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Back to "Reality" and "Relaxation": R & R for Healing Body and Brain Strain

Mark Gorkin, LICSW

While journeying from Gulfstream waters to Appalachian Mountains, the Stress Doc discovers the necessity and art of involuntary R & R. Learning to fully relax -- from engaging a semantical and psychological perspective to expansively and humbly being with nature -- reveals the simplicity and complexity of relaxation.

The gently rolling, blue-green aquamarine waters are beckoning. Not surprising considering the attempt to induce a comatose state by having positioned a beach towel and my limp form in direct line with the blinding, sweltering rays of the West Coast Florida August sun. Beads of sweat are trickling down my forehead while the rest of me is being wrapped and mummified in an unmerciful heat and humidity index. Within ten minutes, I concede. What happened to the narcissistic, early 20s worshipper who, for hours on end, would prayerfully commune with (okay, lazily luxuriate in the splendor of) the sun god. And, of course, this idyllic, day long meditation was only interrupted by nubile visions and shy flirtations, devouring those oil soaked yet crisp boardwalk fries along with body surfing in the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island.

Alas, the quest for 20s sensory overload has "matured" into the search for sensual-serenity mode some decades later. Pushing my sweaty, gritty body off the towel I trudge toward the shoreline conscious of the beach entrance sign: beware stinging jellyfish. So the proverbial toe takes the plungeIts a warm bath; the most expansive, soothing natural body of water ever encountered. And the gradient of the ocean floor inclines so slightly that wading out fifty yards only gets me waist deep.

Floating effortlessly on my back, the St Petersburg-Gulf waters gently lapping my ear lobes and chin, I associate to the relaxation-visualization exercise employed in my Practice Safe Stress programs. (The visualization setting was originally inspired by a late-70s trip to the beaches of Destin on the Florida Panhandle.) I had recently used the exercise with a group of YMCA professionals after a 30-something male PR head announced that hes never been able to meditate: "I cant stop my thoughts from racing." So I had the group assume a relaxed position, closing their eyes, placing hands in their laps and taking several deep breaths. We then completed a top of the head to the tips of the toes progressive relaxation, for example, steps included having a partner place a warm compress over your eyes to soak up the tension and imagining this partner giving a brief neck and shoulder massage. Eventually, the participants visualize entering the Gulf lying on a rubber mattress. The shimmering, sparkling gently rising and falling Gulf waters have you, "Softly rolling up and downUp and downUp and down. Rocking oh so restfully and peacefully, You have found a wonderful haven for escape, for rejuvenation; for getting in touch with your inner essence." And then you see aSHARK!!. No, Im kidding. Sometimes my mischievous self is uncontrollable.

Back to reality. After ten minutes of blissful floating on my back, bobbing up an down, being spun around enoughmomentary disorientation ensues upon standing upright. No doubt, under the influence of the kaleidoscopic Gulf, mind-body dancing the wave-light fantastic, Ive been transported to an altered state. Finally, another ten minutes on the sparsely populated white sandy beach completes the relaxation through mind visualization and body vegetation.

And while I have definitely shed my Type A Washington, DC skin for the present, truth be told theres still a quiet gnawing within. In five hours its show time: a Practicing Safe Stress after dinner keynote program for 120 CFOs and Comptrollers at a telecommunications and energy conference. So off to the hotels Health Club for the paradoxical peace and relaxation through active exertion. A half hour on the Nautilus equipment (on a beginners low weight setting), ten minutes on the treadmill and then the glow the aerobic, biochemically induced natural endorphin "runners calm" begins enveloping the mind-body system.

This afternoon has seen receptive and active paths to relaxation. And especially with active exercise, theres the added benefit of feeling virtuous. Perhaps most important, the vigorous workout and endorphin aftermath helps channel a state of "relaxed attention," an holistic integration conducive to peak performance.

Mastery, Miss-tery and Majesty

And later that evening, my peaceful and purposeful efforts are doubly rewarded by an enthusiastic audience response. And the next mind-body sequence: How to enjoy and come down off the performers high? Well, tonight provides two uncommon opportunities man-made and "au natural." The first is discovering a piano bar. Actually, the bar is on one side of a large hotel foyer, the piano man and piano in the middle. On the far side is yours truly, ensconced in a comfy couch, sipping a Chablis Cassis. Heartwarming pop and soft rock strands waft my way, including an obvious request Billy Joels "Piano Man." Mr. PM also indulges my second request: anything by Claude Debussy. Though not "classically trained," his rendition of "Claire de Lune" makes short shrift of the notion that sensuality and serenity require rays of sun and shimmering water for magical harmony. (I also encourage a discovery of Debussy's blissful, "Maid with Flaxen Hair.")

