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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

FEB 2002, 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:    Alexander Hamilton Institute; Dartnell Publications, AOL Chat
Shrink Rap:  Anticipatory Grieving:  Lingering Loss and Legacy
Main Essay:  Purposeful and Playful Workshop Exercises and Strategies
Reader Submission:  Air Agent Award, Enron Economics and Israeli Personals

Heads Up:

1. Media Exposure:

a) Alexander Hamilton Institute (legal publication) interviewed me for an upcoming article on desk rage
b) Dartnell Publications (business periodicals) interviewed me for and article on helping managers deal with the effects of reorganizational change
c) Florida Beaches reported interviewed me on the therapeutic potential of chat groups

(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:

Anticipatory Grieving:  Lingering Loss and Legacy

As we baby boomers are inexorably discovering, and with increasing frequency, "Death happens!"  Sometimes the grief process is ignited by an unexpected tragedy, for example, a favorite uncle in his early 60s having cardiac arrest on a racquetball court.  Working through the shock and overwhelming loss are the immediate tasks.  Other times, though, grieving for a loved one begins considerably before the end of a life.

Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

My 78-year-old father had another mini stroke the other day.  Apparently, a K-Mart employee illegally charged several hundred dollars of merchandise using dad's credit card number.  Another K-Mart employee called saying he would take care of the problem.  Alas, nothing was done.  (Hello, K-Mart…might this quality customer service be a contributing factor to the bankruptcy morass, duh?)  Some time later, again over the phone, a K-Mart supervisor aggressively questions why my father had not called the police about the matter.  My father's assumption that the matter was being handled internally did not initially satisfy this skeptical authority.  Dad's inability to grasp quickly all that was going on pushed his level of frustration and tension to the implosion point.

At one time, dad, an aggressive New York salesman, would have had this supervisor for lunch.  Now, this confrontation was enough to set off a stress attack, a rise in blood pressure, loss of memory and general disorientation along with the familiar cycle of, "Will dad have another serious setback?"  In the past two and a half years he's had five mild to significant strokes.  Plus a bout of Bell's Palsy which really was the precursor to all these brain attacks.  (And while we're at it, let's throw in his bout with Prostate Cancer, which was diagnosed six months before the Palsy.)  Yet amazingly, with a determined will, careful eating and moderate exercise, he seems to crawl back to some vital semblance, not just a shadow, of his essential self.

Still, each attack ignites a double-edged emotional process:  a feeling of anxiety, sadness and fragile vulnerability at the impending loss of a man, who, before these last three years, since giving up smoking and playing tennis thirty years ago, has always been a physical rock.  (Emotionally, however, perhaps less a rock than a maddeningly neurotic, yet loveable, wreck.)

At the same time, each stroke upheaval evokes a sense of, "Here we go again."  One more nail in the anticipatory coffin.  Perhaps a slightly calloused edge is inevitable after recurring bouts of "been there, done that."  Maybe the edge is for grabbing onto and crawling out of the vulnerable depths.

The Baptism and the Legacy

Despite the "just handle it" demeanor, the memory of his first stroke is very tender.  Shortly after the "trying hard not to panic" call from my mother…"Dad's in the hospital," "Don't come down (to Florida) right now," I crumbled into that seemingly empty black hole.  Then, soon after, collapsed on the bed, curled in the proverbial fetal position, wrapped under covers, wave after wave of memory and emotion hit:  how dad survived years of shock therapy for depression; in my mid-20s crawling in his lap and crying in his arms asking him to explain why he needed shock; and my sharing similar fears and tormenting self-doubts; his years of group psychotherapy which enabled him to leave the family and come back and rebuild a healthier marriage; the knock down drag out fights in my mid-thirties as I felt compelled to explore the past family dysfunction; finally, the burying of past guilt along with the great sense of love and trust that these father-son battles ultimately engendered.

Alive or dead, Dad will always be "the last angry man":  someone who quickly battles when feeling threatened; a fighter for what he believes in and feels entitled to.  Whether he is defensively overreacting or is actually entitled is another matter.  The best and worst of him are interred in my bones and mind, in my heart and soul.

Every anxious episode is also a time for anticipatory grieving.  There's the sadness, of course, but also some rage.  I want back that Type A, aggravating yet challenging, old man; the enigmatic guy I once confronted for seemingly going easy on (and favoring?) my younger brother while jumping on me.  His reply:  "Yeah, I fight with you…I know you can take it.  Larry gets defensive."

But with each psychic quake there's a sense of peace and integrity as well.  My world will hold; his complex and compelling essence is of and in my blood forever fueling the drive to be my genuine self in a world that, to paraphrase poet, e.e. cummings, night and day is trying to make you like everybody else.  Cummings also exhorted:  "And never stop fighting!"  Dad never stopped.  Dad was like nobody else.  And I am my father's son.

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, an international speaker and syndicated writer, is America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ The Doc runs his weekly "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" on AOL/Digital City DC Stress Chat .  See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com Stress Doc homepage. For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.

