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Event Report: “The Science of Stress & Relaxation”

“The Science of Stress & Relaxation” by Dr. Thaddeus Pace, Emory University
November 15, 2012
Smith Gambrell & Russell

A group of SLA-GA members came together on the evening on November 15 to hear Dr. Thaddeus Pace, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine, present on the topic of “The Science of Stress and Relaxation.” Over the course of an hour Dr. Pace discussed the current state of his research, which involves the biological mechanisms that link psychological stress to illness, as well as devising new approaches to combating stress.

Dr. Pace discussed a scientific approach to the mind-body connection of stress and illness, a subject which has only undergone rigorous study within the last few decades. Higher stress exposure over time is associated with conditions such as hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, or major depression; major health problems exacerbate stress levels. Stress can create changes in behavior and emotions, but also physiological changes, such as increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, as well as higher amounts of adrenalin and cortisol in the body.

Dr. Pace described a scientific experiment in which volunteers had to present a speech in relation to a job interview before a panel, which was also recorded on video. The volunteers, despite knowing this was only an experiment, experienced their presentation experience as a “profound social evaluation threat” and demonstrated measurable stress factors in a series of stress tests. The tests appeared to indicate that healthier people tend to be able to recover more quickly from stress, while others who are less healthy or genetically predisposed are slower to de-stress.

In addition, the immune system can be affected in the face of stress. Dr. Pace explained how stress is basically a system-wide inflammatory response that triggers the body’s immune system. When the immune system goes overboard in reaction to stress, it is harmful in the long term, contributing, for instance, to cardiovascular disease or depression.

The second half of the presentation focused on developing approaches to stress reduction as a means to better health. Dr. Pace discussed how meditation is being studied for its capacity for reducing stress and therefore helping people to be healthier in the long term. He referenced a particular form of meditation known as analytical meditation, which involves focusing on a specific topic or idea so that it becomes ingrained in a person at a basic, essential level – for instance the idea of compassion. The underlying science suggests that meditation has the ability to make changes in the brain, which has the potential for impact on health. Dr. Pace described a program that is in development at the university as part of the Emory-Tibet Partnership and is known as Cognitive-Based Compassion Training (CBCT). It is an eight-week course in compassion meditation, which includes group discussion, guided meditation, and self-directed meditation, all focused on developing both an emotional and intellectual understanding of the concept of compassion. The effectiveness of the protocol of CBCT is being studied in pilot programs for diverse populations. Dr. Pace discussed one such program involving children in foster care, a population that experiences significant stress, and how this training in compassion meditation is being studied as to its effectiveness in reducing stress and related health and behavioral problems in this sensitive group. A subsequent challenge will be making CBCT available on a greater scale, with more instructors qualified to run the program.

Many thanks to Dr. Pace for a most interesting presentation. Thanks as well to Lynda Larsen for planning the event and to Sarah Mauldin, who arranged to host the event at Smith Gambrell & Russell.

Sansanee Sermprungsuk
Director, Communications

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