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Elizabeth Scott, M.S.

Stress Management Blog

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Rebuild Your Life!

Sunday June 1, 2014
Because June is 'Rebuild Your Life Month', there's no better time than now to take a look at your life and the stressors in it, and make some changes!

It's true that much of our experience of stress lies in how we look at things--threat vs. challenge, external vs. internal locus of control, half-empty or half-full. However, if we have to many stressors in our lives--situations that routinely trigger the stress response--it may take constant effort to recover physically and emotionally from the body's stress reaction; it just makes sense to eliminate some of the situations that cause stress (whenever possible), and add restorative habits and regular activities that reduce our stress levels.

Where to begin? If you're experiencing a lot of stress in a certain area of your life, that situation will probably pop right into your mind without much work. However, stress does generalize, meaning, if you're feeling a lot of stress at your job, for example, you'll feel more stressed at home, too; if you're feeling a lot of stress in one of your important relationships, you may be less resilient to stress you face in other relationships or in other areas of your life. Thus, if you're feeling stress in a few areas of life, it may be difficult to know where all the stress is coming from; it may just feel like it's coming from all sides!

If you're not sure where to begin with the changes you can make in your life, the Lifestyle Stress Quiz can help you examine different areas of your life to determine which areas are stressing you the most, and find resources to help.

The following resources can also give you a good start in relieving stress in your lifestyle, and move you along the path of rebuilding your life for the better!

Lifestyle Stress Relief Resources:

  • Set Priorities
    If you find yourself too busy and would like to make more time in your schedule for the things that matter the most (including stress relief habits!), here's a resource that will help you know where to pare down.

  • Manage Job Stress
    Don't love your job, but can't quit? Here are some ways to make your current job less stressful, more satisfying, and less likely to lead to burnout.

  • Deal With Conflict
    Having conflict in your life can damage your health and happiness. Resolving conflict without making things worse is key! Here are some healthy conflict resolution strategies you should know about, which can help you cut down on relationship stress.

  • Financial Stress Relief
    With many people in a place of financial crisis, money stress is one of the biggies. Here's how to handle a financial crisis, if you're faced with one.

  • Cull Clutter
    Yes, clutter can actually be a stressor! Think about it: being surrounded by clutter can subtly drain you of energy, day in and day out. While it may not be easy to go from slob to neatnik (and, as one for whom neatness does not come naturally, I speak from experience!), there are steps you can take to keep your level of clutter at a point you can live with, or maybe even a little better! Read about clutter and de-cluttering here, and take some steps toward order today.

  • Add Healthy Habits
    It's important to take care of yourself--you'll live longer, be happier, and feel less stressed. Simply put, a well-cared-for body is less reactive to stress. Here are some self-care strategies and healthy lifestyle habits you can adopt that will cut down on stress in your life.

  • Change Your Attitude!
    What you say to yourself about things that happen in your life has a lot to do with how you experience your life. In other words, your attitude matters--it can create or eliminate stress to a great extent! Learn more about how to change your thinking style to change your stress levels.

What are your biggest stressors? Share your answer in this Reader Response article about causes of stress, or add to the comments section. Also, you can see what healthy lifestyle changes have helped other readers the most!

Trick Yourself Into Feeling Less Stressed

Sunday June 1, 2014
One of my favorite discoveries from the field of psychology is that behaving a certain way can actually make us feel a certain way. During times of stress, I often think of the fact that putting a smile on your face--even a fake smile--can lead to a better mood and, in turn, a real smile. My friend Elizabeth (yes, a name twin) tends to put on wild and colorful outfits when she's feeling down, and by noon her mood has often begun to match the brightness of her ensemble. (She told me this the other day when I found her wearing head-to-toe turquoise accents.) New research points to another action we can take to relieve stress and improve our mood: posture!

If you find yourself slumping over your desk and wondering if your work is good enough, pay particular attention: researchers from Ohio State University have found that people who were told to sit up straight in their chairs were more likely to believe thoughts that they were writing down about how qualified for a job they were--they had greater confidence in their own thoughts. The results show how our body posture can affect not only how others perceive us, but also how we perceive ourselves, said Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at the University.

"Most of us were taught that sitting up straight gives a good impression to other people," Petty said in a press release. "But it turns out that our posture can also affect how we think about ourselves. If you sit up straight, you end up convincing yourself by the posture you're in."

