Jennifer Wheary: Bringing rays of light into darkest month

Staying involved in the community can help us see our way through

December 22, 2012 

After superstorm Sandy and the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, there's no denying it's been a heartbreaking and fatiguing few months. The suffering we've either seen on our television screens or experienced directly makes many of us want to cry out: "Enough already." It's natural, and totally understandable, to be tired, sad and cynical. Yet it's precisely now that we need to muster our strength, look out for each other and figure out ways to keep lending everyone a helping hand.

The holiday season is already stressful. We scramble as the year ends, trying to figure out how to deal with deadlines, overscheduled evenings and weekends, complex family dynamics, extra shopping, and an ever-expanding to-do list.

When the American Psychological Association conducted its Stress in America survey in fall 2011, people living in the New York metropolitan area reported experiencing more stress than those living elsewhere.

Almost two out of three -- 64 percent -- were stressed about their personal health, compared with the national average of 53 percent. Some 60 percent were stressed about job stability, compared with the national average of 49 percent. And 44 percent, versus 32 percent nationally, cited personal safety as a cause of stress.

December, even in the best of times, brings higher rates of depression, increased alcohol and drug use, more intense experiences of grief and sadness, and a greater likelihood of medical emergencies. And these are not the best of times.

After Sandy Hook and the storm, it's hard to know how to put things in perspective. There's no good answer to the tragedy of families who've lost children or loved ones senselessly, or of people who've lost their homes to the wind and waters.

Even those who suffered no direct effects find these events overwhelming. It's difficult to know how to break out of it, and the stress of the holidays -- a time we're supposed to feel joyful -- compounds the feeling.

But there's a model in the medical community that can help. The University of Texas MD Anderson is the No. 1 hospital in the country for cancer care, according to the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings. In its highly respected patient-education work, MD Anderson tells cancer sufferers "one of the best ways to promote your own health or to cope with a health problem is to forget yourself and concentrate on helping others."

For more than 30 years, researchers have been studying the impact of kindness and compassion on our bodies and minds.

A review of research published last year by the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that even meditating about being kind causes us to release stress-reducing hormones, boosts our immune system and has a positive impact on areas of the brain tied to emotional processing.

MD Anderson explains it like this: Much like a "runner's high" after a hard workout, there is a scientifically documented helper's high. When any of us helps someone -- even in a small way, like holding a door -- the body releases endorphins, its natural pain-reducing chemicals. In addition to relieving pain, endorphins also produce "a sense of calmness and a release of stress." Too much stress on the body leads to high blood pressure, heart disease, and a weakened immune system. So when any of us helps another, we are having a preventive and a positive impact on our mental and physical health.

These efforts can be large or small. They can be as simple as helping someone carry a package or letting them take that coveted parking spot near the store door. The important thing, from a stress-reduction standpoint, is to take the focus off our own concerns and to think of others.

December, the darkest month, is known for its festivals of light. It's also the season of giving. After the cold, dark and sadness that so many have experienced, and with many real stresses still bearing down on us, celebrating light and reaching out to each other in ways large and small is not only appropriate, but also an act of survival and healing.

Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in Manhattan.

NEWSDAY (MELVILLE, NY)

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