August 1, 2014

Mind Games: Yes, Yes, Yes

Positivity was, in turn, linked to increased life satisfaction, decreased depression and improved health.Stress doesn’t disappear just because you reside close to a near-perfect beach. There are always family, money or social problems disrupting your wellbeing. In the book Stress Less: The New Science that shows Women how to Rejuvenate the Body and the Mind, Thea Singer taps into the research of noted psychologists to illustrate techniques you can use to combat stress. In this excerpt, Singer outlines how to “counter negativity.”

Notice something good that happened to you today, and tell someone about it or write it down. The “event” can be as small as drinking an excellent cup of coffee or climbing out of bed when you planned to. “When you’re under serious stress, it’s particularly hard to see good things,” says Judith T. Moskowitz, a University of California, San Francisco psychologist. “We focus on what’s bad. In many ways that’s adaptive: If something’s going wrong, you need to address it.” But evolutionary adaptations can work against us if the bad never lets up. Sharing a good event by telling it to someone or writing it down brings it out into the world and helps put the negative in perspective.

Keep a “gratitude” record. Every day, to counter shortfalls, write down one thing you’re grateful for. Again, it doesn’t have to be earth-shattering, or even big. Me? I’m grateful today that my daughter gave me one of her Pocky chocolate-covered Japanese dessert sticks. Truly. It’s not just the chocolate I’m grateful for; it’s her generosity to me (a rare thing).

Concentrate on being mindful for at least 10 minutes a day. Forget the past, forget the future: Take in, without judgment, your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations right now. Go for a 10-minute walk and zero in on the crunch of gravel beneath your feet and the wind on your face. OK, it may sound corny. But if you’re molecularly deciphering gravel, you’re not hearing your 401(k) tank. Moskowitz reports that a 2003 study by University of Michigan’s Richard Davidson found that 25 subjects who did mindfulness meditation showed significant increases in left-sided anterior brain activation—an area that correlates with positive affect—as compared to 16 subjects who did not meditate. And a team led by Barbara T. Fredrickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina, found that seven weeks of loving-kindness meditation increased subject’s daily positivity compared to a control group. This positivity was, in turn, linked to increased life satisfaction, decreased depression and improved health even three months after the study began.

Reinterpret a negative experience. This does not mean donning rose-colored glasses, says Moskowitz. It just means finding that “small, good thing”—to borrow a phrase from Raymond Carver’s marvelous short story—in the midst of the turmoil. The reinterpretation must be “do-able,” says Moskowitz. You miss the bus to work and are sure you’re going to be reprimanded for being late. But then another bus comes along, and you sit next to a woman who tells a terrific joke, and you laugh and laugh. Sure, it’s not so great to see your boss’s scowl when you arrive at the office at 9:15 a.m. But you can still remember that joke. In a meta-analysis of studies about coping with HIV, Moskowitz found that reappraisal was one of the skills most effective at reducing negativity.

Redirect your attention to your strengths.Yes, I got furious with my 11-year-old daughter when she rolled her eyes at me for the seventh time in an hour and then answered me in The Voice (you know, the one that says: “You are the stupidest human being on the planet”). I got very quiet and then stormed out of the neighborhood gift shop where we were shopping for her friend’s birthday present. I even got in my car and moved it to another spot in the lot, so she could see me driving away. “What a horrible mother I am!” I wailed internally, going global on cue. But then I remembered: I sit with her every night while she does her homework, and I actually understand and can teach her sixth-grade math. I drive her hither and yon, and will drop anything when she needs me. I cook her the foods she wants (a very limited repertoire) and make sure she’s rich in books she loves. My breathing slows, my chest relaxes. I can go back in the store now.

Make a list of attainable goals for the week, and work toward achieving one every day. Think how good you’ll feel when you can cross that item off the list! I struggle with this one all the time. Sure, I tell myself upon awakening, I can write 5,000 words of this book today. Er, wait. Experience has shown me that 1,000 is a reach; how about, say, 500? And then a bit of coaching: The words don’t have to be good (I can always rewrite); they don’t even have to be good enough. They just have to be. Best-selling author Anne Lamott perhaps puts it best, in her hilarious 1994 guide on writing, Bird by Bird, whose title sprang from her father’s advice to her brother, age 10, as he struggled with a book report on birds: “Just take it bird by bird.” Bird by bird. Word by word.

Do something nicefor someone else. Elizabeth W. Dunn, Ph.D., of the University of British Columbia, has done several studies showing that giving can make people happier. In one, she had 46 students rate their happiness and then gave them envelopes containing either $5 or $20 and instructed them either to spend the money on themselves or toward a bill, or to give the money to charity or as a gift. At the end of the day, the students again rated their happiness. Those who gave the money away, she found, were happier than those who kept it for themselves. In another study, Dunn’s team gathered data on income, spending and happiness from 632 men and women across the United States. It turned out that happiness correlated with the amount of money people spent on others rather than how much money they made. Dunn concluded that “intentional activities—practices in which people actively and effortfully choose to engage—may represent a more promising route to lasting happiness.” There’s that element of control again, which affects everything, it seems, from our stress levels to how fast we age.

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