Tis the Season to Relax Con'd
By Laura Muha

In the kitchen, silver needs to polished for a family get-to-gether three days hence. And between now and then, Taylor has a house to clean, sheets to wash, a guest room to ready for out-of-town relatives, grocery shopping to do, and two major projects to finish at work.

So why is she smiling? It might have something to do with the fact that she's a million miles away from it all, bobbing gently in the bathwater-warm Gulf of Mexico-transported there not by an airplane, but the soothing voice of Washington, D.C., social worker Mark Gorkin that she's listening to on tape.

"Look out onto the Gulf," Gorkin croons. The 41-year-old teacher closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. "See the sparkling blue and green and aquamarine? The sunlight is dancing on the water.... There's a little breeze.... The sun is warming the top of your head, penetrating right down to your brain cells.... It's smoothing out the stress lines on your forehead. Your headache is starting to go away..."

Sure enough, when Taylor opens her eyes five minutes later, she's feeling refreshed and, if not completely serene, at least ready to tackle the tasks at hand.

"It took my stress down at least five notches, from out-of-control to mostly manageable," she reports.

That comes as no surprise to 52-year-old Gorken, a.k.a. "Stress Doc," who has made a career out of helping people learn to deal with those teeth-clenching, shoulder-tensing, stomach-churnin feelings we call stress.

His message: Even during times as hectic and pressure-filled as the holiday season, we all have an oasis of calm within us. We just have to take the time to tap into it. In his 15 years in the business, Gorkin has helped hundreds of people do just that, using techniques that range from the conventional-visualization, meditation, deep breathing, vigorous exercise-to the wacky. Sometimes, in the stress-reduction seminars he conducts across the country, he'll pass out paper and magic markers and have participants draw pictures depicting the way they feel, an exercise that not only helps them to express, and thereby defuse, some of their stress, but encourages them to laugh at it - which in itself is an excellent pressure-reliever. Or he'll put on a hat and sunglasses and chant humorous rhymes about tension and anxiety.

"When we're under stress, our sense of humor is one of the first things to go," Gorkin explains. "But if you can laugh at the situation, and yourself, you'll be amazed at how much better you feel."

Obviously, that's a lesson that will serve us all well, not just during the holidays, but during the rest of the year, too since for most of us, the seasonal stress we feel between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day is nothing more than the proverbial last straw in a life already packed with too many commitments.

"What do you call it when you don't have any stress?" someone once asked Gorkin at a seminar.

"Denial," Gorkin shot back.

Indeed, studies have found that nearly 45 percent of adults are suffering from physical problems related to stress. Believed to be one of the country's top health problems, it has been linked to many causes of death-heart disease, stroke, suicide, accidents-as well as a host of chronic problems ranging from alcohol and drug abuse to obesity to stomach problems to anxiety. Studies have shown that when we're under stress, the body produces chemicals that actually suppress the function of the immune system. Is it any wonder, then, that we catch colds and flues more often at this time of year?

The good news is that by learning to relax, we can significantly reduce the toll that stress takes on our body. In one study, scientists found that relaxation training was more effective than exercise in preventing heart attacks among male cardiac patients; another found that HIV-positive men who underwent such training had a significantly higher immune response than those who did not.

And while those studies just looked at men, women should also take stress-reduction seriously, since they tend to over commit themselves more than men - particularly in December, when, chances are, they're the ones orchestrating the get-togethers, buying the gifts, making the cakes and cookies, and sending the cards.

In trying to get a grip on holiday stress, Gorkin says, one of the most important things to remember is that not all of it comes from having too much to do and not enough time to do it. It's also something we do to ourselves, because our fantasies of what the "perfect" holiday should be like are all too often on a collision course with reality.

"We imagine that somehow the holidays are going to create this magic moment that will erase all the pain of the past-and the media feeds into it with all these pictures of idyllic homes and happy families," Gorkin says. Or, as he likes to quip: "Holiday blues are the feelings of loss or sadness you get when you can't be with those people who are most significant to you; holiday stress is when you have to be with those people."

The solution? "Do know your limits, and don't limit your no's, says Gorkin. "You don't have to go to every holiday party. You don't have to stay till the end. Sometimes, the best strategy for the holidays, if you know it's going to be too much, is just leaving town."

