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Health & Balance

Cultivating Calm

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"We now believe 80 percent of illness is stress-related, that whatever your genetic weak link, stress will trigger it," notes Richard Brown, M.D., an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University. "Going to a spa is wonderful, but until you teach yourself ways to achieve peace of mind from the inside, you'll remain vulnerable to stress."

Learning to stay balanced is a lifelong endeavor. And yet, making small changes to your daily routine can help you reap big benefits.

Beauty and Comfort

Every day, we're bombarded with threatening, jarring stimuli and messages: Boing! John Doe has sent you an instant message! Beep! You have a new cell phone message! Tonight's headlines: "Beware terrorists!" "Killer spinach!" Each time we take in a worrisome sight, sound, or piece of information, we activate the sympathetic nervous system, triggering the so-called fight-or-flight response. The heart beats faster, muscles tense, blood pressure and blood sugar levels rise, the digestive system and immune system are suppressed, and the body is flooded with the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These reactions are the exact opposite of those connected with the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and calm.

"Radio, TV, and newspapers spew out potentially threatening messages, and our deep, primitive biological systems don't know how to differentiate between psychological stress and real, physical danger," notes David Simon, M.D., medical director of the Chopra Center in San Diego. "Whether we're conscious of it or not, we're constantly perceiving the world as a scary place."

One step toward cultivating calm is to dial down the amount of information you consume, a strategy I found indispensable while I was pregnant and especially vulnerable to being thrown off center. "The next step is replacing threatening stimuli with relaxing stimuli," says health psychologist Brian Luke Seaward, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Northern Colorado School of Public Health.

To test whether pleasant sensations actually promote calm, Nancy Etcoff, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, sent 27 people fresh-cut flowers to place in their homes, asking them to keep a detailed mood journal before and after the bouquets arrived. After a few days living with the blooms, subjects reported a decrease in negative emotions like anxiety and depression, and an increase in positive feelings like compassion for others and energy and enthusiasm at work.

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