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Strengthening Stress Resiliency and Brain Agility with Humor and Natural SPEED

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

My participation as the “Stress Doc” ™ at the USPTO Health Fair reminded me of two basic facts: 1) people like to laugh, especially when they can share a gentle and knowing laugh at their own flaws and foibles and 2) especially in a high demand-production work environment and a “TNT – Time-Numbers-Technology – Driven- and Distracted World, many folks are hungry for concepts, tools, and strategies that will impact and improve the quality of daily life. In particular, professionals want to: a) facilitate stress resiliency (to bounce back with energy, conviction, and spirit from a high tension-demand situation) and b) enhance brain agility (to address or anticipate problems effectively and efficiently; building upon yet moving beyond familiar patterns of thought, cognitive focus and flexibility yields deep and diverse, productive as well as innovative viewpoints and real-time action plans).

Let me illustrate the high energy, interactive, and time-conscious approach with participants visiting my vendor table. Within five minutes, the use of fast-paced, purposeful, and personal questions stimulated both engagement and open-mindedness about strengthening a stress management regimen and overall work-life balance. Specifically, I employed a two-step approach:

First, getting people’s attention by using an unconventional method of evoking memories of past performance pressure situations and then breaking the tension with a knowing laugh, and

Second, offering the “Stress Doc’s Formula for Natural SPEED,” that is, asking people about key mind-body health-life style choices along with communication-relationship styles; my goal is to help others more purposefully think about and plan ways to strengthen personal everyday stress resiliency and brain agility.

Finally, whenever possible I tried to inject some self-effacing mirth. Remember, people are less defensive and more open to a serious message when it is gift-wrapped with humor.

Preparing the Mind with Humor

My opening gambit was offering those strolling by a “free stress-relieving laugh.” In general, people took the bait. While handing them a copy of an old “Shoe” cartoon, I suddenly declare, “Okay, but you have to get serious for ten seconds. You’re back at school, you have a tough professor, facing a tough final exam…Read this to yourself – begin!” Most quickly adopt a serious game face, and then proceed to read the caricature: Shoe’s teenage nephew, Skyler, is ready to take a big exam. Skyler declares, “I’m psyched, I studied all night…let’s go.” He suddenly sees a box asking for “Name.” Skyler is confused, blurting out: “Name who? Name what.” Skyler starts climbing onto his desk as signs of panic distort his face. Finally, hitting his head, the teen sheepishly says, “Oh my name…Come on Skyler, get a grip!”

Whether reading alone or with a group of “test-takers,” an array of knowing smiles and chuckles along with some laugh-out-loud guffaws invariably emerge or erupt. Personal experience definitely affects the intensity of the reaction. Nonetheless, almost all can relate to a previous “deer in the headlights” test-taking or stage fright type of experience. Several parents ask to keep the cartoon, wanting to share it with a child. 

Having effectively captured the individual’s or group’s attention while creating some anticipatory curiosity about this Stress Doc character, I now ask if they are ready for a rapid-fire quiz.  More specifically, “Would you like to assess and/or strengthen a capacity for personal stress resiliency and brain agility?”

All it takes is a slight nod of the head, and I’m asking participants self-reflective questions around my “Formula for Natural SPEED” – Sleep, Priorities-Passion, Empathy, Exercise & Diet.  Are you ready for the quiz? 

S = Sleep. Are you getting at least seven hours of sleep a night? Alas, many people aren’t; either they have trouble falling asleep or getting back to sleep upon waking during the night. Sufficient sleep is critical; for many people, consistently getting less than six hours of sleep is associated with an array of mind-body problems including deficient information processing and memory retention, along with mental mistakes and a greater propensity for accidents. Recent sleep studies suggest that chronic insomnia may lead to both the loss of brain volume and the build-up of Alzheimer’s-related brain plaque.

In addition, chronic sleep deprivation is associated with cardiovascular complications, strokes, as well as obesity and eating disorders, along with the onsite of diabetes symptomatology. (Of course, there is a physiological-family predisposition factor, that is, biologically some people can function well on less than six or seven hours of sleep; however, this minority often have learned the art of “power napping.”)

Here are some “Sleep Hygiene” tips:

1. Unplug: Turn off all visual electronics one half hour before getting into bed. Watching TV and especially being on the computer or tablet typically stimulates your brain. If you were a cabdriver, now’s the time for that “Off Duty” sign.

2. Transition to Sleep Mode: To facilitate drowsiness, consider such sleep transition activities as taking a bath or shower, light reading, listening to soothing music or a sounds of nature CD (helping induce a meditative state); if work angst persists, itemize the things that are troubling you or make a next-day “to do” list, and then continue into sleep mode. Of course, if sleep problems are disruptive and chronic, affecting your day-to-day mood, mindsets, and performance, then seek medical and/or psychological consultation.

