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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist (tm)

NOV 2001, No. 1

Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust

Table of Contents

Heads Up: Bankrate.com; AOL/Digital City Chat
Shrink Rap: The Four 'F's of Holiday Friction
Main Essay: Stress Doc's Top Twelve Smoke Signals
Guest Submission: Twisted History Lesson

Heads Up:

1. Media Exposure:

a) Practice Safe Stress for the Holidays will appear on www.bankrate.com on or just after Thanksgiving.

b) My mother informed me that I was quoted again in The Palm Beach Post. This time re: Anthrax, anxiety and humor. (The prior time, about one year ago, involved stress tips for Bush and Gore. ;-)

(Email stressdoc@aol.com if you'd like to publish any essays, past or present, in your online or offline publication.)

2. Chat Group and Live Workshops

a) Stop by my AOL/Digital City Shrink Rap (TM) and Group Chat DC Support Chat, Tuesdays, 9:30-11pm EST DC Support Chat. It's a dynamic, lively, at times witty and always warm, thoughtful and supportive problem-solving group. We raise questions and share our ideas, hopes and experiences with each other.

Shrink Rap:

Well, the holiday season must be approaching. I'm starting to get requests for my holiday classic -- "The Four 'F's of Holiday Friction: Practicing Safe Stress for the Holidays." (In fact, the article recently appeared in the DEC 2001 issue of Opportunity World. Don't miss the quip on the difference between "Holiday Blues and Holiday Stress.")

And a year old holiday stress spread in last December's Biography conjured a surprise last week. A producer for the Iyanla Vanzant show called after reading the Bio piece. They were interested in having me on. Alas, at the eleventh hour, they went in a different direction topicwise. It's why I say, when it comes to the media, "I no longer count on nor discount any possibility!" I'm in their "will call" file. Will keep you posted.

And finally, a law firm asked me to do a holiday program for bankers, real estate principals and lawyers. (Maybe I'll slip in some tips on how to avoid the Scrooge syndrome.) I definitely needed the work; between the economic downturn and the war against terrorism it's been a slow season. Still, living in DC, one must be thankful for having escaped terrorist hijackings, airplane missiles and flying Anthrax.

Holiday Stress: Fact or Friction?

While many associate the holidays with Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and its theme of gaining and sharing the holiday spirit, the opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities may have even more relevance:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of time
It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness...
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Like Dickens, I too have tried to capture the complexity of the holidays; if not through a great novel, then with my one classic holiday joke. I realized with all this talk of pressure during the holidays, I needed to distinguish between "Holiday Blues" and "Holiday Stress." Now holiday blues is the feeling of loss or sadness that you have over the holidays when, for whatever reason, you can't be with those people who have been or are special and significant. And holiday stress...is when you have to be with some of those people!

Now here's some lighthearted, seasonal verse I wrote years ago for my radio feature, "Stress Brake." It's called "Cruisin for a Bluesin":

The holidays may bring you down
And you just sing the blues.
To turn those soured tones around
Just play these "don'ts" and "dos."

When you're cruisin on the town
Don't charge away the blues.
If you card the credit crown
Your spouse may blow a fuse.

For fussy dad the streets you'll pound
To find the perfect muse.
He might as well be tied...and bound
He'll never change his views.

If you're alone, don't be house bound
Or cuddle up to booze.
Go ahead. Drown a frown with tears
And folks who can amuse.

Why not try that choral sound
Spread some joyous news.
For when the voices do resound
Then notes you can abuse.

This year don't play the tragic clown
Be bold in how you choose.
You too can prance above the ground
Put on those dancing shoes.

So now we've come full circle round
More lines I must refuse.
Just know when love and friends abound
The blues have many hues.

(c) Shrink Rap Productions 1997

Despite this good advice, we know that when you are with some of those people (or if they are just in your head), real sparks can fly. Here are "The Four 'F's of Holiday Friction: Fantasies, Family, Food and Finances."

1. Fantasies. First, the idyllic image of the holidays portrayed by the media seems so out of touch with reality, it's enough to make you overload on eggnog (with or without the alcohol).

Another pressure is the internalized memories we carry around. I recall my friend Linda, a single parent at the time, berating herself because she couldn't keep up with the holidays -- the cooking, the shopping, the house decorations, etc. -- the way her mother had. Of course, Linda's mom did not work outside the home. I also recall Linda observing that, as a successful professional, she now has the money but lacks the time for the season. Previously, when she wasn't working, she had plenty of time and no money: The "Holiday Catch-22."

