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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

JUL 2005, Sec. II

Main Essay:

The Stress Doc reflects on a recent book reading and contrasts this ambiance with his typical keynote speaking programs.  In this unfamiliar public forum, with its limited physical space and smaller audience, he discovers the potential for uncommon psychological closeness.  Consider his steps for the "Dance of Presenter-Audience Intimacy."

Six Steps for Generating an Intimate Ambiance:
The Presenter-Audience Dance

It took over a year…but I did it -- my first book reading.  In actuality, the event was as much reciting as reading, and as much singing as signing.  (Okay, a slight exaggeration, but I did close with a "Shrink Rap" ™.  More about the rap later.)  The program was held in an "Antique Row" bookstore in the quaint town of Kensington, MD.  If I may digress, in addition to shops selling curios, antique furniture and used books, in the "Row" are two tea houses (Café Monet is now my writing haunt), art galleries and an historic Norman Rockwell-like train station just off the main street.  And the station's parking lot is the setting for a Farmer's Market each Saturday morning.

Enough…back to the event.  The evening was a coming out experience in two respects:  as indicated, this was my first public presentation focused on my role and process as an author and, second, I was presenting to members of my new residential community. (I've recently moved from DC to Kensington, eight miles north, just past Chevy Chase.  After fifteen years in the same building and almost as many rent hikes, it was time to pull up stakes.  In fact, the owner of the book-reading venue has asked me to write a humorous piece on my migration from Dupont Circle for a local newsletter.  Keep a lookout for the essay.)

I was more anxious than usual.  Perhaps the novelty of presenting to neighbors was stirring me up.  Of course, showing off my baby book was both exciting and edgy:  I suppose my unspoken mantra for the evening was "love me, love my baby."  (Actually, I don't typically refer to my book in child-like terms.  I worked so long on Practice Safe Stress that I feel I gave birth to a teenager!)

Logistics and Psycho-logics

But logistics also was influencing my mood.  Fifteen people showed up.  The bookstore owner assured me this was a good number; the previous week, she only had a handful, including the author.  Also noteworthy, the front area of the bookstore seemed only slightly larger than a master bedroom.  People in the back row couldn't have been more than fifteen feet from the podium.  There definitely was a tight knit ambiance.  In fact, with the folks in the front row being so close and knowing my tendency for effervescent expression, I was a bit apprehensive.  Ultimately, I could live with being all wet as a speaker; I had my doubts, though, about how those front rowers might handle the spittle spray effect.

This intimate setting contrasts markedly with a typical kickoff audience or a keynote arena.  As a professional speaker, my audiences tend to be from five to twenty-five or more times greater in number.  And we usual operate out of a ballroom or auditorium.  And while I move around as much as possible, at any moment in time I'm only physically close to a small percentage of attendees.  This evening I could make eye contact with all by slightly shifting my gaze.  Hmmm… would my soul be exposed and on display?

So somehow the closeness and smallness had me feeling somewhat off guard.  And while there are moments of poignant self-disclosure in my keynotes, as a presenter, I pride myself in not hogging the spotlight.  I quickly create group interaction that encourages participants to engage safely in personal sharing and to be part of the show.  Tonight, though, I would likely have to reveal more of myself.  And considering that Practice Safe Stress delves into not only my professional experience but also especially my personal trials with "Stress, Burnout and Depression" there was no hiding behind my book.

Even though I had planned my program opening, there was another modus mantra operating:  "I don't know where I'm going…I just think (or hope) I know how to get there!"  Could I be open to audience energy and need while listening to my own gut?  How would I respond to an unrehearsed structure as well as unpredictable questions?  It seems to me that intrinsic to the concepts of both novelty and intimacy is that double-edged notion of "danger and opportunity."  And despite my angst (actually, probably fueled by the same), once again, to quote some lines from my lyric "Double-Edged Depression" I was:

Climbing icy spires, dancing at the ledge

And still believing:

The Phoenix only rises on the jagged edge

And before the night was over almost all would risk some intimacy to forge a palpable closeness and community.  So what enabled this transformation from edginess to creative edge?  Consider these "Six Steps for Generating an Intimate Ambiance:  The Presenter-Audience Dance":