The study, which appeared in the October issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology, included 71 students who were instructed to either "sit up straight" and "push out [their] chest]" or "sit slouched forward" with their "face looking at [their] knees" while typing at a computer. Students then were told to list either three positive or three negative personal traits relating to future professional performance on the job. After completing this task, the students took a survey in which they rated themselves on how well they would do as a future professional employee.

The end result of this was that when students wrote positive thoughts about themselves, they rated themselves more highly when in the upright than the slouched posture because the upright posture led to confidence in the positive thoughts. However, when students wrote negative thoughts about themselves, they rated themselves more negatively in the upright than the slouched posture because the upright posture led to more confidence in their negative thoughts.

This research speaks to the very real influence of body language on stress levels--sometimes we feel stressed and tend to tense up, slouch, and hunch over, not realizing that this not only leads to more shallow breathing, but to feeling less confident on a job (read: more stressed). It can also impact the effect positive affirmations have on you--do you believe yourself when you write them down, and how is that belief related to the effectiveness of the affirmations and the level of your stress?

As you're reading this, and throughout the day, I'd like you to become more aware of how you're holding your body. Sit up straight if you're slouching. Relax your shoulders if you find them tensed. Breathe from your belly if you realize your breathing is shallow and constricted (try these breathing exercises). And smile!

Does that make a difference?

Related Resources from Elizabeth Scott

30 Random Pianos + Regular People = Happiness?

Saturday May 31, 2014

Watch CBS Videos Online

I once saw a very interesting piece from CBS News (embedded above) that tells of a project that one very optimistic and enterprising soul named Colette Hiller decided to take on: scattering 30 pianos in random public places around London. Their puropse? To inspire impromptu public sing-alongs among strangers. The goal? To foster goodwill and social bonding among the people in the city, who may need a pick-me-up because of the recession and other real-world stressors.

It may sound like a lot of work and expense to procure 30 pianos, secure them in various locations, and protect them from the weather, all while complying with city ordinances and filing appropriate paperwork. It was. But the effect seems to be a great success: people around the city, people who otherwise tend to keep to themselves, shared music and goodwill, and found their days becoming a little brighter.

I'm sharing this story with you because it makes me smile, and because we can learn something from this project, even if we don't have real-life access to ransom public pianos:

  1. Music really can be a pick-me-up, and can brighten your day. (Read more about the benefits of music.)

  2. Feeling connected to others can also brighten your day. It's worth going outside of yourself to connect with others, even if they're strangers. (Read more about the reasons to smile at others.)

  3. The 'Random Acts of Kindness' movement is still alive, and still bringing happiness to people. It's worth going through some effort to bring extra happiness to someone's day--that can bring happiness to yours as well! (Read more about the benefits of altruism.)

  4. Happiness is contagious. (Read about shortcuts to happiness.)

Obviously, scattering a bunch of free pianos around town is a serious undertaking, and is a rare enough act to make international news. However, kind acts are performed every day, by all types of people, and they count, too. What nice things have you done to help others? What nice things have others done to put a smile on your face? Share your 'Acts of Kindness' stories here in the comments--you'll make many people smile!

Like this post? Want to use it to start a discussion with your friends? Pass it on!

Positive Emotions And Resilience

Saturday May 31, 2014
Part of what inspired me to pursue the study of psychology and counseling is the experience of seeing people respond differently to the same situation: whether the circumstance is heavy traffic or a bone-shattering car accident, some people respond by meeting stressors with strength and perhaps growing from the experience while others may become undone by similar circumstances. So far, my favorite branch of psychology--positive psychology--has come up with a few answers. (Read more on stress and resilience.) To my delight, another study has shed light on the origin of personal resilience.

According to a new study by a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill psychologist and colleagues, people who seed their life with frequent moments of positive emotions increase their resilience against challenges.

"This study shows that if happiness is something you want out of life, then focusing daily on the small moments and cultivating positive emotions is the way to go," said Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology in UNC's College of Arts and Sciences and the principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory, in a press release. "Those small moments let positive emotions blossom, and that helps us become more open. That openness then helps us build resources that can help us rebound better from adversity and stress, ward off depression and continue to grow."

In the month long study, 86 participants were asked to submit daily "emotion reports," rather than answering general questions on their happiness history.

"Getting those daily reports helped us gather more accurate recollections of feelings and allowed us to capture emotional ups and downs," said Fredrickson, a leading expert in the field of positive psychology.

