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Parrying Stress 

If medication and yoga aren't for you, there are lots of creative ways to feed your spirit

After sitting in a classroom all day studying everything from biochemistry and pathology to disease prevention and even psychiatry, K. Maria Duthie unwinds by picking up a sword.

With epee in hand, she finds relaxation in a room ringing with the distinctive clang of clashing blades, surrounded by weapon-wielding women and men dressed in white and whose faces are hidden behind masks of black mesh. “I do it for my sanity,” says Duthie of Spokane Valley, a longtime member of a club known as Spokane Fencers Unlimited.

During the years she spent working in health care as an athletic trainer and now as she prepares to become a physician’s assistant, Duthie has discovered the ultimate stress-buster: fencing — the art of armed combat and a sport that’s been described as “chess at 100 miles an hour.”

“When you’re giving all day on the job, you need something where you can be a little more aggressive,” she says. “Fencing is my stress release.”Whenever people think about stress management and relaxation, the same images often come to mind: a figure with a calm face and closed eyes, sitting on the floor with her legs crossed in a lotus position; limber bodies doing backbends and various yoga poses; runners scurrying along a wooded trail.

But stress release actually can happen with just about any activity that brings pleasure and takes your mind away from the pressure of the world.

Sometimes, the most effective way to alleviate anxiety is by simply doing the things you love and “creating joy, balance and pleasure,” says Dr. Laura Asbell, a clinical psychologist in Spokane.

These activities don’t necessarily have to involve deep breathing, chanting mantras or even working up a sweat. According to experts, stress relief can happen in a myriad of ways — from quiet pastimes such as quilting or reading a book to more physical pursuits such as rock climbing, kayaking along the Spokane River or taking a dance class.

“Any leisure activity that you enjoy will be helpful,” says Dr. Angelique Tindall, a clinical psychologist at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute.  “You have to feed your mind and your spirit. That’s part of being human.”

Keep in mind, however, that some coping strategies may aggravate your stress, Tindall warns. While they provide temporary relief from stress, activities such as smoking, drinking and engaging in risky behavior are both dangerous and unhealthy and will ultimately exacerbate the chaos caused by stress, she says.

Watching television is also another way to deal with pressure, but it’s an activity that doesn’t always promote human connection, Asbell says.

She also warns against “venting” as a way to relieve stress. Venting, which she defines as “a regurgitation of a stressful event in a stressful way” only increases a person’s anxiety, she says, instead of releasing it. Venting is different than simply talking about a problem and relating to another human being, Asbell says.

Both psychologists say the best pastimes are the kinds that help people relax but also bring meaning and joy back into their lives.

For Norma Gavin of Spokane, a retired medical technologist who is now a perpetual volunteer, stress relief happens whenever she digs and plants in the dirt.

“It’s my therapy,” says Gavin, who takes pride in the hostas, rhododendrons and other flowers and plants that thrive in the shady spots of her South Hill garden. “It gives me life to see my plants grow.”

Gardening also gives her the opportunity to work in silence, to revel in sunshine and fresh air and to reflect on all the blessings in her life. It’s a chance to commune with nature, she says, while creating beauty in the world.

“It’s like prayer and meditation,” Gavin says. “It connects me to God, and it’s a gift to body and soul.”

While some people de-stress by working with their hands through gardening, knitting or beading, others find peace and healing through the arts — by painting, writing poetry or playing a musical instrument.

“I use clay for stress relief,” explains Ildiko Kalapacs, a Spokane artist whose works have been displayed throughout the region and the world. “Clay is soft and pliable and touching it is soothing and calming for me.”

Kalapacs, 42, is also a dancer and an expert on Hungarian folk dancing.

“Dancing melts away all the stress,” she says. “When you dance long enough, you can actually feel high.”

Movement definitely eases tension, some say. While aerobics might help for some people, others prefer activities such as weightlifting, gymnastics or lunging at an opponent with a foil, saber or epee.

For Duthie, who has been involved in the sport of fencing for more than 20 years, wielding her three-foot-long sword has always given her comfort during the most stressful times of her life.

“I like the cognitive part of fencing,” explains Duthie. “It’s a physical workout that burns off energy but it also challenges me mentally. It’s a nice release after sitting in a classroom all day.”

In some cases, it’s not necessarily the activity that brings stress relief, but the people with whom we spend our leisure time, explains Asbell, who adds that the most healing part of her life is her 42-year relationship with her husband. She also tries to spend time with good friends who support her and bring meaning to her life.

“Friendships are important to me,” she says. “My pleasure comes from relationships.”

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