1.  Acknowledge Vulnerability and Uncertainty. 
When coaching highly anxious speakers, I often encourage short-circuiting the spiraling panic state by openly acknowledge being nervous or scared; don't try bluffing the audience with inauthentic bravado.  When it comes to public speaking angst, many in the audience can identify.  And people appreciate self-disclosure that is honest and humble.  I recall an IT presenter anxious about a leading a workshop on a new technical application.  He had never lectured on this subject.  And what was really tightening the stress knot was the thought of giving a thirty second summary of his talk the next morning to the entire conference audience -- four hundred people!  I shared the strategy noted above.  And our novice followed suit.  Immediately upon giving his mass confession to fellow techies (who, in general, are not known for their love of public speaking) the room exploded in heartfelt applause.  Clearly he had touched a "hot button" for attendees and had sparked a momentary but impassioned speaker-audience connection.

Taking my own advice, I acknowledged that this was my initial book reading and I wasn't quite sure how to proceed.  Nonetheless, I revealed my anticipated "gumbo" approach.  The broad presentational content and structure would be a mix of:
a) a brief overview of the book by itemizing the Table of Contents,
b) my reading a couple of essay-like passages,
c) recite ideas and speak extemporaneously,
d) facilitate a group discussion exercise, and
e) provide an opportunity for audience questions and follow-up discussion.

So while I didn't exactly know where I was going, I had a global mental road map for getting somewhere!  And sometimes the path to new discoveries requires losing your way.  With the acknowledged uncertainty and an overview guide, speaker and audience are ready to embark on an adventure.

2.  Return to Radio Daze.  After getting us warmed up by reading chapter and index titles, the first stop was a reading of a two-minute radio script crafted during my "American in Cajun Paris" years in N'Awlins.  This served two purposes:
a) reading the essay "Don't Clock the Writer's Block or Premature Impatience Will Sow Creative Impotence" illustrated the evolution of my attempt to blend psychology and wit.  In fact, my mid-80s media days (perhaps craze is more apt) laid the foundation for becoming a mid-90s "psychohumorist" ™.  (And, of course, I let an audience decide where the emphasis on that word should go!)  A presenter sharing a piece of his or her purposeful and passionate path is painting a personal and professional portrait, and
b) highlighting a topic with which many folks can relate.  The backdrop for the radio essay was my inability to produce a script for a rapidly approaching studio taping session.  Deadline tension is fairly universal, especially in workaholic Washington, DC.  And my title for the overall theme -- achieving "Emancipation Procrastination" -- generated further laughs.  And when I shared resolving the deadline dilemma by writing about "writer's block," the audience appreciated my clever approach to finding "the pass in the impasse."  (See the addendum to this article for the radio script.)

3.  Try a Self-Disclosing Group Exercise.  After fifteen minutes of thoughtful and fun overview/ warm up and essay reading, the audience was ready for a change of pace and open to exploring a sense of collective intimacy.  And my "Three 'B' Stress Barometer Exercise" seemed to generate an optimal level of risking and sharing.  In groups of four or five, participants answer the following:  "How does your Brain, Body and Behavior let you know when you are under more stress than usual?"  All can relate; all can provide answers.

Upon hearing the group recorder's list of smoke signals, playful banter ensued.  For example, invariably "eating" would be mentioned.  My response:  "Be honest, how many folks eat more to soothe that anxious, gnawing feeling in the stomach?"  Most participants raised their hands.  My follow-up:  "Do any folks lose their appetite and eat less when stressed?"  A few hands waved their acknowledgement.  My immediate reply:  "And we hate those people, don't we!"

Again, the lampooning and shared laughter around familiar flaws and foibles only added to the sense of self-acceptance and evolving sense of community.

