Judging by the myriad pharmaceutical advertisements on television, there are plenty of pills to go around. But Dr. Wendy Chabot would like to see a world with fewer medications and more mindfulness.
Dr. Chabot, who owns Vineyard Mind-Body Medicine in Vineyard Haven, earned her medical degree from Tufts University and has worked for decades as a pediatrician. More recently, she has focused on the connection between stress and health. In describing how stress affects the body’s physiology, she cites a lengthy list of resources including research by Nobel Prize winners, Harvard University and countless other reputable institutions.
“The more stress we have, the less resilient we are and then we’re more likely to develop diseases for which we’re vulnerable,” Dr. Chabot explained.
During her work as a primary care pediatrician, Dr. Chabot became aware of children and families who struggled with stress related issues such as migraines, anxiety, high blood pressure, irritable bowel, depression, panic attacks and other disturbances. “There is a lot we can do besides put someone on medication,” she said. “That’s not always the best place to start. Better sleep, nutrition, exercise and other practices can help lead to better health.”
Dr. Chabot recently presented a five-week workshop called Healing With Meditation at the Chilmark Library. About 50 people gathered each week, a large number for the middle of winter. “This was the most well-attended winter program in my seven years here. Fifty people in the daytime, on a Wednesday, in Chilmark was pretty phenomenal,” said library director Ebba Hierta. “Another surprise is the extent they’ve stuck to this. They obviously cleared the calendar to spend the time to do this.”
Ms. Hierta has been attending the workshop and has seen improvement even in her swimming workouts.
“I’m able to swim further and I can put myself into a meditative state while I swim and the time goes by faster. Swimming is more of a joy for me now,” she explained. Ms. Hierta also said she feels less upset when things don’t go as expected throughout her day. “I think I’m calmer,” she said.
Dr. Chabot’s interest in meditation blossomed during her professional life but addressing the roots of stress runs much deeper. She was one of five children — her mother stayed home to take of the kids while her father worked. “Dad worked really hard to provide for us and he died young,” Dr. Chabot said. “This was the 50s and 60s when there was less emphasis on lifestyle. I’ve always had a sense that stress and lifestyle contributed to his death.”
She took a yoga class in college only to fulfill her physical education requirement and was surprised at how centered and calm she felt after the classes. “I practiced transcendental meditation in the 1970s and became interested in Herb Benson’s research in cardiology at Mass. General. He studied people who meditated and discovered that their blood pressure was lower, their heart rate was lower and they did indeed seem less anxious [than those who did not meditate].”
More recent research by Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn determined that stress causes cell damage, which leads to numerous health issues. She studied chromosomes and the effects stress has on the telomeres, which are caps on the ends of the chromosomes. The caps become shorter and ragged when chronic stress is experienced, leading to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other significant health issues.
Dr. Chabot explained that when the body is faced with a stressful situation, a “fight or flight” response takes place.
“Your pupils dilate. Your breathing gets shallow. Your heart rate increases. You decrease the blood flow to the gut. You have increased muscular tension, increased glucose and other problems,” she said.
The opposite effect can happen when one practices a relaxation response to the stress. Muscles relax, breathing is deeper, heart rate decreases and the heart muscles relax, there is increased blood flow to the gut, the normalization of glucose metabolism takes place and immune function improves.
Dr. Chabot said she doesn’t deny the benefits of “good stress,” which tells someone to get out of the way when a bus is heading toward them. But she also said the part time job you have that is giving you a pain in the neck, might really be giving you a pain in the neck.
“We have no time to decompress anymore in our culture. We used to have Sundays or Saturdays when the stores were closed and we all ate a meal together, went to church or synagogue. The opportunities to relax and unwind are no longer built into our schedules.”
With something as simple as intentional breathing, a person can practice a relaxation response to turn to when they feel a stressful response coming. “They can say to themselves, ‘Okay, I know what this is and I can handle it,’ and they can stop themselves from heading down that spiral triggered by stress by taking some deep breaths from the abdomen and perceiving the situation in a different way, not as a threat.”
There are many forms of meditation and the best thing to do is to keep trying them until you find the one that works best for you, Dr. Chabot said. At the Chilmark Library, she introduced techniques such as guided imagery and loving kindness meditation.
Loving kindness meditation has the dual benefit of calming and improving the outlook of the one meditating, along with instructing the meditator to send the same calming message to someone else — a loved one, a friend or even an enemy.
“May I be safe and protected. May I be peaceful and happy. May I be strong and healthy. May I care for myself with ease and joy.”
Dr. Chabot hoped the practitioners would take these mantras home with them to practice and use, giving them the ability to combat the everyday stress they all will surely face.
“If you keep practicing these things they become everyday tools,” she said.
For more information on dealing with stress related health issues, meditation or to schedule an individual consultation, contact Dr. Wendy Chabot at 508-687-9505 or visit her website, vineyardmindbodmed.com. Dr. Chabot also teaches the Meditation Is Medicine program at the Yoga Barn on Wednesdays from 3:30 to 5 p.m. and is currently scheduling other evidenced-based programs including, Six Weeks to Healthier Sleep, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Prepare for Surgery, Heal Faster.