Amassing a daily collection of positive emotions does not require banishing negative emotions, she said. I particularly like this finding because it helps clarify a 'sticking point' for many: it's okay to feel less-than-positive emotions! (In fact, denying that we feel 'negative' emotions can hamper our ability to cope with them in a healthy way, and can rob us of the 'gifts' they often bring--clarity, motivation for change, etc.)

As with changing one's diet or other lifestyle areas, it's simpler and more effective to add what you want more of (whether it's recognition of positive events in your life, or a diet richer in fruits and vegetables) thank to focus on 'giving up' things that are hard to relinquish (from moods to foods).

Fredrickson elaborated, "The levels of positive emotions that produced good benefits weren't extreme. Participants with average and stable levels of positive emotions still showed growth in resilience even when their days included negative emotions."

Fredrickson recommends focusing on the "micro-moments" that can help unlock one positive emotion here or there.

"A lot of times we get so wrapped up in thinking about the future and the past that we are blind to the goodness we are steeped in already, whether it's the beauty outside the window or the kind things that people are doing for you," she said. "The better approach is to be open and flexible, to be appreciative of whatever good you do find in your daily circumstances, rather than focusing on bigger questions, such as 'Will I be happy if I move to California?' or 'Will I be happy if I get married?'"

My favorite methods for doing this? Here are a few of my main recommendations:

  • Maintain a Gratitude Journal You can add 50 entries per day, or 5 per week. (Okay, 50 per day is a bit much, but I'm sure it can be done!) The main point is to get into the habit of catching all the things that are going right in your life, and enjoying them as they come. (Read more about maintaining a gratitude journal.)
  • Tweet Your Good Fortune Recording the things that are going right in your life--seeing a beautiful sunset, owning the world's best dog--by using Twitter provides a double benefit: you start to notice positive events more (and have a record of all that you have to be thankful for!), and others can enjoy your good fortune right along with you! (Read more about Twitter.)
  • Cultivate Mindfulness
    Being fully present in 'the now'--that means not planning for the future or thinking about the past--can help you to really savor what's going on right now, and can help make you stronger. (Learn more about mindfulness.)
  • Thank God
    Studies show that those who are strong in spirituality tend to face some real health and stress relief benefits. If you're already in touch with your spirituality, saying prayers of gratitude throughout the day can create more positive feelings, which can promote resilience. (Read here about stress and spirituality.)
What are you grateful for? And what brings you strength? Please share your answers in the comments section. (There's nothing like sharing wisdom and good fortune!)

Source: Fredrickson, B., Ph.D., Cohn, Michael, Ph.D. ; Brown, Stephanie, Ph.D., Mikels, Joseph, Ph.d. Conway, Ph.D. Happiness Unpacked: Positive Emotions Increase Life Satisfaction by Building Resilience. Emotion, June, 2009. Want to use it to start a discussion with your friends? Pass it on!

Research: Lose The Weight, Save Your Brain?

Saturday May 31, 2014
I just read this somewhat shocking report on obesity: researchers have found that people who are overweight and obese are actually losing brain tissue and have brains that are aged prematurely!

"The brains of obese people looked 16 years older than their healthy counterparts while [those of] overweight people looked 8 years older," says UCLA neuroscientist Paul Thompson, senior author of a study published online in Human Brain Mapping. The study also found that clinically obese people had 8% less brain tissue than those considered to be in the 'normal' weight range, and overweight people had 4% less brain tissue than those who were not overweight. Because roughly two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese (36% and 30% respectively), this may be a widespread problem.

Consuming a healthy diet is generally agreed to be the most important factor in maintaining a healthy weight, with exercise also playing an important role. Eating a healthy balance of fresh fruits and vegetables, with lean meats and whole grains, all in moderate portions, is key. Most of us know this. However, many of us lose sight of this when stressed and busy. Why is that?

Perhaps it's because stress can make us crave sweets and less-healthy fare. (I'm guilty of indulging myself--my kids actually bring me chocolate when I'm having a stressful day!) Or perhaps it's because, when we get too stressed and busy, we may settle for convenience food rather than cooking healthier meals. Or perhaps it's because we eat to feel better, or to fill a void we feel inside. If any of these are sounding familiar to you, you're not alone; stress can affect weight in several ways.

The following resources can help you to better understand the stress-eating connection, eat healthier when stressed, and stay fit in other ways as well. (Did I mention that exercise is a great stress reliever?)

