Thursday, June 09, 2005

Stress management Life Learning Paper

I received the highest scores possible on this paper and the professor who evaluated it said it was one of the best papers they had read on the subject.

Psychology - Stress Reduction Techniques

I. Concrete Experience

As the oldest child of five children with a mother who was often ill, I have experienced stress from a young age. During grade school, I found release in reading and poetry writing. When I graduated from high school, I took up cross-stitch and needlework as a way to deal with stress, in addition to my poetry writing. As a freshman in college, I took a class on communication confidence, where I learned behavioral techniques of stress reduction. While working at (major corporation), I experienced the stress of a department reorganization due to the misconduct of my manager. My previous stress techniques failed and I resorted to other crafts and listening to music in the dark.

When I was a young mother, I suffered clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder and a stress-reaction skin rash. Medication was prescribed, but the side effects were sometimes worse than the stress reactions. I turned more to creative writing, ceramics and stained glass. I also educated myself on more sophisticated needlework techniques. In combination with the desensitizing techniques found in ANXIETY, PHOBIAS AND PANIC: Taking Charge and Conquering Fear by Reneau Z. Pearifoy MA, MFCC, I became able to manage my generalized anxiety disorder without medication.

My divorce brought new levels of stress. I turned to computer graphic art, using The Mythic Path written by David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner. Most of this art made its way onto an anonymous online journal that I created under the pseudonym “Lady Fribble”. Because I found so much peace in art making, I joined an Art Therapy mailing list to learn more about the field of Art Therapy. Through that list, I became acquainted with Roberta Shoemaker-Beal, a clinical art therapist with over thirty years of experience at institutions such as Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland, and has served on the Executive Board of the American Art Therapy Association (AATA). Through our friendship, she introduced me to the art of drawing mandalas as a means to combating my stress. The successfulness of mandala drawing led me to read more about them in Creating Mandalas: For Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression by Susanna F. Fincher and Mandalas: Luminous Symbols for Healing by Judith Cornell. Judith Cornell's book inspired me to purchased a black paper journal, small enough to carry in my purse, and a set of colored pencils to draw mandalas at work and other places. Later, another art therapist, Joan Phillips introduced me to Art is a Way of Knowing by Pat B. Allen.

II. Observations and Reflections

My first attempts at relieving stress were written self-expressions through poetry. My own mother used to read poems to her children when she was stressed out and I developed a love for poetry as a preschooler. This love was my main impetus for wanting to learn to read. In second grade, our teacher Miss Adams demonstrated how simple poetry was written through a class exercise. I was mesmerized by the idea that I could write my own poems. My first individually written poem was on the death of the class hamster. While I still use poetry even now to expressions my feelings, there are other aspects of poetry writing that help me deal with stress. First, a sense of accomplishment to combat the feelings of complete helplessness. Second, by playing around with words even in poems that were not emotionally driven, I was able to clear my mind of nagging worries. Third, poems can be really fun to write. And lastly, poetry gives me a way to receive praise and encouragement from others.

Not all stress can be solved through self-expression, a sense of accomplishment and minor distraction. Sometimes the mind needs to be seriously distracted before it can let go of stress. The occasional escape into a good fiction book is still one of the best ways to deal with stress I have found. Not only does reading provide an escape, it also helps me to envision concepts and experience point of views I would normally never come across. Which in turn, gives me more ideas for solving problems that can cause stress. I no longer read fiction on a consistent basis, preferring to spend more time on non-fiction works. However, to maintain a good mental balance, I find I still need to read two or three fiction novels a year. Due to my time constraints, I am careful to choose books I know will keep my attention and enchant me. Among my favorite authors are J. R. R. Tolkien, Roger Zelazny, Robert Aspirin, Mercedes Lackey and J. K. Rowlings because of the depth and scope of their writings.

