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WomenSource hosts psychology professor at Brown Bag lunch
Brenau professor offers tips to calm everyday life
Dr. Maria Zayas, an associate professor with Brenau University’s psychology department, presents a program Thursday titled “Don’t Worry, Be Happy: Managing Stress Like a Pro.” The program was part of the WomenSource Brown Bag Lunch series at the Brenau Downtown Center in Gainesville. - photo by Michelle Boaen Jameson

Bumper-to-bumper traffic. Alarm clocks that didn’t sound. Kids who forgot their homework. Emails filling the inbox.

These are events most people experience in a typical week, and they are all forms of stress that, left uncontrolled, can do physical harm. After all, 90 percent of health-related illness can be linked to stress, according to the American Institute of Stress.

On Thursday, WomenSource, a nonprofit agency that encourages personal and professional success for women of all ages and backgrounds in Northeast Georgia, brought in a little relief from the daily grind.

Guest speaker Dr. Maria Zayas, an associate professor with Brenau University’s psychology department, presented a program titled “Don’t Worry, Be Happy: Managing Stress Like a Pro.” The program was part of the WomenSource Brown Bag Lunch series held at the Brenau Downtown Center in Gainesville.

Claudia Williams, who moved to Gainesville from Santa Fe, was attending the WomenSource Brown Bag Lunch for the first time. Williams said she had no real expectations about the meeting other than widening her circle of friends, but agreed stress management “was always a good thing to know.”

“We need all the help we can get,” said Marsha Hopkins.

Acknowledging stress affects both genders, Hopkins admitted women do seem more willing to talk about their stress than men. She also said that is one reason she enjoys the luncheons, to be around other women and share in their stress.

“I enjoy seeing everybody. It destresses me to be around them,” she said.

Beverly Williams and Melody Marlowe both said they hoped to get practical ideas on how to deal with day-to-day stress by the end of the presentation. Marlowe, who works for the city of Gainesville, said the city was doing its annual budget now, so she was feeling the worries pile on. Beverly Williams said she was particularly interested in learning techniques “we could do at our desk.”

Zayas’ primary clinical and research interests at Brenau are in the areas of stress management, resilience, well-being, self-awareness and interpersonal relationships. She and her research team are developing a stress lab to serve the university and the community by using the HeartMath system, a heart rate variability biofeedback-supported system of emotional self-regulation training. Essentially, by getting a readout of the body’s heart rate, the system allows the user to learn how to dial down emotions when stress is triggered. 

The lab will be available for use by the public at a reduced rate, Zayas said.

She started her program by reassuring the audience that no one can always avoid stress. So instead, you must learn how to handle stressful moments. 

Zayas asked the audience members what they felt in moments of high stress. Words like “exhausted,” “angry,” “overwhelmed” volleyed around the crowd. Zayas said these were all indicators of how stress affects the body physically. 

She gave a PowerPoint presentation illustrating the heart’s reaction to stressors in the form of biofeedback. When you intentionally shift into a positive emotion, Zayas said, heart rhythm immediately changes. Once the heart rate comes down, she said, the ability to think clearly and react more positively becomes easier.

The key, she said, is to practice positive thought and refill the body’s “emotional battery” so when times of stress hit, it will be easier to stay calm and relaxed.

Joan Knight volunteered to demonstrate the HeartMath biofeedback system. She sat at the front of the room hooked to a small machine measuring her heart rate. She was asked to think about stressful situations, then counter those situations by closing her eyes and thinking of soothing situations. The audience watched on a large screen as Knight’s rate shot up, then slowly dropped.

Asked what she was thinking about to calm her, Knight said she thought about petting her dog, then her mother’s 89th birthday, which happened to be that day.

Zayas walked the audience through a few techniques anyone can learn and do almost anywhere to stay collected. One idea is to imagine the heart, instead of the lungs, filling with and releasing air. This, she says, helps slow the heart.

Hopkins said every age has its own stressors, be it a mom with little children, a student or someone in retirement — a sentiment felt by others in attendance.

Elaine Martin agreed that retirement came with its own worries. One way she deals with it is by attending yard sales with friends. Beverly Williams nodded. She, too, loves to browse at yard sales, and both women said donating things also made them feel better. 

Donations were another feature of the luncheon as volunteers from Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore were on hand to inform others about the benefits of giving and shopping the ReStore, which sells donated home goods at discounted prices.

After the presentation, many attendees, feeling more relaxed and in good humor, visited the ReStore table for more information on Habitat for Humanity. 

For more information on Zayas, HeartMath or Brenau’s stress lab, visit or email her at

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