Tag Archives: stress

Moving beyond trauma

In the mid-1980’s, I participated in a clinical trial conducted by the Women’s Hospital in Philadelphia; the goal was to see if the treatment used with Vietnam Veterans to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would be effective for women who were survivors of sexual assault.

I was recently reminded of this clinical trial when I was cleaning out my file cabinet and found four dog-eared index cards.

Each three-by-five card had a heading, written in someone else’s cursive.

  1. Preparing for a stressor
  2. Confronting and handling a stressor
  3. Coping with feelings of being overwhelmed
  4. Reinforcing self-statements

Beneath each heading, in my own writing, are prompts and personal messages.

I don’t remember much about the program—how many weeks or months it lasted, if sessions were once or twice a week—but I do remember driving to North Philadelphia and meeting one-to-one with a therapist.

Reading these messages that I had written to my younger self, I realized that I have internalized many of the practices I was taught in this program.

The treatment focused on modifying behaviors, and one exercise I have practiced over the years is interrupting negative thoughts. The idea is to notice when my thoughts are spiraling downward and I am starting to feel overwhelmed; then I shout STOP.stop sign

It does not matter if I shout out loud or in just in my mind, the shouting interrupts the negative thought process and gives me a chance to change direction and regain control. For me, this has been an effective thought-changing process that has helped steer me away from negativity.

On the first card, under the heading Preparing for a stressor, I wrote three questions:

  1. What is it I have to do?
  2. What am I afraid of?
  3. What is the likelihood of anything bad happening?

Beneath those questions, I instructed myself to “get beyond my feelings to do the work that has to be done.” And then I affirmed myself: “I’ve made a lot of progress; I’ve come this far; I can keep going.”

Some of the notes to myself on the other cards include:

“Other people can do this; so can I.”

“Focus on plan of action.”

“There are people involved whom I can trust.”

“It will be over soon.”

“The anxiety (fear) will slow me down but I will not be incapacitated by it.”

The fourth card is a list of affirmations, including:

“Nothing succeeds like success.”

“Good job—pat yourself on the back.”

I don’t know the outcome of that clinical trial, but for me, the treatment was helpful, and over the years, I can see how I have built on what I learned. For example, after accomplishing a task that is particularly stressful, I now say, “Bask in the glow of success” which, to me, is a step beyond patting myself on the back.

I know that my faith was primarily what got me through that trauma, and the clinical trial at Women’s Hospital was a gift. I am grateful.






Did someone say apple fritter?

Living in l’Arche was a difficult experience for me for several reasons. One was that I went from living with one person to living with ten. Seven were Canadians and the others were from Germany, England and Ireland. The Englishman and the Irish woman did not get along, and their continual bickering provided a low-level background stress to everyday life.

The Irish woman cooked a lot and she loved sauces. I used to joke that she never met a food she could not improve with sauce. Cream and cheese sauces were not previously part of my diet, and my body did not adjust well, so I would nibble at meals and leave the table hungry.

Then there was the whole psycho-spiritual realm, where God was inviting me to stretch in ways that seemed like I was being asked to be a contortionist. I just was not very good at it; and I was not good at dealing with the fact that I was not good at it.

Between the stress and the lower caloric intake, I began to lose weight. By the end of my second month in l’Arche, I had dropped twenty pounds. It was not good, and I knew I needed to do something to stave off further weight loss.

Enter the apple fritter.

I don’t remember how I discovered this little wonder, but once I did, I was smitten. Before the apple fritter, I was committed to chocolate and would rarely eat snacks that did not contain chocolate. Why waste the calories? But there I was, cheating on chocolate with fried dough laced with fruit.

I had one free day each week and I usually spent it wandering around Winnipeg indulging my newly-discovered passion for apple fritters. I ventured into donut shops, grocery stores and bakeries in search of apple fritters. I am not proud to admit that some days I would have more than one. It was my secret, guilty pleasure.

When I left Canada, I thought I had left apple fritters behind.

But then I started a new job and found myself craving apple fritters. The stress of that job continued for several months, long enough for me to find several apple fritter dispensaries nearby.

In time, the job got easier and my fritter craving dissipated.

Fast forward to my move to Michigan. More stress, more weight loss, more apple fritter cravings. Back to the hunt for apple fritters.

Fortunately, apple fritters are not confined to the borders of Canada, and I am free to indulge whenever I want. (And, to my credit, I have not crossed into Windsor for a Canadian apple fritter fix.)

I have come to think of the apple fritter as my stress-o-meter. When I am craving one, I know I am highly stressed.

I also know there are healthier ways to deal with stress than high-calorie, low-nutrition fried dough (although I tell myself the apples count as a fruit serving), and one of my New Year’s resolutions was to cut back on my apple fritter consumption and concentrate more on exercise and meditation.

So far, I have only had one apple fritter in 2015—and I started Pilates today.

Whatever’s Easiest

“Whatever’s easiest” was a phrase Jim and I adopted during his illness. Dealing with cancer—doctors, nurses, treatments, etc.—was hard enough, so when we had choices, we chose whatever was easiest.

That phrase came to me recently when the battery in my car died. I had just made my last shopping stop before going to meet a friend. We had plans to go to an art fair for the afternoon and then I was cooking supper. I turned the key in the ignition and after a few clicks, nothing.

Fortunately, I have AAA roadside service, and this is exactly the moment when I am deeply grateful for it. I called and after a relatively short wait (I once waited for three hours for a tow truck in downtown Philadelphia, so I have some perspective here), the truck arrived and the operator confirmed the problem was my battery. He jump-started the car and then told me he had a replacement battery in his truck if I wanted to purchase it then and there.

My battery was five years old and after four rather balmy Philadelphia winters, it had survived the polar vortex of last winter in Michigan. I was not surprised that it had died.

I asked how much it would cost, and it sounded like too much; but, in that moment, “whatever’s easiest” popped into my mind. I could imagine getting home with a recharged battery that would be dead by morning or driving to a store to buy a battery (it was Sunday so my regular mechanic was closed), but that could take a while and would probably mean missing the art fair.

So I bought the battery and ten minutes later, I was happily on my way with the battery incident behind me.

While Jim was sick and after he died, I kept saying I wanted to remember the lessons I learned while caring for him. I am glad this one stuck.

Life, even without cancer, can be hard enough. A dead battery could become an event—or I could choose the easiest route to getting it fixed.

I am grateful for the lessons I have had on prioritizing what is important and for the resources to be able to make choices; life is too short to waste time and energy on a car battery.