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UConn neurologist offers help with stress

By Molly Miller
On April 11, 2014

The key to effectively dealing with stress is recognizing what is most important during tense moments, explained Dr. Julian D. Ford, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the UConn Health Center. Ford spoke about stress in a lecture sponsored by Leadership in Action Thursday.
As an author of over 125 reports, as well as several books, Ford says that he sees himself as a translator of neurological research. Ford says that his job is a crucial part of neuroscience, as neuroscience needs to be translated into psychological interventions. "If we don't translate what we're learning, we're not doing our job," Ford said.
Ford described stress as a physiological response to a threat that is necessary for human existence: "We can't deactivate it or get rid of it," said Ford. "If we do that our bodies aren't alive at all. We have to find ways not to get rid of stress, but to channel it."
He explained that varying heart rates are actually a sign that stress is being properly managed and handled.
Since stress is a response to a threat, it's important that people are aware of what it truly means to feel threatened. "A threat is something that we don't believe we know how to handle," Ford said.
Stress can be divided into two camps: good stress (which Ford explained can lead to winning basketball championships), and being "stressed out." The latter is the condition associated with threatening situations.
Allostatic load, described by Ford as "the amount of burden on our bodies of coping with a load," is the physiological phenomena that leads to a behavioral response. One response is acceleration, which encompasses the common "fight-or-flight" feelings or actions: avoidance, distraction and irritability.
Responses can be triggered by cortisol. Cortisol levels should vary throughout the day, although many people have consistently either high or low levels. Ford explained that humans have a built-in alarm called an amygdala that keeps them alert at the appropriate times. Stress occurs when people are constantly alert.
When individuals are hyper-alert, they have often experienced some time of trauma that causes repetitive distressing memories, nightmares or flashbacks. "It's like having a constant alarm inside your head that no one else can hear," said Ford. "You're going to try to stop thinking about it."
However, this technique of "active avoidance" only causes individuals to think about their trauma even more. "You start to feel as though life is just horrible," he said. People who practice active avoidance often believe that there is something wrong with them, and something fundamentally wrong with the world. These thoughts can ultimately lead to aggressive, reckless and self-destructive behavior.
"The solution isn't to convince yourself you can handle anything because then you're not dealing with reality," said Ford. "We figure out ways to actually change how we react to stressers."
Ford explained that different parts of the brain play different roles in reacting to stress. The hippocampus, which Ford called the "search engine of the brain," helps individuals remain focused. "You have to make a judgement about what's relevant," he said.
The prefrontal cortex takes input from the hippocampus and amygdala, or the alarm, and generates conscious thought. "Often we just keep repeating what our alarms are telling us," said Ford. "It's not very useful to focus on how scared you are." He instead advises people to think about what they can do to make the situation safer.
Ford described what's called the SOS method of focusing the mind: slow down, orient yourself and self check. He recommended that people ask themselves the following questions: "What is important to me in this immediate moment? What is it that I know about myself that I need to pay attention to in order to handle this situation? How much stress am I feeling right now?"
Ford said that these questions can be asked at any moment and not only during stressful situations. "When you do this kind of focusing on a regular basis, people's control level goes up," he said. "Stress fluctuates because that's being alive. What increases is our sense that we know how to handle this."
When individuals are working to manage stress, it's crucial that they have a grasp on what they value and what can orient them towards positive actions. "This is not just to have a happy thought, but to recognize that I have a choice here," said Ford. "In situations of high stress, the person who is able to handle that stress effectively is the person who is able to focus on what they value and what they're capable of."
Ford revealed that while he orients himself by picturing his wife or grandkids, many younger kids with whom he works see music as an important orienting tool.
When asked about working with individuals who are skeptical, or who don't believe they can manage their stress, Ford explained that it's important to figure out exactly what it is they want to accomplish, and to show each individual how they're already doing it.
"Everybody we work with has a fully functioning thinking center, and if they can tap into that thinking center, they can handle stresses in a completely different manner than they think they're capable of," Ford said.
 


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