The stress relief of writing poetry and reading can only grant me a short-term reprieve. As I became older, I needed time to actually solve some of the problems that caused my stress. To this end, I began to do cross-stitching. I even labelled my cross-stitch case “Mandy's Therapy” to my mother's chagrin. Cross-stitching and other needlework gave me something to keep my hands busy, while I meditated on my life and the problems in it. Like poetry, needlework gave me a sense of accomplishment and a source of admiration from others. It also for a time gave me a source of extra money during college, as I did commissioned needlework pieces for friends to give as gifts to their families. I switched from cross-stitch to openwork techniques like Hardanger when I became a mother. Most openwork patterns require you to keep count of less stitches in a row than cross-stitching. This meant I could set my work down faster when one of my children needed my attention, without losing my place. I rarely do needlework now, because of the space it takes to do it properly and comfortably is not always available to me.

I did learn some cognitive behavioral techniques for managing stress during my freshman year at Texas Tech University, in an one credit hour course designed to help shy people by desensitizing them to situations they feel stress in. To be honest, it helped me concentrate more while bowling than it did with interacting with other people. What helped me the most in college to get over my anxiety of dealing with others was to have a position of some kind. My jobs during school and my callings at church gave me a secure platform that allowed me to interact with others with a sense of purpose.

This security of position helped me in my professional life to some extent, but not when I had work-place politics to deal with. Though the pride of doing a job I was suited for well was a blessing while I was at (major company), the uncertainty that occurred after my manager was asked to leave the company for misconduct was debilitating. In addition to one panic attack and self-destructive thoughts, I had severe headaches that went from the middle of my forehead over the top of my head and down my entire spine. I could not engage myself in my previous stress-reducing measures. I needed something more. To combat the panic and self-destructive thoughts, I changed some of my methods of doing things and rearranged items in my apartment to reduce the opportunities that triggered these reactions. I would spend an hour before I went to sleep, laying on my living room floor in the dark, listening to soft music.

I also created flower baskets and refrigerator baskets with inspirational sayings to give people. This forced me to focus on something else besides my work. By this time, my work became such a driving force in my life, that I would actually dream constantly about my projects and duties there. It was the actual creation of these craft items that helped me the most. I searched for several quotes about life, which helped me regain a perspective of my life, as did reading the scriptures. While giving these pieces of artwork to others did provide some praise, that praise had little affect on my stress levels, probably because I was receiving more praise for what I was doing at work. For a time, it seemed the more I did at work and the better I did it, the more double-meaning messages I received. I was seen as my former manager's favorite employee and while I was never accused of anything, a higher manager wanted to erase all connections to my former boss. At first, he even hinted that I was expendable. Later, he said I was too necessary and we needed to spread my duties out more for the good of the department. Perhaps the praise I received for my crafts reminded me too much of work, because after a while, I began to either give the basket and magnets anonymously or find excuses to quickly end conversations when people thanked me.

I transferred to (another location) a few months later, in a move that proved to be a classic case of “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” However, since I went to college in (the other city), I had a greater social support group there, which made the stress easier to take. I compounded the stress with marriage and pregnancies. I relieved some of it by quitting (my job) to be a stay-at-home mother.

A month after my daughter was born, an infant niece of mine was murdered. Not only did I have to deal with postpartum hormones, but I also had to deal with the parallels to my own child and pressure from some family members for me to step in as the eldest and make everything all right. However, their idea of making everything right would have endangered my own children, so I refused and had to deal with the implied insults that I did not care about what happened to my nephews.

This drove me to clinical depression and I developed a psychosomatic skin condition. At the time of my initial diagnosis, it was uncertain whether my anxiety caused the depression, or if the depression caused the anxiety. After the depression was cured, it became obvious that the anxiety was a constant problem for me. It was also then when the medication I was being prescribed no longer kept me calm. In fact, I can no longer take this medication because I now become hostile on it. Other medications were prescribed, but only Xanax did any good and my doctor refused to put me on it for more than a few days because of its addictive nature.

