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Designing a Receptive and Reflective Incubation Vacation: The Stress Doc's Prescriptive Interventions for Uncommon R & R

Mark Gorkin, LICSW

When heading for an east of the Mississippi River mountain vacation, hiking in lushly forested, streamlined trails are a high priority. Such a setting always provides a mental massage for my periodic case of the "brain strain." However, on a recent escapade, the early on eruption of fairly serious lower back strain compelled a rethinking of vacation strategy and itinerary. For the record, the body was an accident waiting to happen. So hiking on a rocky trail was simply the proverbial straw for the Stress Doc's back. With hindsight, clearly I've been both ergonomically and kinesthetically incorrect - working too many intense and uninterrupted hours with the computer, insufficient lower back support when sitting, too few breaks and not doing regular preventive stretching and muscle building exercises.

But in life's paradoxical way, the vacation glass wasn't truly broken or, even, just half empty. Being physically restricted along with having to let go of original plans opened up unforeseen vistas and pathways. To quote French philosopher and Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Albert Camus: "Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one (or, in this instance, the vacation ideal, the perceived healthy body) obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain."

And just what was this dark cloud clearing epiphany? Simply this: that "R & R" can go beyond "Rest and Recreation." When open to a slower, gentler and quieter pace, whether chosen or mandated, time off and away can evolve into an "incubation vacation." R & R goes beyond diversion and begins to morph into a process for contemplation. Think of it as transitional space for discovering a magic lantern which when rubbed unconsciously and tenderly, passionately and purposefully releases your meditative muse. Now R & R - a "Receptive" and "Reflective" mode - combining relaxation and psychological incubation yields the potential for sowing and cultivating unexpected mind-body insights capable of becoming problem-solving bridges for new self-environmental perspectives. (For those affiliated with East and West Coast holistic institutes or Washington, DC "think tanks," novel paradigmatic possibilities abound.)

So turn on your meditative mode and muse. Here are "The Stress Doc's Five Commandments for a Receptive and Reflective Incubation Vacation for Healing and Rejuvenating Body and Brain Strain":

1. Listen to Your Body. Why is it so difficult for so many of us to connect with our bodies in a knowing and healthy way? For many men there's a tendency to deny or tune out physical conditions and conditioning. For women there's the inverse problem. Pushed by the media and other sociocultural forces the female mind-body is often pressured to inhibit or mask the aging process. The woman's body becomes the symbol, perhaps the worshipped idol, of youth and of sensuous, if not carnal, desire. Let's call this self-societal dramatic fantasy the obsessive pursuit of "The Fountain of Sex."

Let me return to the gender with which I am more knowledgeable, that is, the male tendency to ignore signs of medical complication or physical stress. Some contributing factors:

a) Real Men Slogans. A favorite brainwashing one-liner from mom was, "God helps those who help themselves" (with it's subtle injunction to suffer in silence or to ask for celestial help rather than familial.) This aphorism was only topped by slogans modeled, if not verbalized, by my idealized athletic uncle: "Play through the pain" or "No pain, no gain." Black and blue marks from crashing on asphalt playing football or basketball were proudly worn as urban purple hearts, further encouragement to "suck it up' and quietly bear your burden. Today, of course, as a back-strained baby boomer I'm ready to edit "No pain, no gain" to "No brain, no gain."

b) Beware Tuning Out Pain. For the pain-gain connection, for optimal functioning of a mind-body system pain must be seen as both a signal from the brain and a signal to the brain. In hindsight, I've been blocking out strained and tightened back muscle feedback for months, more likely years. Periodically, muscle strain would flare on a tennis court and the rationalization was, "I just overdid it." This seemed plausible not playing tennis on a regular basis.

One belatedly grasps that aging means eventually having to be "sorry" while elastic youth scoffs at the word. Yet, the acknowledgment of physiological downgrading becomes a catalyst for mind-body upgrading.

c) Nurturing Reality. A slowed down vacation, taxing neither psyche or corpus (other than adopting to a non-Type A, absence of adrenaline rush pace) allows for reconnecting to the needs of the body. A consult with a chiropractor yielded both helpful back and neck adjustments and, more important, a series of exercises for strengthening lower back muscles and flexibility. Placing a rolled towel between my lower back and the back of an already ergonomically primed computer chair (a client calls it my "Star Trek" chair) is, surprisingly, providing added support. Long live the pain-brain-gain connection!