As Gorkin speaks, he's sitting in a teahouse near his Washington, D.C., home, demonstrating one of the elements in his personal relaxation plan: getting away from it all - or, as he likes to put it, "creating vacation time to really listen to my inner self."

That's something we all need to do on a daily basis, he says-but most of us don't bother, caught up as we are in the hubbub of ringing phones and voice mail and e-mail that makes up modern life.

"The trouble with technology is that it makes it hard to get away," explains Gorkin. "We all need quiet time to be alone, to recharge our batteries. But with technology, we're always plugged in and available-and that's stressful, even though a lot of people don't realize it."

To counteract that, Gorkin recommends setting aside at least an hour for yourself every day-either uninterrupted, or in 15minute to half-hour segments.

Take the phone off the hook, tell the kids not to bother you. Then do whatever it is that you find most relaxing: soak in a bubble bath, read a book, listen to music, take a nap-and don't feel guilty about it. "You owe it to yourself to take care of yourself," Gorkin says.

Although meditation is also an often-recommended way of relaxing, Gorkin says he knows that's difficult for many people, whose minds race from one thing to the next. The alternative? Get a tape - there are plenty of them out there that uses guided imagery to help you relax. Or think of a favorite place - one where you feel relaxed and safe, and take yourself there in your mind. The more details you can include, the better. If, for instance, it's a favorite beach, imagine the heat of the sand on the soles of your bare feet, the salty smell in the air, and the sound of the waves crashing against the shore. Then, when you're feeling stressed, close your eyes and spend a few minutes there-in your mind. Chances are when you open your eyes again, you'll feel refreshed, says Gorkin.

Gorkin, who grew up in New York City and holds a master's degree in social work from Adelphi University, became interested in relaxation techniques in the early 1980s. At the time, he was studying for his doctoral degree in social work at Tulane University in New Orleans, and feeling so stressed out by the constant pressure that he actually became nauseated and dizzy. Eventually, he dropped out of the doctoral program, and spent the next several months putting himself back together again using techniques ranging from exercise to meditation.

Thinking his experiences might help other people, he began conducting seminars which he continues today-about ways to deal with tension. In addition, he also has a thriving psychotherapy practice, runs weekly chats on stress management on America Online, and is writing a book on the subject.

In fact, there's a cathartic effect that comes from writing things down, and Gorkin suggests automatic writing - that is sitting down and just pouring onto paper whatever comes to mind for 10 or 15 minutes, not trying to edit it or organize it at all. Or get a sketch pad and try to draw how you're feeling - an exercise you can do alone or as a family. (In recent stress- management seminars, participants have sketched sinking ships, people with their heads in guillotines and lambs being led to slaughter.) You can only muster up stick figures? That's okay, says Gorkin.

And of course, there's that other tension relieving standby: exercise. Not only does working out the tension in your muscles help work out some of the tension in your mind, but it also improves the quality of your sleep-which in turn allows you to better cope with stress.

Gorkin also suggests teaming up with a "stress buddy" - someone you can touch base with every couple of days for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, just to vent. (Of course, you have to be willing to do the same for them.) Such a pairing serves two purposes: First, it gives you an outside observer who can help you regain the perspective that stress tends to skew - pointing out, say, that your party won't be ruined if you don't have time to carve the radishes into florets for the buffet and that you can buy a pre-cooked roast beef instead of preparing one from scratch.

Second, having someone to talk to provides you with an outlet for negative feelings that would otherwise continue to build. 'You'd be surprised at how much just talking about things helps people to relax and feel better," Gorkin says.

It's even better if, while you're venting, you can find a way to make it funny, he adds. Deliberately embellish your stories; exaggerate them; poke fun at yourself. The more you can do that, the less threatening things start to seem-and the more your sense of humor will kick in as other difficult situations arise. And that will help not only mentally, but also physically. Studies have shown that when we laugh, our bodies produce chemicals that help to counteract some of the harmful physical effects of stress.

As comedian George Burns once said, "If we take a lick of humor, we can prevent hardening of the attitudes. If we savor humor, humor can be a lifesaver."

As Gorkin puts it: "Humor yourself."

Laura Muha is the contributing health editor of Biography Magazine.