De-stressing with O.T.S.

Funny short story:

Hubby and I are at the local pub having a Guinness. Naturally, the big-screen televisions are on, and he asks me, “Are you watching the basketball game?”

Are you kidding?! I think to myself, and answer, “No.”

There’s a slight pause, then he asks, “Are you staring at the ceiling fan?”


Well you know, I’m there to relax, right? Chatting with hubby about life, and enjoying my ale is only part of that.

A pal of mine is very stressed. Sadly, this is a common problem. But even worse, over the years the repertoire of natural coping methods have been so discouraged, extinguished or suppressed that my pal can hardly name what is helpful. Now that is really sad.

We all have ways of dealing with stresses. They can be roughly divided into three general categories: organisation [O], timing [T], and soothing activities [S]. I have denoted each with an initial because the text flow did not easily lend to listing these in categorical sections.

Prevention [O]: We avoid situations that we know will be stressful. Sometimes we can have someone else do a task for us, or set things up so the task does not actually have to be done.

For example, automatic paycheck deposits eliminate the need for stopping by the bank to make deposits, and automatic bill payments eliminate the need to keep track of bills, remember to pay them on time, write out checks, purchase and keep track of stamps and get them on the envelopes, mailing the bills, and doing the checking account balance.

TIP: I finally got smarter — I keep my stamps in my checkbook because paying bills is when I usually need a stamp. And if I’m at the post office with a parcel, then I can check my supply of stamps when I pay for the parcel.

Limiting [T]: We reduce how much time we spend in unavoidable situations that are stressful. Frequently we do that by carrying on as much communication through e-mail or other indirect means. “Indirect” in this case means not engaging in face-to-face meetings where we have to have to recognise people, do all the cognitive work of listening — recalling — answering, possibly engage in a lot of eye-contact, and get to and from the meeting place. (Oh, and of course, remember the appointment, figure out what you need to take, and get there on time. ::sigh:: )

Having someone come visit your home or office eliminates the need to travel. You also have a pretty good idea that if Joe has a 1:00 appointment, and a guy shows up around 1:00 looking for you, it’s probably Joe. But receiving visitors also creates stress because someone is imposing upon your personal space or safe zone. Most of us have far larger “personal spaces” than the average person of our local culture does.

If you cannot easily conclude the meeting, that may reduce how much control you have over the duration. I have seen some people conduct meetings in places without chairs, because this prevents inertia from settling in and the meeting droning on past the point of productivity. (Of course, for someone using a wheelchair, a standing-only meeting would be rather uncomfortable from both ergonomic and interpersonal perspectives.)

One of the best ways to limit meeting time is to be prepared, so the meeting can be conducted more efficiently.

Preparedness [O]: We can reduce considerable stress by getting information together ahead of time, and put it into a format that we can easily refer to when meeting with people.

Handouts for the others are especially useful so we don’t have to recall everything. Sometimes we can even prevent having to present all the details, and can just refer to the points in brief. Handouts can even reduce a certain amount of the NT discussion-fluff by distilling necessary information, rather than everyone going through what each of them thought was going on, with the whole recursive conversational process of: polite enquiry — self-deprecating remarks — presenting information — complimenting everyone — comparing information — repeating self-deprecating remarks — confirming information — and more compliments. (No wonder meetings take so damn long!) Handouts are also vital if you want to be sure that others will not mis-remember or forget important details.

For example, I have a piece of paper in my wallet with my diagnoses, medications, doctors, and drug reactions; all the docs and nurses love this as they can just photocopy the current version for my charts. Before I meet doctors, I make myself a note card with a list of symptoms, the intensity and duration of those symptoms, and what kinds of questions I want to ask. This really helps because by the time I have described most of the “reasons for this visit” information to the nurse who does the initial assessment, I have trouble remembering what all I need to say to the doctor, much less remembering what I have told whom.

