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NDSU researcher warns of physical toll of stress

Clayton Hilmert, an associate professor in psychology, shows off a lab where stress tests are done in Minard Hall on North Dakota State University’s campus in Fargo. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

Associate professor promotes ‘mindfulness’ to curb negative cycle before it begins

FARGO – Stress used to be a good thing.

If an early human saw a saber-toothed tiger, he would be oblivious to the complex chain of biochemical responses that allowed him to hightail it to the nearest cave. All he would know is that he’d better run faster than he ever had in his life.

But the modern human experiences stress in a completely different way. The stress may be lower level – meaning we’re dodging a scary boss instead of a flesh-eating predator – but it’s much more chronic. Yet our bodies still react to stress like they did when we had a tiger at our heels. And when we factor in the fact that today’s humans live so much longer, we also understand why stress has so much more time to chip away at our bodies.

Clayton Hilmert, an associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, specializes in research on the physical consequences of stress.

“We used to die in the ’30s and ’40s of acute diseases, like tuberculosis or influenza,” Hilmert says. “Now, we live longer and die because of chronic diseases like heart disease or cancer, and stress does seem to contribute to these diseases by affecting our physiology, including our immune systems. In essence, all of the energy mobilized in our bodies to respond to stress starts burning holes in our infrastructure – our cardiovascular system, immune system and even our brain.”

The good news: People can learn how to react to threats and challenges in more mindful ways. In the process, they can preempt many of the cumulative ravages of stress. It isn’t easy, Hilmert says, but it can be done.

The high cost of living

Frequent waves of stress can trigger an array of tiny insults on the body, which can stack up to cause major physical damage, Hilmert says.

To illustrate, he explains how stress can affect the cardiovascular system. Stressful situations will trigger the HPA axis – a complex hormonal response that prepares our bodies for fight or flight. A spike in epinephrine boosts blood pressure and heart rate, diverts blood flow to the muscles and accelerates reaction times. As blood flows through our vessels, it reaches bifurcations – the Y-shaped points at which one vessel splits into two branches. Because of increased heart rate and blood pressure, our plasma will blast against the arterial walls at these intersections with more force than usual.

The increased pressure at these points will literally cause tiny tears in vessel walls. Over time, the immune system will not be able to repair those lesions fast enough, and a kind of scar tissue will accumulate. These areas can then snag tar and cholesterol, resulting in plaque build-up and arteriosclerosis. If the plaque breaks off or a blood clot forms atop the plaque deposit, a heart attack or stroke could result, Hilmert says.

Stress also can prompt us to make unhealthy lifestyle choices – such as smoking, alcohol abuse and comfort eating – in efforts to self-medicate anxious feelings. This only amplifies the damage to our bodies.

Mind full or mindful?

But all is not lost. Hilmert says educating a person about the toll that stress takes on our bodies is an important first step. He adds that training a person to interact with the world in more mindful ways can help curb the negative cycle of stress before it begins.

This work isn’t quick or easy, but it can do much to improve mental health and quality of life, Hilmert says. He says stress-reduction can be achieved through Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, a program that uses passive meditation, body awareness and simple yoga postures to help practitioners stay in the here and now.

Developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, now professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, mindfulness is simply another word for what Zinn calls “moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness.”

In our Type-A, results-obsessed Western culture, people spend a lot of time on automatic pilot – mulling over what happened yesterday, worrying about what happened that morning, stressing about what will happen tomorrow. As a result, we slip into “auto-pilot” and miss a lot of what’s going on in the present moment.

Mindfulness trains people to gently stay in the present moment, rather than wandering off on unwanted paths. In the process, it can help carve new neural pathways, so practitioners can learn to bypass a negative emotion or thought and stay focused on something else, such as their breathing, according to a 2014 article in New York Times magazine.

Mindfulness has its roots in Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, although it has gained acceptance by Western culture in the past 30 years, Hilmert says. Today, mindfulness is being used for the most unexpected of missions, such as training Marines to maintain mental resilience in war zones.

Calm wins by a nose

MBSR is taught in an eight-week course by trained educators around the country, but Hilmert shares one simple example of how it can be practiced at home.

1. Sit up straight in a comfortable chair and close eyes.

2. Focus on your breath as it passes the tip of your nose.

3. When your mind wanders – and it will – gently and non-judgmentally bring it back to your breathing.

4. Start out practicing this in five- to 10-minute increments, and keep prolonging the practice until you reach 45 minutes.

The good news is that the more you practice it, the easier it will become. The goal is to experience a full day of “being mindful of everything you do,” Hilmert says.

Hopefully, in the process, practitioners can combat the inevitable reality of stress. “Exercising that muscle allows us to control thinking about unwanted thoughts,” he adds.

Resources for managing stress “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” a book by Robert Sapolsky.

Psychologist Ronni Arensberg of the North Dakota State University Counseling Center teaches classes on mindfulness to the NDSU community. For other members of the public,

this NDSU webpage on mindfulness and stress management provides tips and background on the


“The Blissful Brain: Neuroscience and Proof of the Power of Meditation,” a book by Dr. Shanida Nataraja.