Managing Chronic Stress With the Help of Holistic Medicine

Americans are stressed out. You’d have to be hanging out in a lot of caves or under a lot of rocks in order to miss this fact. What’s to blame, you ask? Could be a lot of things: the 24-hour news cycle, the pressures of social media, growing political unrest and the like. You can take your pick, but if you ask the American Psychological Association, they’d choose ‘D – all of the above.’

Since 2007, the APA has been tracking the trend of stress in America and, while the results for 2019 have yet to be revealed, the annual studies stretching back over the last decade paint a very clear picture. Americans are stressed at work and at home, on their phones and at the ballot box.

One notable finding in the APA’s 2018 study was the level of stress among Generation Z (those born between 1995 and 2015). ‘Gen Z’ high school and college kids report increased rates of stress and are significantly more likely to struggle with mental health than previous generations.

Twenty-seven percent of Gen Zers report their mental health as fair or poor, compared to 15 percent among millennials, 13 percent among Gen Xers and 7 percent among baby boomers. You don’t have to be an armchair psychologist to notice the trend here.

Based on these findings, one might draw the conclusion that we are living in the most stressful times ever, but surely somewhere there is a gang of historians ready to debunk that theory. In this ever-changing world, it is also possible that we simply lack the tools to understand and manage stress, and have failed to cultivate those tools for the next generation.

Tracy Scheller, MD, was 12 years into her career in obstetrics and gynecology when she realized she needed to make a change. The life of an obstetrician is not just stressful, it’s entirely unpredictable; long nights, erratic work hours, and constantly being on call in case a patient goes into labor or has a complication are all natural characteristics of the job. 

“I was beginning to notice a lot of my patients had concerns about weight and were getting conflicting information about nutrition from other sources. I ended up dialing back my obstetrics work and going back to school to get my Master’s in Nutrition from Columbia University,” Dr. Scheller said.

Her work in nutritional counseling is what initially got Dr. Scheller involved with the Graf Center for Integrative Medicine at Englewood Health, at first as a part of their advisory board and ultimately as Medical Director.

“The mission of the Graf Center is to represent a new medical paradigm dedicated to integrating medicinal practices with physician-monitored, complementary alternative medicine (CAM).”

CAM refers to the use of a non-mainstream approach, like holistic medicine, combined with conventional medicine, to achieve optimal health and wellness. The Graf Center offers classes and services for holistic modalities, including reiki, yoga, meditation, massage and acupuncture; with costs as low as $10 per session.

“In everything we do, there is a mind-body connection. For instance, when we are chronically stressed—whether that be at work, at home or due to a personal or health issue—our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) begins to produce adrenaline and cortisol; and too much of this response can actually lead to chronic disease.”

The SNS is the part of our nervous system that produces the well-known ‘fight or flight’ response. When activated, the body prepares to either fight off a threat or run away from a dangerous situation. During fight or flight, adrenaline and cortisol start pumping, our hearts start racing, our breathing gets heavier and blood rushes to our arms and legs, preparing us to use them in one way or the other.

Once upon a time, the stressors that would activate our fight or flight response were large predators or enemy tribes—dangerous situations that came and went. Today, the parts of life that stress us out can be ever-present; things like work, family obligations and societal pressure can all flair up our SNS. Those of us who deal with chronic stress as a result of these and other factors live every day with our SNS working overtime. Living in a constant state of fight or flight takes a major toll on the body and, as Dr. Scheller explains, can lead to chronic illness.  

“Finding ways to manage stress is hugely important in preventing and managing disease processes. That’s why we offer so many classes at the Graf Center aimed to reduce stress: mindful meditation, massage, acupuncture, reiki and yoga, to name a few. Those who are not sure which modality will be the most beneficial to their health can always schedule a class on a trial basis or meet with me directly to discuss in depth the various options available to them,” Dr. Scheller said. 

Diving into the world of holistic medicine on your own can be overwhelming. A simple google search for, ‘how to manage stress’ will conjure information on aromatherapy, essential oils, plant-based diets, natural supplements, homeopathy, color therapy and so on. 

Sifting through this information to determine what is and is not worth trying is a major project. That’s why being able to meet directly with a physician like Dr. Scheller, who specializes in overseeing the use of holistic modalities, is the most efficient and least stressful way to begin this journey.