Worry Stones Help with More Than Worries
Anxiety is a feeling. A common emotion. It basically is the warning signal of a threat. That perceived threat can be physical or emotional or both. When excessive, anxiety can become problematic. Once anxiety reaches a high level and causes personal distress or interferes with an individual’s ability to function adequately, it is termed an anxiety “disorder.”
Most, if not all, of the clients with whom I work have significant issues with anxiety. The types of anxiety include social anxiety, performance anxiety, and what is called “generalized” anxiety, among others. Most of my clients have developed patterns of avoidance to cope with anxiety. Unfortunately, these coping mechanisms can involve avoidance of school and people, resulting in school failure and isolation which only serves to perpetuate the problem or make it worse.
Wilderness therapy is, by nature, an effective form of treatment for anxiety. At Evoke, strategies are intentionally designed to offer opportunities for clients to learn and develop more effective coping skills than previously demonstrated. I thought it might be interesting to share an activity we have been doing for many years in my adolescent boys’ group here at Evoke Cascades wilderness program. This activity involves making and using stones to relax, to help manage that feeling we call anxiety. We call them "worry stones."
What is a worry stone? My favorite source of information, Wikipedia, defines them this way: “Worry stones are smooth, polished gemstones, used by holding the stone between the index finger and thumb and gently moving one's thumb back and forth across the stone. This action can reduce stress. From the perspective of cognitive behavior therapy, the use of worry stones is one of many folk practices that can function as psychologically healthy self-soothing exercises. Such techniques are imparted at an early stage of treatment, displacing any familiar but destructive coping methods that the patient may have developed. This helps ready the patient to safely confront anxiety or trauma. [Over time,] the worry stone itself can serve as a physical 'relaxation script reminder;' the patient may notice an impulse to use the object, and thereby become aware of their own anxiety. The rubbing of the stone can create a sense of relaxation making the mind more relaxed and generating a sense of calmness.”
In Group One here at Evoke Cascades wilderness program, we use worry stones. In fact, we make our own, and the process of making them is, in itself, healing and therapeutic. Once completed, the worry stones are generally kept in one’s pocket. However, the finished stone can also be wrapped in wire and worn as a pendant. Worry stones can be used in the smallest ways, fiddling with or rubbing them gives one something to do with one’s hands while listening in group, sitting by oneself, hiking, etc. They also can be used in formal relaxation training. With training, the stones can become a strong cue, a reminder to use the relaxation skills learned. In this manner, the worry stone actually triggers a relaxation response.
We primarily use amber to make worry stones because amber is soft enough to shape by hand. Amber is a translucent fossilized resin produced by extinct coniferous trees of the Tertiary period, typically yellowish in color. Resin protects trees by blocking gaps in the bark; it is how trees heal themselves. Once resin covers a gash or break caused by chewing insects, it hardens and forms a seal. Once the seal is formed, it takes between two and 10 million years to fossilize and become hardened. Some amber is only about 40 million years old; the oldest known is thought to be about 320 million years old.
I realize this information may be TMI - more than you want to know. But the guys in my group love the science aspects of amber. They also really get into making worry stones.
It is quite simple, actually. There are four steps:
1. Shaping. We start with rough pieces of amber using very course sandpaper.
2. Smoothing. Use finer sandpaper.
3. Pre-polish. Finer sandpaper.
4. Polish. Even finer sandpaper.
A number of lessons can be applied to life through this process. Patience. Delay of gratification. Skipping steps doesn’t work. If you try to go too fast, such as using finer sandpaper before it is time, it only delays the process. You must shape the stone first. You can’t skip steps. Crawl before you can walk.
We always discuss how this process applies to personal growth and development. One begins with shaping. This means starting with the big things. The basic things. When someone first arrives in wilderness, he can feel quite overwhelmed and uncomfortable. We work with new clients on learning the basics. Eating and drinking adequate amounts. Staying warm and dry by learning how to “layer” clothing. Putting up a simple but effective tarp shelter. Learning a couple of basic knots. Learning the basic but profound “I feel” statement.
Smoothing is removing the bumps, irregularities, rough edges. In personal development, this is developing skills and tools to better cope. To better communicate. To self-sooth. Learning to identify and understand one’s own feelings. Verbalizing feelings rather than acting them out or holding them in, resulting in better emotional regulation. Smoothing out the rough edges. Not perfect, but better.
Just as one polishes amber with finer and finer grit, a person can work on self-improvement and personal development in finer ways. This looks like developing more intrinsic motivation to grow. Looking for opportunities to challenge oneself. Internalizing and consolidating gains made. Consistently demonstrating integrity, accountability, patience, compassion, assertive communication, emotional reciprocity, etc. When polished with increasingly finer grit, amber turns into a work of art. The more a person works on their own development, the same happens.
With diligence, a rough piece of amber can turn into a work of art in a matter of hours. Personal development is a work in progress that lasts a lifetime. My clients do not leave Evoke highly polished. They have work to continue in their next chapter, wherever that takes them.
The experience of taking a raw piece of amber and turning it into something beautiful and soothing is not the primary mechanism of change here at Evoke. It is, however, one of the unique and fun ways in which we work.