4.  Ebb and Flow Between the Serious and the Humorous.  Hopefully, it's evident that I'm consciously blending the serious and the playful, or having one play off the other.  So how does this point-counterpoint influence the author's identity and the character and intensity of the presenter and audience connection?  Consider these four factors:

a) surprise -- with this mix of content and style people are not sure what's coming next.  There's a sense of surprise, sometimes even a sense of wonder, e.g., "I wonder about this author character!"  This state of unpredictability helps rivet attention; people often are literally on the edge of their seats.
b) incongruity -- pairing opposites or relating darkness and light (or light-hearted enlightenment) often challenges a one-dimensional conceptual framework.  You are asking people to stretch their minds around a novel or double-edged idea or to engage in a new way of perceiving and understanding.  And while exercise, for some, especially mental exercise, initially may seem taxing, upon completion and/or resolution there usually is a sense of satisfaction.  More than that, there often is both an enhanced sense of relaxation (or relief) and a feeling of vitality and potency, speaking of a paradoxical pairing.  And gradually, the "task master" is seen more like a maestro helping individual's expand a capacity for effectively engaging complexity.  In the long run, such mental gymnastics may well foster greater confidence and competence.
c) relief -- while experiencing back and forth edginess and grappling with cognitive complexity may be stimulating, even exciting, eventually most people need to regain mental equilibrium and psychic relief.  And inducing laughter is a great way to break the tension.  Hearty laughter has been called "inner jogging."  Such psycho-physiological release, analogous to vigorous exercise, also yields pain-relieving and mood-enhancing chemicals.  And laughter may also be the end product of a process that transcends confusion and helps people "get it."  As renowned author and humorist, Mark Twain, ingeniously observed:  "Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation."
d) shared reality and identity -- and having a group of individuals recognize their common and imperfect humanity and be able to laugh at the same, truly encourages a sense of community.  Both speaker and audience are in the same boat trying to negotiate waters often alternating between the delightful and dangerous.

Let me close this segment with a final paradoxical pairing:  People are more open to a serious message when it's gift-wrapped with humor!  As Freud observed, self-accepting laughter reflects an inner voice that encourages our efforts and gently tolerates our failures.

5.  Break Away.  Another way of changing and designing the flow of energy, ideas and interaction is to shift from lecture or exercise mode to Q & A.  And for generating communal intimacy, don't limit the exchange to yourself ("the expert") and one audience member ("the questioner").  Turn a participant's inquiry over to the entire group.  Or initiate a question yourself.  Asking questions gets people's attention.  And when an individual question sparks audience discussion, once again all feel they are involved in the show.

Another unexpected benefit of this Q & A process is when a question triggers an open and sufficiently confident presenter to move into an unintended and more personal realm of sharing.  Let me illustrate.  During the Q & A phase of the book reading event an attendee asked the following:  "What allows some individuals to rise above the most adverse conditions (e.g., the 'Holocaust') and emerge stronger?"  A number of responses focused on psychological, biochemical or genetic factors.  Suddenly a realization hit me:  I could provide an example of the power of role modeling and risk-taking.  However, it would involve a significant amount of personal disclosure.  Pausing for an internal inventory, I decided to venture forth.  I briefly spoke of my father's breakdown when I was 1 ½ years old.  (He was labeled manic-depressive.)  Alas, in the '40s and '50s, and even in the '60s, for many bipolar or depressive patients shock therapy was the treatment of choice.  My father received ECT about twice/year for fifteen years.

As he was functioning fairly successfully at work, he and my mother went along with the treatment plan.  (By contrast, he was fairly withdrawn in vital aspects of our home life.)  For my father, however, not surprisingly rage and existential angst had been building all along.  And during his mid-life crisis, he became a "desperate husband."  He had a brief affair and separated from my mother and me and my brother for four months.  Despite all their prolonged trials and tribulations, my parents, fortunately, basically loved each other.  Eventually, with the help of therapy, they reconciled.

And certainly noteworthy, his act of desperation provided some immediate good fortune.  Ironically, the woman with whom my father was having an affair told him:  "You're nuts.  You don't need shock therapy.  Get some psychotherapy."  He did and never needed another session of shock.  (Seems like the cure had become worse than the dis-ease.)

