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
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 email@example.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.
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
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
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:
Waves of sadness
Raging river of fear
Till I disappear
Into the depths of primal pain
Then again...no pain, no gain.
Is it chemistry or confession?
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.
It's electrifried obsession
High flying depression
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?
Even inner child rejection
Hallelujah for creative expression!
(c) Mark Gorkin 1994
Shrink Rap Productions
Just remember, for the holidays and beyond...Practice Safe Stress!
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
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
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
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!
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
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
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
(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
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
firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-232-8662.
(c) Mark Gorkin 2001
Shrink Rap Productions