I decided that I needed a better way to deal with my anxiety. I began to check out books and search online for possible solutions. In a bookstore, I came across the workbook, ANXIETY, PHOBIAS AND PANIC: Taking Charge and Conquering Fear by Reneau Z. Pearifoy MA, MFCC. Though it mostly dealt with cognitive behavioral techniques, it was many times more effective than the course I had as a college freshman. However, I remembered how quickly I forgot those earlier techniques and knew I would need some sort of reinforcement to keep things on track. I joined a mailing list for people who suffered from anxiety and panic disorders. While on this list, an older woman had an ingenious idea. Several of us through the Internet chat program ICQ, would add each other to our contact lists. Then when someone needed to be talked through a panic attack or a flare up of anxiety, then hopefully one of us would be online to say the correct things to help them through it. Ironically, the only time I actually needed someone through ICQ for an anxiety attack, no one was logged on. I finally was able to call a good friend who was educated on anxiety. Still by helping others through their intense moments over ICQ, I was able to more firmly reinforce the techniques in my own mind. I still avoid taking anxiety medications when I can, but I could stand some retraining in the techniques, since it appears that I can only retain my training for about five years. While it keeps things under control during periods of intense stress, I find it inadequate for managing my long-term stresses.

Several times I returned to my crafts for relaxation and release. I enjoy the challenge of learning new techniques. Ceramics was something I first learned from my mother and later taught my exhusband, who then got us into more advance ceramic classes and our own kiln. We also branched into stained glass, something I had always wanted to do. At first, these crafts helped our marriage because we did them together. But that effect lessened as we both developed expertise in different aspects of the crafts. As we began to specialize, we grew apart and an aspect of competition entered the relationship.

I felt I had to find another way to be creative that wouldn't cause conflict and yet at the same time, achieve one of my childhood dreams. So, I focused on creative writing, while also attending local Society for Creative Anachronism events with a neighbor. At first the events were excellent at relieving my stress, giving me a much needed chance to play. But then they became a hassle as my neighbor tried to get me to take them as seriously as she did and engage in the politics of the group. I quit going with her and she took it as a betrayal, even though I pointed out that she was the one that was subverting the reason I originally agreed to go with her. She was the one who told me I needed a place to play. I never agreed to take on everyone else in a bid for recognition and pride.

During this time, I worked on writing fiction stories. I had dabbled with creative prose before, but I was determined to make a more serious effort in that area. One piece in particular was very special to me. I had feedback from other people - knowledgeable people - who told me it was good. So months after the reconciliation between my neighbor and I, having assumed that we had put that in the past, I foolishly let her read it. I even made a point of saying I did not need it proofread at that time. She ignored my comments and trashed it with pure vindictiveness. Much of her criticism was not only unfounded, but just plain ridiculous.

It angered me greatly. I was upset with myself for being so stupid as to give someone I knew to be petty and immature such an opportunity to attack me. For eight months, I could not write a single word on my prized story. I vowed to myself that I would not let this person stop me from being a writer. However, I needed something to break through that rage and get me writing again. I choose to write about a character I had used for role-playing years before, because she was already a well-developed. Though up until that time I was dead set against using another author's work, I decided that by using Roger Zelanzy's Amber universe, I could concentrated more on developing my character and story. And by writing a novel that I had no intention of publishing, I freed myself from many of the worries I usually have when writing. My writing became smoother, and surprisingly more polished as I went. I learned how to use a loose plot outline, how writing about a main character's early years can give them more depth, and how to totally drop whole sections of my writing without going into deep despair. I also learned that if I had to cut out a section I was very fond of for a current story, often it would come back to me while writing another story and fit into that plot better than it did the one I originally wrote it for.

When I started writing the first version of Paradox of Arden, it literally possessed me. I worked on it almost every day. To avoid conflict with the original series, I purposely made sure I kept my character off to the side of Zelazny's stories. I realized near the end of the first version that some of my own issues had crept into my story, even though I had deliberately made my character different from me in several respects. Not only did these issues creep in, but some very good advice about them also surfaced in the dialog. When I finally finished it to more or less my satisfaction, I let my friends read it and went back to writing in my own universes.

