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How to Practice Safe Stress Interview with "The Stress Doc" ™

Mark Gorkin, LICSW

Q: These days it seems to be on everyone's mind…what is "STRESS" anyway?

STRESS DOC: Many people have a somewhat misguided, one-dimensional notion of stress. Stress, in fact, is a series of mind-body reactions that: a) identifies a stimulus, challenge or threat, b) assesses the degree of difficulty of the potential stressor, including whether one has the resources to cope with the problematic situation, c) a problem-solving or tension reducing response is made to regain control of one's environment and emotions and d) one's heightened state of arousal and alertness either returns to a normal, pre-threat state (Normal or Acute Stress) or if the tension is prolonged, without sufficient rest or relief, one is susceptible to exhaustion and other mind-body stress symptoms, including burnout (Chronic or Distress). Sometimes, we may engage in "heroic" coping under extreme conditions, and get through the trauma. However, there may be delayed effects -- generalized anxiety, sleep disturbance, nightmares, weepiness, etc. -- weeks or months after the tragic event, for example, the September 11th terrorist attacks, when our guard is down (Post-Traumatic Stress).

Q: Stress doesn't sound very good…but is there such a thing as "good" stress?

STRESS DOC: Yes, there is good or "Eustress," the optimal level of mind-body activation and alertness that facilitates peak performance, e.g., when those butterflies in the stomach align and transform into a soaring squadron of eagles. We've done our homework, are up for the challenge and flow with the experience. Sarah Hughes' gold medal skating performance in the 2002 Winter Olympics, after landing her first difficult jump, totally tamed her butterflies. The sixteen year old was definitely into "good stress" the remainder of her routine. The smiles and radiant joy while skating were proof positive.

But one doesn't have to be a gold medallist to achieve "good stress." Create some activity in your life for which you have a sense of purpose and passion (and try adding a little playfulness, as well.) Mix in disciplined practice and patience and voila…you too will experience the fulfilling flow and golden glow of "good stress."

Q: Can there be too much of this "good stress" thing?

STRESS DOC: Alas, sometimes we pursue goals that are so elusive, in which we are so ego-driven (I call them egoals) that we ignore the Stress Doc's "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 won't say, 'No,' or can't momentarily 'let go'…then trouble awaits. The groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness and despair."

The result is often burnout: "a gradual process by which a person detaches from work and other significant roles and relationships in response to excessive and prolonged stress and physical, mental and emotional strain. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism, confusion…a feeling of being drained, having nothing more to give."

Let me briefly outline the four stages of this "erosive spiral": 1) Physical, mental and emotional exhaustion - doing more with less is starting to produce a case of the "brain strain" and frustration or guilt for cutting corners, 2) Shame and doubt - someone asks you to take on a new project; you want to but a voice inside says, "Who are you kidding!" 3) Cynicism and callousness - having had enough of this chronic uncertainty and vulnerability you are putting on the heavy armor: "look out for #1," "cover your derriere" and "get out of my way," 4) Failure, helplessness and crisis - here's where you start feeling, "Damned if I do, damned if I don't; damned if I stay, damned if I leave." Your coping seems to be unraveling. It may be time for some professional counseling. (Email for the complete classic, "The Four Stages of Burnout.")

Q: How can we prevent burnout?

STRESS DOC: I recommend my formula for "Natural SPEED":

S = Sleep. If I may be lyrical, don't be cheap with your need for sleep. It's nature's way to ebb and flow and help you grow. While recent research questions the health benefits of excessive sleep (over eight hours) a pattern of less than six hours for most people yields cognitive impairment, that is, a loss of mental sharpness. Lack of sleep, not just all work, makes Jack and Jill dull. Also, sleep research supports brief napping (10-40 minutes) during the day for mind-body rejuvenation.

P = Priorities. In a "do more with less" world, it's imperative to grasp two organizational and interpersonal maxims:

a. Pareto Principle (named for an Italian sociologist). 80% of your results are produced by 20% of your activities. So focus on the strategic when problem-solving or trying to be productive. The principle also means you can drop 4/5 of what you are doing without feeling guilty. ;-) b. N & N. Establishing limits on and boundaries with others is critical for generating positive expectations and achievable goals, especially when quantity and quality are paramount. The essential tool: the ability to say "No" and to "Negotiate." In other words, don't "Just do it." Tactfully yet assertively discuss what's "urgent" (must get done now) versus what's "important" (which gets prioritized) as well as develop manageable timelines. There really can be life after deadlines!

E = Empathy. Many folks place their own stress in perspective by helping or, at least, supportively listening to others. Just make sure the shoulder lending is not a one way transaction. If you are always the pillar, those who lean on you may not be quick to see when you're feeling shaky. This is especially likely if you habitually play a heoric, self-denying superman or superwoman role. At work and/or in your home life, have at least one stress buddy with whom you can let your hair down (especially on a "bad hair day." As a t-shirt purchased for an ex-girlfriend proclaimed: "How can I control my life when I can't control my hair!")

E = Exercise. The benefit of regular exercise is both physical and psychological. Thirty minutes of vigorous, non-stop, large muscle movement activity -- brisk walking, swimming, bike riding, dancing, etc. -- releases brain chemicals called endorphins which are the mind-body's natural mood enhancers and pain relievers. It's less a runner's high and more that we can step back and see things with a calmer disposition and fresher perspective. Also, exercise itself can be a positive ritual. When everything's up in the air, doing a 2-3 mile walk or jog creates a beginning and end point for a tangible sense of accomplishment and control. And as we'd say in N'Awlins, the "lagniappe" or added benefit: "I like feeling virtuous!"

D = Diet. More than a waistline is at stake. A diet high in saturated fats (red meat, whole milk products, fried oyster po-boys; it was tough eating sensibly in "The Big Easy") and simple sugars (sodas, chips and cookies and excessive chocolate; sorry folks) induces drowsiness and mental torpor, not to mention clogged arteries. And too much alcohol and caffeine is a roller coaster headache -- moodiness or depression often follows aggression and agitation. Balancing protein, fruits and vegetables, complex carbs, grains, nuts and sufficient water is vital for optimal energy and alertness along with cardiovascular health. Remember, a mind is a terrible thing to waist!

Q: Do you have one tip to help organizations deal with workplace stress?

STRESS DOC: In a 24/7 world that's cycling from "lean-and-MEAN" downsizing to ever faster upgrading while periodically spinning scarily out of control, managing stress and effective team communication and cooperation are on everybody's mind in today's diverse workplace. The pressures to sustain individual and organizational productivity and morale have never been greater. My suggestion: management and employees (or association members) participate in dynamic and interactive, inspiring and fun-filled "Practice Safe Stress" speaking programs and training workshops having meaningful group exercises and problem-solving discussions. With "hands on" concepts and skills and job relevant exercises, participants channel stress, frustration and real conflict into safe sharing, cooperative/creative action and team building.

Seek the higher power of Stress Doc humor: May the Farce Be with You!

Don't miss your appointment with the Stress Doc!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, an international speaker and syndicated writer, is America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ The Doc runs his weekly "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" on AOL/Digital City DC Stress Chat . See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- Stress Doc homepage. For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs, email or call 202-232-8662.