How 'Dr. Stress' belies his moniker
These are several mugs on the desk of Dr. Bruce Rabin.
Dr. Bruce Rabin speaks about how different colors affect moods with, from left, Samantha Leathers, Vishal and Divya Parikh, and Mamie Thant, all fourth-year Pitt medical students, while holding a class on the science of stress inside his office at UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland.
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One notices immediately that Bruce S. Rabin is so calm, soft-spoken and unflappable that it raises a big question. Is something wrong with him?
How can a busy scientist and professor, with a long list of responsibilities, act this way during a busy workday? It's as though he were relaxing on a beach, watching seagulls, waves and sailboats. How dare this guy enjoy life with the calmness of a monk?
Soon one realizes that Dr. Rabin is perfectly normal. It's just that everyone else in America isn't, what with the American propensity to be embroiled in the day's stress, with the typical workplace demeanor of knitted brow, strained expression, short fuse and quick retort in a nation full of ambitions, tight deadlines and long work days with equal challenges on the highways and at home.
The white-haired 72-year-old University of Pittsburgh physician, who has a doctoral degree in immunology, is known as "Dr. Stress," which is a misnomer. One would swear that the man experiences zero stress.
Earlier in a career as a noted immunologist, Dr. Rabin was involved in the game of research, landing grants and completing studies for publication. But soon he would question his mission in life. At age 40, he said he found that the research cycle wasn't the career he had hoped for.
He wanted to help people prevent illness.
What a crazy notion 30 years ago -- prevention rather than treatment. But it's been common sense since before Benjamin Franklin's "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Dr. Rabin changed his career course by turning his focus to nutrition and stress management, eventually concentrating on stress. At the time it was considered "a soft science," he said, which means the medical mainstream wasn't taking seriously the notion that stress affected health.
"When I turned 40, I thought, 'What am I doing studying intestinal disease and diseases of the eye? What is really important? What contributions would be important to people, and wouldn't it be better to keep people alive and healthy if they could keep the immune system strong?' There are ways of keeping the immune system strong with good nutrition and stress management."
Dr. Rabin and colleagues nationwide with similar interests would gather in Kalamazoo, Mich., and form the NeuroPsychoImmunology Research Society in 1993 to collect research about stress and document its impacts on health. The nonprofit society's goal was to legitimize the field of study by describing how stress activates the immune system and the inflammatory response that causes disease if a person is unable to turn it off.
Stress causes a whole list of deadly physical and mental diseases, ranging from heart disease and diabetes to depression.
But Dr. Rabin found that medical knowledge was lacking on what techniques people could use to manage stress, despite the obvious need.
Realizing the health effects of stress "is scary," he said.
Every phase of life can be affected adversely from stress, from the fetus until old age, with a cumulative effect on health that can leave a person chronically ill at a young age and facing a lengthy, painful decline before death.
Without a blueprint available to help people, Dr. Rabin recruited a group of seniors, self-described as "Dr. Rabin's guinea pigs," who met for 16 months at Carnegie Library in Oakland to discuss physical and mental health, while Dr. Rabin tested various methods to reduce stress levels, including the importance of group interaction and friendships.
This was not a research study, but group members said they experienced diminished stress and depression from their shared time learning, laughing and meditating. They also developed more meaning and optimism in their lives with added benefits of helping one another.
With that as a foundation, and added research, Dr. Rabin and Irene Kane, a Pitt doctor of nursing, developed a popular stress-management program that teaches techniques people can use to manage stress and improve their chances of living more healthy lives.
Since then, he helped Fred Rogers reduce his stress, although the next day Mr. Rogers called him with a problem: He was using deep breathing to reduce stress but got dizzy and almost toppled over. Dr. Rabin told him he was not supposed to do it continuously; he was only to take five deep breaths.
Dr. Rabin has taught stress management to the Pittsburgh Symphony, Pittsburgh city school principals and teachers, city firefighters and some of their spouses, corporate executives, first responders, and lawyers, among many others. In the past 12 years, he said, 15,000 people have gone through his stress-management program, which he provides for free.
He also teaches stress management, with explanations of key research, to Pitt medical students to help them reduce their own stress and to instruct them on ways to help their patients.
"We are not doing research," Dr. Rabin said. "We're helping people."
"I found Dr. Rabin's course to be the broadest, all-encompassing, thorough, and potentially helpful course that I have ever taken," said Richard Haverlack, 65, of Hampton, who has suffered stress throughout a career as an electrical engineer. He participated in various programs to reduce his burden of stress for the past 40 years. "Notice that I say 'potentially helpful.' That is because I fully realize that managing my stress must come from me."
He said he now uses various techniques to cope with his stress, with good results.
"Stress management is a journey, not a destination," he said. "To continue the metaphor, Dr. Rabin had provided me with a detailed up-to-date road map. And I am grateful that he has done such a thorough and useful job of preparing it."
First Published January 21, 2013 12:00 am