Stress

Snyder Lakes cirque, Glacier.

Our case management office (bullpen, as I like to call it in homage to The West Wing [watch the whole clip]) is one big room on the second floor.  It makes for a humor and congenial, if occasionally loud workplace, what with seven not entirely sedate or normal people working there.  So long as we can steal coffee from the family based office down the hall, no one tries to make popcorn while someone else is on the phone, and anything bawdy is erased from the whiteboard before visitors arrive life is free and easy.  I frown upon the tendency to call anyone who is also in the building.  It’s more civilized to talk face to face, and better exercise.  On one of my numerous trips back up the stairs I found that my usual two-at-a-time pace was only sustainable with the invisible yet distinct sensation of steam coming off my thighs.  Which is a reliable sign that I did a good job training/playing this weekend.

A while ago skimo racer and nerd Brian Harder wrote about non-training stress and its role in endurance training, eloquently summarizing a few things I’ve thought for quite some time.  Stress in the physical sense of exercise and stress in the sense of work and family are peculiar bedfellows; both alike and different in fluid ways, the relationship staying emphatically not consistent over the course of a year.  I could say all I want about my particular findings, like the growing taut lightness in my core muscle which finally signals the onset of decent fitness, but they may not generalize at all well to anyone else.  The important lessons are first, that the give and take of turning the navigation of daily living into concrete achievement must be viewed holistically, and second, that for all the vagaries inherent in this process certain subtle markers seem to endure from year to year.

I also agree with Mr. Harder that a lot of folks under-rest.  One reason I try to avoid using alarm clocks unless there is no recourse.

I still struggle to ski without looking like a fool. Mphoto.

The other side of the stress/rest equation, when discussing how the two are transported between work and leisure, is the crucial role of recreational stress in being able to survive a serious job in a sustainable and coherent fashion.  I’ve long since lost track of the times I’ve been asked, in social situations, how I manage to do what I do for work and stay sane.  There is no simple answer, and I’ve seen plenty of folks go off the rez with ugly results, but it is not so different than what most of you are obliged to do.  It seems to me that having a meaningful job means it will be stressful, which in turn means that on regular occasions you’ll wonder why the fuck you aren’t making pizzas/shelving books/something else very different for a/the living.  The same, perhaps identical thing goes for recreation: most of the things which people regularly report as fun in a non-shallow, life-involving way are stressful.  At least occasionally.

For my own part, the only way I can get the professional side of my stress out of head is to be immersed in something else.  Thankfully, I’ve never found that hard to do.  Which is the number one way to stay sane as a social worker: have a life.  If your life is worth living only because of what you do for other people, you will likely sooner than later run out of compelling reasons to get out of bed.

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8 thoughts on “Stress

  1. Good post David. I’ve not done Social Work but I’ve worked as a wilderness counselor with basically the same type of kids. I’ll be interested to follow your posts since I know the kind of kids you’re working with and several of my friends are in very similar jobs to yours.
    The idea of recreational leisure is so important. I tried of lot of new things while on time off, caving, going to Alaska etc. I got more interested in my personal faith too. I agree you need something other than the kids too get you out of bed in the morning. If you base your self esteem on what you can accomplish in that envirnment you’ll get depressed in a hurry.
    It was a good job and a good experience but I left a bit wiser and perhaps a bit more cynical. On the one hand you get emotionally connected (more of a risk in a wilderness setting) on the other you build up an emotional wall so you won’t be hurt if a kid stabs you in the back or just dissapears on a home visit. Kind of a weird feeling. On the one hand you worked hard and made personal sacrifices for your kids, on the other hand you programed yourself not to feel it if all your effort was futile.

  2. “If your life is worth living only because of what you do for other people, you will likely sooner than later run out of compelling reasons to get out of bed.”

    This is, in a nutshell, much of what made my first year of teaching so difficult. It also led to a lot of unhealthy coping behavior in the moments in between work. I love what I do, but I hope that what I do isn’t only defined by where I work. I’m enjoying this new category.

  3. Dave,
    I appreciate nearly all that you write but this new category is what compelled me to finally post a comment. Good work! Please keep it up!

    Luke, isn’t that something similar to the buddhists’ “non-attachment”?

    GR, I agree. I also went over that last sentence a few times.

  4. Thanks everyone. Luke, that’s the central paradox of what I do (and probably worth a post in its own right). Every good outcome meta-analysis I’ve read of mental health treatment points to the clients/patients perception of a substantive relationship between them and the provider (lacking a better word) as one of if not the single most determinative factors. Yet evidence suggests that folks who get too attached are less effective and burn out.

    I’ve yet to be able to succinctly account for that.

  5. Alex – I don’t know much about Buddism so I don’t know specifically. I’m guessing the general idea has been picked up by lots of diverse philosophies.
    Dave – Fun topic. I noticed the same dynamic in stories form World War II vets. Combat soldiers became very close but at the same time they would be guarding against the possiblity of loosing their good friends.

    Its hard to express because sometimes I was pretty emotionally numb to what went on, other times I cared deeply. I think in some ways it was caring “about” the kids. That helps you go the extra mile for them. On the other hand it was not caring what anyone thought of me or getting emotionally wrapped up in my kid’s success (which didn’t ultimately depend on me).

    Heres another thought to think about. Sometimes you are in a extreme situation and you get to know each other whether you want to or not (military unit, long wilderness expedition, etc.). After a lot of experiences together you may think you are really close to someone and you may be. It may also be.
    A. A feeling of closeness based more on fondness for a shared experience than actual closeness to the person.
    B. A feeling of closeness because you know that individual’s personality inside and out. Often this knowledge of a person comes from close friendship but it can be just from proximity.

    1. Amazing picture, Dave. Glacier is so rugged! Nice commentary on stress–agreed, I don’t think stress is entirely bad, especially when it lines up with your values. I imagine physiologically, emotions like excitement share some effects with stress as well.

  6. In my surgical residency, job stress was at an all time high. A perfect storm of long hours (80-110 hrs/week), lack of sleep, stressful, literally life or death situations, stressful working relationships, crap food, feeling (and being) inadequate etc. I had no time for any meaningful exercise, and I don’t honestly know how I survived. I think it had something to do with the fact that 25-30 year olds are extraordinarily hard to kill. The training was/is designed to give one confidence in the worst of situations, and I would say it achieved that goal.

    Now, a one hour technical anaerobic ride does wonders for my overall well being after a hard day. It makes me a happier dad and hubby, and I can’t ask for more.

    On the other hand, I always had my best grades in college when the training stress of swimming was highest and there was no time for anything but the essentials. Eat, study, sleep, swim.

  7. I’d love to see more posts like this. As a public defender for federal cases, my stress level is higher than I even imagined possible. It is really the case that I think to myself, when I want to go home at the end of the day, “What if I go home early and, as a consequence, fail to keep so-and-so out of jail or cut so-and-so’s sentence by some significant amount?” For me, surfing is just about the only thing that can quiet the constant internal self-questioning about my cases — I think it has something to do with the constant attention a swell-bound ocean requires as well as the sheer alienness of that environment.

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