3. Power Napping: Some folks have difficulty taking short “cat naps.” Listening regularly to soothing sounds as part of bed-time preparation may well generalize into a capacity for a “ten to fifteen minute” rejuvenating post-lunch or mid-afternoon nap. Wellness savvy companies are discovering the link between brief nap intervals and sustained employee productivity.

4. Nutritional and Supplemental Support: Some folks opt for warm milk, chamomile tea, or a small bowl of low-sugar granola cereal to help prepare for bedtime. Others find supplements such as melatonin a useful sleep aid. A hormone made by the brain’s pineal gland, melatonin helps regulate your wake-sleep cycle, rising in the mid-to late evening and dropping during daylight. Seasonal (and artificial) light affects the body’s melatonin production, as does aging. Natural melatonin levels slowly drop with age. Some older adults make very small amounts of it or none at all. Trace amounts are found in foods such as meats, grains, fruits, and vegetables. (Consult with a medical professional about melatonin and other sleep aid supplements.)

P = Priorities. Three questions were posed to establish “priority consciousness”:
1) Are you comfortable saying “No” to people?
2) Are you comfortable disappointing others?
3) Do you understand when “being mindful” needs to replace “multitasking?”

In my mind, the first two questions are linked, though a number of folks might say “yes” to one question and “no” to another. As people acknowledged, difficulty saying “No” or setting limits leads to being stretched too thin (trying to be “everything for everyone”) or being used or stepped on “like a welcome mat,” to quote one quiz-taker. A perpetual pleaser, someone who never wants to disappoint, is inviting trouble. Remember, burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away! Consider this golden rule, a requisite of adult maturity: “If you don’t find a balance between giving of yourself and giving to yourself, you are surely at risk for losing your “self”!

Some quick tips for saying “No”:

1. With a Colleague – when a colleague, friend, or family member asks for a favor and your plate is momentarily overloaded, after hearing them out, say, “Right now I can’t assist you with “abc” but I may be able to help with “def.” Or, call me back in two days, and I might be able to help with “abc.” (You are allowed to put some responsibility on the favor-asking party.) Of course, some may be grumpy with your new boundaries. Again, hear them out and concisely reaffirm your initial position. Over-talking or excess justification erodes a sense of integrity and conviction, both in your own mind and in the eyes of others.

2. With a “Big Boss” – when this authority declares there’s an “emergency,” the “sky is falling down,” it is critical not to let this person’s false sense of urgency become your anxiety. (Remember, emergencies are truly life and death matters.) Take a few breaths and respond, “I know this is a very important issue. Because it’s critical, let’s take five minutes. Help me reprioritize so I can give this important project the time, energy, and focus it deserves.” Don’t just jump off a problem-solving cliff when asked or ordered; down the road, this only invites mistakes and misunderstandings. By reframing the emergency as an “important problem” and by asking for some guidance re: project priorities, you are actually establishing appropriate, reality-testing boundaries, and not overloading your work plate. These steps help you gain some stress-reducing time and sense of control. And you may even be massaging the boss’ anxiety and ego. (Okay, at least think about it.)

Finally, the third question about “multitasking vs. mindfulness” is actually a trick question. Increasingly, research is revealing that our brain doesn’t multitask but quickly switches back and forth among the various tasks. Unless the activities are simple or rote, or involve non-distracting background “noise,” multitasking yields all too predictable results: compromised concentration and reduced performance. When constantly “switch-tasking” the brain never gets sufficient opportunity to warm up to a specific task, thereby inhibiting the mind’s optimal potential for productive and imaginative problem-solving.

P = Passion. The second “P” is linked to Priorities; when viewing our “TNT” world through a Natural SPEED survival lens, one must set work-life boundaries to purposefully design “Passionate” space-time; especially for the high priority of a personal hobby. Hobbies that stimulate both mind and body like sewing, gardening, cycling, dancing, playing an instrument or a sport, etc. not only are relaxing and nurturing, but may also facilitate skill development, expand curiosity and new learning curves, along with a tangible sense of accomplishment.

In addition, research has found that activities that exercise the brain-body, e.g., formal dancing, with its need for both precise and spontaneous moves along with quick decision-making, is especially effective in helping slow down cognitive decline or dementia. (For me, an equivalent experience/hobby was running a weekly AOL “Shrink Rap and Group Chat” group for a number of years. As Instant Messages (IMs) would flood the screen in real time, orchestrating cross discussion, adding some concise insight, having my responses challenged, asking thought-provoking questions, and providing useful tips, while quickly setting limits on inappropriate comments, definitely kept my fingers flying and brain humming.)

E = Empathy. My question: “Do you have a Stress Buddy (SB) in your life, especially at work?” For example, when you’re upset with a supervisor, ready to storm into his or her office, your SB is the colleague to whom you turn: “Before I put my foot in my mouth or someone’s butt…talk me down!” Alas, it’s not so easy finding a mutually supportive, give and take partner. First, listening to or reassuring others can at times itself be stressful. Second, some folks just do a lot more taking than giving or listening. Just make sure the shoulder lending is not a one-way transaction. If you are always the pillar, those who lean on you may not be quick to see when you’re feeling shaky. Remember, “E” is for the “Empathy” found in a caring shoulder, but all give without take is a big mistake for now you shoulder a boulder! Beware playing the heroic, self-denying superman or superwoman role. Have at least one Stress Buddy with whom you can let your hair down (especially on a “bad hair day”).

