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How to Use Speaking

of Faith Discussion Guides


Facilitator Notes

Can stress make us sick? Can places of peace, prayer, meditation, rest, music, and friendship help us to live
well? Through this discussion guide, I invite you to explore how, in the context of our particular histories and
our physical and spiritual details, we can use science to our benefit while learning to attend to what our own
bodies are telling us.

In her book, The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, author and physician
Esther Sternberg explores the topic in depth. Sternberg, a rheumatologist internationally recognized for
her discoveries about how the central nervous system and the immune system interact, describes how the
language of genes, neurotransmitters, and hormones is helping science to use knowledge that human beings
have always possessed intuitively.

At one time, Sternberg shared her profession’s modern bias that emotions are distinct and perhaps altogether
separate from physical health. Without measurable and logical proof of their direct connection to disease or
healing, such a correlation could not be taken seriously.

But in recent years, parallel to her colleagues in many other disciplines, Sternberg underwent a period of
scientific and personal discovery. While dying of cancer, Sternberg’s mother urged her daughter to ask not
only whether stress can make us sick, but whether “loving” and “believing” can help us to live well. Sternberg
began to pose these questions for herself when she became exhausted and simultaneously developed a form
of arthritis, a disease she studies.

For a thousand years “the balance of the four humours”—blood, yellow and black bile, and phlegm—was a
central principle of medical teaching. These were visible secretions and therefore could be used as windows
into the workings of the body. Contemporary scientists are on the cusp of a new world of understanding, says
Sternberg, because they now know genes, hormones, and neurotransmitters to be as real and measurable
as blood and bile. They know that what we call feelings—both physical and emotional—are caused by myriad
biochemical connections.

About Speaking of Faith


Speaking of Faith is public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics and ideas. It is produced and
distributed by American Public Media. Each week, Krista Tippett and her guests explore every aspect of
life — from scientific discovery to global politics to how we raise our children — in thoughtful, lively dialogue.
Speaking of Faith learning materials are developed with major funding from Lilly Endowment, Inc.

Copyright © 2009 American Public Media. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. Not for resale.
Permission is granted to facilitator to make up to 15 copies for use in a discussion group.
How to Use Speaking
of Faith Discussion Guides
Facilitator Notes

This leaves me with an appreciation of the positive function of the human stress response. It is an ancient
faculty, part of our body’s built-in capacity to guide us in new environments and protect us from danger. Stress
does not make us sick, per se. But prolonged stress sets off a cascade of reactions that can leave us with
over-stimulated or suppressed immune systems. Memory and perception add to those physiological effects.
Knowing such details, we can understand when it’s appropriate to seek medical care and when and how we
can help ourselves to heal. Such an approach is at the core of integrative medicine, a branch of health care
that is growing across this country.

Science—with its insistence on what can be seen and measured—took us away from our ancient intuition
about the connection between health and emotions. But now science is bringing us back, putting the
experience of prolonged stress so many of us know into a very different context and giving new layers of
meaning to the phrase, “feeling sick.”

—Krista Tippett, host, Speaking of Faith®

About Speaking of Faith


Speaking of Faith is public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics and ideas. It is produced and
distributed by American Public Media. Each week, Krista Tippett and her guests explore every aspect of
life — from scientific discovery to global politics to how we raise our children — in thoughtful, lively dialogue.
Speaking of Faith learning materials are developed with major funding from Lilly Endowment, Inc.

Copyright © 2009 American Public Media. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. Not for resale.
Permission is granted to facilitator to make up to 15 copies for use in a discussion group.
Stress and
the Balance Within
Discussion Questions

If you’re pumping out too much of those


stress hormones, if you’re chronically
1. The belief that stress can make you sick has been around for
stressed and your immune system is thousands of years. It’s as if people have always had the intuitive
tuned down, what are the things that you sense that emotions—both positive and negative—are linked to
can do intuitively to reduce that, to get physical processes in the body.
that back to balance?
Esther Sternberg »» In your experience, are stress and physical well-being closely
linked? Why or why not?
Poetry and song are the language of
»» Why do you think it has taken so long for science to find
emotions. Scientific precision, logic and
its way back to knowledge about the connection between
deductive reasoning are the language
of disease. emotions and health that was once taken for granted?
Esther Sternberg, »» What role, if any, does spirituality play in maintaining a
The Balance Within balance between stress and well-being in your life?