One of my friends mentioned that she had hoped my character would be more in the middle of the intrigues that pervade Zelazny's original work. At that time I just shrugged. I had done what I had set out to do with the story and I was happy enough with it. But a demon was born in my subconscious, and I started to write this alternate version. In it, I came up with more plausible reasons for some of the events of my character's life. I also plunged my poor, beloved, heroic character right into the middle of everything, without conflicting with any of Zelazny's known plots. Even now, when I read this version, I find many useful messages to myself. I have since branched out and written many more original stories and each one has given me more insight into the things tormenting and worrying me.

After leaving my exhusband, I decided I needed to be more straightforward with myself. I used The Mythic Path to help me. This book was particularly helpful to me because it combined many of my interests - myths, creative writing, introspection and art. I began to create beautiful images with computer graphics. I recorded my progress in an anonymous online journal I started while in marriage counseling. On that site, I put up my “Women of Renewal” collection, as well as other art I created during those years.

I became intrigued by the power the art had for me. While I was rather articulate and could write well, the art gave voice to things I couldn't quite put into words. That was when I began to research art therapy and became friends with Roberta Shoemaker-Beal. Roberta enjoyed my creative works from the start and in addition to encouraging me in the creative endeavors I was already engaged in, she patiently suggested for several months that I try my hand at drawing mandalas. I resisted her promptings for a long time, because I could see why the other therapies helped people, but I couldn't see what a mandala really accomplished that normal scribbling wouldn't.

One night I was so tense that I didn't know what to do with myself and there wasn't anyone I could talk to right then. Something in the back of my mind reminded me that I had promised my friend I would try to draw a mandala about a month earlier. Since I didn't have anything better to do in the state of stress I was in, I went ahead and drew a circle and began drawing a scene in it. The relief I felt was curious enough that I went ahead and drew two more and gave them all titles. I told Roberta that it was like I put my frustration in a clear Tupperware® bowl and then sealed it with the picture title, where I could examine it without it affecting me. When I looked at my pictures, I suddenly realized a few things about my current situation that helped me to get beyond the frustration and actually made me euphoric with relief.

Later, I bought books to educate myself on mandala drawing and I began drawing them during my breaks at work at (a smallish company). Unlike my job at (the major company), my duties at (the other company) did not give me much satisfaction and my supervisor was incompetent at managing people. Before I began drawing the mandalas, I would break out in hives during work from the stress. I thought at first I was allergic to something, but through careful observation I realized that my hives would be gone by the time I returned home and they almost never occurred when I worked on the weekends. Upper management encouraged me to seek release in drawing, however, I was harassed by my supervisor's favorite employee for drawing them to the point that after a year, I hardly drew them at all. I tried other ways to deal with the stress, but these too were either regulated away from me or became a source of contention, even if I did them during my normal break time. Using Pat Allen's Art as a Way of Knowing provided some relief at home, but the exercises in the book could not help me during work. I tried enlisting the help of the human resources department, but their warnings were often ignored by those harassing me as the HR representative and upper management often did not follow through on their threats. This caused my stress to build up and I injured my arm through repetitive motion, which caused a landslide of more harassment and frustration. I finally just quit. My health and ability to deal with these people had deteriorated to the point that I could no longer function there. Stress reducing techniques cannot work if you cannot do them.

I turned to my family, friends and church for help and support. While I felt discourage from my inability to deal with the stress at that job, those who truly cared for me pointed out that I did do all I could in that situation and that I cannot blame myself for failing. As frustrating as it may be, I cannot expect to succeed in everything. Failure in one area of my life does not mean that I have completely failed as a person. There are some situations you cannot win or even break even in and the only solution is to walk away and do something more productive with your life.