2. Quiet the Mind. If your brain could be hooked up to a psychic radar screen, conscious and unconscious data patterns would likely be whizzing helter-skelter across the monitor, whether awake or in a REM/dream state. Sitting or lying quietly, practicing being a silent observer, allows us to tune in to these overt and covert mental meandering and memory minefields. There are past emotional depth charges - joyful and painful - attached to these cognitions. Especially regarding past trauma, we often keep busy, distracted or addicted as a way of numbing or sealing off this emotional pain.)

Not allowing these cognitive-affective percepts to see the light of day or have a voice keeps them in a feverish state. Sometimes they briefly escape into awareness through nightmares or dreams. During waking hours much energy is often expended restricting mental and behavioral exploration and decision-making for fear of being overwhelmed or consumed by this psychological angst.

Of course, someone struggling with unresolved trauma - abuse or abandonment pain, with associated rage, panic and/or shame states, underlying clinical depression or morbid, "black hole" grief - may find the quiet opening of the psychic Pandora's Box particularly frightening or disorienting. Still, for many, existential angst is not uncommon, if not quite "normal," when in a truly self-reflective and receptive state: a sense of loneliness or emptiness, lost dreams, a disparity between an ideal and real self, the balance in your life between security and vitality, passivity and passion, etc.

So attempting to calm the mind by observing and gently uncovering it's overt and covert manifestations with relaxed attention isn't just an awkward meditation learning curve. This process for many individuals is an act of courage.

3. Be with Nature. Getting out of the city scene and into natural surroundings - especially the height, breadth, expanse and contrasting perspectives found among mountain peaks, ridges and valleys - for me evokes a sense of the spiritual and a sense of cosmic consciousness. One fleetingly grasps "the big picture"the mother (nature) of all creations. Finally, there's something more compelling than whatever trials and triumphs (real or imagined) are swirling about me. A holistic, intuitive floodlight perspective is reflexively triggered by this majestic panorama that inundates my categorizing, analytical, logical left hemisphere.

Simultaneously, my senses are attuned and transfixed in a way not possible in my obsessive workaday or static generating urban mindscape and landscape. I revel in the nuance of the various birdcalls, the healing sounds of a gurgling stream. This forest symphony has its woodwind section as the air whips through a lush pine tree canopy accompanied by a percussion-like crunch of pine needles under foot. One can experience the primal protection of a lullaby as well as a mysterious, ever lurking ebb and flow of stillness and sound. And when the holistic, soft perspective mixes and marinates with an acute focus a synergistic, poetic mind-landscape is born. Consider these lines from "Mountain Vision."

Close your eyes for a journey, a deep breath to unwind
Now contemplate a mountain, the mountain of your mind.
Sculpted peaks, green valleys, the rush of ice blue streams
Sway to the cosmic ebb and flow, the rhythm of your dreams
We begin in the forest enchanted beyond time
It's dance of light and shadow primeval and sublime..
The forest as the artist, trees willowy and bold
The brushstrokes of the branches, leaves afire red and gold.
And then God-like fingers stream down from above
Solar rays caress you both a touch of nature's love.
Have you found your Eden or have you lost your will?
To build a loving lasting bond you must go higher still.
So head upstream, the gentle stream, the babbling soothes your brain
A crystal clear reflection to find yourself again.

(Email stressdoc@aol.com for the complete lyric.)

Engaging quietly with nature fosters the temporary suspension of my Type A - ambition and achievement - orientation. Human doing goes into hibernation; my receptive and reflective human being nature comes to the fore. In the survival of the fittest, Richard Hatch to the contrary, perhaps there is room for the person capable of being quietly humbled. If not likely to win a million dollars, this individual may inherit some priceless earthly and cosmic wisdom.

