Stress: It's All In Your Head Technology Is Coming To The Rescue

Posted: May 02, 1991

Time was, you had stress, you took it to the Lord. Or the fishing hole. Or the shrink's couch. Or you climbed up some mountain to see a mystic and climbed down with a mantra.

But that stuff's history. Today, and for tomorrow too, the emphasis is on your personal stress intervention. Answer a couple hundred questions (burping? racing thoughts? alcohol?), get the numbers crunched, see the computer spit out your profile, get your personalized tapes, lie back in the star-lit control chamber, and whoosh. You're gonna be OK.

You don't like that, you got your gizmos. There's goggles with flashing

lights, womblike egg domes, interactive computer programs, entrainment videos, music therapy. The personal-growth human potential market stands at $3.5 billion annually and is still climbing, powered by this simple fact: For all the billions spent on health care, plenty of people still feel blah.

"We're not getting better. People don't like medical care better, and we're not healthier as a society," said Dr. Jeffery Weiner, a family practice physician and the founding medical director of the giant health maintenance organization US HealthCare. "There's got to be something we're missing."

Weiner and many other researchers and marketers believe that what's missing is a sense of well-being, the opposite of stress. You know what stress is. It's the bus that breaks down, the pipes that burst, the dual-paycheck life, the lost car keys, the rat race. It's the defense of choice for New Jersey administrative law judge Florence Powers, "too stressed out" from a toilet that wouldn't quit flushing and a middle-aged body that wouldn't quit hot- flashing to know that she was about to walk out of a T.J. Maxx before paying for two watches.

Stress, that inability to cope in the current environment, is what's led Weiner to explore what he's dubbed "soft medicine," techniques ranging from hands-on healing to electronic brain-wave stimulators that may not fit the medical model, yet inexplicably work.

"They couldn't explain how penicillin worked, but they used it for 15 or 20 years without any explanation," Weiner reasoned. In his role as a consultant helping large companies contain their employees' health care costs, Weiner is evaluating alternatives that can augment traditional medicine, and then finding ways to explain them to doctors.

For example, a special table that uses videos and tapes to enhance relaxation has had great success in trials on pre-operative and post-operative patients, reducing surgical complications and recovery time.

As the new century draws near, "hi-tech and high touch are together at the right place and the right time," predicted Robert Goodman, a Bucks County entrepreneur who started out with flotation tanks 10 years ago and never looked back. He's a partner of Dr. Jay Segal, a Temple University professor and director of the college's Stress Research and Biofeedback Laboratory.

Together, they're poised to bring mind fitness to the masses, through hospitals, "brain gyms" and managed health care. Currently, Lower Bucks Hospital, Episcopal Hospital and Temple University Hospital use Segal's stress-reduction programs, as do several health care organizations and corporate associations.

His personal stress and fitness profiles "take care of your whole life," and personalized therapy gives participants the sense that "we know and care about you," Segal said.

"I stand for personalization," said the author of "The Sex Lives of

College Students," and he doesn't have much time for subliminal messages, mail-order audio tapes or goggles ("You're gonna look like Don King, and the Don King look is just not mainstream medicine").

"These are Americans," he said, of his target population. "They want glitz."

As Goodman put it, quite happily, "This being a gadget country with a fast-food consciousness, there's a whole domain that hasn't even been explored."

In other words, this is the country that bought pet rocks and now is after Jiffy Lude.

"There's garbage out there," warned Segal. In evaluating any device or program aimed at stress reduction, advised Weiner, "look carefully at the material presented and see if it has a scientific process that makes sense, and if the people associated with it are legitimate. If they can offer up studies done by independent researchers rather than people on their paid staff, that's even better."

Here's a smattering of what's around now, and what lies just over the rainbow:

THE REST RIDER

This is Goodman's little $10,000 zone-out mobile, what he calls "the grandson of the Barcalounger." A thin bed filled with the gel used for burn patients supports you and thumps, when the bed's subsonic transducers pick up the bass tones of music and deliver vibral acoustic therapy. Over your head, in the roof of a hard, dark, insulated canopy, is a video monitor, to combine your brain tapes with a kaleidoscope of colors designed to visually stimulate you into numbness and correct your alpha state.

This is the kind of thing that could show up one night in Saturday Night Live's "Wayne's World" or one day in your beauty parlor. If you liked headphones and black ceilings as a kid, this will really send you as an adult.

RICHIE HAVENS' OCTAGON

Yes, that Richie Havens, Woodstock folkie. You sit in the darkened octagon, and here comes the sun, in omnivision, brought to you via live satellite, from the beach in Tahiti or glistening through the water off the Cayman Islands, or wherever you please, accompanied by the quadraphonic sounds of the surf and wild birds chattering.

CRANIAL ELECTRO STIMULATION

The CES device, smaller than a Walkman, slows down your brain waves and speeds up your endorphins and other neurotransmitters through electrical impulses sent through electrodes attached to your skull. Always remove your earrings first. Billed as effective in reducing panic attacks, depression and insomnia, the CES is credited with helping drug addicts through recovery at the Charter Fairmount Institute.

THE STAR PANEL

A mini-planetarium with biodiscs and psychoacoustic tapes, designed to overstimulate your eyes until you close them. In use at National Health Resources in Plymouth Meeting, a new place to train your brain when you've given up on your biceps.

MUSIC THERAPY

This field will take off. "Music is a very effective non-invasive agent for reducing stress. It's portable, the client can have an immediate rapport and control it himself," said Dr. Cheryl Maranto, coordinator of music therapy at Temple University.

Just flicking on the CD won't do, however. Music therapists need to assess the stressed person's lifestyle, his biopsychosocial history and belief system. "There are no universal pieces of music that work for everyone," said Maranto.

Why does music move people? "Certainly the areas that process music in the brain are very close geographically to the areas responsible for emotion, and that sets off responses," she said. For stress victims, music therapy cuts through verbal therapy because it affects several levels simultaneously. And it's been effective in rehabilitating stroke victims and those who have lost their speech.

WORKPLACE STRESS-REDUCTION CENTERS

The Insurance Institute in Malvern, which does training for insurance types, already has one of these. It's called the "B" room, for breakthrough, and it's right next door to the fitness center. Employees can duck in for 15- minute brain shape-ups, sit in the special heated chair, get an electronic massage, and listen to mind tapes in a subdued atmosphere.

Weiner and Segal say such environments will become more commonplace as business struggles to cope with the attendance and efficiency of its workforce and attempts to intervene early.

WORKSITE STRESS REDUCTION

The desk-top computer of the future will actually tell you when to get up and take a hike. It will know you're beat by the answers you give to certain questions it asks. If you can deal with an Electronic Busybody, maybe you can deal with . . .

MINDWARE

This is a software program that allows your personal computer to actually become your personal therapist. You enter some basic data and it asks you why you hate your mother. But you never have to leave your tube, and it doesn't cost $100 an hour or go on vacation in August.

CO-PAY STATUS

More and more stress-reduction programs will be partially or fully paid for as part of employee benefit packages, as personnel policy moves toward prevention and intervention. Companies have learned it costs far less to underwrite smoking cessation programs than chronic emphysema or lung cancer.

Segal's caveat: "It can't be hokey, it can't be Eastern and it can't be goggles."

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