By Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc’ ™
Here are the Stress Doc's "Top Ten Commandments for Practicing Safe Stress." (As you can see, some irreverence is definitely a staple as a stressbuster!)
1. Exercise Regularly. Start engaging in regular physical exercise 3-5X/week for 30 minutes, like jogging, walking, swimming, biking, dancing, aerobics, etc. Exercise releases mood-enhancing chemicals, like endorphins, the mind-body's natural painkiller and mood calmer. Briskly walking 2-3 miles allows us to experience a tangible sense of accomplishment and control. When everything is up in the air, exercise helps us feel grounded. Even better if you can find an exercise buddy.
2. Discover the Meditative and Sensual Mode. Here's an online reader's experience: "I usually put myself into stressful situations (I can't help it! I thrive on stress!) I know that stress will catch up with me in the end so I have discovered the best cure for the time-challenged. When I notice a panic attack or fatigue from stress setting in, I put everything to the side. I grab my portable radio and my Smashing Pumpkins, "Siamese Dream" tape. I plug it up in my bathroom and turn off the lights. I light a variety of candles throughout the room and take a warm bath. If my stress is way out of hand, I eat an apple and drink a glass of milk while in the bath. I take the mood from the lighting and from the smooth sound of the Pumpkins. Usually, after soaking for 25 minutes, I drain the water and stay in the tub, surrounding myself in happy thoughts. Once the tub is nearly drained, I get out, energized by the calm of the previous half-hour. That charges me to finish the work that I set aside and it gives me a peace to finish things for the rest of the month (or longer)! It's my happy time!"
3. Find a Hobby. Hobbies can be active or reflective; sometimes they can be both, like gardening. Hobbies may be shared, but often it's enjoyable activity pursued or engaged in solitude. Hiking in forests and mountains work wonders for me. Helps me get perspective, step back from my troubles, see a bigger picture, be at one with nature. Also, try your hand at creative writing, poetry or keeping a journal. Research shows writing that analyzes our problems and expresses our emotions is stress relieving. If you can't discover a hobby, I'd take that as a warning sign. You may actually be depressed. Loss of interest in things we once enjoyed, or loss of vitality in general, is a common symptom.
4. Learn to Let Go. When people are depressed/stressed they often are clinging to a belief, a situation or a person that is ignoring or denying key aspects of reality. They are reluctant to have a face-to-face, heart-to-heart talk or confrontation. And loss doesn't just mean the death of a loved one. Loss can occur with the breakup of a relationship, having to start a new job or school (loss of familiar colleagues and friends) or a sense of losing control...as in excessive yelling and screaming. Loss of face or self-esteem along with anxiety and uncertainty often result.
Sometimes we have to grieve our loss and let go to regain our energy and perspective and reengage with life in a vital manner. This may require doing a retreat, taking time out to reflect on these gnawing stressors: how they got there and your negative and positive coping patterns. Can you let go of one or two of these stress gremlins or at least step back from '"all or none" and rigidly idealistic expectations? Remember the Stress Doc's Basic Law of Safe Stress: Do know your limits and don't limit your "No"s!
Retreating is not giving up, but means sowing the psychic seeds of rebirth and rejuvenation. As I once wrote:
Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion, each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion, like spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.
5. Reflect upon "The Stress Doc's 6 'F' Loss and Gain Change Model." Grappling with change and choice often means:
1) by definition, letting go of the Familiar, and the security that familiarity can provide (of, course sometimes it can be a great relief to "let go" or escape the routine),
2) confronting an unpredictable Future, which can be scary and depressing, yet also exciting and hopeful,
3) dealing with loss of Face or self-esteem, especially if you are not ready for the choice, feel it's imposed upon you or it may result in lower status or achievement or rejection. Significant change often places you outside your comfort zone - may shake up your sense of identity; definitely a "danger-opportunity for growth" scenario, and
4) destabilizing your present Focus; you need to sort the forest from the trees, habitual reactions or responses, no longer cut it; mastering loss and change requires new performance, process and path.
