Queen of Cool
How a local stress expert keeps calm.
Dr. Esther Sternberg knows the nasty effects of chronic stress all too well.
She has been studying the science of the mind-body connection and the role stress plays in health since the 1980s. As chief of Neuroendocrine Immunology & Behavior in Rockville, part of the National Institutes of Health, she is well-versed in research that shows, for example, that people with chronic stress suffer more frequent and severe bouts of viral infections like the flu, and that their wounds take longer to heal.
But more than that, she has felt the effects of stress firsthand. In the late ’90s, Sternberg developed painful arthritis after a particularly stressful time when she was juggling a high-pressure career, going through a divorce, raising an adolescent and caring long distance for her dying mother. She was able to de-stress and rebalance, she says, after a 10-day break in 1997, when she stayed in a small fishing town in Greece. Her computer crashed the first day, spurring her to swim, walk, mingle with the villagers, admire the seaside views and just think.
“I had been barreling down the highway [at] 120 mph, and it was the first time I stopped to take a breath,” Sternberg says.
Afterward, her arthritis subsided. “I am convinced I got sick because I was going through a period of chronic stress—and I began to get better because I got myself back into a healthy rhythm.”
Sternberg describes that trip as a “turning point,” and since then she has made a conscious effort to stay balanced. At 59, she regularly relies on techniques inspired by her stay in Greece to help counter stress, including periodic time- outs to simply contemplate the beauty of nature. As a result, despite a demanding career that includes lecturing and writing books, Sternberg is serene, often rhapsodizing about the leafy views from her home in Northwest Washington, D.C. “You can tell the time of day by the shades of green reflected in the [sunlight],” she says.
What she does
In addition to taking vacations, during which she unplugs and unwinds, Esther Sternberg meditates daily. “I make sure to have a period of time to sit and contemplate, even if it’s just a few moments outside on my deck, looking at the trees, inhaling the fragrance of the gardenias and jasmine,” she says. This type of contemplation—being in the moment and breathing deeply and slowly— can induce positive emotions.“You can do it for just a minute, and it resets your stress response,” she says.
Look at the trees
During these breaks, Sternberg prefers views of nature, which she says can aid healing. According to Sternberg, one study found that surgery patients with views of trees needed less pain medication and healed faster than those with views of brick walls.
Sternberg’s regimen for countering stress also includes gentle exercise (strenuous exercise can stimulate the stress response, she says). Walking for 30 minutes a day, for example, has been shown to enhance the immune system and stimulate the parts of the brain associated with resilience, she says. Sternberg will walk, rather than drive, whenever possible, and she swims for about 30 minutes three to five times a week.
Research suggests that plenty of social interaction is key to maintaining a healthy rhythm, says Sternberg, who makes relationships a priority. Every week, she gets together with neighbors and shares dinner. She also turns to friends and loved ones for help in managing stressful events. Research shows that simply holding the hand of a loved one lowers stress, according to Sternberg.
Changing her ways has paid off. “People say I have this sense of calm that’s just amazing,” she says.