And then my couch corner attracts a crowd. Actually, a clan, including a mid-40s, somewhat overweight yet still voluptuous Las Vegas hostess with a punk rock blonde cut who has flown in to help celebrate her mothers 50th high school reunion. An animated non-stop talker (only slightly more loquacious with alcohol) upon discovering my psychotherapy background this Las Vegas live wire bombards me with her metaphysical speculations. Alas, she gave up on her Catholic upbringing and now shes proselytizing her new faith (while lighting one cigarette after another). While this faithful flirtation has some edginess, Im starting to come down. Sorry, will have to hold the "life after death" debate in abeyance. Wanting to savor this triumphal, biochemical and musical confluence I tactfully excuse myself. With the post-workshop adrenaline flow mixing with the iridescent ivories, the alcohol and a little testosterone/ego spikeIm definitely enjoying a mellow buzz.

Heading back to my room, which is a few blocks from the main building, Im ready to call it a daybut mother nature has other plans. White lightning is rhythmically streaking across the night sky. Hints of thunder rumble in the distance. And Im headed for the beach for my inaugural black heat lightning over gulf waters light show. Theres a beached sailboat with a canvas cover just right for lying down, hands behind my head and letting the primal fireworks do their mesmerizing magic. With the seemingly endless expanse of horizon its a three ring circuit. Alternating bursts of lightning appear in my direct line of vision (lets call this due North) and also in the Northwest and Northeast skies. Some of the electric streaks appear to directly strike the Gulf Waters. Theres enough cloud cover so that with little effort one can envision Zeus atop Olympus jolting post triumphal Earthlings back into a state of humility. ("Dont get too big on yourself, boy!" Now where did that voice come from?)

Okay, enough of the psychic stuff, Stress Doc, get back to the visualsZigzagging flashes burst off that heavenly black canvas behind a large puffy formation. Suddenly, aglow in the night sky, is the dull gray cloud mass now transformed into an electric gold-white hot neon charcoal luminescence. And now, in truly metaphysical and spiritual space beyond words, Im genuinely ready to contemplate the big picture. And Im even more ready than I know.

Stress Doc Heal Thyself

The timing is especially apt for me to reflect upon "Relaxation - Meditation," one of the six boxes of my States of Arousal - Activation Matrix that has been featured in the past three newsletters. Maybe it was just time to shut down as much of the DC world does in mid-August. The passion for writing my essays was decidedly feeling more ebb than flow. Even the Tea House, the usual setting for dipping into the primal wellspring, appeared to have a warning sign posted over my favorite table: "Writers Well Dry Until Further Notice!"

How often have I commiserated with readers grappling with a case of the "brain strain" or with one of the stages of burnout? (Naturally, one of the "wise guy" members of our AOL/Digital City Tuesday night "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" reminded me of "The Four Stages" upon sharing my malaise.) Yes, when passion ebbs, nurture comes before nature and compassion must overflow.

Of course, this axiom is grasped belatedly. Whats my first step to build on the Tampa startup, to begin a Nautilus regimen at the local Y. Push those weights, pump up the endorphins; rebuild that fire. Gradual, Mark. Begin with low weights, only thirty minutes; resist being impatient or macho. Youve hurt yourself before with this equipment. And for the first week my body feels good, though my mind still seems in a fog.

So at the 11th hour I decide to get out of town and head for the hills; actually, for the mountains surrounding Asheville, NC. Why Asheville? First, Ive been devouring Thomas Wolfe, a native son who, in the late1920s and 1930s, penned such opuses as Look Homeward Angel, Of Time and the River and You Cant Go Home Again. Ive also recently consumed his letters and three biographies as well as a lengthy essay, The Writing of a Novel. Its the centennial of his birth; this trip is part pilgrimage. There are many points of connection with Wolfe: a) his lush, expansive prose-poetry style of writing, b) a need to uproot and travel for extended periods, c) his quest to plumb the depths of the human spirit, d) an incredible capacity for focused work along with cycles of exhaustion and depression, e) a ravenous appetite for life and food and an addictive propensity for alcohol when needing to numb his pain (fortunately we part company on the alcohol) and f) extensive writing in his autobiographical novels about his sometimes mad, often maddeningly lovable, intensely individualistic and dizzyingly dysfunctional family. A near manic-depressive nature (my diagnosis), and an obsessive temperament compel pursuing his genius and talent wherever, including breaking many rules of conventional novel writing. Okay, so Im a Tom Wolfe wannabe. (But Im in good company. See Prince of Tides author, Pat Conroys introductory paean to Wolfe in the new edition of, Of Time and the River.)