E = Exercise. Do you get thirty minutes of brisk exercise three-five times a week? Regular exercise provides both physical and psychological advantages. Thirty minutes (or even two fifteen minute segments) of vigorous, non-stop, large muscle movement activity – brisk walking, swimming, bike riding, dancing, etc. – releases brain chemicals such as endorphins and dopamine which are the mind-body’s natural mood enhancers and pain relievers. It’s less a runner’s high and more that we can step back and see things with a calmer disposition and fresher perspective.

When stressed, everything feel’s up in the air. The answer: to feel grounded. There is nothing like a brisk thirty minute walk for creating a beginning and end point for a tangible sense of accomplishment and control. Actually, you’re developing a “success ritual.” And while I don’t always love to exercise, after my ten-minute “while still in bed” morning routine of stretching, sit-ups, push-ups, yoga positions, etc. and my early evening walk…well, I do like feeling virtuous.

And finally, in addition to mood, endurance, and cardiovascular benefits, daily exercise aids peak performance – whether in the boardroom or bedroom!

D = Diet. And the last question: “Do you engage in “Brain Smart” eating?” A diet high in saturated fats (red meat, whole milk products, fried oyster po-boys; having lived in New Orleans, I’m convinced the restaurants are owned by the cardiologists) and simple sugars (sodas, Twinkies, even most fruit yogurts are loaded with fructose or sugar) may induce a short-lived energy boost. However, many of these selections invariably induce drowsiness and mental torpor, not to mention fostering clogged arteries and diabetes. And too much alcohol and caffeine is a roller coaster headache – moodiness or depression often follows aggression and agitation.

To get a mind-mood advantage, try this nutritional regimen:

1) Omega 3 Fatty Acid Fish – salmon, sardines, tuna, and mackerel; especially good for brain health; these fatty acid fish counteract free radicals that can cause oxidative damage (akin to the rusting) of brain cells; may improve the efficiency of nerve signal transmission at synapses

2) Antioxidant Fruits and Berries – blueberries (aka “brainberries”), strawberries, raspberries; “the purples” – prunes raisins, plums, and cherries; also reduce oxidative damage to cells; in addition to slowing cognitive decline, diets rich in fiber may lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, obesity, and diabetes; may also lower bone loss; a recent study also revealed that the men in Asian cultures with high fiber/bran intake have significantly lower rates of prostate cancer and problematic polyps

3) Leafy Green and Cruciferous Vegetables – broccoli, spinach, kale, cauliflower, red bell peppers, beets, onions, corn, eggplant; loaded with essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants these veggies promote brain health, heart health, and have cancer fighting potential; a ten year study of 13,000 nurses who ate more cruciferous and leafy vegetables in their 60’s had a lower rate of decline on a variety of learning and memory tests; the more of these vegetables eaten, the better the test scores

4) Go WACky Over Nuts – three nuts with body-mind-mood benefits are walnuts, almonds and cashews; walnuts are high in omega 3 fatty acids, decreasing cardiac risk and increasing blood flow; eating almonds daily is associated with reduced rates of heart attacks; almonds also lower blood sugar and insulin levels after meals; cashews have similar properties to heart healthy olive oil and may reduce the intensity of migraine attacks; these nuts have minerals such as magnesium, phosphorous, and copper that strengthen bones and teeth while relaxing nerves; however, don’t go nuts over nuts – have 7-10 nuts at a time to maximize dietary and weight management benefits

5) A Quick High Fiber Snack – try a celery stalk with almond butter – helps lower blood pressure and has Vitamin K, which helps fight osteoporosis; one INOVA Hospital nurse who took the SPEED test mentioned that celery may also help reduce the incidence of breast cancer.

Finally, remember, just because taking some vitamins is good don’t assume taking more is better. There are vitamins, like Vitamin E, that can be dangerous in high doses. And vitamins and other herbal supplements can also interact with prescription medications, lowering their effectiveness or causing harmful side effects. Again, consult with a medical or nutritional expert.

Closing Summary

I can’t think of a better way to conclude this essay than with the closing verses from my “24/7 SPEED (Shrink) Rap ™.”

It’s time to end this Shrink Rap
With final tips for you:
“A firm ‘No’ a day keeps the ulcers away, and the hostilities too.”
So to lessen daily woes, “Do know your limits; don’t limit your ‘No’s!”

Ponder this Stress Doc wit and wisdom
Try to live it day after day:
Burnout is not a sign of failure
You simply gave yourself away.

Remember, sometimes less is more
And more is really less.
Balance work and play, faith and love
And, of course…Practice Safe Stress!

Keep Reading By Author Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")
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