Stress and the Mind-Body Connection: Change Your Outlook, Change Your Health

Decrease Stress, Increase Patient Health and Happiness With Tips From Alice Domar, PhD

Two people hugging and smiling.

As medical professionals, you know how health challenges and difficult medical situations can take their toll on both patients and their caregivers alike. Countless studies have shown the damaging effects of stress on both mind and body. Sometimes stress can seem impossible to avoid, but there is hope. Harvard Medical School assistant professor Alice Domar, Ph.D., is a pioneer in the field of mind/body medicine. She established the first Mind/Body Center for Women's Health and has developed programs to help both men and women decrease psychological and physical symptoms of stress.

For the last 100 years, medicine’s cultural focus has been on surgery and pharmaceuticals, but Domar posits that a very important component is often overlooked: What the patient can do to help him or herself in either negative or positive ways.

Research published in the journal Nature is among the headlines we often hear linking stress to physical health.

Says Domar, "We know that stress can have a significant impact on the body and can cause physical, psychological, and behavioral symptoms. That is the negative aspect of the mind-body connection: the fact that the mind can directly negatively impact the body. But the reverse is also true: The mind can help the body as well. There are numerous mind/body techniques which can counteract the harmful impact of stress and restore the body to improved health."

Because so many studies have been conducted that link stress to the deterioration of health, this is an important area for medical professionals like physical and occupational therapists to prioritize in their therapies. "A stressed patient not only has more physical complaints, but is also less likely to be compliant with recommendations... If you can teach a patient skills that make them feel better, they will feel more in control of their body and life," says Domar. By implementing her advice, PTs and OTs can expect that "patients will have fewer symptoms, they will be easier to work with, and they will be less anxious."

Other negative symptoms of stress can include (but are not limited to):

Recommended relaxation techniques
  1. Mini relaxations: "You simply breathe slowly, in through your nose and out through your mouth, and count down from 10 down to 1, one number for each breath. So as you inhale, you say "10" to yourself. With the next breath, you say "9," and so on. When you get down to 0, you are likely to feel more relaxed."
  2. Eat in a balance of 80/20. "If 80% of what you eat is the good stuff, i.e. the whole grains, lean meats and fishes, fruits and veggies, then the other 20% can be the things you would ordinarily try to deprive yourself of. It is far better to eat a couple of cookies a day than it is to eat nothing sweet for four days, and then a whole bag of cookies."

More tips and strategies can be found in Domar’s book Live a Little, co-authored with Dr. Susan Love. To learn more about Alice Domar and her work, visit