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Wellness and Personal Development

Stress Doc's Stress Smoke Signals

Mark Gorkin, LICSW

The more things get serious, the more the need for some humor and a little humility. Here's a brief anecdote and a "Top Twelve Stress Smoke Signals" list that mostly provides both. Standing in a crowd at a party, years ago, I was crowing about my new workshop: "Rebuilding the Fire: Burnout Prevention to Positive Stress." A passerby called out, "Forget the fancy title. Just call it, 'Getting Up in the Morning.'" She saw through my smoke.

What about you? Do any of these stress smoke signals indicate a smoldering moodiness or the potential for a burnout blaze? Hopefully, a light touch will make it easier to shine a light on yourself if you're still in the dark about your "Three 'B' -- Brain, Body and Behavior -- Stress Barometer" reading.

1. Exhaustion. Does this after work ritual sound familiar? As soon as you get home, you turn on the TV, hit the fridge, get out the Haagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry's, collapse on the sofa, and you're comatose for the rest of the evening? And this is on a good day! Or you're pumping amphetamines and protein bars to stave off that impending crash.

The frustration, danger and irony with chronic exhaustion is the need to cut corners, to cheat your mind-body's needs, not just angrily skim some "do more with less" bureaucratic system, in order to survive. Some try to deny their exhaustion with pills; others try to defy it. For example, how often do you continue to drive your car when sleepiness is hovering instead of quickly finding a rest stop or place to pull over? Maybe what's being missed is the connection between indiscriminately relying on will power and the need for a will.

2. Sleep Patterns. Some people do crawl further and further under the covers or keep piling on blankets to block out the slightest hint of morning light. Maybe you can't resist one more tap of the snooze button. Others simply can't shut off their brains. Perhaps, you're an obsessive-compulsive type who, in the middle of the night, wakes up screaming, "Dust, dust, where is there dust?" Do you somnambulate nightly to the computer, practically checking email in your sleep? Or do you know all the best buys at 3 am on e-Bay or the QVC Home Shopping Channel? As you'll see, stress signals can go both ways.

3. Warped Speed. Clearly, this age of being available 24/7, anytime/anywhere provides it's own stress framework. For example a dread of checking email can reflect the number of unread or unanswered messages that, like neglected children, practically cry out for attention: "Me first!" "No, me!" Perhaps you reach the other extreme, composing e-mail messages in your sleep. Or, if awake, you become increasingly seduced or hooked by the potential for constant virtual stimulation. Believe me online addictions -- cybersex along with fantasy baseball -- are disrupting plenty of lives these days. (See #7.)

4. Eating Patterns. Here's another one of those double-edged stress demons. When doing a workshop, I sample the audience: how many people tend to eat more, to sort of numb themselves, when feeling anxious or depressed? Just about the whole group raises their hands. Then I ask, "Are there any folks who lose their appetite when stressed? A few hands flutter. My immediate reply: "Of course, we hate these people!"

Considering the childhood link between food and comfort, the first coping pattern is not surprising. But disproving the notion that you are not a motivated or productive person, that you can't finish what you start, by knocking off a large bag of potato chips in one sitting seems a tad more compulsive than comforting. Conversely, even in a world that claims you can never be too thin or too rich, chronic loss of appetite or "bingeing and purging" is a definite danger sign.

5. Sighing. Do you find yourself increasingly engaged in labored breathing or deep, heartfelt sighs? When do you often hear people engaged in deep and heavy sighing and breathing? (Hold on, the irreverent answer lies two chapters ahead.) Basically, when they are overwhelmed by demands and are increasingly losing that sense of control. (At one point I was thinking of starting an on-line stress support group -- "The Frequent Sighers Club." Believe me, with so many folks seething in their breathing; this group would have taken off.)

At the other end of the spectrum, fast, shallow breathing may also occur when under siege. Though a sign of stress, it may forestall full-blown hyperventilation. Your body steps in with a sigh -- or that close respiratory relative, a yawn. These mechanisms compel a deep breath and break the shallow, rapid breathing pattern.

6. Boredom and Beyond. Does your long-standing niche of success now have you stuck in the ditch of excess? The routine is making you mean and green...less with hard-earned money and more with hardened envy. You're left wondering, "Is this all there is?" You may be experiencing what overcame the tennis great, Bjorn Borg. The Swedish star, after winning a slew of tournaments, suddenly burned out on the circuit. It's The Bjorn Bored Syndrome: "When Mastery times Monotony provides an index of Misery!"

Is it hard to conceive of boredom as a stress symptom? It's a switching off mechanism; one curls up in a fetal position, sucking a thumb to numb anxieties, emptiness or smoldering rage. For example, you may need to make a career or relationship change, but would rather deal with the devil you know than a scary new roller coaster learning curve. This is true either if you've been a battered pawn or have been King or Queen of the Mountain. (Now such mixing of metaphors may be disorienting but it's never boring. ;-)

So if nothing interests you and everything's a drag…BEWARE! You're well on your way to the badlands of burnout or the deserts of depression. The boredom buster key: Fireproof Your Life with Variety. (Reader beware: This is not an endorsement for cultivating a cyberharem of virtual lovers. See #7.) Seriously, the answer is not just any variety. Prolonged boredom invites dysfunctional kinds of self-stimulating behavior: drinking, drugs, gambling, compulsive shopping, and, yes, sexual acting out, etc.