And the other reason for my itinerary is hiking the lushly forested trails in the Great Smokey or Blue Ridge Mountains. (The main pic on my home page www.stressdoc.com the one with me and my New Orleans brim, is set in the Smokyes.) Again, relaxation through active recreation and a natural-spiritual connection with the big picture is the script for rejuvenation.

The Best Laid Plans of Mountain Men

The mile hike along the rocky, fairly inclined Deep Gap Trail in the mid-day sun is moderately strenuous and yields a just reward. Perched on a massive boulder, the view of the Appalachian ranges in the Pisgah National Forest is wondrous: wave after wave of hazy blue ridges breaking onto the green forested valley. A cool caressing "sea" breeze provides the only disturbance to the waves of silence. (I try to momentarily ignore the reality that the haze has more to do with man-made pollution than natural mountain "smoke.")

However, driving home its clear the back muscles are starting to tighten up. And by the time I return to the B&B, Im out of it enough to improvise upon Henry Higgins: "The pain of strain drains body and the brain."

Ive definitely got it severe lower back strain And suddenly I suspect that not nature but Nautilus is the culprit. That mid-life mania to get in shape. (And even this insight is shortsighted. More shortly.) At least I realize my motivation was less physical fitness and more an unconscious ploy to quell the mind malaise before it became a burnout blaze. So poetic, if not psychosomatic, justice: a misguided intervention for brain strain morphs into a case of back strain.

And now my body is compelling a rethinking of vacation strategy along with my diagnostic assessment. I start the Advil drill and the pain eventually becomes more tolerable, the movements a bit less restricted. Standing and, especially, sitting in place for more than a few minutes tightens and cramps the muscles. Duh! Im doing prolonged sitting under intense, obsessively focused mind-body conditions at the computer practically every day.

So hiking is put on hold and recuperating along with short periods of hanging out at Malaprops, a wonderful bookstore/coffeehouse in downtown Asheville, takes on greater importance. (And Malaprops seems interested in a book signing and performance art program early next year. Will keep you posted.) Now the quest for a small pillow to place between my lower back and the back of a coffeehouse or restaurant chair or a car seat. And I spy the perfect pillow one with a picture of "The Scream" by the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch. (The creators are "Two Unemployed Philosophers.") And even more wonderful, when you put pressure on this therapeutic object a plaintive, angst-ridden wail curdles around you. (Im getting some great looks in public places. Upon my return to DC, Im even using the pillow for feedback purposes with my therapy clients. When they declare something that is patently absurd or self-defeating I give a hard backward push. As a therapist, I can finally reveal my true feelings without saying a word. ;-)

And gradually, a four-day routine emerges: a) a pre-breakfast bath to loosen the back muscles; but as important, the soothingly, blank mind state induced by soaking in hot water. (Next time I bring bath oil.), b) a sinful breakfast composed of some combination of fresh orange juice, fresh fruit cup (ever have yummy, golden orange raspberries?), apple crepe-pancakes with real maple syrup, quiche-like creations, biscuits, grits, (I pass on the ham and sausage), c) a post-breakfast nap; the extra sleep seems to coax the silent fatigue carried from DC out of my system, d) reading the Wolfe biographies, as mentioned earlier, becomes a catalyst for examining some key values, priorities and goals, e) a late afternoon 15 minute car ride for" tea and" at Malaprops; some writing, then strolling aimlessly among the art and antique shops, f) dinner at the Mellow Mushroom; definitely recommend the karma pizza: toppings include spinach, sundried tomatoes, onions and feta cheese along with a thick chewy crust; (consider adding the spicy jerk chicken), g) on Saturday nights, Shindig on the Green; lying on a blanket, taking in the toe-tapping and, also, sweetly mournful Appalachian Mountain music sounds. And lets not forget the wonderful cloggers in native costumery for the men, western shirts, jeans and fast-moving/fast-talking cowboy boots whose taps make the dance floor "sing"; frilly red tops and red and white print skirts that playfully and sensually fan out as the ladies do their jigs and spins, h) back to the B&B (The Owls Nest Inn in West Asheville) by 8pm to ponder two cool evening mountain sunsets from a hilltop vantage point. The kaleidoscopic cloud show framed within the v-like vista of two side-by-side sloping mountain ridges, imperceptibly yet inevitably mixes, with a wistful sadness, peach-fuschia with darker and darker grays and finally i) a couple more hours of lying in bed and reflecting. (Okay, also a half hour answering email; so I cant totally let go.) So while somewhat disappointed at foregoing hiking in the mountains -- the exertion followed by the big picture serenity process still, Ive quietly designed an uncommon state for this basically Type A New Yorker. Under the dictates of mind-body injury, the mental maze-haze lifts replaced by a psychic window for looking into the soul of relaxation.

