenges is an antidote to worry and negative, irrational thoughts.

Fighting worry is important because worry can immobilize you and keep you from making important changes in your physical and emotional health.

9. I’ve heard that feelings of hostility are related to heart disease and premature death. Is that true?

Yes, it’s true.

When the “Type A” personality was first identified, these driven, hard-working, and frequently successful workaholics were considered to be at high risk for heart disease.

Newer research brings good news: People can enjoy their work and work hard without making themselves sick. The likely culprits raising coronary artery disease risk in some “Type A” personalities are not ambition, hard work, and a passion for success; they are hostility, anger, cynicism, suspiciousness, and self-involvement. These traits can raise blood pressure and alienate people. Social support, by contrast, is a great health booster and is actually linked with longevity.

10. Does not talking about issues in a relationship affect my heart?

Yes. Holding in your feelings can cause stress. Passivity can be deadly.

It is important to become comfortable at asking for what you want, setting limits, expressing your opinion, and feeling in control. This is called being assertive, and being assertive is good. Assertive people are taking care of themselves.

Do learn the difference between assertion, aggression, passivity, and passive-aggression. Passive people don’t ask for what they need and may not even know themselves well enough to identify what they need. Passive-aggressive people act as if they don’t have needs; they don’t get mad, they get even! Aggressive people are disliked and/or ignored. Only healthy assertion reduces negative feelings like anger, which can certainly benefit your heart.


1 Archives of Neurology, 2012; 69 (5): 636.
2 Neurology, 2011; 76: 1568.
3 Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2013; doi: 10.1503/cmaj.121735.

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