Up Close With Dr. E

Creating a blueprint for stress reduction


Introduction: If a friend said, “I’m so stressed out I can’t think straight,” you’d know exactly what they meant: harsh life events called “stressors” had overwhelmed them. If your friend then said, “I can’t sleep, I’m exhausted, my stomach burns,” you’d recognize their symptoms as a “warning bell,” alerting them to act.

But, if your friend beseeched you, “tell me how to reduce my stress,” what would you say? Could you provide them a blueprint for stress management? If you could, then you would be giving them one of life’s greatest gifts — good health. How so?

Stress management skills have a new name: Prevention programs for diabetes II, insomnia, high blood pressure, obesity and clinical depression. Today’s two-part article is your blueprint for stress reduction.

Ready? Between Fort Francis, Canada and International Falls, Minnesota, lies Rainy Lake, a vast waterway which encompasses Voyagers National Park. Today’s story begins with a woman named Julie, who, hoping that the beauty of nature could help restore her health, has rented a cabin on the lake.

Julie opened the front door of the cabin and stepped out into the night. She walked down to the dock which, like a narrow wooden tongue, jutted out into the heart of Rainy Lake. When she reached the end of the dock, she sat down.

Storm clouds scudded high above, obscuring the night sky. “Moon, stars, Milky Way,” Julie thought, “Where are you hiding?” A breeze began to blow, and the lake rippled. Julie leaned forward into the wind and waited. 

Like a swelling spring bud, her face blossomed into a grin, upon seeing this: a thin red ribbon of light pried up the eastern edge of night, and the day was reborn in a soft, blue blanket of new sky. Julie had awoken early to see this sunrise. But when the sun began to warm her face, a deeper cord was struck. She felt a profound sense of peace, where the dock, lake, sun and sky had become a refuge for renewal, a place of peace.

She laid down on her back and watched the morning clouds sail by. But then, like the faces of Presidents carved into Mt. Rushmore, Julie saw her father’s image hovering in the sky. Pierre Curie, born and raised in Paris, France, had a distinguished face: prominent nose, ivory teeth framed by chipmunk cheeks, and a luxuriant, brown mustache.

“Daddy, why did you leave me?” Julie fished out a photo from her pocket. Taken six years ago, it was the last picture of her entire family together: Maggie, her 80-year-old mother in poor health, Paul, Julie’s only child who had deployed to Iraq, and Pierre, who died before Julie turned 40. The photo had been taken in her father’s flower shop, “Le Papillon,” which Julie now owned.

Julie dipped her toes into the lake as memories bubbled up.

The Drake Hotel, Chicago: Stroll up the Magnificent Mile in Chicago and you will see two iconic images: Lake Michigan and the Drake Hotel. On the ground floor of the Drake sits the shop where Julie and Maggie had just finished the flower arrangements for the Baxter wedding reception.

When Julie heard Mrs. Baxter, the bride’s mother, screaming at Maggie, Julie stepped in. “Calm down Mrs. Baxter, I’ll ...” Mrs. Baxter chopped the air in front of her, wielding her signed check like a knife.

“Your flowers,” chop, chop, “are cheap,” chop, chop. “Redo them now!” Julie snatched the check from Mrs. Baxter, ripped it up and exploded, “Get out!” A piercing pain shot through Julie’s chest. Her left arm went numb; down she fell.

Emergency Room: Maggie held Julie’s hands, as Julie woke up. “Mom, what happened?” “Oh, Julie, I thought you had a stroke or heart attack, but you didn’t. The doctor told me you had a severe stress reaction and, oh, Julie, it’s all my fault! You should sell that damn shop.”

“Mom, Dad would want me to keep the shop. Did the doctor tell you my diagnosis?” “Yes: hypertension, gastritis, esophageal reflux disorder, obesity, insomnia, anxiety disorder.”

Six months later: Office visit #1: Dr. Brown, a clinical psychologist, began: “Julie, here is a useful model: A car has a brake pedal, a gas pedal and cruise control. If your brakes are worn out, you will crash. If your cruise control is stuck at high speed, you will also crash.

Your nervous system has a gas pedal, the “fight or flight response,” triggered by danger. The brake for your nervous system, called the “rest or digest” response, is triggered by relaxing music, prayer, a good meal and secure relationships. Here’s your problem: Your brakes are worn out and your gas pedal is stuck down by your cruise control, at 100 mph (your fight or flight response is stuck in the alarm stage, forcing you to overreact to every tiny event which threatens you).”

Confused, Julie asked, “What did I do to turn my nervous system into the Indy 500 race?”

Dr. Brown continued, “Whenever your stressors exceed your resources, a stress illness occurs. Here is why you are in trouble — caretaker for your mother, job pressure, son off to war, need for perfection and no romantic or social support.”

“So, what can I do,” Julie asked. Dr. Brown replied, “Let’s create your blueprint for stress management. See you next week!”

The content of this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional. The characters in this story are not real. Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.


Dr. Richard Elghammer contributes his column each week to the Journal Review.


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