5) get Feedback from people who have known you prior to the loss and change process; these folks can help provide an identity anchor in a crisis or transitional tempest. Also, make sure the feedback is from people who can be objective, who will identify your strengths and your vulnerabilites.
6) and for some there will be a sixth "F": Faith. Whether through a belief in a transcendent being or by experiencing the higher power of a support group - with its network of interactions - healing energy and hope appear on the horizon. Keeping the faith provides support for those "dark night of the soul" episodes.
6. Express Healthy Anger. By healthy anger, I mean the freedom to express oneself purposefully or passionately, without having to be perfectly reasonable, but still be responsible. A person may not even be clear as to what he or she is angry about. Here are some constructive, being accountable for your communication "I"-message examples (as opposed to blaming "you" message): "I don't like (or need) this," "I just feel what's happening isn't right or useful," "I don't like you" (at this moment; as opposed to "You idiot" or "You always screw up"). Sometimes, just a loud and clear "I'm angry right now" works quite well. (Trust me, with body language, firm voice, direct eye contact and real emotion these statements aren't wimpy.) As Richard Bach noted in his book on Creative Aggression, vital anger, whatever the specific content, sends the message: This is who I am. This is what I believe is happening to me in relation to you. I have these thoughts and feeling that I need to express. And, having vented our anger, we can listen (hopefully, sooner rather than much later) to the other party's thoughts and feelings.
Adults need to help a child learn that anger doesn't have to be forever, perhaps by saying, "I can see you are angry with me right now." Parents and guardians can also encourage youngsters to say specifically what they don't like or what they want. (Not that kids should always get what they want, heaven forbid.) By asserting her needs both with purpose and spontaneity, without losing total control, a child is in a better position to set limits on herself and others. She is learning how to establish and protect her boundaries and personal space. A child that is allowed to be constructively angry or assertive more likely will become a teen who can "just say No" in the face of destructive peer pressure. Or, he or she will "know when to say when" to the seductive temptations and addictions of adolescence.
7. Declare Your Emancipation Procrastination. The critical step in overcoming endless delay, dalliance and denial is letting your self feel the anxiety, anger or shame that underlies avoidance or escapist behavior. Acknowledge your secret procrastination with a friend, colleague or counselor. Appoint an empathic "designated nagger" to keep you on track with TLC: "Tender Loving Criticism" and "Tough Loving Care." Also, learn to break up a big project into manageable parts and then get started even if it's just for five minutes. As the ancient roman poet Horace noted: "To begin is to be half done. Dare to know - start!" And finally, set limits on both self-defeating and overwhelming goals and workload expectations. Establish interpersonal boundaries and beware of your grandiose savior/rescue fantasies. Remember, "Burnout is less a sign of failure and more that we gave ourselves away!"
8. Seek Out Others with Similar Issues. At critical and stress ful points in the development of Stress doc enterprises, support groups were a catalyst for encouragement and growth. One group, comprised mostly of artists exploring computer graphics helped me overcome technophobia and my embarrassing state of computer virginity. Then there was the social networking group for self-employed business folks called "Home Alone." This collection of oddballs and outcasts helped me overcome ignorance and reluctance to becoming a "Webbie." With the collaboration of an IT colleague, SS Stress Doc was launched into cyberspace. From fellowship to partnership, teaming with others breaks down self-imposed barriers and expands resources and options. The right mutual support system - whether through mentoring, partnering or group coordination - can help transform enervating stress into synergistic energy. Discover why the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts.
9. Consider a Support Group or Professional Help. Under chronic stress and exhaustion, or from a sense of severe mistrust, shame and inadequacy, you can hide out from yourself as well as others. Some will increase their drinking, drugging, smoking and eating. Many people have unrealistically perfectionist standards for themselves as well of others. This only tightens the stress knot. Chronic stress takes a toll on your biochemistry, often turning your mood range into a roller coaster ride.
