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All Stressed Up: Managing Your Stress

Dr. Libby Brown shares the negative impact stress has on your health, different ways to cope as well as self-help techniques to help manage stress.
All Stressed Up: Managing Your Stress
Libby Brown, PhD, PsyD
Libby Brown, PsyD is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who earned her bachelor’s degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Texas in 1975. She graduated from the University of Evansville in 1984 with her master’s degree in Counseling. Libby earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Spalding University in 1994.

Learn more about Libby Brown, PhD, PsyD

Melanie Cole (Host): So many of us, you and I both feel stress from time to time, but how do you know if the stress that you feel is starting to take a toll on your psychological and even your physiological self? Can it contribute to heart disease? What is it actually doing to you? My guest today is Dr. Libby Brown. She’s a clinical psychologist at Deaconess the Women’s Hospital. Dr. Brown, as you and I were talking about off the air, what a great topic. Women today, we all feel that we must be everything to everybody and super women. Tell us what’s going on with stress. What is it? And are there both positive and negative stressors?

Dr. Libby Brown (Guest): Okay that is a big topic and hopefully it isn’t one that we discounted because everyone talks about stress management, to the point where it may be somewhat watered down to some people but yet we all have it. Some people have competitive stress, you start to tell your story and they’ll tell you one better, but the body is geared to handle stress and I think sometimes we don’t trust it, we don’t believe it’s geared to handle stress, but we would not have evolved as mankind if it wasn’t designed for stress, but our society labels so many things in debit/credit columns, good/bad. We even have words for it, distress and we have eustress and eustress is e-u-s-t-r-e-s-s and you don’t know too many people who sit around going, “Gee I feel great today. I feel eustressed.” They just talk about distressed. But the body is geared to have this sympathetic nervous system that kicks in gear and everyone has heard the fight or flight. That is kind of common language now, but some people take it a step further and it’s fight, flight, freeze. If you’re under stress for too long and you’re not able to balance, kind of deal with something and take a break, deal with something and refuel your energy and your mind, then you can feel frozen and feel stuck and then you can’t be creative and figure a way out and you can’t use logic and talk your way out, and that’s really what brings a lot of people to counseling is when they feel frozen or stuck. So most of the time your body is balancing that once you have an event or several events, that life will give you a bit of a plateau and if you can have a plateau of 3 to 6 months of your life seems to be kind of falling in order, your body will regenerate itself so to speak and it gets back to a balance. It’s when things prolonged, it becomes more difficult, and we what we do is we talk about stress. We try to talk our way through it. We all read things, we try to meditate, we try to walk, we try to talk, we try to do all these things, and we’re very impatient. We want an immediate gratification that what we just did worked, and we have to be more patient and we have to work with the mind and the body. They are connected. You can’t separate them out, so the way that people manage stress is kind of what fits their nature. Some people manage their stress related symptoms that are coming out as headaches, backaches, kind of a grumpy bowel system, aches and pains, they go to the physician, they go to the nurse practitioners, they go the medical model, and they may get medication to help them with some of those symptoms, but then they keep going back. The symptoms didn’t go away. Some people will go the other way. They will go to the behavioral health side and they’ll go to counselors to talk their way through stress, and that kind of works for a while but yet they have all these other symptoms. So to me, it’s a circle. You’re going to deal with stress by entering into that circle one way or another if it’s prolonged stress and you can’t balance your way back out of it, but just kind of talking over what people do themselves, if you have disconnected from yourself by listening to everybody else, well try this it saved me or try that it made a big difference. Then almost we set ourselves up for failure because I tried that and it didn’t work, so what’s wrong with me? So overall stress becomes the self taught that we have added on to what the mind and the body are dealing with anyway and self taught can trigger even more stress because we have the ability to do what I call, time traveling – where half of the day or half of the moment for that matter, we’re in our past, our present, and our future and if we’re thinking past things that we can’t fix, we’re just rehashing them your body doesn’t know that it’s not happening right now so it triggers the sympathetic nervous system. If we go to the future, and very few people go to an imagined hypothetical future and paint rainbows. They tend to go there with fear and worry and anxiety, and so now they’re in the future thinking about something that might happen, the what ifs, and again the body doesn’t know the mind is time traveling and the body is going to respond with sympathetic nervous system. So it’s a matter of being aware and then deciding how to make yourself stay in the present because if you can keep things timely and in the present, you tend to not trigger the sympathetic nervous system to the point that it freezes, but that is easy to say and very hard to do.

Host: Well it certain it and I think that, that’s the biggest thing so I’d like you to help us learn to cope with our stress, when it’s time to get that professional help, and things that we can do – I mean I’m an exercise physiologist, so to me I always say, exercise, eat right, those things, and yes they help but there are so many others that we hear about now, mediation, mindfulness, yoga, there are so many different practices. So speak to us about coping with our stress and really your best advice, Dr. Brown, how you want us to identify it and identify those triggers and then deal with them accordingly.