4. Seek Solitude in a Wired World. Today's passwords and mantras are "24/7," "do more with less," "anytime, anywhere." Email, FAX, laptops and palmtops continue to blur, if not obliterate, the division between work life and home life. Everyone seemingly has access to everyone else. And I'm getting tired of being trapped in other's wired nets. Cell phones now routinely invade Teaism, my artistic hangout and safe haven. Self-absorbed individuals throwing privacy and protected space to the ether, covering their rudeness or justifying their loudness with cell phone "urgent" (or, more likely, self-important) speech. Or maybe these folks are simply oblivious. How about this Practice Safe Stress slogan for reinforcing civility and social boundaries: "Idiocy or Cell-ibacyIt's Your Call!" (I like the policy in one playhouse. If an audience member needs to be available for an urgent call, the theater manager will baby-sit the individual's cell phone and, when necessary, retrieve the patron. Laptops, cell phones and the like have become such everyday mind-body extensions that when we are disconnected for even a relatively limited period separation anxiety increasingly erupts.

With data, if not meaningful information, continuously flooding our conscious and unconscious, with constant demand for our attention, time and space for percolating and playing with subterranean ideas and salient information is becoming is becoming endangered. In a waking state, one hardly ever has to be truly alone with oneself. The evolution of dysfunctional techno-dependency along with an undeveloped capacity for self-awareness and psychological integrity seem inevitable.

So in my proposed "R & R" schema, a key component of taking an incubation vacation involves unplugging electronically and tuning in organically to the ultimate hi-tech and hi-touch computer - your own mind-body system.

5. Practice "The Four 'R's for Rehabilitation and Rejuvenation." The challenge of removing yourself from chronic environmental stress ambiance is not simply one of escaping to a slower pace. When you finally give in to the mind-body exhaustion you don't have much choice. Initially, though, the challenge is withdrawing from the "always on" state of adrenaline habituation. You crave excitement and action. For many stress junkies, being quiet feels like screaming emptiness, stultifying boredom or morbid melancholy. Moderate physical conditioning can help in recovery, though compulsive exercise may simply be replacing one Type A biochemical addictive rush for self-medication and consciousness numbing. The tip off: when you are forever driven by faster and faster times and longer and longer distances.

Discovering peace and fulfillment through a quietly observant mode of "being" not just active "doing" is often the key to a "Receptive and Reflective Incubation Vacation." Here are "Four 'R"s for Rehabilitation and Recovery":

a. Reading. A wonderful conduit for the transition between doing and being is reading. Whether it's a book that helps you understand your "brain strain" or one that helps you laugh at frustrations, flaws and foibles (and Practice Safe Stress with the Stress Doc: The Art of Managing Stress, Burnout and Depression by AdviceZone.com, Fall 2000, will help you do both) reading provides nurturance and stimulation.

Remember, so often exhaustion is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away. Reading enables you to give to yourself while keeping your mind engaged (unlike so much of mind numbing television). And with reading it's easy to pause and reflectwhich leads to the second "R & R" step.

b. Ruminating. Thinking deeply and intently, being "Reflective," is obviously a mind function. However, the "Receptive" part of our "R & R" process, the way of "being open" and "taking in" (think of most of the senses) has both abstract and concrete, mind-body potential. For example, according to Roget's Third International Thesaurus, "ruminate" nicely captures the complementarity between mind and body with it's two categorizing words: "consider" and "chew." Synonyms for consider: contemplate, speculate, reflect, ponder, weigh (a mind-body connector, perhaps) meditate, muse and brood. Selections for chew are fewer but more onomatopoetic: masticate, bite, munch and gnaw.

There is holistic wisdom to be gained from ruminating upon, from tuning in to your mind and body. Perhaps this is why we often have insights in the shower (in addition to having slept on the problem). Nothing quite like a fresh perspective. Actually, for me one of the incubation vacation mode luxuries is taking a hot bath. Several dualities are encountered and transcended in this transitional space, one that may well hearken back to infancy and childhood: sensate awareness-hypnotic-like reverie, pain-pleasure - both the temperature of the water and heightened sensitivity to tensions in the body - all within a primal, seemingly timeless womb-like gestalt that momentarily transmutes my type A state into a soothing and quiescently brooding background trait.

So "R & B" - Ruminating and Bathing - can help you discover your genuine relaxation/tension baseline levels. Hydrotherapy, if you will, provides nurturance and stimulation and, as with reading, creates a space for further physical and psychic self-exploration. And once rejuvenation is underway, another sensory medium for rehabilitation and recovery awaits.