Consider twelve step groups like Alcoholics anonymous (AA) and Codependents Anonymous (CODA), or depression and bipolar support groups (often run by a local hospital). These gatherings help us realize that misery doesn't just like company…It likes miserable company. No, just kidding. These groups cut through a sense of isolation and help you see your plight from a different perspective. They can inspire you to begin a slow and patient recovery one day at a time. (And you don't have to have a problem with alcohol or drugs for most 12-step groups. Just being part - past and/or present - of a good old dysfunctional family will suffice.)
And now there is a myriad of online support groups to meet almost any fancy or fetish. While chat groups may seem a bit chaotic at first, if the group has good leadership, once getting the perspective and pace, you'll likely find the experience both exciting and comforting. For those on America Online, feel free to drop by my weekly "Shrink Rap ™ and Group Chat," Tuesdays, 9:30-11pm EST. (Emailstressdoc@aol.com for the link.)
Again, if the stress feels debilitating, or you are reluctant to open up in a group setting, consider individual counseling or psychotherapy with a mental health professional. Maybe start by calling a crisis hot line. Clinical social workers can be very helpful. Try contacting your local National Association of Social Workers Chapter or your local United Way Counseling Agency. For students, a guidance counselor, school nurse, school social worker or university health center is another option.
Also, if your agitated depression or high anxiety doesn't improve, I'd see a psychiatrist for evaluation for medication. The new antidepressant medications are often quite effective and often with relatively few side effects. But please be supervised initially by a psychiatrist or psychopharmacologist when doing a meds trial. Internists and GPs are not experts on mood medication.
10. Seek the Higher Power of Humor. At times, nothing brings more relief than laughing at ego-inflated, self-important stress carriers - you know, the so-called high and mighty who never seem to get ulcers, just to give them. But, in fact, the most powerful form of humor as "good medicine" and as a sign of psychological well-being and maturity is likely the ability to gently poke fun and laugh at ourselves. This capacity for tickling and embracing our flaws and foibles means self-awareness is stronger than judgmental "shoulds," that self-acceptance is more powerful than shame or blame.
Some strategies for bringing more humor to your life:
a) Exaggerate your flaws; periodically turn the incongruous into the silly. You should see me doing a workshop "Shrink Rap," decked out in Blues Brothers hat, black sunglasses and beating on a black tambourine. At first, groans fill the room, but not for long. Folks are won over as much by lyrics as by unselfconscious exuberance. Of course, the biggest laugh comes when, as the clapping dies down, I declare; "You can't fool me. I can tell when an audience is applauding from relief,"
b) During a work meeting, arm participants with a squeeze doll or animal that makes a whining, bleating or growling sound as a way of raising an objection or point of disagreement,
c) Don't just watch a good comedy sitcom (though watching as a family or with a group of friends can heighten the wondrous effect), try your hand at writing or telling stories of embarrassing moments,
d) Learn to "reframe" reality. Follow the example of Edmund Rostand. Upon turning seventy-five, the French dramatist and poet, gazed into a mirror and opined: "Mirrors just aren't what they used to be,"
e) Take humor breaks. I still love reading old Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side collections. And reading and rereading Catcher In the Rye never fails to uplift my spirit.
So seek the higher power of humor: May the Farce Be with You!
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a psychotherapist, an international/Celebrity Cruise Lines speaker, and training/OD consultant for a myriad of corporations and government agencies. Recently interviewed by the BBC, the Doc is a syndicated writer and the author of Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression. In 2003, Mark received the inaugural National Association of Social Workers-Metro-DC Chapter’s Social Work Entrepreneur Award. The Doc is also America Online’s "Online Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" on AOL/Digital City. See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com (recently cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR). Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com. Mark is an advisor to The Bright Side ™ -- www.the-bright-side.org -- a multi-award winning mental health resource. For more info on the Doc’s speaking and training programs and products, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-232-8662.