The same kinds of details are helpful for meeting with people, such as SpEd committees. Sometimes I make discrete notes about how I want to interact at the meeting, such as what kinds of enquiries would make good warm-fuzzy chit-chat with the people, or how I want to introduce issues in a manner that demonstrates common concerns and offers cooperative resolutions.

TIP: I also like to bring a printed agenda. Amazingly, if yours is the only agenda, people will often default to it in a kind of bureaucratic autopilot. (“Paper beats rock” — printed public agendas beat out individual’s mental lists.)

Spacing in Time [T]: Giving ourselves down-time between especially stressful things during our day. In school this may be scheduling classes with break periods between them, or having classes on different days. If travelling to a meeting, then we allow an extra day (or at least a night) to get settled in and acclimate and prepare, rather than arriving somewhere after hours of travel and then having a meeting right after checking into a hotel.

It should be noted however, that putting things off can also increase stress by creating free-floating anxiety related to the anticipation of the event. Sadly, even if we’re good at procrastinating getting things done, we can’t always seem to put the stress on “hold” as well. Worrying is not the same thing as being concerned or being prepared. Being prepared will reduce worrying. Worrying in contrast is what happens when being concerned goes beyond what is reasonable or useful. There is nothing virtuous or beneficial about worrying just to be worrying.

Spacing in Place [T]: Maybe we could call this “spacing out in place” because that’s what often happens. In this case, we’re taking a break by changing locations, removing ourselves from the noisy, crowded parts of the building to the quieter, more solitary places. It may not be a long break in time, but by giving ourselves a break from the overstimulation, we can relax and recharge a little before tackling the next event.

Some kinds of buildings are hard to find “safe zones”. It does no good for a boss to say that you “have an office” when all you have is three and a half cubicle divider walls in a giant “cube farm” full of noisy people with their two dozen lunch odors, numerous phones, the drone of countless pieces of electronic equipment, and endless racks of flickery fluorescent lights. There is a bit less of the feeling that one is constantly on display, but still no effective quiet zone. Sometimes there are odd quiet places, like the supply room, atria at the ends of corridors, storm shelters, and of course, toilets located in a less-used part of the building (basement, top, or corner locations). Even going on brief “office building infiltration” excursions to find underused nooks can be a short mental vacation. It would be nice if there were more quiet places to rest outdoors; sadly, most of the ones around here have been colonized by the nicotine addicts who aren’t allowed to smoke in classrooms or offices.

Stimming [S]: We can de-stress between situations, and also during situations. Ways of de-stressing vary considerably from one person to another, and can include things like: rocking or swinging; watching the surf, flickering wind-blown tree leaves, a spinning ceiling fan, or a sparkling waterfall; shuffling around manipulatives (buttons, marbles, smooth stones, tiles et cetera); watching the screen saver, or graphic equalizer of the music player; running hands through sand or small pellets; petting animals or soft fabrics … stims are sensory in nature, and are not generally “hobby” activities.

A lot of stimming activities are done to help channel fidgety ADHD energy, and/or to reduce stress. The sensory input of a favorite stim can also help focus the attention. Focus reduces the number of stimulus inputs and allows the brain to process fewer sensory channels, thus making them more manageable. Limiting the number of input channels also makes it easier to process the sensory channel(s) that we do need to attend to.

For example, staring at something pleasant instead of trying to attend to a lot of eye contact will allow for more attention and active memory to devote to auditory processing. Wrapping one’s forearms and/or hands up in snug gloves, bandannas, tape or elastic bandage may help re-direct attention from the distractions and annoyances of clothes, shoes, air currents ruffling skin and hair, or chair upholstery.

Energetic de-stressing [S]: Exercise is great for increasing endorphins, for using up nervous energy, for improving physical condition, and for releasing knots of stored tension. Rhythmic activities are especially good, such as jumping on a trampoline, running, dancing, bicycling, skating, or even raking.