C. Writing. Personally, the genesis of soulful, creative writing invariable begins with exhaustion and then allowing my psyche to lie fallow while seeding some perplexing data and brooding upon the heart-and-mind field. This underground and emotionally charged seed is gnawed and plowed, gardened and pondered. Memories are awakened. Recovered or recreated memories are a wellspring for helping ideational seeds percolate upward. These historical psychic constructions potentially provide sustenance for concepts and imaginings trying to survive rational or analytic scrutiny. As has been frequently noted, art is often a fiction that allows us to better grasp essential truth. An immediate example, while playing in my writer's sketchbook, recalling the stages of the creative process studied years ago as a doctoral student. This recollection then catalyzed the parallels between the aforementioned stages and planting and germinating an amorphous, tender conceptual seed into a creative seedling.

With fits and starts, ebbs and flows, excitements and frustrations, overt tentative ideas and subterranean psychic stirrings incubate and, with persistence, patience and luck, finally break the percolated planes of unconsciousness, fleeting imagery and intangible abstraction. Memory, dream content and newly discovered conceptual connections fructify the inner and outer mindscape. Now the focused and free associative writing path further prunes and sculpts and diversifies our creative offshoots. And, the generative process despite its turbulence is eventually healing for the mindscape.

A heart and mind that can brave and withstand the exhaustive-creative storm, eventually returning with new connections and perspective not only exercises and integrates the logical and the analogical, the left and right brains. Grappling with chaos, then infusing vague and vulnerable ideas with poetic sounds, rhythms and images transforms helplessness, withdrawal and retreat into an "R & R" haven for cultivating "bi-hemispheric peace of mind." Perhaps most vital, the writer has evolved a parallel process for recovering vital energy and rejuvenating a depleted mind-body system.

D. Reframing. Quiet detachment and meditation alone, though especially conjunction with the ebb and flow of free associative and focused, emotional and analytical journaling and soulful writing, fosters reexamination of one's brain strain and existential conundrum -- past, present and future. This exhaustion to rejuvenation dynamic may be likened to a grief process that opens new corners of the possible. For example, my back injury, which unexpectedly surfaced early during a recent vacation, was productively reevaluated or reframed as, "an opportunity for discovering the soul of relaxation." (See my essay, "Back to Reality and Relaxation: 'R & R' for Healing Body and Brain Strain": email if you missed it.)

"Rationalization," you say. Perhaps, but it allows for a fresh and fruitful conception of a set of person-situation events and behavioral possibilities. In fact, research affirms that the ability to grieve and conceive conflict and trauma as requisite growing pain experience is a powerful adaptation skill for both individuals and organizations. And when one can reframe poignantly or playfully effects may range, as these two quotes reveal, from the sublime to a sanity-preserving equanimity: Who better than the humanitarian, writer and perceptual pioneer, Helen Keller, to extol the importance of transforming darkness or heaviness into lightness and enlightenment: "The world is so full of care and sorrow that it is a gracious debt we owe to one another to discover the bright crystals of delight hidden in somber circumstances and irksome tasks."

Or French poet and author, Anatole France's lighthearted self-effacing observation that sheds light on how we are more receptive to a serious message when it's gift-wrapped with humor or absurdity. Pondering his reflection on his 75th birthday, France declared: "Mirrors just aren't what they used to be."

Closing Summary

Five strategic interventions have been proposed for "Designing a Receptive and Reflective Incubation Vacation": 1) Listen to Your Body, 2) Quiet the Mind, 3) Be with Nature, 4) Seek Solitude in a Wired Web-World and 5) Practice "The Four 'R's for Rehabilitation and Rejuvenation - Reading, Ruminating, Writing and Reframing. Actually, whatever the means for quietly recovering energy, reviving optimism and revitalizing curiosity and spirit, your incubation vacation encourages tackling old demons and self-defeating habits. You now can rejoin the fray, serener and wiser. You are ready to surmount external barriers and self-imposed blocks to forging uncertain yet potentially fertile pathways and visions. Allow a parting quote from my article, "Creative Risk-Taking: The Art of Designing Disorder":

Errors of judgment or design rarely confine one to incompetence. These more likely signify inexperience or exhaustion; perhaps even boldness. Our so-called failures may become guiding streams (sometimes raging rivers) of experience and opportunity that ultimately channel (widen and deepen) the risk-taking path. If we can just immerse ourselves in these unpredictable yet rejuvenating waters.

Words surely to help you reach new heights and depths with "R & R" and to allow you toPractice Safe Stress!