III. Abstract Concepts and Generalizations

The foundation of all stress relief is taking care of one's physical needs. Plenty of sleep, a proper diet and exercise does a lot to keep stress under control. However, these are often the first things neglected when someone is under stressed, which leads to physical problems that interfere with these very needs. Breathing properly also goes a long way in helping the body release the chemicals needed for efficient coping. For anxiety sufferers especially, breathing can make the difference between a clear mind and a confused one. Hyperventilation is a common problem during moments of stress and anxiety. Proper deep breathing requires one to stand or sit up straight, take a deep breath, hold it and then slowly release it. Usually a few deep breaths are enough to do the job. Something a few anxiety sufferers do to help their breathing is to blow soap bubbles. It gives them a rhythm for breathing, a visual indication of how they are actually breathing, and the relaxing experience of watching a bubble float through the air.

The clear expression of needs and expectations to one's self and other also reduces the opportunity for stressful situations. A problem not clearly defined, cannot be correctly solved. Many times people create more stress for themselves because of a distortion of needs and expectations. It is also essential that a person develops an accurate understanding of themselves and the situation around them through introspection. Then they need to come to a consensus with the perceptions of others to gain cooperation and hopefully a better understanding of the problem.

However, even when someone works to reduce the likelihood of stress in their life, it is going to happen. Playing and engaging in creative activities helps the mind and the soul, giving them more physical, mental and spiritual energy to invest towards the cause of the stress. Meditation, reading, drawing and other introspective pursuits allows a person to learn, supplement and process information which can lead to better ways of coping. Just being able to clear the mind can help one deal with some of the rough spots of life. It allows us to think out our actions and become responders and not reactors.

When one is experiencing anxiety or panic, it is sometimes necessary to physical ground one's self. This can be done with touch anchors. Many people will touch their fingertips together or lightly pinch the web between their thumb and forefinger. Others will carry around something that makes them feel secure when they touch it, like their purse or wallet, a favorite jacket or piece of jewelry, or even a “worry” stone. Touch anchors can be created if there is not something the person is already grounded to. This is done through behavioral conditioning. Once or twice a day, a person will go through a relaxation ritual using the physical touch anchor they have chosen. After this has been done for several days, touching the anchor will start to trigger a relaxation response in the individual. Done for several months or years and touching the anchor will produce even a stronger sense of peace and relaxation.

Another means of reducing anxiety is for the person to make themselves familiar with their surroundings. People taking a test in an unfamiliar setting perform much better if they get to the testing site early and study the room and its contents. When visiting a girlfriend's or boyfriend's family for a long visit, it is a good idea to ask to use the bathroom and then memorize how it looks. This will make the room feel familiar and give a safe spot to retreat to when the anxiety becomes too much. If the visit is over several days, then the room the person is going to sleep in is usually a better choice for a location anchor.

Listening to music helps because of its rhythms and ability to distract the mind from too much information and confusion, though depending on preference it can also cause an increase in stress and confusion. Tapping does the same thing, but can be annoying to those around the tapper. Many nervous habits occur because they reduce stress within the person doing them. The trick is to develop grounding habits that do not cause more problems. Sometimes it is only necessary to modify a nervous habit to make it socially acceptable, such as making sure to tap on soft surfaces or wearing soft sole shoes if one taps with their foot. Chewing gum can occasionally replace cigarette smoking and hair chewing in some settings.

Mediation exercises often combine proper breathing with relaxation and visualization techniques. Meditation can be either done by itself or in conjunction with writing or artwork to help some access their deeper consciousness and retrieve the inner wisdom found there. Sometimes the answers to a person's stresses are already inside them, but they are too busy to see those answers. There is a reason why most wise people are depicted as sitting somewhere quiet and being still. The mind cannot give up its deeper reasonings when one is being frantic.

Crafts are good for reducing stress because they engage the hands as well as the mind. Dancing and other physical activities have the extra benefit of increasing endorphins through exercise. Writing can help to organize thoughts and give insight. Most artwork has similar benefits to crafts, with the added benefits of writing because the use of imagery in art is closer to the mental processing of creative writing. The quickest way to reduce stress using art is to draw a mandala. Mandalas are nothing more than images done in a circle. The circular boundary of mandala brings to mind wholeness or the intention to be whole. It allows a person to focus on themselves mentally, releases tension and gives a holistic way to examine inner conflicts using Jungian principles, if a person is so inclined. Even without in-depth interpretation, just drawing a mandala will quickly bring a sense of peace. However, it is a good idea to look at the mandala from different angles and decide where its true top is and mark that. After a person does that, it can further help to give the mandala a title or name, even if it is only writing down the first word or phrase that comes to mind.

