Handin is teaching others the power of meditation as coordinator for Penn's Stress Management Program.
The link between stress and poor health is well known. Now, the evidence is mounting for the curative powers of stress-reduction techniques such as meditation.
"A large body of knowledge suggests that subjective experience, quality of life and psychosocial variables play a central role in health and healing," said Dr. Michael Baime, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Health System and director of Penn's Stress Management Program.
Baime said there is evidence to suggest that the outcomes of diseases as "dramatic as cancer and as prevalent as the common cold" are influenced by how peaceful our minds are.
For example, researchers have found that the blood of people who were under an extreme amount of stress was actually "stickier" than that of calmer people. Thicker, stickier blood puts a person at greatly increased risk for strokes and heart attacks.
Certainly, the public buys into the importance of reducing stress. According to MarketData research, people in the United States spend about $9.4 billion a year on products and services related to stress reduction.
But experts say one of the most effective stress-reduction tools is the mind - and that meditation is one way to unlock the mind's healing potential.
"Meditation is basically teaching yourself to be present in your life," Baime said. "It's more of an attitude."
In today's world, he continued, we're too often aiming toward some future goal, rather than living in and experiencing the moment.
Clearing the mind leads to what he called "mindfulness," a state where one becomes more receptive to healing.
"Mindfulness gives us a platform from which to view ourselves," Baime said at a recent stress-management class in Center City. In his classes, he instructs students to focus on their breathing, relax their bodies and disengage their minds from the stresses of the day.
One of Baime's students, Maryann Coombe, who is a prevention specialist for a drug abuse program, was experiencing stress brought on by her mother's slow, painful death from lung cancer. Meditation helped her restore a sense of balance in her life.
"It rejuvenated that part of me that had been suppressed," said Coombe, who's been practicing meditation for two years. "This fundamentally changed my life."
Handin and Baime are Buddhists, but Baime says his stress-management classes do not have a religious agenda.
"This class is not about teaching Buddhism, but about teaching meditation," Baime said.
Formal religion doesn't have to be involved in order to reduce stress.
Dr. Reina Marino, a Philadelphia radiologist and stress expert, uses deep-breathing exercises at least once a day to clear her mind.
"I try to focus on diaphragmatic breathing, using the diaphragm muscle located under the lungs to take in deep breaths," Marino said. "This sort of deep breathing can help reduce the intensity of a strong emotional response."
Marino learned her deep-breathing techniques through programs at the Center for Mind, Body and Medicine in Washington, D.C., and at the Mind and Body Medical Institute at Harvard University Medical School.
But Marino, who has written a book, "Courage to Conquer: Breast Cancer Survivors Share Their Personal Stories," said some of the survivors she interviewed have pointed to their religion as a source of peace.
"Several of these breast-cancer survivors, especially those who were African-American, said their strong belief in God helped sustain them through their ordeal," Marino said.
No matter what your beliefs, it's important to take time regularly to clear your mind and appreciate what's here and now, Baime said. "The world just gets bigger and bigger, and it's easy to be overwhelmed. We need openness and balance, space. We need time to `just be.' "
Learning to relax
For more information about Penn's stress-management classes, call 215-569-3834.
For information about the book "Courage to Conquer: Breast Cancer Survivors Share Their Personal Stories," by Dr. Reina Marino, call HealthED at 215-413-9248.
A conference titled "Buddhism, Medicine & Ethics," featuring Dr. Michael Baime, will be held Friday through Sunday at Presbyterian Medical Center, 38th Street and Lancaster Avenue. For more information, call 215-568-6070.
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