Stress and Weight Resources

Do you think stress plays a role in your weight? What new habits might help you to maintain a healthier, fitter lifestyle? Here are some tips on maintaining healthy habits in your life.

Flow: A Natural Stress Reliever

Saturday May 31, 2014
Ever notice that when you're creating art, reading a great book, or playing music, time can seem to stand still and you can get lost in the moment, losing your stress in the process? If you're looking for a natural way to feel less stressed and more fulfilled, listen to your inner voice and do what you really enjoy: participate in activities like these, which provide a sense of 'flow' for you.

A popular component of positive psychology, the term flow describes activities that create a sense of timelessness and lack of -self-consciousness, activities that utilize your unique strengths in a delicious and fulfilling way, providing just the right balance of challenge and ease. How can you find flow? The answer may be different for everyone, since everyone has their own unique strengths and talents. For one person, it may be playing the piano, while another person may find flow in dancing or writing. However, this list of gratifications descries activities that many people find flow-inducing, with links to more information on each. This Reader Response article on activities that promote flow will provide you with several examples of what other readers do to find flow, and gives you a chance to share your own flow stories as well!

Additional Resources on Flow and Happiness:

How do you find flow? How often? Share your answer in the comments.

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Is Kindness Contagious?

Saturday May 31, 2014
I have favorite commercials that I actually look forward to seeing. One of them starts by showing someone doing a good deed for a stranger. A second stranger happens to see this, smile, and go on to do another kind deed for another stranger, while someone else happens to look on and continue the chain of good deeds. This commercial always brings a smile to my face, and a recommitment-to-do-good-deeds to my heart. I've always wondered if witnessing acts of kindness has this effect on other people as well, and apparently some researchers have had the same question in their heads, because I came across a great new study that poses this exact question.

Psychological scientists Simone Schnall from the University of Cambridge, Jean Roper from the University of Plymouth, and Daniel M.T. Fessler from the University of California, Los Angeles, recently set up a study where participants viewed either a neutral video, or an uplifting clip of musicians expressing gratitude to their mentors on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' (one of the best shows to watch for uplifting content), which was designed to provide an 'elevation', or a burst of positive feelings. Participants then wrote essays about what they saw, and were paid for their time. Researchers found that those who watched the uplifting clips were more likely to volunteer as subjects for future projects.

While it can be argued that people watching pleasant and uplifting videos were more likely to want to participate in future studies because they found the experience more enjoyable and more repeat-worthy, the willingness to help in future studies can also be interpreted as a greater propensity toward helping others for those who watched others display kindness. But it's not a completely clear connection; I wanted to see more.

And, lucky for me, they did a second study that gave me much more!

In the next experiment, a different set of volunteers watched one of three clips: a neutral one, the uplifting Oprah one from the other study, and a funny clip designed to make subjects laugh. Then, as they were free to leave, the research assistant helping with the study pretended to have trouble opening a computer file necessary for the experiment. She told them that they were free to leave, but asked if they would be willing to fill out a questionnaire that she described as boring. The results of this study put a smile on my face.

Participants who viewed the uplifting clip spend about twice as much time helping the researcher as did participants in either of the other groups! (This means that finding the experiment enjoyable, or wanting to make additional money participating in studies isn't what was behind people's willingness to help out.) The researchers themselves conclude that "by eliciting elevation, even brief exposure to other individuals' prosocial behavior motivates altruism, thus potentially providing an avenue for increasing the general level of prosociality in society."

This research left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling in my chest and a determination to see this in action in my own life: will people in my environment be kinder to others if they see more kindness from me? Will they be less stressed? I intend to find out, though I already know what the answer will be, methinks.

How will you use this new information in your own life? Share your experiences in the comments section and bring a smile to everyone else's face, too! (And if you find this information interesting, please pass it on!)

Below are more resources for kindness, altruism, gratitude and all of those good feelings.

Source: Schnall, S.; Roper, J.; and Fessler, D. Elevation Leads to Altruistic Behavior. Psychological Science, 2010.

Win The Lottery Of Happiness

Tuesday May 27, 2014
When I was a kid, my brother and I had a game: pretend we won the lottery, and dream about what we would do with the money. My brother would come up with practical things like expensive cars and luxury homes, while I would dream of swimming pools filled with gum balls, a rope swing made from real licorice, or a whole room filled with puppies to play with my yard full of horses. While our dreams were pretty different, our beliefs were the same: more money would equal more happiness. And this happiness would last us for the rest of our lives.

In reality, research says otherwise.

Beyond a certain point (we need enough money to meet our basic survival needs, and perhaps a small amount more), more money does not mean greater happiness! And winning the lottery does not bring lasting joy. Positive psychology researchers have found that we get used to the thrill of having more pretty quickly--a process known as habituation--and we return to our usual levels of happiness. In fact, in some ways, lottery winners are less happy than their non-winning counterparts a mere six months later in that they're less able to relish everyday pleasures like a delicious cup of coffee or the anticipation of a favorite television show.

What does lead to happiness?

Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, the things that make us happy are the things that most grandmothers try to sell us on with their, 'The best things in life are free' truisms: good friends, a happy marriage, meaningful work, and good deeds, among other (similar) things. These things bring a deeper, more lasting sense of happiness that's less prone to habituation and less dependent on external factors--we can create our own happiness! (My much-younger self would be so relieved: no lottery-winning necessary!)

Read more about what makes people truly happy.

Happiness Resources from Elizabeth Scott:

Read More Relationship Research for Stress Relief

Sources:
Brickman P, Coates D, Janoff-Bulman R. (1978, August). Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 917- 27.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002) Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

New Ways To Meditate

Tuesday May 27, 2014
Meditation is a powerful tool for stress relief and inner wellness. Far from being a fad, meditation has been shown to bring a host of unique benefits, which have made it not only a mainstream stress relief technique, but one that is prescribed by doctors with growing frequency.

Meditation is particularly helpful because it helps to relive stress in a few different ways. Meditation can bring short-term stress relief, reversing the body's stress response and thereby limiting the damage from a constantly-triggered stress response that comes with chronic stress. Regular meditation can also bring long-term stress relief in the form of mental and physical changes that bring greater resilience to stress.

With all these benefits, meditation is by no means a one-size-fits-all activity. Meditation is a more attractive stress relief tool for some than for others. However, because there are several different forms of meditation, everyone can have their own favorite meditation technique. This means that if you've tried meditation in the past and it didn't quite "click" with you, or if the thought of sitting in the lotus position and repeating "om" leaves you less than thrilled, there are new options for you to try, that may be right up your alley.

This resource brings several strategies for those who want to learn how to meditate in ways that work for them. I recommend it for beginners as well as those experienced in meditation because there is a variety of techniques here that can appeal to newcomers, or can bring some welcome variety to regular practitioners of meditation. Try a new technique and see what appeals to you!

Recommended Reading

  • Find Stress Relief On Facebook
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    Life Coach Tips: Ways To Reduce Stress

    Tuesday May 27, 2014
    As I've mentioned before, stress management often takes a multi-pronged approach. While using one approach to stress management--such as breathing exercises, meditation, or skill development--can help to reduce overall stress, any one technique is not as effective as a combination of approaches. For example, breathing exercises can help you reverse your body's stress response wherever you happen to be, but breathing doesn't significantly alter your resilience to future stressors. Meditation can help you feel less stressed in the moment, and increase your overall resilience to stress, but it doesn't change factors in your life that cause stress. Developing skills that enable you to better manage stressful situations--communication skills, for example, or the ability to delegate--can help you to manage the stressors you experience in your life, but only help with specific stressors. Each strategy brings its own strengths and weaknesses, and adds another strength to the overall stress management plan.

    One important piece of an effective plan for stress management involves minimizing stressors. When we're surrounded by small, nagging sources of stress, we may feel a chronic sense of low-grade stress that adds a stressful dimension to whatever else we are experiencing. Put another way, while some stressors are unavoidable, cutting out the stressors that we are able to cut out can help us to have the patience and stamina to deal with the stressors we can't avoid.

    Some of the best sources of stress to cut out are what life coaches call "tolerations." They are those parts of our lives that we put up with but would prefer not to--parts of our schedule we don't enjoy, people who stress us, cluttered areas of the house that drain our energy. Becoming aware of our tolerations is the first step in eliminating them. Having a system to tackle tolerations is another important step.

    The following plan is life coach-recommended for cutting out these nagging stressors from life, so you can reserve your energy for what really matters:
    Ways To Reduce Stress

    Additional Resources:

    Discuss It On Facebook
    For more ongoing resources, as well as inspirational quotes and favorite tips from other readers, I invite you to join the Facebook Page About Stress Management. We'd love to see you there!

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