SRN Spotlight on Unsung Heroes in the Fight Against Stress: Dr. Maggie Martin
Director of Student Development
Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College
Chair Elect, CDA; Current Coordinator of the CRN; Past Chair.
Secretary of RACDS; University System of Georgia
President of GA-AHEAD (includes USG institutions, Private Institutions and Technical Colleges)
SP: How long have you been professionally involved in stress reduction?
A: I saw my first client as a therapist in June 1984 so a few years
SP: Have you held specific titles and responsibilities for stress reduction on your job?
A: I believe the title, “Counselor/Therapist” alone invites discussion about peoples’ lives. And people talk about their problems—they seek understanding, resolutions, normalcy, right? So just the professional title, “Counselor” might suggest an opportunity, an avenue, for stress reduction. As far as the “responsibilities” the answer is: absolutely. Whether through one-on-one therapy, educational workshops, as an invited guest classroom lecturer, offering screening sessions or handouts/brochures, as well as referral for medical attention, psychiatric support or other specialized support (e.g., nutritional, Vocational Rehabilitation) working in a college counseling center is very much about helping students find healthy ways to manage stress. Key word: healthy. Oh, yes—and helping faculty and staff, as well as parents/family members—deal with stress effectively. And that key word, again, healthfully!
SP: Have you developed specific programs, workshops or presentations to address stress for your students/clients?
A: Yes. I have been blessed by knowing so many wonderful professionals like Dr. Parker who have shared ideas, programs, handouts, thoughts and consultation with me. In addition, there is so much literature ‘out there’ in the fields of counseling, medicine, psychology, chiropractic medicine, religion, biology, and so on about stress. I encourage my students to read all they can (internet can be a great resource!) about stress, anxiety, depression—they can be intertwined. It seems, unfortunately, common to not have one of these concerns without another.
SP: Describe the program(s) including the name or title, goals and outcomes.
A: Of course the typical, “Stress Management” titled programs seems to grab attention. I purchase the Channing-Bete brochures for the counseling center and the one titled, “Stress Management” is hard to keep in stock! However, I prefer when giving presentations to have a more indirect approach so I address issues that often bring stress to students’ lives. For example, I can offer a presentation on relationships (students love that topic) and then address abusive behaviors. If I presented “Abusive Relationships” I doubt I would have anybody show. It is baffling how so many students do not know or are aware of the many forms of abuse. They may not be aware that limiting time with friends and family, name-calling, shoving, yelling, pinching, controlling cell phone/texting use are forms of abuse. “Dream Interpretation” can be a fun way to use dreams to increase self-understanding about issues that may be smoldering in a student’s psyche, or as a lead in to a discussion about what constitutes healthy sleep. “Time Management” is a workshop all about reducing stress. “Handling the Holidays” can be an emotional topic and it is rewarding to help students find ways to equip themselves with healthy ways to face the holidays and semester breaks if home is not healthy for the student. Some of our Community Assistants present “SPA DAY” where they have different stations/tables set up in a room for students or professional volunteers to give a neck rub, a hand rub, a manicure or pedicure, samples of healthy beverages and snacks, a Swiss ball for simple but great exercises, head phones for relaxation tapes and music, and so on in introducing inexpensive but great ways to incorporate healthy ways of managing stress. It also helps them connect with other students.
A FOOD and SOCIAL time is really important after every event so students have a chance to mingle with each other. It is hard to do this after a class presentation but I always hand out the Center brochure that includes my credentials, office location and contact information before my discussion so they can contact me later.
SP: What are the primary stressors faced by your students/clients you have observed or discovered?
A: Money problems (especially with the economy now—I have so many students trying to help their parents out financially), relationships (dating, roommates, family), anger, family problems (divorce, health, children), history of incest, psychiatric history, not adhering to medical regimen (e.g., not taking prescribed medication for diagnosed disorders including Bi-Polar/Manic-Depressive, ADD, depression), relationships abuse, time management, unhealthy behaviors (substance abuse, poor dietary habits, lack of exercise, minimal sleep, caffeine over-use), serial monogamy, obesity, legal issues (e.g., underage possession of alcohol, marijuana possession), acquaintance rape, sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, eating disorders, cultural issues, sexual identity/orientation/coming out, denial of having a disability and not using approved accommodations, being placed on academic probation/suspension, test anxiety, low self-esteem, first generation students, fear of failure, fear of success. That touches the surface.
SP: What approaches have you used to help your students/clients cope with their stress?
A: Educate, educate and educate. Students, typically, at first do not understand why I want them to learn all they can about what they are struggling with and want to eliminate! “Really? You want me to read about something I hate feeling?” I encourage them to realize that they more they know about something (stress, anxiety, depression) the more they will understand it. Then the constellations of sensations that go along are not so frightening. For example, “I now realize that when my hands start shaking and my chest is feeling tight, I am not going to die. I need to think my calm thoughts that Dr. Martin encouraged me to create and I have been rehearsing, do my deep breathing, sip some water and I will be fine.” I love teaching students about the “Fight or Flight Theory.” Some may have learned about it in Introduction to Psychology or Biology but they have not yet learned to apply it to themselves. It is so cool seeing them learn to reframe the four letter words: exam, test, quiz, into something that they no longer need to have a prehistoric life-or-death response to when they can give themselves positive messages instead!
