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Practicing Safe Stress for the Holidays: “Fast Food for Thought” from the Stress Doc ™

Yesterday I had a blast. It only lasted ten-minutes but the ebb and flow of the audience’s riveted attention and hearty laughter produced a slow to fade afterglow. I did some serious shtick on “Practicing Safe Stress for the Holidays” at a holiday gathering for members of Federally Employed Women (FEW)/Metro Washington Region. Consider this some holiday “fast food for thought” from the Stress Doc. Hopefully you will find these morsels quick and easy to consume, tasty and nutritious. The menu lineup:

A. Stress Doc’s Classic Holiday Joke and Poetic Proverbs
B. Holiday Stress Smoke Signals
C. Burnout Spiral and The Vital Lesson of the Four “R”s
D. The Six Strategic “F”s for Mastering Loss and Change
E. Closing “Shrink Rap” ™


Practicing Safe Stress for the Holidays:
Some Serious Shtick or Fast Food for Thought

A. Stress Doc’s Classic Holiday Joke and Poetic Proverb

While many associate the holidays with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and its theme of gaining and sharing the holiday spirit, the opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities may have even more relevance:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of time
It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness…
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Like Dickens, I too have tried to capture the complexity of the holidays; if not through a great novel, then with my one classic holiday joke. To help you negotiate some of that holiday pressure, consider this distinction between “Holiday Blues” and “Holiday Stress.” Now holiday blues is the feeling of loss or sadness that you have over the holidays when, for whatever reason, you can’t be with those people who have been or are special and significant. And holiday stress…is when you have to be with some of those people!

So here are two “poetic proverbs” for survival:

You may think I’m at a loss without having you as boss.
Still, when it’s just me, not us or you
Please, don’t tell me what to do!

Do ask or suggest; maybe better…let it rest!

And a “pp” with a humorous edge:

Tenaci-Tea for Two: The Narcissist’s Version

You for me and me for me.
Oh how nurturing you will be.
Forget “to be or not to be”
Just simply think of Me, Me Me!

B. Holiday Stress Smoke Signals

How do you know when you’re experiencing “holiday stress smoke signals?” Drawing on my “Three ‘B’ Stress Barometer” Exercise, how do your Brain, Body and Behavior tell you when you’re under more stress or are more tense than usual?

Snappy, impatient, rise in blood pressure, increased smoking or drinking, mind-racing or in a fog, etc., etc. These are some of the common responses to the above question. Here are three of my favorites. Notice how the first two are double-edged:
1) Sleep Disturbance — “Some mornings, anyone ever feels like just not getting out of bed? Then, aren’t there folks who know all the best buys on Ebay or Home Shopping Network at three in the morning?”
2) Eating Disturbance — “Anyone eat a little more under stress to numb those gnawing anxious feelings?” Many hands quickly go up. “Anyone lose their appetite or eat less when feeling stressed?” A few hands flutter. My immediate response: “And we hate those people, don’t we?”
3) TMJ — “Does anyone have problems with muscle tension, back or neck pain? What about a clenched jaw or TMJ? We know what TMJ really stands for, don’t we…Too Many Jerks!

C. Burnout Spiral and The Vital Lesson of the Four “R”s

And stress unchecked can spiral…into a state of burnout. In fact, I call burnout the “erosive spiral”: Burnout is a gradual process by which a person detaches from work and other significant roles and relationships. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism, confusion, a feeling of being drained having nothing more to give. Doesn’t sound like fun!

How to stop this vicious cycle? Grapple with “The Vital Lesson of the Four ‘R’s”: If no matter what you do or how hard you try, Results, Rewards, Recognition and Relief are not forthcoming and you can’t say “No” or won’t “let go”, that is, you can’t step back and get a new perspective; there’s only one right person, position, or possible outcome because in your mind you’ve invested so much time, money, and ego…trouble awaits. The groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness, and despair!

How to let go?…See right below.

