Americans are overwhelmed. Living in chronic-stress mode — our days running 24/7, our senses assaulted by the pinging of smart phones, and our attention diverted by relentless tweets, texts and emails — we are in a constant quest for the new, different and exciting. The strain of our modern lives leads to anxiety, depression, insomnia, obesity and a host of other illnesses.
Researchers at UCLA have studied the impact of stress and are designing ways for people to cope and develop resilience. And the campus has become a place where mind-body programs are being developed to help people deal with stress as well as maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Mark Berndt Dr. Peter Whybrow
“Universities are supposed to be the places where you learn not only physics, but also how to live,” said Dr. Peter C. Whybrow, executive chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and director of the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.
That’s happening in Westwood where the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative (HCI) was launched in 2013 to support the 85,000 students, faculty and staff at UCLA in their efforts to eat healthy (Eat Well), exercise (Move Well), improve mental health (Mind Well), live in a healthier environment (Be Well) and thrive in a smoke-free campus (Breathe Well).
The healthiest campus in the nation
Integrating these five facets can reduce stress and foster healthy lifestyles, said Assistant Vice Provost Wendy Slusser, the physician who directs HCI. “It’s caught on like wildfire. People want to eat healthfully. They want to have a balanced, high-quality life, especially the youth on campus. It’s leading to a whole culture of wellness.”
Philanthropists Jane and Terry Semel, whose gift in 2004 endowed the Jane and Terry Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, also provided support in 2011 to create the healthiest campus in the nation at UCLA. In fall 2014, the couple made another gift to help create a food-studies minor for undergraduates and a food-studies certificate program for graduate students, recognizing the importance of nutrition to well-being.
The hope is that people will take these lessons beyond the campus and promote healthy living in their families and the workplace. The Semels and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block see HCI as a beacon for others.
“Whether it’s about diet, exercise, transportation or sustainability, our goal is to leverage our unique strengths in the health sciences and as a leading research university to encourage healthier outcomes for individuals and for society as a whole,” Chancellor Block said.
HCI has already spread beyond UCLA. In July 2014, University of California President Janet Napolitano, inspired by the Eat Well program, created the UC Global Food Initiative, creating programs and projects throughout the UCs.
The ability to manage stress and develop greater powers of resilience will be “the most important cornerstone of advancing human health in general over the next 50-to-100 years,” said Dr. Robert Bilder, Tennenbaum Professor of Psychiatry and director of Mind Well, one of the five components of HCI.
Although he has a high stress job, Dr. Whybrow keeps his smart phone switched off in his briefcase. “Every time your phone rings, somebody else is providing you with a priority that wasn’t your own before the phone rang,” he explained. “We all want to control our environment. When we lose our capacity to control our future as we see it, stress begins to mount.”
Technology and social media have “led to a net decrease in well-being,” Bilder said, disrupting the balance between our willed intentions and responsiveness to external stimuli. “As we see people walking around the streets with their cell phones, they’re constantly responding to signals that they’re getting from others: e-mails, text messages, phone messages, tweets. That’s hijacking people’s behavior and making them responsive to these devices in a way that prevents them from implementing their own willed intentions.”
UCLA cognitive researchers, who have studied how people learn, might provide a key for managing those stressors. Their research may help students learn more efficiently. The Mind Well program is developing a co-curriculum at UCLA to emphasize life skills, recognizing students for studying subjects like mindfulness in addition to physics and chemistry.
A powerful tool
Students, staff and faculty are not the only people benefiting from campus programs to de-stress. UCLA’S Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) was created a decade ago, in part, by a gift from the Petit Foundation. Today, it reaches several thousands of people a year through its training sessions and free drop-in guided meditations held weekly at six UCLA facilities. In addition, an average of 120,000 to 130,000 people a month access guided meditations from the MARC website.
People who take the classes are dealing with stress-related illnesses: depression, anxiety, attention-deficit issues, back pain, migraines or high blood pressure. Diana Winston, UCLA’s director of mindfulness education, often hears from people who face crises and find comfort from the online mindfulness recordings, such as a woman recently diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer.
“Mindfulness is about paying attention in the present moment, not being lost in the past, not being lost in the future, but coming into this moment and finding a place of ease and well-being with things as they are,” explained Winston. “Mindfulness is both a meditation practice and a quality of attention that you can bring to any moment in your day or life.”
Ten years ago, most of the therapies targeting stress involved cognitive behavioral therapy. “The use of mind-body interventions was dismissed as irrelevant to the practice of medicine when we began exploring its role in treating stress-related conditions like insomnia, depression and anxiety,” said Dr. Michael Irwin, the Cousins/MARC Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and director of MARC
But through randomly controlled studies of more than 600 subjects over the last decade, funded mainly by the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Irwin and his colleagues have shown not only that mind-body interventions, such as mindful meditation, yoga and Tai Chi, improve mental and physical outcomes, but also how these interventions work to reduce stress, improve sleep and possibly prevent chronic illnesses like hypertension, cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia and rheumatoid arthritis.
The start of a movement
Dr. Whybrow sits at the helm of the diverse Semel Institute thinking of the big picture, such as HCI and how to glue an emotionally fractured society back together. “As my daughter says, people have forgotten how to grow a tomato out of their own backyard,” he said. “We can make progress, but we have to think about it. It’s not going to happen by itself.”
Americans, in order to de-stress, need to re-tune their habitat, educational systems and food consumption, and rediscover social conventions — in short, the things that make us human, like attachment, love and face-to-face communication. Dr. Whybrow hopes that HCI will be a start, with roots and branches that extend beyond the confines of the UCLA campus.
“Change doesn’t occur in one fell swoop,” he said. “It occurs with individuals beginning to see opportunities for themselves and intellectual excitement around the changes that can occur. Those islands of opportunity begin to grow and then eventually coalesce, and you’ve got a cultural movement.”
This article has been edited from the original story in U Magazine. Read the complete story here.