Like Father, Like Son

And three years later, when I was twenty-two, encouraged by my graduate school field instructor, I overcame my fear and shame and entered into therapy.  And perhaps the most poignant moment of the book reading came when I shared how it took another three years to find the courage to ask my father why shock therapy was necessary.  And as my father was talking, I crawled into his lap, put my arms around him, and began sobbing and sobbing on his shoulder.  Eventually the crying ceased and I haltingly shared how I could relate to so many of his fears, to his sense of shame and to his feelings of failure.  My father later shared that he felt overwhelmed by my eruption of pain and love.

As you might imagine, there weren't many dry eyes in the room.  After a couple of heartfelt comments from audience members, someone asked if my father had ever been on medication (for his depression, was the implication).  I answered in the negative, then recalled one exception:  "Actually, I believe there was a time when he was taking anti-anxiety medication, but that was when he was dealing with the IRS."  Well the audience roared.  We all needed the tension release and relief.

In closing, let's not forget the purpose of this section:  how an attendee's question and subsequent audience discussion sparked a divergent and unexpected train of thought and of personal sharing and disclosure that definitely heightened the intimacy ambiance in the room.  In fact, people in the audience speculated on the meaning of the experience for me, though the deeper motive was transparent:  people were connecting to their own life story.

6.  Close Poignantly and Playfully.  I recall a pithy axiom acquired during my early professional training in crisis intervention and brief therapy:  "Endings recapitulate beginnings."  In a clinical social work context this means that as the planned end of the treatment contract nears (usually up to six sessions) the emotional issues stirred - feelings and themes of loss, separation anxiety, fear of failure, etc. -- often mimic the psychological struggles or baggage the client carries into therapy.  In light of this supposed slippage, the therapeutic challenge becomes helping the client realize that he wasn't back at square one; he had, in fact, made progress during our work together.  However, the prospect of ending our relationship and coping independently was evoking some anxious feelings and "regressive" behavior.  With the ending-beginning confusion cleared, the client was usually ready to give it a go.  (Of course, he wasn't absolutely alone.  In addition to helping the client strengthen his non-therapy support system, in an emergency I was available.  Also, a two-three month follow-up was routinely scheduled.)

Okay, back to the task at hand.  (Easier said than done for one with a loosely associative mind.)  So are there parallels between the end of an intimate time-limited therapy relationship and the close of a ninety-minute yet intimate encounter with a book reading audience?  First, there's the reality you can't do it all; in brief therapy you aren't going for personality transformation.  And, in similar fashion, in a reading you can only pull fragments and threads from the book while hoping some condensed yet coherent tapestry can emerge.

Also, I did sense a reluctance to end the event.  In fact, we took a short break so we could extend the time.  (In similar fashion, occasionally a short-term therapy contract might be amended; the client and I needed an extra session to grapple successfully with our ending process.)

And just as I shared a personal story early on in the reading about my radio daze writer's block, I ended by reading "The Gospel of a Country Road."  (It's the second essay below.)  The piece vividly and visually captures my brief autumn stay at Helvetia or "Little Switzerland," a West Virginia/old world style bed and breakfast.  With little effort I was transmitting the soulful nurturance and sustenance derived from the compelling leaves of color and babbling streams; sharing the bracing and riveting effect of crisp morning air and an eerily silent pitch black amble down a road of dreams, if not hallucinatory images.

Perhaps our time together at the reading was for many akin to a brief retreat -- a time to listen, question and reflect.  Certainly some poignant parallels can be found.

However, just as the serious and the silly were paired at the onset of the presentation, once again my ending connected the playful and the poignant, but this time in full "Shrink Rap" regalia -- Blues Brothers hat, black sunglasses and black tambourine.   Poking fun at myself (as the dubious pioneer of psychologically humorous rap "music," a possible oxymoron in its own right) helped bring all of us down from the mountain top (and rarefied air) and helped plant our feet firmly back on the ground.

