Rajita Sinha, Ph.D., director of the Yale Stress Center, was 9 years old when she began her study of Indian classical dance. It was a highly disciplined practice filled with emotional expression that led her to notice how other people express emotion, and how often they push emotion down.
“That fed into an interest in stress,” she says.
Sinha later studied biological psychology and the physiological manifestations of emotion, and worked with addicts and people with psychiatric disorders. She was intrigued by brain mechanisms underlying stress, cravings and addiction. “The abundance of choices available in the world, and easy access to commodities, including highly palatable foods and drugs, challenges the body’s motivational systems in novel ways,” she says.
She opened the Yale Stress Center in 2008 to help people struggling with these choices—with wrong choices, there can be an increase in stress and a vicious cycle ensues. The center is an oasis on the Yale Medical Center campus that broadly addresses stress and stress-related disorders. Patients enter a waiting room painted in calming muted colors, with a mini rock garden. Soothing music adds tranquility. Treatments focus on the “whole person” and may include acupuncture, biofeedback, mindfulness meditation, yoga, or a comprehensive weight management program, in addition to psychotherapy and medications in some cases.
The approaches are informed by research that evolved from a grant from the National Institutes of Health to better understand the effects of stress and addiction on the brain, as well as chronic disease research of medications to strengthen the circuitry involved in regulation of emotions and cravings.
But Sinha also believes the stress-reduction techniques she practices can help anyone. She uses them herself. “I don’t dance anymore, but I do meditation and yoga every day. I’ve learned you don’t have to be a monk—you can do 20 to 30 minutes. It changes my practice of medicine in the sense that I can be more present in the moment. It changes your perspective on a broader level in terms of how you approach the work.”
In addition to her patient care and research, she leads workshops and retreats on stress-reduction techniques for professionals, and thinks workshops tailored to physicians are especially valuable. “We all experience the feeling of being pulled in different directions,” she says. “You have to start by taking care of yourself first.”
More about Dr. Sinha
Name: Rajita Sinha, Ph.D.
Title: Director, Yale Stress Center; Foundation Fund Professor of Psychiatry, Neurobiology and Child Study
Area of expertise: Neurobiology of stress and addiction; strategies for behavior change
Place of birth: Cochin, India
College: Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, India
Graduate School: University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and Yale University
Family: Married to Joseph Guarnaccia, MD, neurologist specializing in MS; children Rasa, 21 and Uma, 18
What is the most important thing you've learned from your patients?
To carefully listen and observe patients and understand their problems. This has allowed me to shape my scientific research career to one of the single biggest clinical challenges in addiction, which is the science of behavior change.
How have your experiences with patients changed your approach to care?
I've learned to be nonjudgmental and meet every patient where they are without preconceived notions about them.
Personal interests or pastimes: Reading, politics, meditation, yoga, Indian classical dance and music
Last book read: Lincoln by Gore Vidal