Alternative treatment options for chronic stress, inflammation, anxiety, and more
Saybrook alumna Carolyn Trasko, Ph.D., shares how her research and work in the areas of stress prevention and self-care has also become a journey of self-discovery and renewal.
I often ask myself, “How do I continue to make a difference in the field of behavioral health?” For the past 28 years, this question has prompted me to tune into the needs of my clients and has guided me to do my part to change the narrative of how behavioral medicine is performed.
My professional evolution began with my first job in the field in 1990, during the historic time of de-institutionalization with those experiencing chronic mental illness. I learned immeasurably from these individuals who were struggling to transition to life outside of a psychiatric hospital. They desperately wanted to function more independently, though many lacked the skills of everyday life.
Discovering the link between stress and chronic diseases
From the start, I was fascinated by the circumstances that many of my clients appeared to share. And seeing their determination and resilience set me on the path to learning more about mental health, substance abuse, and physical illness.
For many of these clients, the following factors seemed to serve as common denominators of their experience:
- Early childhood trauma
- Substance abuse problems
- Chronic physical illnesses, including inflammation
- Ongoing stress
- Social and emotional attachment issues
- Dissociation, including mind-body disconnection
Throughout the course of my career, I have continued to explore the potential links between chronic stress, early life adversity, inflammation, and the development of diseases. My overall goal has been to identify ways to effectively treat and manage these types of conditions that are often chronic for some people. It has been a driving force for me to help these individuals empower themselves to heal.
Polyvagal theory and sensorimotor psychotherapy
I realized that for treatments to be the most effective, it would be necessary to combine allopathic medicine and lifestyle interventions in some meaningful way. A pivotal turning point for me occurred while attending an international trauma conference in Boston in 2008. I attended a workshop focused on affecting regulation, attachment, and trauma. During that workshop, the presenters discussed Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory and Dr. Pat Ogden’s Sensorimotor Psychotherapy.
Polyvagal theory provides an explanation for the physiological changes that occur in response to trauma. This theory emphasizes how the vagus nerve serves a central role in our social engagement system and highlights how this system is intricately linked to our overall survival. The autonomic nervous system (ANS), consisting of the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) nervous systems, works together as part of the down-regulation process in response to cues of safety or danger from our internal and external environments. The ANS is responsible for many automatic bodily processes, including breathing, heart rate, and digestion. The SNS prepares us for fight-or-flight while the PNS fosters rest and rejuvenation.
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP) is a body-centered method designed to treat the somatic and emotional symptoms of unresolved trauma. SP draws from neuroscience, attachment theory, cognitive, and somatic therapies. Up to that point in my career, I had never heard anything like this before, and it was mind-blowing to me. I called my colleague during the conference break and said, “I feel like I have just heard the answer, but I haven’t learned what the question is yet.”
I came to realize that the question was actually something I had been asking myself all along: “How do I continue to make a difference in the field of behavioral health?” For me, the answer has been to continue to identify the potential underlying mechanisms that often manifest as depression, anxiety, substance use issues, physical illness, and disease while exploring various mind-body practices that might best treat these issues.
How Mind-Body Medicine became a major influencer
My passion to deeply understand the mind-body connection led me to Saybrook University in 2013. At the first residential conference for the College of Mind-Body Medicine in San Diego, California, one of the facilitators welcomed all of us who “heard the call.” From that moment on, I knew I had found my tribe. At Saybrook, I was given the opportunity to deepen my knowledge and hone my research interests.
Throughout the academic process, I was encouraged to allow my curiosity to serve as a guide to refine my thesis and research question. Ultimately, I wanted to find out if relaxation techniques could affect the stress response and impact immune function in those who suffer from chronic health conditions, specifically autoimmune disorders.
My professional and personal transformation has recently culminated in the completion of my doctorate in Mind-Body Medicine with a specialization in Integrative Mental Health. My research focused on measuring the effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing, along with guided imagery, on mood, immune function, and heart rate variability in a small sample of adult women with thyroid disease. The findings showed that a short practice of these relaxation techniques demonstrated significant results for my study participants. Clinically, these findings lend support for the promotion of lifestyle interventions that can be easily taught and learned as part of everyday self-care practice.
Five everyday ways to support wellness
Simple strategies that can be practiced with relative ease are often the most effective tools to manage stress. Here are five things you can do every day to help support your wellness goals:
- Pause to ground yourself in the present moment by feeling your feet on the ground.
- Focus on the “low and slow,” in-and-out motion of belly breathing.
- Engage in some type of physical activity (e.g., dancing, walking, exercising, etc.).
- Leave a small amount of space each day to express your creativity (e.g., draw, color, journal, play music, cook, etc.).
- Spend a moment with someone that brings you joy. Social relationships, including with pets, are an important part of health and wellness.
The field of Mind-Body Medicine is still in its emergent phase. We at Saybrook, who have “heard the call,” are positioning ourselves as thought leaders in this ever-changing landscape. This allows us to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of medicine that emphasizes client-centered care and consists of a multidisciplinary, integrative, foundational core that focuses on both prevention and intervention for health and disease management.
Are you interested in learning more about mind-body medicine programs at Saybrook University? Fill out the information below to request more information or visit the mind-body medicine program page here.
About the Author
Carolyn Trasko has a Ph.D. in Mind-Body Medicine with a specialization in Integrative Mental Health from Saybrook University. Her current research is the culmination of more than 25 years in the behavioral health field serving as a licensed clinical social worker, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, and a trauma consultant.