Local psychiatrist offers tips for managing stress

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As Baltimoreans and Marylanders settle back into their regular routines there are still unsettling reminders of the violence of Freddie Gray’s death and related events that are difficult to process. Dr. Sean P. Heffernan, is a board certified psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of mood disorders, such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder type I, and bipolar disorder type II and people with chronic medical illnesses. He offered timely stress management tips, while sharing the value of learning de-escalation techniques.

“Stress affects everybody no matter age, gender or sex,” Dr. Heffernan said. “I think now is certainly a time to really think about how everybody is managing their own kind of internal sense of stress, and finding outlets that are productive and ultimately helpful to the people, and to the people around them.”

Heffernan notes everyone has experience the adrenaline rush that comes with the fight or flight instinct at some point. Ramping up the stress hormone in the body can lead to medical concerns.

“You experience it with a rapid heart rate. Some people can feel nauseous or really tense. That’s kind of like a micro-level of what stress can do to the body in the acute setting, but if you imagine an increase of what we would call sympathetic tone, or meeting toward having that kind of activation at all times, then it can really affect different parts of your body, whether it be the cortisol or the adrenal system, blood sugar, cardiac stress certainly leading to anxiety (and) even digestive and sleep problems,” Heffernan said.

As an Alexander Wilson Schweizer clinical fellow, Dr. Heffernan currently works in the Affective Disorders Consultation Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He recommends paying attention to how your body reacts to stress.

“I think it is important for one to be able to recognize what kind of behavior that you can participate in to help yourself relax. There’s a lot that has been said and written about mindfulness and relaxation techniques or progressive muscle contraction relaxation, mindfulness sitting or lying (down) or focusing on yourself and your interactions with the rest of the world. Gardening, cooking, reading or exercising can also be relaxing experiences. The key is to really find something that works for you and…commit yourself to it,” Heffernan said.

Thinking positively can help people to cope with stressful situations.

“It might also be helpful for anxiety symptoms to challenge any persistent negative thought that you might have, when you are feeling overwhelmed. This is kind of cognitive behavioral therapy basics, where you might challenge yourself by examining the evidence for them being true,” Heffernan said. “Sometimes part of this is repeating to yourself encouragement, or telling yourself it is not as bad as it seems, or that you are better able to handle this than you think you are. You’ve been through an experience like this before and you’ve come out no worse for it. Keep in mind that that the worst-case scenario rarely happens, but it is something that we think about a lot.”

Heffernan reminded that people should avoid behaviors that can compound stress, such as excessive drinking, drug use or gambling. Another tip the psychiatrist provided is that when people are feeling burdened by severe financial stress, taking out short payday loans should be avoided. Delaying major life decision-making while feeling overwhelmed is advantageous.

”Be mindful of the big picture,” Heffernan said.

When teenagers or adults feel overwhelmed and unable to help themselves, Heffernan recommends talking to a trusted adult or leader. A counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist does not necessarily have to be the first person you seek.

“I think it’s always good to look for the lowest level of help that you need that can be effective for you. For some people, that can be talking to a neighbor, a parent or a peer. I think that’s a fine place to start. I think those people can also be helpful to transition to a professional provider or guide you to somebody within your community or church that perhaps has been helpful to them,” Heffernan said.

The expert noted that the time to think about seeking the help of a mental health professional, or getting an evaluation is when impairment aspects become evident in personal relationships, job performance or your health.

For more information, visit: www.drseanheffernan.com.