1) Embrace, embrace and embrace. Students look at me with ‘this look’ I have found to be predictable (the “Really?” look again) until I explain what I mean but I do have their attention! I use the ‘sand metaphor’. I do not know who developed it so cannot give credit to the creator but whoever it is gave a gift! The metaphor is that I give my student a handful of sand that I want to get back in an hour. I ask what would happen if the student clenched his/her hands together to hold the sand. They usually figure out that they would squeeze it/choke it and there would not be any sand left. Then I ask what if the student just sat calmly and held my sand until I came back for it? They almost always say that they would have my sand for me. So then we talk about the parts of us that we may not like or want but that, they too, are a part of us and that we need to embrace those parts kindly and gently just as they did the sand. I use the line, “This, too, is a part of me. I may not like it, but now I can work with it.” Repeatedly, I see a look of relief on students’ faces. It is as though the fight is over. They learn to ‘hold the sand.’
2) Listen. It seems so easy to get ‘caught up’ in life and the ‘rat race’ that we lose touch with our inner voice/the siren/the flag/intuition….whatever we call it. When a student is referred to me, especially if the student has had an angry outburst on campus or has made unhealthy choices (e.g., arrested for underage possession), I always ask, “You know that voice inside?” They always answer, “Yes.” I then ask, “Where was that voice when you made the choice you did that got you in trouble?” The student forever replies, “I did not listen to it.” I then say, “You are so blessed to have that voice and somebody cared enough about you to help you develop it. Your task, now, may be to learn to listen to that voice you were blessed with. It seems to have healthy answers for you.” Students seem relieved to find they have a tool so ready for their use (and free at that). I discuss with them about how low they feel right now but how much a relief it is now to know they never have to feel ‘this way’ again since they now know so much more information, know to listen to that inner voice.
3) Best Friend Talk. It continually amazes me how so very many of us say things to ourselves that we would never, ever say to a dear friend, much less an acquaintance! We use abusive words with ourselves such as, “That was so stupid!” or “You are such an idiot!” or “You are so fat!” or “Of course you messed [it] up!” or “You are going to flunk this test!” or
“What a jerk!” and “You are such a failure.” I talk to my students about talking to themselves in ways they would talk to their best friend. Period. No more mean self-talk. Role playing is helpful here. Or I may use myself as an example. “Okay, I have to make a presentation to a class here on campus. If I tell myself I am going to really mess it up, forget what I am supposed to lecture and discuss, the students are going to laugh at me, start texting their friends, some may get up and leave, what is going to happen?” The student usually says, “You will really mess up!” Then I ask what might happen if I tell myself, “I am so excited about talking with this class! This is a topic I really enjoy and I want them to learn to enjoy it, as well! This is going to be fun!” They usually respond, “It will go well.” They get it! Our self-talk is the loudest talk we will ever hear in my book. And that is regardless of the voice behind the talk!
4) Little Boy/Little Girl. When I keep hearing the negative self-messages from a client, I ask what he/she would do if, after leaving our session, he/she saw that a child was standing outside the building alone and crying? Each student seems to have a sweet way of saying he/she would ask the child what was wrong, try to help the child, provide comfort. Then I use the Inner Child metaphor where each of us has a Child Within. I ask what the student is doing with his/her Inner Child and they usually say something along the lines of not paying attention to it. They really do seem to understand what I mean. They know they are not in touch with their inner being/self/soul/heart. I further it by suggesting they have put the child in a closet and shut the door. Instead, what if they embraced the Child and let him or her come out and play? This is a good way to cycle back to the healthy behaviors and having fun. I emphasize that fun does not mean expensive. Fun can be reading a book from the campus or public library for 20 minutes a day (free). A walk around campus (free). Sitting by the campus lake (free). Volunteering for 2 hours on the weekend (free). Listening to music for 20 minutes (free). Taking a bubble bath….practice deep breathing….call a Grandparent or Aunt/Uncle you miss and connect by sharing your love, appreciation for what they mean to you and the wonderful life lessons you have learned from each. Write a poem (free). Dance alone like crazy and laugh at yourself for 15 minutes (free). Watch a duck (how can you frown when watching a duck waddle….just image it and you will smile!) Splurge on an ice cream cone (or fat and sugar free frozen yogurt) as everybody smiles when enjoying and ice cream cone!
SP: If you have 3-5 suggestions to give to your students/clients on how to reduce or cope with stress, what are those suggestions be?
A: I love imagery, metaphors…..answered in question above? I always try to ask, “How is your spiritual life?” That can mean attending church services of a certain denomination to praying to God to praying to an entity to sitting by a lake or spending time in the woods/forest/nature. Students always have had an answer, even if it was, “Not where it needs to be.” Students seems to know what they need and what they need to do to get back to their healthy point in spirituality….whatever that means to each. It is very personal, usually very emotional and healing. This gives a student a ‘plan’ to follow whether making new connections on campus or with past spiritual rituals/connections.
