Take a Chill Pill: Reducing Stress (for Parents or Teachers of the Gifted)

Take a Chill Pill: Reducing Stress (for Parents or Teachers of the Gifted)

By Marc Caplan 

I struggled for quite some time, after I was assigned the topic of stress reduction, trying to formulate what it was I was going to say to you about stress, and, more importantly, coping with it. Generally, I’m not often at a loss for words. Yet, as I began to organize my thoughts about this presentation, I frightened myself with the prospect of not having anything, or at least not having enough, to say. I began to think that perhaps I shouldn’t have volunteered for this. Actually, I didn’t volunteer for this. I believe if memory serves me, I was volunteered for this. I asked my wife (who, by the way, was the one who volunteered me) exactly what it was that I was to write on. Basically she said anything I want about being stressed. That did nothing but elevate my anxiety. The least she could have done was give me guidance or advice. It is far easier to travel down a road than to be left at an intersection trying to decide on a direction.

I could save myself and you a great deal of time and effort and simply give you the secret of how to manage stress and reduce the impact stress may have on you. Who wants to put in the time, effort, and energy to hear about what most of you already have heard at some point in time? So, who wants the simple solution?

Well, I’ll give you the choice. I’ll give you the simple solution and then you can decide whether you want to read “the rest of the story.”

The Simple Solution

Here’s what I want you to do to manage the stress in your life.

This is the one completely effective scheme for stress management. It doesn’t work for everyone, and it’s not easy even if you can pull it off, but it is completely effective. There are four basic steps:

Compose a list of personal stressors. On 3 x 5 inch index cards, write down every stressor you can think of that affects you. Use one card per stressor. Search, dig around, and record everything in life that bothers you. (You may need lots of cards!)

  1. Field test and complete your list. When you can think of no more, alphabetize your cards and carry them around with you for a few weeks. (When I did this I found that I needed a small wagon.) Each time you encounter something that bothers or upsets you, check your cards to see if you have included it. If you already have a card for that situation, proceed with life. If not, make one. Do this for every problem you encounter for several weeks. In fact, you might want to keep it up until you are no longer encountering situations requiring new cards, and you are satisfied that your list of stressors is complete.
  2. Memorize the list. Sit down and memorize it. Make sure you have a complete mental listing of all your stressors.
  3. Never do any of those things again. Avoid all stressors in your life. Never again expose yourself to any of the situations you have recorded and memorized. With no stressors, your problems will be over. You can go sit on the beach and drool.

This strategy is called avoidance. If you successfully avoid all stress, your life will be about as interesting as a bowl of lukewarm tapioca pudding. You must also be prepared to forget about your dreams and goals. Stressors are necessary to get what we strive for in life. (Caplan, M.A., 2006)

The impact of stress is varied, but frequently it can take a toll on each of us physically and mentally, as well as on our relationships with family and friends. Stress also has an effect on decision making as well as on how we go about resolving conflicts within us or between people. I’m sure none of this is new to any of you. We hear about the effects of stress constantly and observe the effects first hand in others and in ourselves. Each of us can cite personal experiences about the health effects of stress. It’s akin to the “weak link” concept, such that under significant stress, whether it’s genetically or experientially based, the weakest organ system succumbs to the effects of chronic stressors. For me, it’s my back. I can always tell when I’ve been under a lot of stress for a long period of time. My back stiffens up or begins to ache. For others, its headache, cardiovascular, immune system, musculature, skin, or other such organic systems that are impacted by the effects of stress.

Stress also has an impact on decision making. There are a number of models regarding how people go about making decisions. Some of these models, such as rational-choice models, assume that decision makers like you deliberately choose their courses of action on a rational basis by taking account of the values and the probabilities of the consequences. But, these models run into trouble for several reasons. We simply cannot understand and keep in mind all the relevant information needed for an optimal solution. Nor can we possibly know about all possible cause and effect relationships. Importantly, emotions have a significant impact on the cognitive processes involved in decision making. These factors affect decision making and, in turn, as decisions become more difficult and complex, the stress level increases. It’s cyclical … like the snake swallowing its tail.