When extreme stress occurs, it is a good idea to go in for a medical check-up. Physical problems will compound the stress felt in any given situation. Also stress can kill a person, so it is important not to neglect the physical component of stress. High blood pressure, indigestion, hives, ulcers, strained muscles, heart palpitations, intestinal problems and headaches are only a few of the physical symptoms of stress. Insomnia is another frequent symptom. If not dealt with early enough, these physical problems will interfere with the body's ability to get the basic needs for coping with stress, placing the person experiencing the stress in an even more stressful situation.

Some signs of extreme anxiety levels are an inappropriate increase in volume and pitch of the voice, talking fast, disjointed sentences and thoughts, hyperventilation, rapid movements, chest pains and tingling in the extremities. It is important when these signs appear to treat them properly and not try to suppress them. Suppression can cause other symptoms to appear or increase the intensity of other signs. By this time, the body is often full of adrenaline that needs to be used in a way that will not create more or counteracted with medication.

It is good to bring these signs to the attention to someone experiencing them, but a very bad idea to expect them to just stop the symptoms. When helping a person through an episode of anxiety or panic, remember that most people realize on some level that their worry or fear does not make much sense and that is part of the stress they are feeling - the fear that they are losing their sanity. Telling them not to think that way or that they are being illogical is not going to accomplish much good. The key is to get them to breathe slowly and deeply and center themselves. Once this occurs, most of the illogical fears and thoughts will correct themselves. Any illogical thoughts that do not go away after the person has calmed down are better handled by a professional counselor, possibly with the help of a medical doctor.

Having social support from a group of people is essential for coping with stress, but one must be careful when choosing the members of this group. They should be educated on any specific problem that they may need to help the person with. This does not have to be an exhaustive formal education of the problem, as much as them knowing what to do and not to do in an emergency. It is a good idea for a person to share with close friends and family anything that could help them help the person in a time of crisis, be it medical or anxiety related. These people also need to have a realistic view of stress and its causes. It is perfectly normal for someone to be “freaked out” after just rescuing a child or frazzled after finding out the pipes have burst, flooding the house and causing them to spend the afternoon sweeping out water. Anyone who makes fun of the person's mental state when they have obviously reacted in a responsible and proper manner to a crisis is not a good source of support and probably not much of a friend. A social support system needs to operate on the principles of acceptance and reality to be effective. Possibly the best relief one can get from stress is a sign of affection from someone who truly cares.

Two other methods of stress reduction not yet mentioned are owning a pet and keeping a person journal. Pets provide not only another focus from the chaos of life, but often a source of unconditional love. In the short term, journal writing helps to organize thoughts and to let the mind release some nagging thoughts, by assuring the person that they will not be lost, thus freeing up part of the consciousness for clearer reasoning. In the long term, rereading a journal every so often gives a person valuable data to help them recognize useful and harmful patterns in their lives, as well as let them see how they have grown and changed. One does not have to write in a journal daily, just regularly. And in this day and age, people can often achieve the same thing by archiving the emails they send friends and family about the events of their lives. True, journal writing is more effective when there is more personal thoughts being recorded, but even a record of normal events can give insights to help reduce stress or at the very least, the comfort of knowing that there is documentation if something is brought to court.

IV. Applications to New Situations

I realize that there is still a lot more I need to learn about dealing with stress on a personal as well as a general level. I also need to work harder at taking care of myself and not let things pile up on me. I hope that in the future I will be able to better apply what I have learned about stress management in my life and the lives of others too, especially my children. I feel that I still limit myself a great deal because of stresses I impose on myself. I am hoping that with age and practice I will gain more knowledge and wisdom, which will allow me to achieve my dreams for a better life for myself and those I care about.

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