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Wellness: How to Reduce Illness and Its Effects

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"Research has shown more and more that mental illness often has a physical component, and that many physical illnesses can be addressed, at least partially, through behavioral means."
Wellness is not only a state of physical health, it is also a state of mind. The mind and body are completely integrated. The mind and body cannot be separated into "This is a physical illness" and "This is a mental illness," although we do just that in our classification schemes. Research has shown more and more that mental illness often has a physical component, and that many physical illnesses can be addressed, at least partially, through behavioral means.

Let's look at this through logical analysis. We use medications for many different kinds of problems: to relieve pain, to reduce depression and/or anxiety, to lower blood pressure, to reduce cholesterol, to fight infections, etc. Have you ever wondered why medications work? In the simplest terms possible, medications primarily work because they either mimic or stimulate natural processes. We are chemical beings. Everything that we do, that we think, is through chemical processes. Therefore, when we use medications, we are aiding a natural bodily process.

However, what we often fail to recognize is that frequently we have a behavioral means available to us to alter our chemical processes. You probably already know this, but may not have really thought about it. For instance, you may have heard that when you exercise, endorphins are released. Endorphins are a group of chemicals in our bodies that help to reduce pain, improve sleep, and improve mood, among other things. Endorphins are a natural morphine. The reason morphine is an effective pain reliever, is that it mimics this natural chemical. However, when we use behavioral means such as exercise to release this chemical, the effects of the substance are more controlled through the natural mechanisms of the body.

Another example of controlling the body through behavioral means is using diet to reduce the risk of heart disease. Are you careful about the amount of cholesterol or fats that you ingest? If so, you are engaged in behaviorally controlling physical processes.

As you already know, we have a behavioral means of controlling illness. But you may not know the extent of your control. The following will provide you with some ideas. First, however, I will discuss the relationship between stress and illness.

The Stress/Illness Relationship

More than 30 years ago, a moderate relationship was discovered between heart disease and stressful life events. A moderate relationship in research terms means that stress appeared to contribute to heart disease, but did not appear to be a factor in every individual with heart disease. But it was enough of a relationship to warrant further inspection. As a result of the findings of this investigation, thousands of research studies have been conducted to understand the relationship between stress and illness further.

To summarize the outcome of all this research, the relationship between stress and illness was fairly consistently present even when different types of physical and psychological illnesses were examined and when different definitions of stress were used. However, the relationship remained a moderate one which vexed researchers. In particular, they wondered how two people could have the same stress factors in their lives, and yet, one developed illness and the other did not.

This question led to research examining other factors that moderate, or reduce, the effects of stress so that in some people the same stressors may not contribute to illness. These factors became known as "stress buffers" and this research has aided in the understanding of wellness. As stress itself is not easy to eliminate from a person's life, what are the things a person can do that can buffer, or reduce, the impact of stress?

A Comment About Time

Many times in my clinical practice I hear, "I'm too busy to relax," or " I just don't have the time to exercise." These individuals come to me reporting symptoms related to stress, sometimes psychological symptoms and sometimes physical symptoms. What they often fail to realize is that these symptoms themselves take time. In other words, how much time is the person wasting by having the symptom? First of all, they are in my office and that takes time. They also may be seeing a physician for related physical problems. They may be taking medication which means the time getting the prescription and getting it filled. A common symptom from stress is poor concentration, so they may be taking much more time making decisions and understanding situations than they did previously. People are unlikely to become more productive when they are stressed. As you see, not caring for yourself can be very time-consuming.


A basic gauge for relaxation is to spend at least a half hour a day engaging in some type of relaxation. Such relaxation does not include television or sleeping. However, it may include listening to music, non-productive reading (in other words, not work-related), guided imagery, meditation, prayer, or sitting and enjoying nature, to name a few things. The most important criteria for the activity you do for relaxation is that you find it enjoyable and relaxing.


Exercise provides us with many benefits that can improve health and prevent the negative effects of stress. Generally, twenty to thirty minutes of aerobic exercise three to five times a week is recommended to benefit your heart. However, for stress management each individual may find different levels of exercise that provide the greatest benefit.

Many people don't exercise because they set expectations for themselves that are unreasonable. For instance, they may resolve to exercise for an hour a day. Then the first time they are unable to meet their resolution, they quit. However, if they set a reasonable expectation, they may be more likely to meet it such as resolving to exercise, on the average, three times a week.

Regular exercise helps to improve sleep, concentration, and attitude. In addition, it helps with weight loss and it helps reduce the risk factors associated with many physical illnesses.


How we think about situations and problems contributes to reducing the impact of stress. Research shows that people who view themselves as having little means to affect their lives, will suffer more consequences from stress. For instance, an individual who doesn't believe s/he has any control in his/her life will more frequently give up and not try to do anything that can change a situation.

Therefore, it is important to believe that we can change our lives through the choices we make and the activities we undertake.

I call this a "realistic" attitude and distinguish it from a "positive" attitude. Thinking positively can be just as unrealistic and thinking negatively. The reason people often say that positive thinking doesn't work for them is that when we think overly positive, we don't believe it and are unlikely then to act on it. In order to believe something, it has to be realistic. For example, are you more will to accept "Everything is going to be okay" or "This may be difficult, but I can handle it." Learn to cultivate a realistic attitude that focuses on your ability to cope with the problems that come your way.


Not only is nutrition important in preventing or reducing the impact of physical illness, but research is also accumulating that shows the impact of nutrition certain foods on moods and emotional well-being. Again, you may recognize this by paying attention to your own moods and behavior related to particular foods. How many times have you felt tired and sluggish after eating certain foods while other foods have contributed to increased energy? How often do you turn to food to make you feel better? How often do you have cravings for certain foods? Our relationship to food may not be just psychological, but also chemically based.

The above provides an overview of some of the issues in the area of wellness and your ability to control the impact of stress. Stress is a fact of life in our society, but we have the means to learn to cope with it.

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