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THOUGHTS CAN KEEP STRESS AT BAY

Many people live their lives as if wolves or lions are about to attack them. At least that is the assertion of Dr. Lee Smith, who believes the wolves most of us fear can be kept away from the door through thoughts.

"If you were a shepherd in the hills 3,000 years ago and a pack of wolves or lions came down to attack your sheep and you, you would react to acute stress. The arousal mechanism increases blood flow to your head, the adrenalin makes you more alert, you're scanning and seeing things more adroitly, you can leap boulders in a single bound, your coagulation works better. If they're nipping at your heels it helps you not to bleed to death, the endorphins go up, you don't feel the pain as much until after it's over. All the effects of acute stress are protective for that danger."However, we don't have wolves or lions chasing us much anymore. We've created a society and a way of thinking in which it seems like the wolves are after us day after day - an unrelenting stress rather than an acute one."

Smith is an internist at the University of Utah's Wasatch Clinic, where he also conducts a stress medicine clinic. He says thoughts send varied signals to the midbrain, signals that may result in pleasurable well-being or stressful feelings that can lead to depression or serious illness.

The neuro-transmitters tend to go up, he says, under acute stress, but become depleted under chronic stress, especially for those who are genetically vulnerable. "You see endorphins go down and you get chronic pain, headaches, backaches, stomach problems, cholesterol goes up and immunity goes down."

So Smith teaches patients how to handle stress by trying to "quiet the over-arousal response. We all learn the stress response well. We practice that all the time. But we don't learn very well how to elicit that relaxation response that Eastern meditators have practiced over the centuries. But you can do it. You can access that part of the brain."

The term "relaxation response" was coined by Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, who wrote a book on it in the 1970s. He was trying to find nonpharmological ways to bring down blood pressure. Benson's experiments showed the metabolism can be slowed through mental relaxation.

Smith says Tibetan monks can cover themselves with icy, wet sheets in a cold room and mentally warm up the sheets and make them steam, just as firewalkers can raise their endorphins to prevent them from feeling pain.

"The interesting part of this work is that we really do have the answers within us. If you reach a deeply relaxed state, you can open doors to your inner wisdom."

Smith uses sports psychology as an example of teaching meditative techniques to improve performance - to get athletes to quiet the over-arousal to get rid of distraction, and then concentrate fully on the task at hand. This is done with three principles - relaxation, concentration (or focused attention) and visualization (practicing the task).

According to Smith, such well-known basketball players as Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz have significantly improved their foul-shooting performance through these meditative techniques.

Smith remembers a study of three groups of foul shooters. "One group practiced every day for a month, another group did nothing, and a third group practiced shooting perfect foul shots in their minds. They actually visualized the arch, the release, following the ball through the net. When the groups came together again, the ones who had practiced only in their minds did nearly as well as those who practiced in reality."

In a 10-week program, Smith teaches these principles of stress resilience. "You study people who have a sense of control, who see problems as a challenge, who are committed to something outside themselves - finding meaning in things, trust, hope. You just talk about that to give people perspective - how to act out of your heart, with a sense of control."

Smith is sure everyone knows these core principles once they get into them. The second part of the program is learning the "relaxation response," and learning "to quiet arousal and focus attention."

The third part is visualization, accessing one's inner wisdom.

"Our goal is to have everyone become their own counselor because they know themselves best. Sometimes we use an inner-adviser where they picture a person who represents someone with all wisdom, all loving and all accepting, and then you talk to that person in the mind. It personifies this inner heart or inner wisdom. Allow them to talk to the deeper self, and they can figure out the answers to their problems."

Smith has been tracking the progress of the people who have taken the sessions, and the results have been encouraging.

"Those with symptoms of gastro-intestinal problems, muscular-skeletal problems, and neurological symptoms, headaches, numbness, things like that - as well as depression and anxiety. It's interesting to see medical problems start disappearing. People get fewer colds, fewer rashes, fewer flu cases, less arthritis, and need less medical care."

Apparently, the key is acquiring a "sense of control," that is, a mellow acceptance of one's abilities. "A sense of control comes from what one thinks. At UCLA they took monkeys and UCLA male students and studied them for differences in the dominant in-control male and those who were subservient. They used the dominant monkey in the tribe and those who were football captains and fraternity leaders.

"Then they measured the transmitters, one in particular called seratonin. They found that those in control had higher levels. But if you took a monkey and put him behind a one-way mirror where he could watch his harem and subservients, so he could watch their frenzy and frolic but couldn't do anything about it, his levels fell to the same as the subservient ones. A sense of control raises nerve transmitters."

Smith believes that a person who has a sense of control realistically recognizes "what is and responds to it out of his or her wisdom."

It is not arrogance he is talking about - or even a strong fighting spirit - but "a quiet, inner peace, almost a feeling of joy." It is the quality that helps to cope with all of life's problems.

It's easy to understand why patients exercise trust in Smith, who is not only modest about his work but radiates a sense of peace in normal conversation. He does not seem harried, speaks in mellifluous tones and concentrates fully on his subject.

"You have to be careful about overstating," he adds. "The most squared-away people in the world can get sick and do get sick. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. And we need to be careful about overdramatizing, thinking you can treat everything with your mind. It is designed to be an adjunct to the usual medical care."

So better be careful the next time you are tempted to say to someone in distress, "Relax - it's all in your mind."

On the other hand, maybe it is.