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HEALTH : Mind Over Matters : Stress-reduction program helps participants get in touch with their bodies and maintain well-being.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Maryann Hammers writes regularly for The Times</i>

Sitting in rush-hour traffic is hazardous to your health. So are fights with your mate, impending job layoffs, un paid bills, still-jolting aftershocks and whatever else stresses you out.

“Life can never be stress-free,” said clinical psychologist Mae Keyson. “There is job stress, money stress, relationship stress, earthquake stress. You can’t stop the waves from coming at you, but you can learn to ride the waves.”

That’s the idea behind the Mind / Body Stress Reduction Program at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. Through yoga, nutrition education, group support, meditation, guided imagery and exercises in communication, breathing, relaxation and visualization, participants learn how to better deal with what gets them down.

Such tension-busting techniques not only help us mellow out, but they are also critical to our health and well-being, said Keyson, who co-directs the program with yoga therapist Marsha Accomazzo. Chronic stress can impair the immune system.

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A UCLA study found that men with a history of severe work-related problems were five times more likely to develop colon or rectal cancer than men without job difficulties. Another study showed that people who care for spouses with Alzheimer’s disease have respiratory infections more often than adults who do not care for an ill spouse.

According to Keyson, people with a wide variety of complaints can benefit from the Mind / Body program, including those with AIDS, heart disease, cancer, chronic pain, high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes, sleep disturbances, obsessive-compulsive disorders, panic attacks, eating disorders, depression and fatigue.

People who are going through a divorce or having family or job difficulties can also be helped. “Anyone who feels unhappy and stuck and wants to change the way they view life is a good candidate,” she said.

But Keyson emphasizes that the Mind / Body program works with--not instead of--conventional treatments.

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“The program is not held out as a magical cure or panacea,” she said, “but it does offer an additional tool to complement standard medical care. It encourages patients to maintain and optimize health and be active participants in their own health care.”

One technique taught in the Mind / Body program is mindfulness --the act of concentrating on the present, rather than fretting about the future or dwelling on the past. “Focusing on the present moment is a way to reconnect with your body,” Keyson said, “which is important, because when your mind and body become disconnected, you don’t know when you are overextending yourself.”

To help participants focus on the moment, Keyson leads them through a variety of poetic images. For example, she may darken the room and ask them to imagine themselves as mountains.

Yoga also helps participants get in touch with their bodies. “Yoga produces tranquillity and serenity and encourages reflection,” Accomazzo said. “During yoga, you are involved in the process--the feeling of a pose or a breath--rather than striving for a goal.”

Accomazzo said she began practicing yoga about 20 years ago after two operations left her with 60% lung capacity.

“I know what it is like to be a patient,” she said. “I know how bad it hurts; I know how scary it is. I know what it feels like to have your control taken away and your privacy invaded. There is nothing about yoga that condones getting off medicine, but it helps take away the pain and fear and give back the control. It helps people deal with whatever stress is in their life.”

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Mindy Sabin-Wheaton, in her 20s, who’s an account manager for a telemarketing firm, said she signed up for the / Body program in the hope of lowering her cholesterol levels. “I think I am pretty healthy,” she said. “I watch my diet and exercise. I thought the program would be one more thing I could do.”

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As it turned out, Sabin-Wheaton’s high cholesterol was not lowered by the program--but her outlook on life is much better. “When things get stressful at work, I am able to take a step back and just focus on breathing and being calm, and I realize nothing is as bad as it seems.”

LIAISON: Where and When

What: Mind / Body Stress Reduction Program.

Location: Northridge Hospital Medical Center, 18300 Roscoe Blvd.

Hours: 7 to 9:30 p.m., beginning Sept. 28. Class includes six weekly group sessions and two private interviews.

Price: $295 for six-week program.

Call: (800) 922-0000 or (818) 999-1144


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