D. The Six Strategic “F”s for Mastering Loss and Change

In today’s uncertain economic and career climate, the ability to grapple effectively with unemployment, a downsized budget or family lifestyle, to handle the uncertainty of a company reorganization, or flexibly adapt to working in new departments or with new work teams is vital. However, positively engaging with loss and change requires more than just “sucking it up.” Try mastering the Stress Doc’s Six “F”s of Loss and Change; turn potential danger into personal and professional opportunity:

1) Familiar. Grapple with the anxiety, rage, hopelessness or sadness in letting go of the familiar role or predictable past. The big question: Who am I? This role or relationship has been such a big part of my identity. Remember, sometimes your former niche of success now has you mostly stuck in the ditch of excess. There’s a critical crossroad ahead,

2) Future. Clearly the horizon appears cloudy and threatening, lacking direction and clarity. What will be expected of me? Who will I now have to report to or work with? Just because your past or traditional roles and responsibilities may be receding doesn’t mean you can’t transfer your experience and skills into new challenging arenas,

3) Face. Some loss of self-esteem and self-worth is all too common, especially when our life puzzle has been broken up other than by one’s own hand. Would this scenario be unsettling: “Two months ago you gave our department a great performance review? Now you’re cutting our budget in a major way, and no one knows if there will be layoffs.” Shame and guilt, rage and diminished confidence are frequent early traveling partners on an uncertain and profound transitional journey,

4) Focus. Major change can be scary. Underlying feelings may include rage, helplessness, hopelessness and humiliation. Sometimes we need a little rage to break through chains of mind-body-behavior paralysis. Of course, rage needs to be tempered. Remember, more people shoot themselves in the foot than go postal! (And, let me say, as a former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant with the US Postal Service, I know “Going Postal.”) The challenge is to grapple with this array of powerful feelings, if need be, with personal or professional support. You want to temper the rage by having the courage to embrace those vulnerable emotions; this leads to a productive, yin-yang state of focused anger. You can’t just willpower your way through this emotional quicksand or burnout spiral.
For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!

If you can honestly grapple and grieve the first three “F”s, then you are engaged in a productive brooding and refocusing aggression process. Maybe I am ready to knock on if not knock down doors again. At minimum, you will affirm, “I may not like the cards that have been dealt, but how do I make the best of my reality right now.” And you’ll likely start hatching a new perspective with, if not crystal clear targets, then an intuitive, crystal ball-like enlightenment. Suddenly this Stress Doc mantra starts resonating: “I don’t know where I’m going…I just think I know how to get there!”

5) Feedback. Throughout this process, but especially now, getting solid feedback is crucial. It’s not easy getting clear, clean, and honest feedback: many don’t really have a clue how to give it. Or people are fearful you won’t know how to handle it. You have to work hard to find someone who will give you the Stress Doc’s version of TLC: “Tender Loving Criticism” and “Tough Loving Care.” You need a “stress buddy” to help sort out the wheat from the chaff. Before you blow up in a supervisor’s office check in with your buddy and ask, “Am I seeing this situation objectively or not? What’s my part in this problem?” In times of rapid or daunting change, trustworthy feedback helps us remember who we are; that our basic, core self remains intact despite being shaken by unsettling forces.

6) Faith. Having the courage to grapple with these “F”s now yields a strength to understand what in your present life rests in your control and what lies beyond. Of course, there’s always an unpredictable element or moment in major transition. Life is not a straight line progression. However, by doing your “head work, heart work and homework,” you are in a much stronger personal and professional position. You are building cognitive and emotional muscles; you can have faith in a growing ability to handle whatever will be thrown at you. Going through this process means you are evolving the psychological capacity for dealing with ambiguous and unpredictable twists and turns on life’s journey. As I once penned: 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.

And how do we transform mystical maturation into everyday evolution? Consider the prescient words of the great scientific/polio pioneer, Dr. Jonas Salk: Evolution is about getting up one more time than you fall down; being courageous one more time than you are fearful; and trusting just one more time than you are anxious.