Dr. Brown: Well I think to identify it, most people will start out with events. They’ll start talking about the things that are happening in their life that they don’t have control over, and we all hate to be out of control, but yet most of the things that happen in a day, we’re not actually in direct control of. So the very thing we kind of push against is just really life. It’s going to always happen – the old saying the only constant in life is change, is true, but yet people say they hate change. So to be aware of what events are there and how much control you have in them, and it’s a matter of beginning to sort out what’s right in front of you and to prioritize what’s right in front of you. It’s to decide what can I really control in this moment, in this day and not fall into I should’ve handled it better, meaning the past, or whatever I try is not going to work or I’ve already tried that, I know it’s not going to work. When tend to catastrophize some of our events to the point that we shut ourselves down, so I guess my advice is to slow down, prioritize, decide what is within your actual ability to change, and if you can’t change the event, can you change the way you’re looking at the event? I do believe pulling in others can – what’s the word I’m trying to say? It can help when you bring in other people, but only if you can trust the other people to do your request or to help you. Oftentimes we ask people for help that we figure what they’re saying isn’t going to work and so now we’re frustrated because we asked for help and yet we couldn’t accept it. So if you’re going to ask, you have to not filter it through whether or not you think it’s the right or wrong advice or to try it and feel like you’re going to fail because you’re not that person. It comes down to whether or not you have a self efficacy. How competent do I think I am, and usually by the time you’re in a whole lot of stress you’re beginning to wonder if you’re competent in anything. So it’s remembering who you are before all this stress and before all the events and pulling on things that if you’re going to go to the past, at least pull the positives to show I have had success handling this. I want people to go back only if they’re going to pull out their cheerleading, their successes, the people that inspired them. So be very selective and controlled. I mean the moment of awareness is the point of choice and so be very careful what you’re choosing. I do believe in breath work and breath is what can unplug that sympathetic nervous system that got set off that you no longer in control of how you’re breathing or how fast your heart rate is. When you’re asleep your stomach is going up and down and it’s breathing deep and it’s fun to watch puppies, and kittens, and babies because they do it really well, and if we can do something when we’re at the point where we have lost our logic and we can no longer think clearly through something, I ask people to make sure you move. Do something that’s going to require you to take a deep breath. None of us are in good enough shape that if I suddenly decided to do jumping jacks in my office or run around the building or go up and down several flights of stairs, I’m going to 1) distract my mind, 2) I’m going to eventually gasp for air and I’m going to have a sense of body peace for even moments and breath work that’s scheduled where you are inhaling exhaling to small counts. That’s why a lot of people talk about yoga, progressive muscle relaxation is another thing, but some people just walk or just run and they’re doing all the things that are turning off that sympathetic nervous switch without even realizing that’s what they’re doing. I’m a big proponent of if you’re in your office and you’re getting super stressed or you’re listening to an argument or whatever, put your hand on your belly button and make sure that it’s moving in and out. If not, you’re only breathing up above in your chest and you’re going to feel like you could hyperventilate if you keep it up, so forcing air out and then just relaxing brings air straight into that diaphragm and it can really flood you with some oxygen and take over that sympathetic nervous system. If the sympathetic nervous system is in effect, you cannot be creative, you cannot problem solve, and you’re simply running for your life and then you push away the people that are trying to help you. If I’m running from the bulls in Spain, that is not the time I’m going to also balance my checkbook, creatively design some wonderful innovative idea, or stop and listen to you for some good advice. So if I’m at the point where I feel like I’m running for my life, then that’s the point I do breath work and not talk work.

Host: Wow, what great analogies too, Dr. Brown. So clear, the picture that you painted because I definitely am one of those people that multitask and think about 12 things at once, so when you said about running with the bulls and trying to balance your checkbook at the same time, it really does hit home that we need to focus, we need to be more mindful. So give us your best advice, as we wrap up, what would you like people to take away from this segment on the importance of managing our stress so that we can live healthier lives?

Dr. Brown: Well that’s – I think everyone knows it’s important. What sets us kind of down is that we don’t know – we know what it is, we can label it, we can talk about it, but how do we fix it? And I think we get caught up in the fixing of it, and so I’m going to take it a different direction for a second because I do believe that at some point you can look at what is kind of your philosophy at this point in your life because sometimes that drives not only your feeling of stress, your interpretation of stress, but what you’re going to do about it, and so sometimes without realizing it, people have settled on a philosophy that either believes that good things are temporary and bad things are permanent or they believe that bad things are temporary and good things are permanent and so the one, if I believe that good things are temporary I’m kind of living with the sense that that next foot is going to fall. So I don’t really trust the good times because they don’t last. So even when they’re good, I’m kind of anxious and stressed because if I really relax and enjoy it, I’m going to really hate it when it’s taken away from me. So if my philosophy is that bad things are permanent, I am going to truly go through life with a lot more stress because it feels overwhelming and never ending, but if I can consciously begin to accept that I really through all my past experiences, and everyone I know, I could probably trace that most bad things were temporary, they just felt permanent. So going with the philosophy that good things are permanent and bad things are temporary is a philosophy that helps with stress.

Host: Wow, I love that. What a great ending and wrap up Dr. Brown. Thank you so much for all of your great advice and I can hear the passion for what you do in your voice, so thank you again. And that wraps up this episode of The Women’s Hospital, a place for all your life. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Brown, please call 812-842-4020 or head on over to our website at for more information and to get connected with one of our providers. If you found this podcast informative as I did, please share on your social media and be sure to check out all the other interesting podcasts in our library. I’m Melanie Cole.