Easy Does It: Email-Interview (Part II) with Dr. Joan Vernikos

Dr. Joan Vernikos


Welcome to part two of my email-interview with Culpeper’s own Dr. Joan Vernikos.  This month’s Wellness and Wellbeing segment began last week as she shared her research, both from earth and space to encourage us to move.  This week, it’s all about what she calls “the juice of life”.  Stress.

As Joan explained it, stress is as much a part of us as breathing. It is a stimulus we need to energize us. But when there’s too much, it is the most pernicious cause of illness and pain, making every health condition worse, ultimately leading to early death.  Yet stress is also our defense mechanism and our source of Energy.

The key, as Joan explained, is to learn how to use stress, but not be abused by it.  Build a relationship with stress.  Dance with it.

Despite what we may think, stress is not the distress, or the anxiety, or the worry.  Instead, stress is what causes you to feel what you feel.

Everyone’s stress is different:

Getting out of bed in the morning


Standing up from a chair

Frequent interruptions throughout your workday

Life events

Difficulty losing weight


A child or relative needing your care

Financial problems

Juggling competing demands

As Joan explained, these stressors are no different than the stress our caveman ancestors experienced running away from a tiger, escaping up a tree, defending the cave, hunting for food, or finding shelter. We have the same genes, the same physiological systems and the same responses.  But rarely these days, except in the battlefield or in environmental disasters, is our stress a matter of survival. Nevertheless, whatever today’s stress might be, it is still perceived as a threat to survival.

That is when we might notice the effects of our stress:

Difficulty remembering names with faces

Irritability or increased feelings of anger

waking up in the middle of the night with worry

Feeling lonely even when surrounded by friends and family

Less interest in sex

‘brain fog’

Joan suggested that no matter the nature of the stress, our response will be the same.  Magnitude is the only difference, based on our perception of the stress. Our perception, as she put it, is often driven by “our database of past experiences – how effectively we dealt with them in the past”. This determines how big our response will be.

Joan explained that the stress response is for the sake of survival.  The pouring out of the hormones Cortisol and Adrenaline are in support of the body and brain at a time of crisis.  Well-managed stress allows the body to shut off the stress response, knowing that the threat is over.  But excessive stress is unmanaged and dangerous due to the uncontrolled outpouring of these hormones.  Joan referred to this as ‘burnout’, as it leads to the breakdown of any tissue it can find – muscle, bone, skin, joint, heart, immune cells, brain connections, and memory cells.

An intelligent relationship with stress, as Joan described, is informed by the knowledge that most stress is self-made.  Approximately 80% of stress is related to what might happen in the future, past events that cannot be changed, or, irritations in the moment over which you have no control.   Joan suggested these as opportunities to hit DELETE, or at least PAUSE the stress.  Simply put, take a few breaths, analyze, relax, meditate.

Stepping back, even for a moment can allow the body to recover.  Then you may have the time and space to manage your stressful situation.  In Joan’s words, “stress is about challenge and change”.

Stress is a dance.  “Learn to sway”.

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Psychological coaching is grounded in the art and science of psychology and is in many ways very similar to traditional psychotherapy.  They both utilize knowledge of human behavior, motivation, behavioral change, and interactive techniques in order to help a client move from where they are to an improved state of being. The differences between psychological coaching and traditional psychotherapy are related to their goals, focus, and perspective. Traditional psychotherapy seeks to diagnose and treat emotional and behavioral conditions, with the therapist serving as "expert" in support of the client. Unfortunately, many have considered the pursuit of traditional psychotherapy to be stigmatizing, in part because of this perspective of the client being "broken" and in need of repair.  Psychological  coaching offers a different point of view.  The coaching psychologist is more likely focused on developing a collaborative relationship, with the client in the "driver seat", with the perspective that the client is creative, whole, and resourceful.  The clients' capacity for wellness and healing is assumed, encouraging them to move more quickly and directly through obstacles to their happiness, success, and life satisfaction.  

As a Coaching Psychologist, my goal is to support you in creating awareness so that you can access your own skills and inner resources in order to manage the challenges you face now and into the future.  While our work together may touch on past traumas and psychiatric concerns, they will be addressed from the perspective of your strengths, rather than with a focus on ill-ness or disability.  In our larger community, it is not unusual for individuals to experience mild to moderate mental health issues, making psychological coaching an accessible and viable option.  If, in the course of our work together, either you or I have reason to believe that your mental or emotional health concerns are better addressed by another service provider, a referral will be made.  

As a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, I have 20 years of ongoing training and experience providing, consulting and supervising others in the provision of psychological services.  However,  as of now, the life coaching field is unregulated, allowing anyone to be a life coach - even those without training in the behavioral sciences.  As well, the coaching field is considered to lack a solid base in research, creating disagreement on educational and training standards. The International Coach Federation (ICF) is working to change this.  In order to ensure that your coach is not counseling others beyond their expertise, it is suggested that when considering a life coach, individuals  should seek coaches who are trained or ICF certified.  Along with my license as a Clinical Psychologist, I am currently enrolled in MentorCoach® L.L.C., one of the oldest ICF accredited coach training programs, and one that will enable me to be an ICF certified coach.