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Local psychiatrist offers tips for managing stress

Andrea Blackstone | 5/8/2015, 9 a.m.
As Baltimoreans and Marylanders settle back into their regular routines there are still unsettling reminders of the violence of Freddie ...
Dr. Sean P. Heffernan is a board certified psychiatrist who currently works in the Affective Disorders Consultation Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital. (Courtesy Photo)

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.”