2. The word “stress” did not appear in dictionaries until about the
mid-twentieth century. Before then, it was called “nervousness”
and was thought to be caused by changes in the environment
or culture. We live in just such an era of exponential change
characterized by rapid leaps in technology, and great economic
and social upheaval.

»» Are we less stressed the more control we have or think we


have in a rapidly changing environment, or does that make a
difference?
»» What culture shift do you think has increased stress the
most? Why?
»» Humans crave novelty, but in large amounts it also causes
stress. How might we find a balance between our desire for
the new and novel, and our need to manage stress?

Esther Sternberg is a rheumatologist,


researcher, and author of The Balance
Within: The Science Connecting Health
and Emotions.

Visit speakingoffaith.org
For more information about Speaking of Faith and the topic of this discussion guide, or to sign up for a weekly
e-mail newsletter or free weekly podcasts, visit speakingoffaith.org.

Copyright © 2009 American Public Media. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. Not for resale.
Permission is granted to facilitator to make up to 15 copies for use in a discussion group.
Stress and
the Balance Within
Discussion Questions

For centuries, taking the cure at a


3. We need the stress response in order to survive. It alerts us to
mountain sanatorium or a hot-springs spa
danger and enables us to act quickly, without having to think
was the only available treatment for many things through first. Slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident
chronic diseases. New understanding is an example of our most basic stress response in action. Other
of the communication between the situations, such as a serious illness, a job loss, or a divorce,
brain and immune system provides a involve a more prolonged and complex stress response.
physiological explanation of why such
cures sometimes worked.
»» What are some common stressors and how many of them do
Esther M. Sternberg and Philip W. Gold,
“The Mind-Body Interaction in Disease”, you think we experience on any given day?
The Scientific American (1997, revised »» If you’re chronically stressed and your immune system is
2002) tuned down, what are some things that you do intuitively to
get that back to balance?

4. Cortisol, the chemical that floods our bodies when we are


stressed, also shuts off immune cells. Consequently, a person
who is stressed on a regular basis may in fact have a repressed or
under-active immune system.

»» Which physical symptoms indicate to you that you are


responding stressfully to change or crisis, or simply to the
unknown?
»» Given the connection between stress and the immune
system, how might we change the way we talk to our
physicians when we are sick? How have your own doctors
approached your emotional life, if at all?

Visit speakingoffaith.org
For more information about Speaking of Faith and the topic of this discussion guide, or to sign up for a weekly
e-mail newsletter or free weekly podcasts, visit speakingoffaith.org.

Copyright © 2009 American Public Media. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. Not for resale.
Permission is granted to facilitator to make up to 15 copies for use in a discussion group.
Stress and
the Balance Within
Discussion Questions

Vacations are not luxuries but physical


necessities. So, too, are practices that
5. Some studies indicate that people undergoing marital stress
calm and renew our emotions and or who are caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients are subjected to
our spirits. chemical changes that inhibit the body’s ability to fight infections.
Esther Sternberg
»» What dynamics have you observed or experienced in dealing
with the chronic stress of illness, marital discord, or other
stressful situations like financial problems?
»» Now that we know how our immune systems are
compromised by chronic stress, how might we approach
deeply stressful situations differently?
»» Evidence suggests that meditation, as well as yoga,
swimming and running, can boost the immune system. Have
you or someone you know used such methods to counteract
chronic stress?

6. Not all of the physical problems caused by stress have a medical


solution. However, simply knowing that the connection between
illness and emotions is real and scientifically proven can be a
source of encouragement.