Those of you who parent or work with gifted students probably share many of the same traits as these children. That is, you may be intense with a tendency toward being over-excitable in a number of different areas: intellectually, psychomotor, emotionally, or any of the other excitabilities. You may be perfectionistic or curious; you are creative, and you challenge others. Just as with gifted children, any one of these behaviors can be problems in their own right. When viewed in relationship to the environment in which you live and work, these qualities can both serve you well or become the basis for significant stress. The quality of perfectionism is a good example. It can serve you well in the sense that the quality of your work and professionalism is held in high esteem because you insist on performing well; you expect a lot of yourself (and perhaps others). Or it can serve to interfere with functioning because it tears you up that the rest of the world doesn’t comply with your expectations. Or, your intensity drives others crazy, and, therefore, your relationships suffer.

What do we do about the stress in our lives? The usual strategies such as getting enough exercise and enough sleep work well, but I would like to offer another strategy: humor. Humor helps us cope. It helps remove us from our pain. If I have learned anything thus far in my 60 years, it is to trust life’s processes and to learn from them. I have to frequently remind myself that I don’t, nor can I, have all the answers. I can’t fix everything, and of those things I can fix, it is usually not in short-order fashion. Sometimes I have to be content with the knowledge that I am only part of the process. Sometimes I can only kick start it and then must trust the process to continue on its own. Charlie Chaplin once said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” We get so caught up in our everyday struggles that we forget to step back and see the comic absurdity of some of our actions.

Oscar Wilde said, “Life is far too important to take seriously.” So, learn not to take yourself too seriously. In fact, never take life seriously! Nobody gets out alive anyway.

There are several ways humor can help us address the stress.

1. Humor gives us power. It gives us a tool to transcend our predicaments. Often, we are powerless against the events in our life and there is little we can do to stop the things that upset us. By finding some humor in them we can minimize the hold that these upsets have over us. Humor helps us cope with intolerable and frightening situations.

2. Humor helps us cope. Humor helps us cope in several ways. It draws our attention away from our upsets. By focusing our energy elsewhere, humor can diffuse our stressful events. It releases built up tension and “pops the cork” off such things as fear, hostility, rage, and anger. Most current research suggests that it is not the larger losses and changes in our life that are the greatest threat to our health. It’s the daily stresses that go unchecked during a period of time that seem to take the greatest toll and are more likely to perpetuate illness.

3. Humor provides perspective. There are many ways to find and add humor to your day and to those events that cause upset and distress. I am sure most of you have utilized various humorous approaches, including exaggeration. I can’t tell you how often I have heard the lament, “There’s no one who will ever love me” or “Everyone hates me” from the gifted children I treat. My response is to express how difficult and how long it must have taken him or her to check with the 6 billion or so people in the world. Or I share my favorite story told by Allen Klein (The Healing Power of Humor, 1989) about a man who went to the rabbi to lament about the crowded conditions of his house.

“Rabbi,” said the man, “My house is so small. With my wife, my children, and my in-laws living in one room, we are always getting in each other’s way. We are always yelling at one another. I don’t know what to do.” The Rabbi asked if the man had a cow, and when he answered yes the Rabbi advised the man to move the cow into the house.

Perplexed, the man left, but did as he was told. He returned a week later to report that things were even more unpleasant than before. “Move your two goats into the house also,” the Rabbi advised. Once again the man followed the Rabbi’s advice but returned later to say the situation was even worse than before.

The Rabbi asked the man what other animals he had; he answered that he also had a dog, and some chickens. Move those into the house as well, the Rabbi advised. Bewildered, the man went home and followed the advice of the scholar.

This time when the man returned he was screaming. “It is unbearable. I’ve got to do something. I’m going out of my mind.”

“Listen carefully,” said the Rabbi, “Take the cow and put it in the barn. Move the goats into the yard. Put the dog outside and return the chickens to the coop, then come back and see me in a few days.”

When the man returned, he was elated. “With only my wife, my children, and my in-laws in the house, there’s so much room. What an improvement.”

Humor is an often overlooked tool. “If you can find humor in anything, you can survive it.” (Bill Cosby).