Confessions of a Stress Management Consultant

Confessions of a Stress Management Consultant

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Stress


Confessions of a Stress Management Consultant

Crisis is a great teacher. In 1978 my marriage was crumbling, my thirtieth birthday was approaching, and my three-year-old son was begging me to stop smoking. I was desperate, so I booked a massage, unaware that it would crack open a miracle, allowing peace to slide in and change everything.

Back then I didn’t know what the word relaxation meant. I was a nurse working in the ICU and I lived on the adrenaline. Death and grief were my constant companions. I drank ten cups of regular coffee a day, exercised little, and consumed lots of sugar and fat. I didn’t know what it felt like to be calm, relaxed in my body, connected to my spirit, or have a clear mind that was open, alert, and flexible.

When Mimi, the massage therapist, asked me where I held tension in my body, I didn’t know how to answer her. Unless I had a headache or had hurt myself, I never felt my body. Mimi started with soft rhythmic movements of my limbs, and then kneaded my muscles like I kneaded bread dough. Tension evaporated under her touch. I closed my eyes, drifting to a kinder world, one where there were no divorces, where I was cared for, and where the world managed all on its own. Gliding in and out of a reverie, a thought flitted through my consciousness. Was it possible to feel this good and be alive?

After the session I walked across the street and sat in the park. The spring sun was lighting the leaves in the trees. Black squirrels scrambled up and down, occasionally stopping to gaze at me. Tears rolled down my cheeks and I wondered what had happened. I felt whole and connected to everything. In some deep mysterious place within, I made a decision to live a relaxed life. I didn’t know what it meant, and I never mentioned my desire to anyone. Looking back, I realize it was the first time I had experienced being present, relaxed, and awake. I wanted more. I saw the possibility of living at one with my body, mind, and spirit, a choice that I had never known before.

A month later I began to study massage with a goal to integrate it into my nursing practice. In the 1970s, therapeutic massage in a clinical setting was unheard of. However, in the middle of the night, when every dose of painkiller had been given and pain still roared, my patients were willing to try anything. I witnessed profound miracles. Soon I added visualization, meditation, and guided imagery to my repertoire, even making audiotapes for patients and families to use on their own.

The more I learned, the more I saw a million ways to actively shift an experience of stress into an opportunity for relaxation. By 1986 I was teaching a range of techniques for pain and stress management in hospitals. By invitation, I spent ten days on a pediatric oncology unit in Paris at the Curie Institute. In 1987 I wrote and self-published the booklet, Ten Five-Minute Miracles: How to Relax.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that developing ways to relax had become my spiritual practice. It was also practical. When I slipped on an icy sidewalk and cracked an ankle, I leaned against a building, and using my breath, I put myself into a light meditation. Immediately the pain subsided. Visualizing healing light flowing into my ankle, I did a prayer-mantra, and then walked six blocks to a friend’s home. Another time when I came upon a car accident, I was able to quickly teach a breathing technique to the victim, helping to stabilize him until the ambulance came. When I had to have major abdominal surgery, I was equipped mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, and I was discharged four days earlier than expected. When my friend Jenny was dying, I relied on my methods in order to stay present to her pain, her two-year-old’s grief, and my own sadness.

A part of me believed that if I practiced long and hard enough, I would have no stress in my life. What I’ve learned is that I’m a sensitive, vulnerable human being, and that allowing myself to feel and experience all of life opens me even more to stress. I’ve empowered myself to live fully, not numbing the feelings through old habits such as caffeine, over-eating, smoking, or by focusing on others’ drama. I rejoice to bear witness to ups and downs, calm and terror, simple and complex. I love that I can handle big and little stresses, sometimes gracefully and sometimes with anxiety, until I get my bearings. But the awareness to know the difference, and to have that choice, is truly a life-giving miracle.

~ Shirley Dunn Perry ~

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