And, finally, this season turns most of us into sentimental jelly fish, just waiting to get entangled in the arms of that "true love." Hey, I'm not saying that Mr. or Ms. Holiday Hopeful is as possible or as real as Santa Claus. (My motto: "I no longer count on nor discount any possibility.") Just don't let childhood longings and memories and voices transform you into a frantic, salivating, love-crazed inner child.

The key to managing this friction: gently embrace, don't cling, to magical memories. Discover a blend of magical realism that helps you balance love, work and play in the present.

2. Family. There are so many permutations in families these days, it's got to get a bit confusing. For separated families, a poignant question: which parent (or grandparents) will we be with for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, for New Years? I vividly remember an eight year old's lament: "Why can't we just be one family again?"

Another common family issue is when a holiday gathering turns into a competitive arena for sibling rivalry, along with a desire for long-standing recognition and approval. And if you find in these family therapy sessions, I mean holiday reunions, that you can't resist trying to change the attitude and behavior of the parent (sibling or child) that "makes you crazy," patterns which have resisted influence attempts for decades...maybe there's only one solution. Have you thought about getting far out of town for the holidays?

3. Food. The holidays turn most of us into bingeaholics. Running helter skelter, not stopping for lunch, overdosing on the cookies and chocolate that a colleague has brought to work. And discipline at a party is a contradiction in terms. This caloric chaos is not surprising considering the biggest role model of the holidays looks like he hasn't met a single gram of fat in two hundred years that he doesn't love. Hey, Santa Claus hasn't been doing his aerobic workouts either. But wait...Appoint a designated nagger, who will gently remind you when you are overdoing it. Don't chat hovering around the buffet table. Take reasonable portions and move away. Now replace food with some food for thought.

And face it, no matter what you do, or don't do, you are likely to add some pounds on the holidays. So go to the malls and walk briskly for thirty minutes before you start the shopping splurge. You'll spend less and, probably, will eat less as well.

4. Finances. The holidays heighten our monetary consciousness -- from the end of the year financial and psychological accounting (did we meet our financial/family security and career goals?) to the never-ending list of holiday gifts. And as the great Russian novelist, Doestoyevsky, noted: "Consciousness is depression!"

For the first issue, seek a budget counselor, a CPA, a career counselor or even a mental health specialist. For the last, "just say no" to your child's "toy lust." Give your child choices; explain why there are limits. Try this holiday mantra: "Presence not just presents." This season, invest time, not just money.

For big families, be creative. Divide up the gift list with other relatives. You shouldn't have to buy something for everyone. Making a gift definitely adds a personal touch. And, finally, don't overlook a very important person. Get a special gift for yourself.

So the holidays may be a stressful time; a time of feelings of loss and sadness. But with a little higher power humor it also, can be a source of creative expression and sharing. Here's my gift to you:

Double-Edged Depression

Waves of sadness
Raging river of fear
Whirlpooling madness
Till I disappear
Into the depths of primal pain
Then again...no pain, no gain.

Depression, depression
Is it chemistry or confession?
Depression, depression
Dark side of perfection!

Climbing icy spires
Dancing at the ledge
The phoenix only rises
On the jagged edge

In a world of highs and lows
Hey, the cosmos ebbs and flows.
Depression, depression
It's electrifried obsession

High flying depression
Exalted regression?
So I'm pumping iron
And Prozac, too

What else can
A real man do
In a life of muted dreams
How about a primal SCREAM?

Depression, depression
Even inner child rejection
Depression, depression
Hallelujah for creative expression!

(c) Mark Gorkin 1994

Shrink Rap Productions

Just remember, for the holidays and beyond...Practice Safe Stress!

Main Essay:

Call me hardheaded or call me determined, but I'm reworking my manuscript once again. And here is some of the fruit of my labor -- a dozen serious and humorous signs of stress. Enjoy!

The Stress Doc's Smoky Dozen

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' 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 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" 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 you…Practice Safe Stress!

Guest Submission:

Student Book Offers Twisted History Lesson

By Sarah Tippit


LOS ANGELES (Nov. 14) - Experience history from the Stoned Age to the Blintz Krieg! From Middle Evil Times to the Age of Now, from the Land of Milk and Chocolate to the Iran Hostess Crisis and the fall of the Berlin Mall!

Welcome to the wonderful world of "Non Campus Mentis," (Workman) a book of mangled moments of Western Civilization culled from actual term papers and exams of today's "brightest" students by incredulous college professor Anders Henriksson who, while grading exams, chose to laugh, rather than cry, at his students' most egregious mistakes.

History, after all, is nothing more than "the behind of the present," according to one student, who aptly added: "This gives incites from the anals of the past."

The once-mighty British Empire is in a "state of recline. Its colonies have slowly dribbled away leaving only the odd speck on the map." Chairman "Moo" has passed away, as has former President "Franklin Eleanor Roosavelt," and civil rights leader "Martin Luther Junior" was slain in the 1960s, shortly after making his famous "If I Had A Hammer" speech.