SP: What percentage of the student population or clients is adversely effected by stress?
A: I know the highest percentage statistically can be 100%. To answer your question, 150% Seriously, all students, faculty, staff, administration face stress. Even our most successful student leaders face issues of time management, meeting expectations, financial issues, juggling responsibilities. Grounds keepers, police and building custodians…and dining services workers? How can one ever meet everyone’s demands? “The tree was cropped too short/too tall; the food was too seasoned/not seasoned enough! I should not have been given a ticket as I wasn’t speeding that much!” Everybody faces stress. It is all about how we deal with it.
One night years ago before everything became so automated, I came home to a utility bill that was about $2000 when it was usually about $160. To use my student response of, “REALLY?” my response was “REALLY?” A friend was at my home when I opened my bill and saw that I tossed it aside and concurrently asked, “Aren’t you going to worry about it?” My response was, “It is 6:00pm. The utility office closed at 5:00pm and will not open until 8:00am. There is not anything I can do about it now. I will call them tomorrow at 8:01am but I cannot do anything about it now. Nope, I am not going to worry about it tonight.” Mark Twain has some great quotes about stress and not worrying. That “stress stuff” has been around a long time. He helped me toss aside my utility bill that night and I had a nice evening. The next day I found out it was a computer glitch that impacted most of the city’s billing. Whew! I did not waste that evening!
SP: Does the severity of stress seem to be a function of developmental stage of your students/clients?
A: Stress is stress. “I just won the lottery!” is a positive event but my body does not know the difference versus “I just failed my Chemistry Test!” That is where the education comes in. My body just got battered by lots and lots of hormones from my stress reaction regardless of the event being positive or negative. I really like Hans Selye’s publications that can be found in stress related material and research. And there is so much ‘out there’ so we can self-educate and help others!
This is a good, challenging question. I would love to hear from your readers about this question. How thought provoking! I mean, being bullied as a Pre-K kid is painful, abusive and stressful. Bullying the 7th grade student because of a disability is painful, abusive and stressful. Being bullied as a college student who is wanting to transgender is painful, abusive and stressful. Being an elderly person who has adult children who are not kind is painful, abusive and stressful. The severity of stress is case by case on “The Spectrum of Humans”. Yet, think about the wicked events we hear about on the news, across our country, and/or internationally. Stress is stress. How equipped we are to deal with it is so situational. Some ask for help, some begin self-injury, some end their lives, some develop health issues. What a good question. Perhaps the stressors change over our developmental ‘rainbow’ (thank you, Dr. Super!) but how we deal with and interpret it is what matters?
SP: How can stress be helpful to students or your clients if it can be?
A: Yes! A little or a low level of stress may motivate me as a student to plan my schedule so I will be ready for my next test or presentation.
I know that for myself as a student, I used to become overly anxious. I could not stand that feeling! So I learned to channel that negative energy into a positive direction: I learned to plan. I used that painful stress to become a motivation to make an action plan. Rather than sitting and becoming a nervous wreck (and I became good at that—remember, “Practice makes perfect!”) I learned to take action. Step 1; Step 2; Step 3. I keep a calendar so I do not have to THINK about remembering things. I just look at the calendar! I keep lists, whether for shopping, work, house ‘to do’s’ or for future plans I need to make. As long as it is not compulsive and anal, keeping a calendar can be relaxing since I know that simply “At a Glance” I know what is ahead. [calendar I use is ‘At a Glance’]
SP: To what degree have you found that gender, race or socioeconomic status played a significant role in the amount of stress in the lives your students or clients?
A: International students, different cultural/ethnic backgrounds, lower versus higher socioeconomic status, religiosity, sexual orientation/gender, first generation, “cultural imports” like myself (I am from the Midwest and lived in the North and not the South so have had to find ways to be accepted with my differences in understanding), being an only child who had his/her own bed and bathroom to now sharing with others, athletic versus obese, Gothic versus Preppy, campus leader versus campus non-leader, traditional versus non-traditional aged student, and this list goes on. The degree is huge.
SP: Are there any questions or comments you would like to address and would suggest as a part of an effective way of addressing stress?
A: Yup! Keep a sense of humor. Always remember that we can find some silver lining in every dark cloud (who penned that? It is awesome!) There is always a life lesson to be learned from every obstacle we face. And what I find really special? No matter what horrible burden we face in the future, whatever we endure? From that experience we will have learned and gained a special radar/flag/inner voice that will then allow us to help somebody else in a way that we would not have been able to before. And that goes across ALL college majors. A student can be an agricultural major. The student will still work with workers, vendors, family and staff. It is a ‘parallel’ healing. And what a gift we have to offer from our hurtful and stressful experience. We get to help somebody else! So….stress does not have to be all negative. Stress can offer each of us an opportunity to heal.
Interviewer: Dr. Thomas A. Parker, LPC, CPCS