RelaxationAh! According to the first definition of Websters Third New International: the act or fact of relaxing or being relaxed. Now lets consider Rogets International Thesuarus for the synonyms to the word "relax" for further illumination of body/brain strain and rehabilitation and rejuvenation:

a. compose oneself - yes, I had to calm myself, make some mental adjustments and pull together a vacation recovery plan

b. relieve - Advil & Aleve were the first line of muscle relaxant and pain relief; though I knew this was not a good long-term strategy

c. release - letting go of my preconceived plans and active intentions, grieving the loss of freedom and control was critical; as was grudgingly accepting the patient role

d. be at ease - no longer having Type A (for "Adventurer") expectations, I slowly evolved into a gentler pace and rhythm; I wasnt wimping out, I was just being "laid back"

e. have pity - okay, I allowed myself some whining and groaning, but then loosened my typical achievement human doing vs. human being standards.

As I once observed: "Theres a real difference between feeling sorry for yourself and feeling your sorrow. When youre feeling sorry for yourself you are blaming others. When you are feeling your sorrow you are revealing the courage of facing your pain." And believe me, even with anti-inflammatory medication, I was one with my pain!

f. slow - no doubt about it I was reverting to a Southern pace; of course, those heavy country breakfasts definitely induced morning torpor

g. not stand on ceremony - accepting my patient image was critical; at a restaurant, requesting a pillow for my back was open acknowledgment of my current impairment and dependency needs; why deprive myself of an enjoyable dinner

h. entertain - to be open to new prospects and possibilities; also, lo and behold relaxing could be fun

i. amuse oneself - reading in bed, soaking in a bath, listening to the myriad of bird cries from the surrounding mountain forests while watching a blue heron streak across the sky were all ways of peacefully stimulating myself

j. loosen - easing expectations and standards, allowing myself to be a slacker was vital part of untightening the back muscles; (of course, a wise guy senior client of mine associated "relax" and "loosen" with "ex-lax")

k. pause - yes, stopping for self-inventory, using this time to ponder both the immediate recovery and the larger issues: 1) what factors contributed to the breakdown? and 2) and how can this mind-body strain be not just a danger but also an opportunity for modifying purposes, priorities and practices?

l. allow for - recognizing the realities of my condition while accepting new performance (actually, non-performance) standards enabled the discovery of a novel personal space-time-pace continuum

m. soften - it took awhile, but letting myself be less intense, less hard-edged, more flowing than controlling; allowing for more mental meandering without a sharp focus, engaging the world with more intuitive eyes and heart than analytic mind and reason

n. yield - one final letting go opened up new opportunities and resources. I had to change bed & breakfasts for the last two nights (no rooms at the inn). A bit perturbed, I slept on the recommendation of my hosts. The Hawk and Ivy was farther out, north of Asheville, which meant more driving to get around. This didnt sound too back friendly. Talking to the new proprietor, when my back came up, she mentioned having a great masseuse on call. Make my day! With great fortune, this B&B had once been a holistic healing center. I was ready to accept placing my rehab in anothers hands.

And if two hands are goodwhy not four. No, not a "menage a massage," but I also accepted the proprietors recommendation of a wonderful Chiropractor a half mile down the road. Dr. Frederick Kennedys calming, sound and knowledgeable approach helped me relax into two back and neck adjustments, the Rice Krispies maneuver: I was "snapped, cracked and popped!" And Ill be damned if the back didnt feel better -- freer movement and reduced pain.

He shared some stretching exercises, which I'm now doing religiously. The new concept being to feel some good pain from the stretch then relaxing and letting go, softening the stretch and your general body tension. The Chirodoc also recommended a Yoga class to better integrate mind-body consciousness.

Of course, with my vacation mindset waning, I recommended we team up to offer mind-body stress relief workshops. As noted by the Secretary of Labor, musculoskeletal problems are the biggest source of medical conditions in todays workplace. And the Stress Doc is living proof.

Fortunately, his message was followed by a blissful ninety-minute massage, though some of that "deep tissue" work "hurt good." The masseuses soft Southern drawl complemented her firm sure hands.

Final Thoughts

Our semantic framework reveals that an ability to relax fully involves adjustments in the physical, psychological, performance, social support and spiritual realms. Bringing life to the synonyms illuminates how critical relaxation is for realizing both optimal mind-body health and for preserving our sanity along with discovering some serenity.

While not out of the back woods, perhaps the uncluttered, slow and soft gazing mountain vision has helped me begin to distinguish the forest from the treesand to plant new seeds. I truly have a newfound appreciation for the simplicity and complexity of relaxation. Next time, Ill elaborate on the wonders of relaxation in, "The Top Ten Benefits of "R & R" Being Receptive and Reflective on an Incubation Vacation." And, of course, one gift of relaxation is allowing us toPractice Safe Stress!