Hitler, a depressed "Nazi leader of a Communist Germany" who spurred a huge "anti-semantic" movement through a terrifying "Gespacho," launched "Operation Barbarella" while the English "vanely hoped for peas." The war began turning around, though, when the "Allies landed near Italy's toe and gradually advanced up her leg.

Hitler ultimately "shot himself in the bonker."


At its best, the 150-page book "illustrates the ingenious and often comic ways we all attempt to make sense of information we can't understand because we have no context or frame of reference for it," according to Henriksson, chairman of the history department at Shepherd College in West Virginia. He began compiling samples 20 years ago at the University of Toronto where he also taught.

Shortly after he began his collection, he published an article in the "Wilson Quarterly" titled "College Kids Say the Darndest Things," which prompted amused colleagues at more than two dozen universities in the United States and Canada including West Point, University of Alberta and McMaster, to regularly send him their own inane prose collections. Last year, when he realized his office overflowed with funny samples of "cretinalia historica" the idea for a book was born.

While Henriksson declined to identify all the schools involved he said they ranged from moderately to highly competitive, about half were in Canada, no Ivy League schools were represented, and that one of the entries came from Oxford in England.

At its worst, the book may reflect a generation raised in ignorance by bad schools and disengaged parents.

"This is not the norm," Henriksson told Reuters in an interview. What you have here is almost 30 years of my collecting from students' (works) at various institutions. This really represents sort of the creme de la creme of the creatively inane."

Did he make it up?

"No!" he said. "Who could make this stuff up except Mel Brooks. I'm not Mel Brooks." Which prompts the question: Should people sound the alarms and search for an "escape goat?"

Maybe. Hundreds of student contributors received passing grades with such statements as: "When the Davy Jones Index crashed in 1929 many people were left to political incineration. Some, like John Paul Sart, retreated into extraterrestrialism. The New Deal was an idea inspired by Franklin Eleanor Roosavelt."

(The Boston Tea Party, by the way, was held at Pearl Harbor.)

Gravity of the misstatements aside, the bloopers make a great reference whether one seeks information on the Canadian Missile Crisis, clashes between Israelis and Parisians, or the Gulf War in which, according to one scholar: "Satan Husane invaided Kiwi and Sandy Arabia."

(No doubt an act of "premedication.")


Henriksson said the errors fall into three major categories. Some are simply caused by bad spelling or a lack of proofreading, and come out funny. Some were prompted by a "profound lack of preparation, while others, just seem to be "really out at sea," he said.

"You get the ones who don't really even seem to understand there's a line between past and present and they tell you that the first airplane was flown by the Marx Brothers. I had this one kid who wrote that Spartacus led a slave rebellion in ancient Rome and then appered in a movie about it later."

The book offers fresh new "incites" on history from "prehistoricle" times through "King Toot" and the birth of "monolithic" religion.("Judyism had one big God named Yahoo").

The book goes on to "chronicle" the birth of Christianity ("Just another mystery cult until Jesus was born") and, his pronouncement, later, that "The mice shall inherit the earth."

The book sheds new light on the lives of Martin Luther (he nailed 95 theocrats to a church door), "Florence of Arabia," and General George "Custard" who managed to stand up anyway.

("Martian Luther King's" four steps to direct action, by the way, included "self purification," when you "allow yourself to be eaten to a pulp.")

In its final pages, the book includes students' geographical misconceptions as represented on several world maps bearing such labels as "The Land of Milk and Chocolate" and "Home of Golden Fleas" (in the Ancient World) to "Bulemia," "Whales," "Roam," the "Eel of France," and the "Automaton Empire" (as they were known in the "Middle Evil" Times).

And it notes that, yes, there has indeed been a change in America's "social seen," over the centuries. The last stage, according to the book, is "The Age of Now. This concept grinds our critical, seething minds to a halt."

Until then, however, we Americans, "in all humidity" are nothing less than "the people of currant times."

REUTERS Rtr 09:51 11-14-01

Copyright 2001 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content, including by framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters shall not be liable for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon. All active hyperlinks have been inserted by AOL.

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, is an internationally recognized speaker and syndicated writer on stress, anger management, reorganizational change, team building and HUMOR! The Doc was recently featured on CBS TV's Newspath segment -- Workplace Violence -- and in Biography Magazine. He is America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ leading a chat group for AOL/Digital City --http://www.digitalcity.com/washington/stressdr . Check out his USA Today Online HotSite - www.stressdoc.com. For more info, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.


(c) Mark Gorkin 2001

Shrink Rap ™ Productions