All Stressed Out? Doctor has coping tips at Community Center lecture

Dr. Mimi Guarneri speaks at the La Jolla Community Center about how to transform stress.
Dr. Mimi Guarneri speaks at the La Jolla Community Center about how to transform stress.
(Ashley Mackin)

Does anyone here ever have stress?” Dr. Mimi Guarneri asked a chuckling crowd at La Jolla Community Center, Sept. 23, raising her own hand. For her presentation, “Transforming Stress and Creating Balance,” the integrative medicine cardiologist and team member at Pacific Pearl in La Jolla spoke about pressure, its impact on the body and how to reduce it in daily life.

Her talk was part of the Community Center’s Distinguished Speaker series. Community Center Director Nancy Walters said she knew the topic would strike a chord with members after Guarneri gave a similar presentation earlier this year.

“When Mimi spoke at the center in February, she mentioned the various topics she talks to her patients about, and when she mentioned transforming stress and creating balance, everyone went oooh and aaah, so I immediately knew I needed to have her back soon to cover this topic.”

Walters also noted Guarneri’s many accolades — board-certified in cardiology, internal medicine, nuclear medicine and holistic medicine; President of the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine; and Senior Advisor at Atlantic Health for the Center for Well Being.

It turns out, Guarneri said, a lot of stresses are simply between our ears. “Our attitude is everything,” she said, explaining that the feeling of stress often starts with an initiating event, such as a financial issue or children dating someone the parents don’t like.

“The perception of that initiating event could result in a flooding of stress hormones,” she said. “When we are in a stressed state, the body is sending messages from the heart to the brain that tell the brain, ‘we are under stress, we are under attack, produce stress hormones.’ We aren’t using the cortex, which is our rational mind. Ever say something under stress you regret five minutes later? That’s because we aren’t using our rational mind.”

It’s all about, she said, “the lens we are going to see things through.”

To prove her point of how different people will see the same situation differently, she showed a video of people in various colored shirts passing a basketball. She asked participants to track how many times the ball was passed based on shirt color. Not only did different numbers come up, but also some people found themselves instead looking at a person walking through the set in an animal suit. Further still, some people thought it was a bear, some thought it was a gorilla and some didn’t see it at all!

Guarneri said changing the way we perceive what could be a stressful situation may have long-term effects on our health. She cited studies that indicate those under stress tend to take longer to heal from minor injuries and ailments, and said she knew someone who had their cancer return after 12 years in remission, during the 2008 recession. Worse still, there are physical manifestations of stress that include brain cell death, impaired memory and learning, osteoporosis, loss of muscle, skin sagging, impacted immune system, and increase of weight around midline. “What does that sound like to you?” she asked. “Aging!”

If, despite our best efforts to keep a good attitude, we still find ourselves feeling stressed, Guarneri said coping mechanisms are needed. “No one is spared from life’s ups and downs,” she said. “But what is your stabilizer every time life throws you a curveball or you feel like you can’t cope?”

For some, she said, it’s exercise. For others, it’s prayer or meditation. But her suggestion is to attack the problem on all fronts.

“Everything is about mind, body, emotions and spirit. It’s not just about the physical body. Ask yourself every day what you did (to support) all these things? Did I eat right? Did I lay off the sugar? Did I meditate? Did I appreciate things in my life and be grateful for them?”

■ De-stressing the body

In addition to physical exercise, Guarneri suggests a breathing exercise to calm the nerves and steady the heart rate during times of stress: take a few rounds of breath, with inhales and exhales each lasting five seconds. Eventually, move to shorter inhales and longer exhales, ideally breathing in for four seconds and out for seven. The latter has a direct effect on the nerves.

To demonstrate, she took Community Center member Bob Scott and clipped a biofeedback sensor to his ear. Nervous in front of all the people, he had an off-pattern heart rate. After a minute or two of breathing five seconds in and five seconds out, his heart rate stabilized to a balanced more healthy, rhythm.

■ De-stressing the mind

As one of many options, Guarneri suggests mantras to help calm the mind. Respecting that each individual person would need to find one that has a calming effect, she said the word mantra literally means, “to free from the mind.”

“If you can’t sleep at night, I have people breathe and repeat their mantra in their mind. When your mind jumps from the grocery list to what happened that day, come back to the mantra,” she explained.

Other mental exercises include recognizing the negative emotion one might be experiencing — anger, frustration, pain — and shifting thoughts to something that brings happiness or gratitude. She said babies and pets are always a good choice.

■ De-stressing the emotional state

An attitude of gratitude is a practice she encourages from all her patients. “I had one come to me and say, ‘Today is a good day, I’m vertical!’ ” she joked, adding that volunteering is a good way to feel happy, and some people experience “helper’s high.”

Having a supportive social circle is also something to be grateful for, she said, and that can include family, friends and colleagues. “I always say the ‘i’ in illness stands for isolation and the ‘we’ in wellness is we ... having a tribe is something that gives you a reason to get up in the morning and experience joy.”

■ De-stressing the spirit

Prayer and meditation, too, can be effective ways to appease the spirit, said Guarneri. Her practice, Pacific Pearl at 6919 La Jolla Blvd., offers free monthly meditation classes to help ease people into the practice. “It’s powerful medicine,” she said.

She also recommended practicing forgiveness. “Forgiveness is for you, not for the person you are forgiving,” she said. “Part of one’s mediation can be to picture the offending person and think, ‘I forgive you.’ “That can include ourselves. If you did something you regret, cut the cord and forgive yourself.”