Main Essay:

Reflecting on his recent successful Professional Convention Management Association Annual Meeting workshop, the Stress Doc briefly describes the two key interactive exercises.  He then anaylyzes why they are highly effective for yielding stress relief, laughs and team building synergy.

Purposeful and Playful Workshop Exercises and Strategies:
The Art of Practicing Safe Stress

At the recent Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) Annual Meeting in Nashville, I had the opportunity to lead a Practice Safe Stress program for nearly two hundred. It was the last day of the conference and the morning after the late night "Party with a Purpose."  The turnout and the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to "Managing Stress and Building Team Cooperation through Humor" says at least two things, especially in light of the tight economy and the post-September 11th climate:  1) more than ever, people are looking for tools, techniques and tips for getting a home and work life handle on stress and conflict and 2) professionals are highly receptive to "4 'C'-ing" learning forums that allow for emotional sharing, individual and group creative expression and that stimulate a sense of Confidence and Competence, team Camaraderie and Cooperation.  That is, people want to be energized and synergized:  to be part of a vital organizational process and product whereby the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Let me first briefly describe two interactive workshop exercises that gradually facilitated this synergistic effect.  These exercises can be operationalized in a variety of settings - from a handful of team members to hundreds of conference participants.  And then I will list the "how to' working principles that enable these interventions to reduce stress while facilitating high performance and team morale.

A.  Empathic Icebreaker Exercise.  To get people in an open, playful and moderately risk-taking frame of mind, psychically warm them up.  Try my "Three 'B' Stress Barometer Exercise."  Break up a larger audience into clusters of a half dozen or so.  Then, with a volunteer recorder in each group, have the individuals briefly discuss:  "How does your Brain, Body and Behavior let you know when you are under more Stress than usual?"

B.  Discussion and Drawing Exercise.  Building on the Three "B's, the next logical question is:  "What are the sources of stress and conflict in your everyday workplace operations?"  Again, the large group is broken into smaller units (4-6 people).  However, after the discussion phase the team needs to create a group picture, logos or stress symbol that captures the diverse stress experiences of the participants as a whole.  Consider this example:  Years ago a burnt out CEO of an engineering company was running his company into the ground.  Actually, he was hardly running the company; more likely he was off flying his airplane.  Finally, he hired a Vice-President who called me for some stress and team building help.   In our workshop one of the groups drew a picture of a menacing creature, calling this big stalking dinosaur a "Troublesaurus."  All the little people in the plant are scattering in fear.  However, one person, bigger than the rest, is totally oblivious, has his back to the dinosaur with his head in the clouds while watching a plane fly by.  Helps you get the picture, doesn't it?

My reassuring participants that this is not, "True Confessions," that is, they can share at whatever level feels comfortable, actually seems to free them up.  Images run the gamut from staking dinosaurs, time bomb time clocks, never ending mazes, sinking ships in shark infested waters, etc.  Groups are kept on track by having up to ten-minutes (with frequent reminders) for discussion and the same for the drawing segment.

Playful and Purposeful Interventions

So what makes these exercises so successful as stress reducers and builders of team synergy?  Consider these six strategic components:

1.  Universality. Everyone can readily participate and share their own stress smoke signals or sources of pressure in a 24/7, anytime/anywhere and lean-and-MEAN world.

2.  Acknowledgement Overcomes Anxiety, Shame or Isolation.  People discover they are not alone when it comes to pressures; they can begin to let down an "I've got to always be strong" Rambo or Rambette persona.  Participants find real support when being open with folks who have been or still are walking in the same tight-fitting shoes.  Common calluses make uncommon comrades.

3.  Laugh at Our Flaws and Foibles.  Just a little exaggeration can tickle some knowing laughs from familiar yet often serious stress signals and our coping behavior:
a) Sleeping Problems:  Aren't there days when you just don't want to get out from under the covers?  Still, aren't there some folks who, at 3am, know all the best buys on E-bay or the QVC Home Shopping Channel?
b) Eating Issues:  Do you find you eat more or excessively snack when over anxious?  Then again, are you one of those folks who lose their appetite and eat less when under duress?  (Of course, we hate these people. ;-)
c) Clenched Muscles:  Does mind-body stress contribute to neck or back strain?  What about a clenched jaw or TMJ:  "Too Many Jerks"…We know that one!

3.  Mind-Body Healing.  Getting people to laugh not only releases the body's natural pain-relieving and mood enhancing chemicals such as endorphins, but also places stressful events in a lighter perspective.  Sigmund Freud, himself, saw philosophical humor as the highest defense mechanism:  "Look here!  This is all this seemingly dangerous world amounts to.  Child's play - the very thing to jest about."

4.  Non Verbal Expression and Releasing Aggression.  While many adults are anxious when it comes to drawing, once reassured that stick figures are fine (and that I'm a graduate of the Institute for the Graphically Impaired) they forge ahead.  And by doing so, folks rediscover how emotions, especially frustration and anger can be playfully drawn out with colored markers and large flipchart paper.  Nothing like putting a tail and horns on a devil of a boss to put things in a less frightening perspective and to evoke a stress relieving laugh.