»» If you believe that your problems are not “real” as many were
led to before recent advances in our understanding of the
connection between illness and emotions, how might that
affect the way you seek solutions or look for help?
»» So often we are not dealing with simply one stressful factor
but two or three at once. Given the difficulty of dealing with
or controlling the sources of stress, how does it help us to
understand the relationship between stress and illness?
»» Now that we have scientific proof that we heal better when
our stress is reduced, how can we better manage our period
of recovery? What environmental and/or personal changes
could we make in order to enhance our healing?

Visit speakingoffaith.org
For more information about Speaking of Faith and the topic of this discussion guide, or to sign up for a weekly
e-mail newsletter or free weekly podcasts, visit speakingoffaith.org.

Copyright © 2009 American Public Media. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. Not for resale.
Permission is granted to facilitator to make up to 15 copies for use in a discussion group.
Stress and
the Balance Within
Discussion Questions

High levels of psychological stress can


slow the process of wound healing to 7. One criticism of the self-help movement is that people are often
such an extent as to increase the risks led to believe that if they can’t “fix it” on their own they have failed.
of recovery in procedures ranging from Yet we are learning that there are physiological aspects of our
minor dental procedures to major surgery. physical and emotional pain that require professional help.
Researchers at Ohio State University,
as reported in “Implications of Stress,
»» Have you employed particular strategies in an attempt to
Psychosocial Factors on the Immune
“fix” a health problem? Which strategies, if any, have been
System,” by Arline Kaplan, Psychiatric
Times (October 1999) effective? Which strategies, if any, were harmful?
»» How have you used your own emotions to assist in physical
healing? Describe a situation in which you or someone you
know drew on emotions to deal with a health problem.
»» Which clues, whether emotional or physical, tell you that it is
time to seek professional help?

8. When your computer gets jammed up, you shut down and reboot
it. When our lives get jammed up with stress, we might follow suit
and “go off-line” by taking a vacation or employing other strategies
to distance ourselves from the causes of stress.

»» What would it take for you to truly go off-line for a day or


longer? How would you go about doing that?
»» Imagine the perfect vacation—perfect place, time, people,
activities. Now consider what aspects of that perfect vacation
are available to you right now.

Visit speakingoffaith.org
For more information about Speaking of Faith and the topic of this discussion guide, or to sign up for a weekly
e-mail newsletter or free weekly podcasts, visit speakingoffaith.org.

Copyright © 2009 American Public Media. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. Not for resale.
Permission is granted to facilitator to make up to 15 copies for use in a discussion group.
Stress and
the Balance Within
Discussion Questions

“Feeling sick” conveys the notion


that our awareness of being ill has a
9. Stress is not the sole cause of disease. As with arthritis, irritable
sensory component, such as pain, bowel syndrome, and other illnesses, sickness may be rooted in a
and an emotional component, such as genetic predisposition toward that disease. But our own memories
feeling sad. and histories play an important part in how we perceive ourselves,
Esther Sternberg, The Balance Within our bodies, and the way we react to normal and special stresses.

»» How might two families react differently to very similar


stresses, and why? What examples of this have you seen?
»» Consider your personal history. What events and situations
have made you more sensitive to certain illnesses or
emotional stress? How can you use this knowledge when you
face stress and illness?

10. Part of the reason scientists and physicians have been hesitant
to consider the role of emotions comes down to language.
“Scientists and lay people speak different languages. But so do
emotions and disease,” says Esther Sternberg. “Poetry and song
are the language of emotions. Scientific precision, logic, and
deductive reasoning are the language of disease.”

»» How do you think the language of science and the language


of emotions might be better integrated?
»» Is there a particular text or story that you turn to in nurturing
emotional well-being? Do you feel that poetry and storytelling
can contribute to physiological well-being?

Resources
For additional resources about this topic, review Program Details at http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/
programs/stress/index.shtml

Copyright © 2009 American Public Media. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. Not for resale.
Permission is granted to facilitator to make up to 15 copies for use in a discussion group.
Stress and
the Balance Within
Notes

Resources
For additional resources about this topic, review Program Details at http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/
programs/stress/index.shtml

Copyright © 2009 American Public Media. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. Not for resale.
Permission is granted to facilitator to make up to 15 copies for use in a discussion group.