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Stressing Out

Kicking off Alumni Weekend 2014, Nancy Gaba, M.D.’93, RESD ’97, FACOG, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), welcomed current medical students, alumni, faculty, residents, and staff to the 6th Annual Allan B. Weingold Obstetrics and Gynecology Lecture on Sept. 19.

Gaba extended a special thank you to Professor Emeritus Allan B. Weingold, M.D., former vice president for health affairs at GW and former chair of the SMHS Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and his wife Marjorie for their continued support and generosity to GW, especially to the SMHS Obstetrics and Gynecology Department.

“Stress is defined as the mind’s struggle with what is,” says keynote speaker Michael Berman, M.D. ’67, RESD ’69, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of California, Irvine, and gynecologic oncologist at the MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Memorial in California. During his talk, “Stress Prevention Strategies,” Berman focused on the sources of stress, how it affects personal health; and methods health professionals and others can use to manage stress.

Work, family, friends, unresolved fears, and unfulfilled desires are all sources of stress, explains Berman, adding that it is important to recognize the manifestations of stress. Berman notes these as restlessness, sleeplessness, anxiety, fatigue, irritability, inability to focused expression, decreased efficiency, productivity and creativity, all worsened medical conditions. This translates into deficiency of joy. The underlying theme here, says Berman, is that “joy is the enemy of stress and stress is the enemy of joy.”

As health professionals, Berman urged the audience to be mindful of the symptoms caused by stress. “Stress has an adverse impact on body systems like digestion and reproduction,” he says. “Headaches, sleeplessness, depression, and anger are also common causes of stress.”

Berman points out that not all stress is bad and that life would be pretty boring without some level of stress. “Good stress motivates, challenges, and energizes us,” he says. Examples include vacation, a new job, remodeling a house, or a new baby. “The problem is we all face some of the bad stresses virtually daily, like working an 80-hour week, sick patients, no free time, no quality time with family or friends,” he says.  

Berman also notes that the most valuable information that the mind processes falls into three categories: threat, pleasure, and novelty. “The mind’s foremost job is to keep you and your loved ones safe.  It prioritizes information that increases your chances of survival and reproductive success,” he adds.

Threats are inner emotional battles like financial hardship, failed relationships, and workplace and medical problems, says Berman.

“The pleasure focus is often diminished in value by the mind,” says Berman. “We spend more time imagining future pleasure than experiencing joy in the pleasures of the present moment.”

Novelty exists in all situations because some aspects of all life’s experiences are unique according to Berman. It’s important to remember that “appreciation of novelty from events in the present reduces stress.” Failure to appreciate novelty, says Berman, diminishes joy and contributes to stress.          

Berman concluded his discussion by encouraging the audience to practice the five principles of stress management: gratitude, compassion, acceptance, higher meaning, and forgiveness. “Stressors in your life can be healed or significantly ameliorated by application of these principles,” he says.