And maybe we all returned a little wiser or, at least, with the help of the ridiculous, i.e., my playing the jester role, audience members might be less self-conscious and more open to exploring new possibilities.  Consider this train of thought:  "In a public and prestigious forum, if the expert can be so out of character, can be so silly, can outrageously poke fun at himself…why can't I confront my "Intimate FOE" -- Fear of Exposure?"  People truly take to heart the expert's message, if not the expert himself, when he is not afraid to acknowledge and reveal his all too human side.  People admire the presenter who can humbly and humorously share the dark nights of the soul experiences on his journey of peaks and valleys.  And this is especially true when "the road less traveled" actually has similarities with the bumpy and bruised life roads with which all are familiar.

Let me expand an earlier observation:  People are more open to a serious message (and messenger) when both are gift-wrapped with humanity, humility and humor.

Finally, by making it easier to acknowledge individually our flaws and foibles, we may also discover that healing humor helps a group release tears of both sadness and laughter.  And such a release seems to melt away the barriers to intimacy and community.  Not bad for an evening's work and play.  In closing, as a presenter when you:
1.  Acknowledge Vulnerability and Uncertainty,
2.  Return to Radio Daze,
3.  Try a Self-Disclosing Group Exercise,
4.  Ebb and Flow Between the Serious and the Humorous,
5.  Break Away, and
6.  Close Poignantly and Playfully
then surely you are facilitating a process for helping one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Don't Clock the Writer's Block

When trying to write, do you ever stare at a blank page or blank screen that seems the perfect mirror of your blank mind?  Your teeth start gnashing and you're into heavy breathing.  But it's only a false labor...There's no birth of new ideas.

Why can't writing be a race, ideas blasting from inner space with bursts of brilliance and subtle grace?  Ha!  For me, that starting block is a mental block building to a wall of frustration.  It's the test of time.  Will banging my head against the wall sooner produce a breakdown than a breakthrough?

Fortunately, I'm hardheaded.  Eventually, the wall and my brain will have a meeting of the mind.  Concrete ideas and bits of information and imagery will become fertile chips off the old writer's block.  Can I avoid ambitious false starts and just dabble with my mental fragments?  Can I play my chips into an outline, a puzzle or a kaleidoscopic pattern and explore sequences, combinations and designs?

What happens if I freely associate with my mind and body?  Might I discover a heart that sings and a mind that dances?  Will this unlock my writer's block?  Aha!

A penny for your thoughts
but a dime for a rhyme
that allows me to climb
from the base to the sublime.

Suddenly, an old voice questions:  "Do you know where you're going?"  "Probably not.  But I do know how to get there"...with feedback!  Will I now submit this verse and prose to friends and foes?  They may bite my hand, but I usually get back more than I feed them.

I think it's time to sleep on all this.  Maybe a script will come to me tomorrow.

Just remember...Practice Safe Stress!

The Stress Doc captures the colorful sights, animated and soothing sounds and profound silences as one travels down a mountain country road. Once again, he must escape the big city to nurture fully all his senses and tune in to the big picture.

The Gospel of a Country Road

Take me home, country roads
To the place I belong
West Virginia, Mountain Momma
Take me home, country roads.

John Denver knew of what and where he sang. And yet, each year I debate taking my solo, overnight retreat to the mountains of West Virginia. It's a five-six hour drive, and I've done it before, at times money has been a concern, while October's usually a busy month, and the leaves probably won't be that spectacular this season with the lack of rain…blah, blah, blah. And fortunately, it's not a logical debate; it's a spiritual one. An act of faith. In some silent subterranean nexus of psyche and soul, there's a need to be connected intimately and tangibly with the big picture. So I go…and return quieter, wiser and spiritually richer.

A Long Days Journey Into the Soul of the Dark Night

This year I journeyed to Helvetia, WV, also known as Little Switzerland. Helvetia is an idyllic mountain village, maybe thirty residents. While Heidi doesn't live here anymore, one of the natives is, in fact, that delightful and dynamic "mountain momma" (actually, a grandma) who returned to her roots after a divorce and living abroad. She built a bed and breakfast, that is, a Hutte or restaurant along with separate sleeping quarters. The latter is a rustic, wooden, two storied cabin-like structure that captures the feel of Old World Europe. Swiss and German immigrants originally settled the town about 130 years ago. Escaping religious persecution, these folks landed in Brooklyn and somehow did the covered wagon tour to their New World mountain hamlet. (And I complain about my long trip. Actually, I enjoy the focused excitement of driving along tight mountain curves.)