Calming de-stressing [S]: Quiet activities give the chance to take a break from life. Many of these are sensory activities but are distinguished from stims in that they are often related to hobby activities (which somehow makes them all socially acceptable): meditation or prayer; assembling puzzles; doing paper games like crosswords, sudoku, cryptograms, or folding origami; playing video games or computer puzzles like Planarity or Tetris; knitting, crocheting, quilting or embroidery; squeezing stress-balls, kneading dough, winding new skeins of yarn into balls … the number of possibilities are huge.

Don’t ask me why some sensory stims like watching the surf or fountains are considered “normal” but other sensory stims like staring at flickering tree leaves or spinning ceiling fans are considered “abnormal”. Culture is something that develops over time, and is often full of inconsistencies. Sometimes all one has to do is to point them out, “Some people like to watch the surf; I like to watch ceiling fans. It’s great — no sand in your shorts!”

So readers, I would like to take an information-gathering survey and ask, “What do you do to deal with stress?”



  1. diddums said,

    28 February 2008 at 20:00

    I take a shopping trolley (or wheelie bag) with me when I go out, preferably a quiet one that doesn’t squeak or rattle. It helps me to feel I’ve got my own personal space — it’s something to lean on or turn to, and keep people from treading on your heels. Furthermore, I haven’t had to lump heavy bags around ever since I thought of it!

  2. abfh said,

    28 February 2008 at 18:04

    Eat chocolate at my desk, wiggle my toes, take breaks to read blogs or play solitaire, and exercise regularly (both to de-stress and to work off those chocolate calories). I find gardening very relaxing too, but unfortunately I live too far north to do anything outdoors this time of year. Spring is not far away, though…

  3. 28 February 2008 at 16:30

    Tapping is great. I click my teeth in a variety of patterns. I also tap fingers, feet, etc. My big toe is nice and hypermobile which makes for good tapping!

    I like staring at moving things, too. My Girl got me one of those seventies-style lava lamps which is hugely mesmorizing. Having the TV on in the background without watching it, while doing something else – so that I can zone in and out of it occasionally – is very good for the bits of my thinking that float around aimlessly. Playing with the shapes of the numbers on my digital clock in my head. Playing with very tactile things like my ring. And the old standard that I try to avoid but don’t always succeed – biting my nails!

    Great post.

  4. Bad mommy said,

    28 February 2008 at 14:35

    Solitaire. I can even play in my head if I have to. Keeping track of 52 cards in your head crowds out a lot of other things.

    I also like music. And a shower. When I close the curtain, with the white noise and the steady pounding of the shower (it’s not one of those annoying, soft “rain” heads) I can block out a lot.

    At work or in a crowded setting it is difficult. Luckily there is solitaire on the computer! But in a wedding reception or something, I have trouble coming up with ways to get a break. I like to step outside – I like the difference in air pressure. Otherwise, it’s the old bathroom stall for me, as well.

  5. Ms. Clark said,

    28 February 2008 at 6:56

    Oh, also sit near a wall where you can lean into it if you want to.

  6. Ms. Clark said,

    28 February 2008 at 6:55

    One thing I liked to do while taking exams when I was in college (not that long ago) was to put a tin of mints (that I like) on the desk, and maybe a special pen or pencil. Being able to eat a mint whenever I felt like it gave me this little bit of control. In the testing situation there are only some things that are acceptable behavior, you can’t say let your eyes glaze over and stare if you might be staring at someone’s paper, that sort of thing. And you can’t move around, and so forth… but they might let you have a cup of coffee or tea and they would let you have mints on the desk with the test form and the pencil.

    Other than that I really try to avoid any place that is noisy or has lots of people in it. That cubicle farm place would make me crazy in 2 seconds. I couldn’t work there period.

    but yeah, hiding out in bathroom stalls (at least for a while) is one thing a person can do, say at a wedding or something that is unavoidable…

  7. Bev said,

    28 February 2008 at 4:25

    Chirping, pacing, square drawing, stretching, interacting with bricks and tiles and repeating the word “ticket.” Ticket ticket ticket ticket ticket.

%d bloggers like this: