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January 17, 2014
Pebbles, Potholes, and Perspective
Do You Have an Action Plan?
by Sarah Hancock

When they hear the phrase action plan, many people envision long and boring staff meetings, projects requiring laborious time, and project managers haranguing employees. If you're on the other end of an action plan, perhaps you groan at the thought of trying to motivate employees to catch the same vision you have.

Either way, just the term action plan frequently induces stress. Now let's look at the term from a mental health perspective.

Here we are at the sixth in my series about Mary Ellen Copeland's Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP). You have a basic idea of what a WRAP can do, created a wellness toolbox, brainstormed alone and with a trusted friend to identify what you're like when you're well, and you know your triggers. Now we get to the first step of the Action Plan portion of Wellness and Recovery.

I am particularly fond of this portion of the WRAP because for me, it was the missing piece. Here I'd been diagnosed for nearly 12 years and I still really didn't have a clue as to how I could live successfully with my illness.

From my perspective I was a firefighter -- scrambling to snuff out blaze after blaze. However, because I couldn't identify my own triggers, I'll bet that from my family and loved one's perspective, I probably seemed more like a pyromaniac who pulled night shifts as a firefighter.

Sometimes I created my own triggers. However, unlike a pyromaniac, I never consciously did it on purpose. I added consciously because I purposefully did things I thought I would help when really it proverbially shoot myself in the foot (i.e. staying up late enjoying family vacations).

Action Plans can be created once a person understands and recognizes triggers. For example, after going into the hospital after nearly every single family vacation and holiday, I'm sure my family believed (with the confirmation of a well-intended doctor) that the stimulation of being around my family was just too much for me.

In fact, I even had a clinician tell me that I should divorce myself from my family. Although I admit there are people in my family skilled at pushing my buttons, divorcing my family flew in the face of every single family home evening, Primary, Young Women, Relief Society, Ensign, missionary and general conference message ever inspired.

If families are forever, I didn't want to be the only lonely one in heaven. I was lonely enough on earth!

As I brainstormed my triggers with another person who had mental illness, he talked about how sensitive he was to sound. He told me that excessive sensory stimulation kicked his symptoms into high gear.

I mulled that over. There were times when I couldn't even listen to the radio; maybe I had the same problem. Several months later, I asked an adjunct professor how he could concentrate on his work in his cubicle with all the chatter of students and faculty walking by. He looked up at me, pulled out an earplug and said, "Huh?"

Suddenly, it clicked. Could controlling my symptoms really be as easy as earplugs? I headed directly to Wal-Mart, bought some wax earplugs and experimented.

Sure enough, I realized that whenever I was extra stressed, if I sealed off the noise, sometimes as soon as 30 minutes later, my symptoms would lessen. Brains are weird; sometimes mine just needs a rest. When I'm going to be around lots of noise, I take my earplugs. When going on vacation and sleeping in an uncontrolled environment, I take my earplugs. When I feel the anxiety building, or my brain starts to gets fuzzy, I pull out those earplugs.

I've discovered that when I am really stressed, noise somehow registers extremely loud in my brain. For example, if work was particularly stressful, coming home and watching TV is not a good idea. Hearing my roommate talk on the phone, having the radio on in the living room and doing dishes all at the same time -- overload.

After particularly overwhelming days, sleeping with a watch or ticking clock in the same room simply can't happen because I'm so caught up in the tic-tic that my brain cannot turn off.

Earplugs are just one of the tools in my Wellness Toolbox. Having them at my ready disposal is my action plan. When trying to concentrate on homework or taking a test at school -- you guessed it -- I use earplugs. Focusing on a project at work or home goes smoothly with earplugs, allowing a healthy stress-valve release.

The first time I brought earplugs on a family trip, I used them. I was able to get to sleep on a regular basis. If the noise of my nieces and nephews laughing uncontrollably, watching TV, practicing music instruments or any of the normal family noisy activities occurred, I just popped them in. Most of the time I still could hear everything just fine, but my head wasn't exploding in the process.

On the way home from that weekend trip, I'm sure my parents were holding their breath until I requested my regular, post-family vacation hospital admission. Instead, they called me several days later asking if I was alright. My response, "Sure. Why?" Action plan!

Creating my action plan worked so well that it even allowed me to keep my buttons hidden from those whom I perceived as button-pushers. My stress level was so low that offhanded comments that normally could have sent me over the edge simply dissolved before they pierced my heart. And no, it wasn't because I was using my earplugs.

Although it's impossible to prepare for absolutely everything, if you brainstorm several action plans, frequently they overlap and can be used in a wide variety of situations. The key is to have the action plan written out in your WRAP so that you don't have think about what needs to be done.

I've been in situations where a panic attack kicks in and although I had medication in my pocket, it didn't even occur to me that I could use it. Brainstorming that WRAP, writing it down and sharing it with my loved ones allows me them to kick into action with steps I predetermined will help me at a moment I'm mentally frozen. It can be effective in reducing the amount of medication needed to stay stable and almost eliminate the possibility of hospitalization.

So I ask you again, what's your action plan?

In the next installment of my series on Mary Ellen Copeland's Wellness Recovery Action Plan, I'll discuss Early Warning Signs or Wake-Up Calls. For more information on creating your own WRAP please visit

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