The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine’s SMART program helped a man cope with the lingering effects of traumatic brain injury after a 20-foot fall.

For a long time, Roberto Cabral would break down if he tried to talk about the day at work when he fell 20 feet and suffered a traumatic brain injury. That changed after he enrolled in the Stress Management and Resiliency Training (SMART) program of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine (BHI).

“Ultimately our goal is to help people regain control of their lives.”

The SMART program is geared to people with stress-related symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, insomnia and gastrointestinal disorders. In SMART’s individual and group sessions, participants learn about the connection between stress and their physical and emotional problems. They practice techniques like meditation and deep breathing to elicit the relaxation response, a state of deep rest that changes the body’s responses to stress by decreasing heart rate, blood pressure and muscular tension. Participants also learn about the importance of healthy eating and exercise.

Roberto Cabral, left, with Darshan Mehta, MD, MPH, medical director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.
Roberto Cabral, left, with Darshan Mehta, MD, MPH, medical director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.

Teaching the relaxation response and conducting scientific research into how it works are central to BHI’s efforts to integrate mind-body medicine into clinical care alongside medications and medical procedures. Research over the past 40 years has shown that the relaxation response changes the expression of genes involved in the body’s reaction to stress, inflammation, trauma and cancer.

Benefits Related to Stress

The BHI also provides mind-body programs for those coping with cancer or chronic pain and for women experiencing infertility and menopause. They also have a Successful Aging program for people 65 and older who want to learn to “age with wisdom, health, humor and gratitude.”

“Ultimately our goal is to help people regain control of their lives,” says BHI Medical Director Darshan Mehta, MD, MPH.

Another outcome is fewer doctor visits. Dr. Mehta and his colleagues studied 4,000 people for a year after taking a mind-body program and found that participants reduced their medical visits by about 43 percent. An estimated 60 to 90 percent of doctor visits are related to stress.

Empowering Patients

Roberto Cabral had worked safely in the marine industry for 30 years until a November day three years ago. That’s when he fell 20 feet while shrink-wrapping a yacht for winter storage. When he regained consciousness in the hospital, he had broken bones all over his body and was deaf in one ear. The fall had punctured one lung and left him with traumatic brain injury.

“Thanks to SMART, I feel better equipped to make the best of my new normal.”

Slowly and painfully, Mr. Cabral’s body recovered. But the brain takes longer to heal. He was anxious, depressed and having trouble sleeping — all signs of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He was plagued day and night by tinnitus, a constant ringing in his non-hearing ear. “It’s like having a lawn mower buzzing in my head all the time,” he explains.

The combination of PTSD and tinnitus is commonly seen in war veterans, points out Dr. Mehta, who is also an integrative medicine consultant for Home Base, a Red Sox Foundation and Mass General program that serves veterans and their families. Veterans and survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings have benefited from mind-body programs.

Eating One M&M

Referred to Dr. Mehta, Mr. Cabral enrolled in SMART in early 2016. His counselor had told him to engage in deep breathing when frustrated or anxious, but it took the program to teach him how to incorporate it and other strategies into his daily life.

After finishing the SMART program, Mr. Cabral ran in a 5K race. He is flanked to the left by his physical therapist, Gwen Larsen, who ran with him, and his children, Arianna, and Aaron.
After finishing the SMART program, Mr. Cabral ran in a 5K race. He is flanked to the left by his physical therapist, Gwen Larsen, who ran with him, and his children, Arianna, and Aaron.

One exercise involved eating a single M&M mindfully in ten bites. “If I can be in the moment, and focus on slow, deep breaths, I can sort of forget the tinnitus,” Mr. Cabral says. “I try to focus on the good things in situations, not the bad.”

Since SMART, he works out in a gym every other day and runs regularly. “Exercise has been huge for my mood and has increased my physical ability, strength and stamina,” he says. Now 52, he’s training for a half marathon and plans to someday run the Boston Marathon.

A New Normal

He’s sleeping better, has less stress and more energy. His PTSD and short-term memory are much improved. Though he still takes medicines for migraines, anxiety and to sleep, he takes lower dosages. He sees his medical specialists less frequently.

Although Mr. Cabral can’t return to work due to his disabilities, he contributes to chores and cooking and volunteers at his church and in the community. Last summer, he and his wife, their two children and extended family spent two joyful weeks at the family homestead on the Azores of Portugal, where he was born.

Thanks to SMART, Mr. Cabral says, “I feel better equipped to make the best of my new normal.”

To learn more about supporting BHI research and programs, please contact us.