The stress didn’t cause my arthritis – my genes predisposed me to it. But the stress triggered a state of burnout that made me more vulnerable to developing the arthritis when I did. When I finally let go, slowed down and began to let myself emotionally heal, so too did my physical illness begin to heal.

Once I returned home, I learned to take time out of every day to savor the world around me and contemplate; to pace myself and get enough sleep and rest; to eat a healthy diet and exercise gently every day; and to seek the company and comfort of family and friends. I take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication when I begin to feel a flare and stiffness, but this approach to life has helped control my symptoms so that I can live an active and fulfilling life, largely pain-free. Even people with much more active and severe disease than mine can benefit from this lifestyle.

Now my professional work as a scientist has become a personal mission. I want to really understand not only on a molecular level but also in practical terms how stress affects biology, and I want to share those insights with others who, like me, need to help their body heal.

As you read my column in issues to come, please share your own stories and questions about illness onset and healing, and together we will find our “balance within.”

Esther M. Sternberg, MD, rheumatologist and researcher, is the author of Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-being (2009, Harvard University Press).