7. Cyberaddiction. Like other addictions, once started cybersex participation rapidly escalates in amount and variety. You have to do more and more just to reach the same stimulating-numbing effect. The danger signs are preoccupation with intense imagery and cyber cohorts, irritation and impatience when offline, increasing social isolation, trancelike states when online and disruption in everyday roles and responsibilities. Folks rationalize the behavior: no one's getting hurt and it's not real sex.

Now some will claim it's not cybersex but romance that motivates them. I call the dysfunctional variety -- "Romantasy"; an obsessive mix of romance and fantasy. Don't ask how many emails I've received from readers' heartbroken over the demise of a virtual relationship. Don't ask about the salesman who started an online affair that "progressed" to several face-to-face clandestine encounters over several months. When the woman's husband discovered the affair, she abruptly ended the liaison. And I was left fielding a call from a shaken father asking to provide emergency counseling for his now near-suicidal son. (For now, let's not even mention the state of the desperate son's wife and children.)

8. Overloaded and Overwhelmed. Is your good nature eroding from too many demands or from juggling responsibility for too many people or projects? Is facing an ever-expanding base of data, policies and procedures causing a personality transformation -- going from Dr. Jekyl into Hiding? Perhaps you're a slave to deadlines, or tied up by thieves of time? Beware! You may be caught in the "Multiple & Simultaneous Demand Situation." If you're not careful, this Multiple & Simultaneous (or M & S) Demand Situation can turn around and become an "S & M" experience. You end up a "Servant to too many Masters!"

And you can be trapped in this game whether you are on top or bottom of the organizational hierarchy.

9. Telephone Tremors. Are you facing constant beeping, cell phoning and call waiting pressures (not to mention sweaty palm piloting)? Do you start shaking or palpitating when the phone rings? Or, can't set limits on yourself and others? Sure you feel like you're ready to rewrite the old AT & T television commercial: One more abrasive caller or intrusive telemarketer and you will, "Reach out and CRUSH someone!" But, in fact, you have problems asserting limits; you just can't take control of the telephone. You allow others to continuously interrupt you. Remember, if you think Alexander Graham Bell was "the father of stress," you probably have not cut the cord with your mother. Enough already!

10. Clutter. How cluttered is your life? Is the clutter on your desk a valid snapshot of the chaos in your head? What about the inside of your car? Be honest...Do you feel like you're driving around in a pocketbook on wheels? Is clutter not just offensive; does it also have a defensive purpose: it's a ready-made excuse for failing to meet deadlines or to follow through on tasks.

Also, a clutter freak may be a stress junkie in disguise. For such folks, not having emotional intensity leaves a gaping void -- life feels too hollow, too quiet, and too weird. You know this clutter chaos condition is "really" serious when you start having fleeting moments of envy for the refreshingly simple life of the unemployed or homeless.

11. Type A Trap. Are you reluctant to delegate work because no one can do it as efficiently or perfectly as you? Be careful. You may be setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy. People may start agreeing: "You're right. No one around here can do it quite like you. Please, go do it yourself!" (You know, of course, who's the real Type A...The person who won't settle for anything less than being a Type A+.)

Alas, Type A's don't just burden themselves with their perfectionist standards and an inability to relax and to recharge their batteries. An inability to set limits on themselves or to recognize boundaries means the Type A individual becomes a "stress carrier" for others. An autocratic, micromanaging style can turn daily lives into nightmares. (You know the "stress carrier" is one who tends to give ulcers not get them.) Still the Type A individual can be self defeating: always being in rigid Type A overdrive -- pursuing elusive goals at an inflexibly frantic pace -- can be a formula for the "b"-word.

12. Cover-up. I once encountered a law firm where we finally exposed the big stress secret: half the attorneys - male as well as female - kept Grecian Formula 44 in their top draw. Makes me think of a T-shirt I once bought for an anxious woman friend with a good sense of humor. There's a picture of a woman having a "bad hair day" with the caption: "How can I control my life when I can't control my hair!"

Obviously, the modus operandi for many in this firm was never expose weakness. While this principle may have some functional purpose in the adversarial word of law, the real enemy is overlooked. We avoid facing our "Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure." The shame or dread that one's basic inadequacy or unworthiness will be discovered, will be stripped away. And such ongoing agitation and angst can be overwhelming and exhausting. Being chronically defensive means always fearful that someone will catch you in an error or that you just aren't "good enough." Clearly, this final smoke signal exposes the fire within: how chronic stress and a worn down mind-body state, if not rejuvenated and healthfully managed, will eventually set the stage for burnout and, even, serious mood disorder.

Hopefully, this cautionary compilation mixed with lightness and some absurdity has penetrated your psychic radar screen. As I once penned: "People are more open to a serious message when it's gift-wrapped with humor." Alas, you can't do anything about "The Toxic Trio" -- Stress, Burnout and Depression -- unless you acknowledge its self-polluting presence. Don't mimic a pompous State Department official once encountered during a workshop in DC. This manager, after reviewing a list of stress warning signs, with a decidedly arrogant tone, inquired, "What do you call it if you don't have any stress?" I looked Mr. Bluster straight in the eye and calmly replied, "Denial!"

So laugh or lampoon, just don't tune out, those stressors and smoke signals. Words to help us all...Practice Safe Stress!