Stressed? Vancouver psychiatrist Dr. Shimi Kang has a prescription for you

Volunteering with organizations such as Big Sisters will actually help your brain cope with the pressures of modern-day life

Are you feeling stressed/overwhelmed/exhausted by all the demands on your time?

Psychiatrist and author Dr. Shimi Kang is willing to write you a prescription: volunteer.

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“We are hardwired to give and not just be consumers,” she told the Big Sisters of BC Lower Mainland luncheon on Thursday.

Dr. Shimi Kang
Harvard-trained psychiatrist Dr. Shimi Kang says our brains need P.O.D.: Play, others and downtime.

Studies have shown that people who do something to help others will find their stress levels decrease by 70 per cent as the brain kicks in to reward good behaviour.

This paradoxical solution — that we can cope with the stress of busyness by adding a new activity — is all linked to how our brains have evolved, she told the crowd at the Vancouver Convention Centre fundraiser.

She was working with the World Health Organization in Geneva when it announced that stress is the number one health epidemic in the 21st Century.

Our body gives us coping mechanisms to deal with stress in short bursts of time.

Freeze: deer will indeed become immobile when caught in the headlights of an approaching car; humans are paralyzed by anxiety.

Fight: a bull will stare down a matador; humans will rage at the driver who cuts them off during their commute home.

Flight: a bird will take wing when a predator comes near; humans will escape by binge-watching Netflix.

The problem is we are living in a time of constant stress, putting huge strains on our body’s and brain’s ability to respond. “We’re in a global epidemic of stress.”

“We humans have forgotten what it means to be human,” she added. “There are three things that mammals are meant to do and that keep us nimble and adaptive.”

As she’s outlined in her book, The Dolphin Way, those three things P.O.D.: play, others and downtime.

Play triggers activity in the front part of our brain. “Play is when we become comfortable with uncertainty and let go of perfectionism.”

Spending time with others gives us an opportunity to be part of a community and connect with people. And that’s where volunteering with Big Sisters comes in. Young girls who have a mentor are two times less likely to have depression, become a bully, drop out of school or engage in self-harm.

“We’re not meant just to be consumers; we’re meant to be contributors,” she said. “We get that hit of dopamine that’s hardwired in us — helper’s high. That’s Mother Nature’s reward — do this again because it’s good for your health.”

Jesse Costucci
After living in a series of foster homes, a Big Sister taught Jesse Costucci how to trust. Now she's dedicated to helping youth reach their potential.

Jesse Costucci can attest to that. Her mother died of cancer when she was seven and, she says, she became an angry child filled with hatred. She was cycled through eight foster homes before she was paired with a Big Sister, an act that she now says saved her life.

“Her Big Sister was her first friend and taught her to trust,” said executive director Brenda Gershkovitch at the fundraising luncheon. “It allowed Jess to understand that people were trying to help her. A child who doesn’t trust is almost impossible to work with. We know the system is so challenged and we can be the oil in the system that makes it work better.”

Today, Jesse is training to be a teacher and there are 157 girls waiting to be matched with a Big Sister.

Finding the match takes time and money. The organization hires a team of psychologists, social workers and counsellors to research possible matches and follow through with them. Each one has a caseload of 55 people.

Because of the time involved in getting it right, it costs $2,000 to make a match. It also leads to successful matches, with 55 per cent lasting more than two years.

“The reach of Big Sisters is only as good as its grasp,” said long-time Big Sisters supporter Carmen Theriaut, a lawyer who volunteers with the organization’s planned giving program.

Theriaut and Yasmin Virani of the Amir and Yasmin Virani Family Foundation received Big Heart awards at the luncheon for their commitment to Big Sisters. The Viranis were kicked out of Uganda when Idi Amin came to power, forced to abandon their successful business as merchants. When they came to British Columbia they created a new business, Golden Boy Food. They set up their foundation to help community-based organizations that help others develop to their full potential.

And not to forget the D in P.O.D., downtime, Dr. Kang said we are not wired to spend all day at a desk or glued to a screen. It’s not good to work all day and crash at night, only to do the same thing the next day. We will actually feel more energized if we give our brains a break.

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