Volume III, Issue 4: January 2011
Leigh Poirier Ball
Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications
Leigh Poirier Ball, acting director of the UCI Health Education Center, shows the campus community how calming the mind benefits the body. She teaches relaxation techniques that can have a lasting impact on people's health.
Leigh Poirier Ball
Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications
Poirier Ball practices yoga, meditation and "deep-belly breathing" to reduce her stress.

Breathing lessons

Did your New Year's resolution involve making a fresh start? Letting go and living better? Reviving body and mind? If those good intentions vanished with your first pressing deadline of 2011 or the daily bumper-car commute, Leigh Poirier Ball is here to help.

As acting director of the UC Irvine Health Education Center, Poirier Ball assists students, faculty and staff in managing stress and staying healthy using simple techniques like slowed breathing. She conducts campus workshops on relaxing the mind and body — but admits she herself isn't always the picture of calm.

That's understandable. Poirier Ball has been adjusting to her new role at UCI since October while pursuing a doctorate in higher education administration & policy at UC Riverside.

"There are times when I drop my basket," she jokes. Or as she might explain to students, the fight-or-flight response overrides her usual equilibrium.

UCI is home to renowned experts on the mind-body connection (the list includes meditation expert Roger Walsh, tai chi master Shin Lin and stress researcher Salvatore R. Maddi). Although she's not a researcher, Poirier Ball gathers the latest findings and presents them in programs such as the Relax Your Body & Mind workshops.

The things that are supposed to make our lives easier are making them more stressful.

"I haven't come up with anything unique," she says. "I read articles and books, attend training sessions, and keep up with the latest research. Then I put it all out there, hoping something will stick. It's my shotgun approach."

Some seek her help because they can't escape the pressures of schoolwork or their jobs — and technology is making the problem worse, she says.

"The things that are supposed to make our lives easier are making them more stressful. Technology like smart phones and e-mail that's accessible anywhere blurs the lines between work and life. It's harder to turn work off."

Getting unplugged is good for your health, she says, because more studies are proving there's a link between physical and mental well-being. Stress has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, illness due to weakened immune systems, and a host of other ailments. Its ill effects are not just in your head.

"When the fight-or-flight response is activated, our hearts race and our muscles tense," Poirier Ball says.

One easy method for counteracting stress can be done anywhere — even at your desk or while stuck in traffic. She teaches workshop participants the 4-7-8 breath: Inhale for a count of four seconds, hold the breath for seven seconds and exhale slowly for eight.

It sounds crazy, but taking the time to catch our breath makes a huge difference in our mental and physical well-being.

"It sounds crazy, but taking the time to catch our breath makes a huge difference in our mental and physical well-being," she says. "Even if you only do this exercise five times, you enlist the relaxation response. When you breathe diaphragmatically — pushing out the abdomen instead of the upper chest for deep belly breaths — your heart rate slows and your muscles relax. And as you count, you can't think about what you should have done. It gets you focused on the present."

Yoga, meditation and exercise are other ways to relax, says Poirier Ball, who honed her meditation practice through the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course offered by UCI's Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine and UCI Extension as well as a three-day training offered through the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.

Those struggling with stress can find help through various programs and services at UCI, she says. The Health Education Center has a private Wellness Room where students, faculty and staff can unwind in a massage chair, listen to relaxation CDs, play Nintendo Wii or try out the StressEraser biofeedback device. Faculty and staff also can take advantage of UCI's Employee Assistance Program, which offers free counseling and other stress-management services through the Cascade Centers. Campus Recreation has free wellness programs such as Cheer Up UCI and the upcoming Limber Up UCI for stress reduction.

"Leigh has gone above and beyond to help bring stress-management education to UCI," says Dyan Hall, UCI Wellness program consultant. "She's giving the campus community tools that can have a huge positive impact on their health — not only while they're here but for the rest of their lives."

Recommended:

1. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn
2. Basic Yoga Workout for Dummies with Sara Ivanhoe (DVD)
3. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky

—Kathryn Bold, University Communications