5.  Open Interaction and Creative Problem-Solving.  Perhaps the most valuable problem-solving aspect of these exercises is that no group member has "the one right answer."  Everyone's responses are valuable.  Both verbally and non-verbally one person's suggestions will readily trigger ideas and images that embellish the group product and strengthen the team process.

6.  Group Feedback and Recognition.  In both exercises, groups get a chance to share their lists and drawings.  In the final phase of the drawing exercise ("the fashion show part of the program") the groups show off their creative designs.  For audiences in the hundreds, we'll have groups display their artwork on tables or on walls and turn the hall into an art gallery.  Participants mill about and survey all the other groups' efforts.  A few designs are chosen for "show and tell."  Participants experience pride from overcoming their initial drawing confusion or anxiety.  And in both scenarios, a final benefit is the self-esteem boosting recognition each team receives from the collective for work well done. 

In conclusion, the above six strategic tension busting, energy releasing, team building and playfully high performing practices and principles provide both an individual and collective high-octane formula for transforming workplace pressures into synergistic processes and products.  And you now have a blueprint for bringing back this robust learning experience into everyday operations and meetings, to help yourself and others…Practice Safe Stress!

Readers' Submissions:

Subj:  Air Agent Award:
From: sue123@twmi.rr.com

An award should go to the United Airlines gate agent in Denver for being smart and funny, while making her point, when confronted with a passenger who probably deserved to fly as cargo.

A crowded United Airlines flight was canceled. A single agent was rebooking a long line of inconvenienced travelers. Suddenly an angry passenger pushed his way to the desk. He slapped his ticket on the counter and said "I HAVE to be on this flight and it has to be FIRST CLASS." The agent replied, "I am sorry, sir. I'll be happy to try to
help you, but I've got to help these folks first, then I'm sure we'll be able to work something out." The passenger was unimpressed.

He asked loudly, so that the passengers behind him could hear, "DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHO I AM?"  Without hesitating, the agent smiled and grabbed her public address microphone, "May I have your attention please," she began, her voice heard clearly throughout the terminal.  "We have a passenger here at Gate 14 WHO DOES NOT KNOW WHO HE IS. If anyone can help him find his identity, please come to Gate 14."

With the folks behind him in line laughing hysterically, the man glared at the United agent, gritted his teeth and swore "F*** You!".  Without flinching, she smiled and said, "I'm sorry, sir, but you'll have to get in line for that too."

Subj:  Enron twist on an old standby
From:  DrBuni@aol.com

FEUDALISM: You have two cows. Your lord takes some of the milk.

FASCISM: You have two cows. The government takes both, hires you to take care of them and sells you the milk.

COMMUNISM: You have two cows. Your neighbors help take care of them and you all share the milk.

TOTALITARIANISM: You have two cows. The government takes them both, denies they ever existed and drafts you into the army. Milk is banned.

CAPITALISM: You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull. Your herd multiplies and the economy grows. You sell them and retire on the income.

ENRON VENTURE CAPITALISM: You have two cows. You sell three of them to your
publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt/equity swap with an associated general offer so you get all four cows back, with a tax exemption for five cows. The milk rights of the six cows are transferred via an intermediary to a Cayman Island company secretly owned by the
majority shareholder who sells the rights to all seven cows back to your listed company. The annual report says the company owns eight cows, with an option on one more.

From:  My friend Rick

Divorced Jewish man, seeks partner to attend shul with, light shabbos candles, celebrate holidays, build Sukkah together, attend brisses, bar mitzvahs.  Religion not important.    POB 658.

Sincere rabbinical student, 27.  Enjoys Yom Kippur, Tisha B'av, Taanis, Tzom Gedaliah, Asarah B'Teves, Shiva Asar, B'Tammuz.   Seeks companion for living life in the "fast" lane.  POB 90.

Yeshiva bochur, Torah scholar, long beard, payos. Seeks same in woman.  POB43.

Worried about in-law meddling?  I'm an orphan!  Write. POB 74.

Nice Jewish guy, 38.  No skeletons.  No baggage.  No personality.  POB 76

Female graduate student, studying kaballah, Zohar, exorcism of dybbuks, seeks mensch. No weirdos, please.  POB 56.

Staunch Jewish feminist, wears tzitzis, seeking male who will accept my independence, although you probably will not.  Oh, just forget it.  POB 435.

Jewish businessman, 49, manufactures Sabbath candles, Chanukah candles, Havdallah candles, Yahrzeit candles.  Seeks non-smoker.  POB 787.

Israeli professor, 41, with 18 years of teaching in my behind.  Looking for
American-born woman who speaks English very good.  POB 555.

I am a sensitive Jewish prince whom you can open your heart to.  Share your
innermost thoughts and deepest secrets.  Confide in me.  I'll understand
your insecurities.  No fatties, please.  POB 86.

Jewish male, 34, very successful, smart, independent, self-made.
Looking for girl whose father will hire me.  POB 53.

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 2002
Shrink Rap ™ Productions