Dr. Dean Ornish
Dr. Dean Ornish Founder and President, Preventive Medicine Research Institute
We're taught how to feel stress, but not how to manage stress or teach our patients how to do that. In science, we tend to believe what we can measure. It's like the old joke about the guy who loses his wallet in the dark alley but looks out front into the street light because the light's better. We can measure cholesterol and blood pressure and things like that, but it's harder to measure stress. What's interesting is that it's easy to make fun of these ideas about more love, and intimacy and less stress in your life as being soft-end points and touchy-feely, but the fact is we are touchy-feely creatures. We're creatures of love and community.
I wrote a book called "Love and Survival" about this, that surveyed hundreds of studies from first-rate journals that showed that the real epidemic in our culture isn't just heart disease or diabetes or obesity, it's loneliness and depression and isolation. If you say, "What are the most commonly prescribed drugs?" they're the antidepressants. It affects not only the quality of our lives, it affects our survival, and to a much greater degree than most people realize. Study after study have shown that people who are lonely and depressed are 3 to 10 times more likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who have a sense of love and connection and community, who aren't so stressed. Now, in part, it's because you're more likely to abuse yourself.
In doing these studies, I got to know the patients very well because we'd spend a lot of time together. And I'd say, "Teach me something. Why do you smoke? Or why do you overeat, or drink too much, or work too hard, or abuse drugs? These behaviors seem so maladaptive to me." They'd say, "Dean, you don't get it. These behaviors aren't maladaptive. They're very adaptive because they help us get through the day." They'd say things like, "I've got 20 friends in this pack of cigarettes, and they're always there for me and nobody else is. You're going to take away my 20 friends? What are you going to give me?" Or, "Food fills the void," or, "Fat coats my nerves and numbs the pain," or, "Alcohol numbs the pain," or, "Working all the time numbs the pain."
I've learned that providing people with information, while it's important, is generally not sufficient to motivate most people to make lasting changes. If it were, nobody would smoke. It's not like people don't know it's bad for them. It's on every pack of cigarettes. Fear is not a very powerful motivator, especially if you're young. You tell a 16-year-old that smoking is dangerous, and that just makes it cool. It's like riding a Harley or something.
But if you can put into present tense and say, "Instead of smoking making you beautiful and sexy, it makes you ugly and impotent." There's a supermodel, Christy Turlington, who has this wonderful Web site called smokingisugly.com, because her father died of lung cancer. Nicotine and cigarettes makes your arteries constrict, which is why it causes a heart attack or a stroke, because it reduces the blood to your heart or to your brain. But it also makes you age faster because it makes you wrinkle faster when your blood doesn't get to your face. Half of guys who smoke are impotent. How sexy is that?
One contributor to poor health is stress. Job stress is especially common. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 40 percent of American employees believe they have very stressful jobs, and 25 percent identify work as the greatest stress factor in their lives. Of all the personal issues that cause anxiety (e.g., family dysfunction, economic hardship), job stress is most associated with medical problems. Stress-related health concerns include immune system dysfunction, heart disease, high blood pressure and depression.
Emotional intelligence includes awareness of emotions and the ability to express and manage them. Can these skills be used to battle stress and enhance well-being?
A researcher from the University at Lodz investigated women in human service positions (e. g., teachers, doctors, parole officers). The health, stress and emotional intelligence levels of the participants were compared to workers in other professions. Those in human service positions were found to have average health but high stress, most likely due to workload, compensation and interpersonal relations. Proficiency in emotional intelligence varied greatly. Employees rated high in emotional intelligence felt less stress and thus had fewer related health concerns, especially for depression.
How can emotional intelligence specifically be used to avoid stress-related heath issues? A study of dental students in the United Kingdom compared how people with different levels of emotional intelligence handled stress. Highly skilled students interpreted their emotional responses in logical and useful ways. They could identify the source of stress, their reactions, the reasons behind their responses and productive methods for dealing with the stress. Students with poor emotional intelligence reacted to stress in a negative and defensive manner. Emotionally intelligent students also turned to family and friends for encouragement when feeling anxious, overworked and uncertain. Those deficient in emotional intelligence lacked a strong social support system. They kept to themselves and engaged in unhealthy behaviors more often, such as abusing alcohol, sleeping poorly and taking dangerous physical risks.
Many factors, both in and out of our control, are involved in maintaining good health. Emotional intelligence, useful in handling stress, comes naturally to some people. This skill could be learned, leading to significant health benefits for folks currently stressed-out.(Thinkstock/Getty Images)
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