E. Closing “Shrink Rap” ™

I close by putting on my Blues Brothers hat and black sunglasses and taking out a black tambourine, thereby revealing a secret identity: “I’m pioneering the field of psychologically humorous rap music and as a therapist calling it, of course, ‘Shrink Rap’ ™ Productions.” Predictably, there’s an audible groan from the audience. And my response: “Groan now. We’ll see who has the last groan.” (However, in my defense, years back, an African American friend upon hearing the lyrics said, “Oh, so you’re into ‘Aristocratic Rap.'”)

I then explain that this is my Charlie Chaplin Maneuver. (“Alas, after I’m through you may need the Heimlich Maneuver.”) The pioneering comedic film genius observed that, The paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic which arouses the funny. We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and in order not to go crazy. Naturally, I note that what the audience is “about to see and hear will give new meaning to the word ‘tragic.’ And as for not going ‘crazy,’ it’s way too late for that. So buckle up your straightjackets…It’s the ‘Stress Doc’s Stress Rap.'” And not only am I belting out the words but I’m prancing around the room while banging on the tambourine.

The Stress Doc’s Stress Rap

When it comes to feelings do you stuff them inside?
Is tough John Wayne your emotional guide?
And it’s not just men so proud and tight-lipped.
For every Rambo there seems to be a Rambette.

So you give up sleep, become wired and spent
Escape lonely frustration as a mall-content.
It’s time to look at your style of stress.
You can’t just dress or undress for success.

Are you grouchy with colleagues or quietly mean?
Hell, you’d rather talk to your computer machine.
When the telephone rings, you’re under the gun
Now you could reach out and really crush someone.

The boss makes demands yet gives little control
So you prey on chocolate and wish life were dull, but
Office desk’s a mess, often skipping meals
Inside your car looks like a pocketbook on wheels.

Those deadlines, deadlines…all that aggravation
Whew, you only have time for procrastination.
Now I made you feel guilty, you want to confess
Better you should practice the art of “Safe Stress.”

(c) Mark Gorkin 1992
Shrink Rap Productions

At the onset of my “performance,” people seem embarrassed for me; some are just sitting there wide-eyed with their mouths agape. (Clearly I’m perpetuating a stereotype, notwithstanding Elvis Presley, John Travolta and Justin Timberlake: the rhythmically-challenged status of the white male!) However, my bravery if not my witticisms win them over. Often the group begins clapping their hands to my self-styled beat. Once the lyrics are completed the room erupts in applause. After waving off the feedback, my immediate response: “I’ve been doing this long enough…I know when an audience is applauding out of relief!” And then, “All this shows after twenty years off and on of all kinds of therapy — from Jungian analysis to primal scream — I have one singular accomplishment. Just one: Absolutely no appropriate sense of shame!”

Finally, as the laughter subsides, a woman in the audience ventures a comment, likely on other’s minds: “Don’t quit your day job!”

And my rejoinder is fairly predictable: “It’s too late…This is my day job!” Hey, I’m just fulfilling my destiny: “Have Stress? Will Travel: A Smart Mouth for Hire!” Obviously, my goal in life: “Being both a wise man and a wise guy!” And hopefully, my attempt at mixing wit and wisdom will help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and “Motivational Humorist” known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the “Doc” is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading “Stress, Team Building and Humor” programs for the 13th Expeditionary Support Command and the 15th Sustainment Brigade, Ft. Hood, Texas and the 3rd Chemical Brigade, Fort Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online “HotSite”www.stressdoc.com — called a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc’s “Practice Safe Stress” programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.

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Mark Gorkin

Steve, believe me it’s unforgettable. In fac, many have a PTSD reaction — “Post-Traumatic Stress Doc” Syndrome. (Actually, haven’t seen the H1N1 rap.” I’ll have to google it.)

Actually, if you know any groups that would benefit from my speaking or workshop programs — which always have a strong team building component — please, drop my name shamelessly! 😉

Ciao for now.