No phone, no TV. Over 36 hours detached from the virtual virtues and vices of cyberspace. And maybe that's the moral of this essay: when so absorbed in my online and offline writing and workshop activities, I sometimes forget how critical it is to nurture the larger senses and spirit. Let me sketch and relive this vibrant picture. A babbling stream, a stone's throw from my bedroom window, bisects the town. How restful that late afternoon nap after an hour's hike up and down that forested country road. Gently rocked to sleep by the gurgling, splashing stream. I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't some hard-wired memory in our reptilian brain.

And speaking of the brain and the senses, for me, the color of the leaves also evokes an overpowering chemical reaction. When bathed in sunlight, the shimmering waves of lemons and apricots and orange-cranberry hues overwhelm the logical left-hemisphere. All I can do is gaze and sometimes gasp. And from a distance write:

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.

(Email stressdoc@aol.com for the entire "Mountain Vision" lyric.)

While not brilliantly breathtaking, the colors have a more subtle, a more mature beauty this year. (Maybe it's a projection of a fifty-year-old psyche ;-)

And when the color disappears and night descends, then the other big picture show takes center stage. Walking in the cool, clean, crisp mountain air, down another country road, beyond the last remnants of man-made lighting, reveals the truly majestic and miraculous mystery. As wonderful as cyberspace is, it can't compete with the real thing. Growing up in New York City, presently living in Washington, DC, one hardly remembers the night sky. Viewing clearly the Milky Way and a myriad of stars (this year I didn't see shooting stars) surely places everything in a vastly different perspective. And on this "I-Thou MAX" screen, one does not just find constellations; there are almost limitless projections. Silhouetted against the darkened yet starlit panorama, the towering black-grey tree-covered mountain ridge morphs into the elongated spine and tail of a slumbering brontosaurus. Down a darkly deserted road, Hollywood has nothing on the resultant primal images and urges when plugging our own imagination into the ultimate mountain momma...mother nature! I can still detect a lingering soreness in my neck from not being able to stop gazing heavenward.

And day follows night. Again, I'm a lonely traveler along another hallowed and hushed path, before the sun has climbed above the mountain ridge. It's the coldest part of the day. Frost on my car windshield. The first steamy breath sighting of the season. Seeing the stream, a gently flowing, dark purple sheet of glass with a hint of light, reminds me how rarely I observe my environment at this hour of the morning. (And I'm a morning person.) Yesterday's late afternoon rustling of deer just beyond sight is replaced by the morning song and medleys of birds. Also, the rhythmic rat-tat-tat of a woodpecker.

And I'm ready for the hearty breakfast in front of a fiery pot-bellied stove. The heat and light are as nurturing as the fresh fruit cup, warm banana bread and preserves, oatmeal and brown sugar and hot tea. Such a meal has me sleepy. And for now, alas, the dreamy journey must end.

Having set down my trip in words and images heartens me. This gets saved to a readily accessible file to remind me that this man can't live by intellect and words, psychology and virtuality alone. There must be time for space and color, light and shadows and pitch darkness, for the animated sounds of nature, along with tactile and olfactory pleasures and bracing cold pain, for a quiet sanctuary to recover our primal essence. Yes, take me home country road. A world for simply being not of human doing and, surely, a time and place for…Practicing Safe Stress!

Heads Up:  Successful Programs [References on Request]

1) Virginia Intl. Personnel Management Assn.  (IPMA); closing speaker; Practice Safe Stress
2) Kirkpatrick Lockhart Law Firm; Practice Safe Stress workshop for paralegals and support staff
3) PositionsInc; Managing Anger and Difficult People or When Going Postal Is Not Your Best Career Move; workshop for HR personnel
4) Australian Embassy; Managing Anger and Difficult People; workshop for all staff
5) CFUnited Conference; How to Become a Great Presenter; for User Group Managers and Managing Stress and Team Survival in Times of Change; breakout session

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2005
Shrink Rap Productions