Clearing Stress and Creating Joy

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Where I come from stress is a fact of life. In the Detroit area just about every job depends on the auto industry. Through the years I watched as plants closed, one by one, leaving workers stranded. Assemblylinemen, engineers, programmers, managers - no one was immune. And when a plant closed, so did the local bar, the local diner, the local emergency medical clinic. Real estate agents couldn't sell houses. Hopelessness and depression hung in the gray Michigan air, thick and unrelenting. 

When you see the local economy taking a nose dive all around you, it's pretty hard to see the situation as something you have any kind of control over. Yet it is precisely when things seem out of control that you need to find a proactive solution. Step one in dealing with stress of any kind is to contain it. Stop playing the worst future scenario over and over on your mental videotape. 

Instead, take time to close your eyes, breathe slowly and deeply, and imagine yourself in a favorite place - one where you feel safe and calm - a place you remember, or one you create in your imagination. Take your time. When you feel relaxed enough, picture yourself in a place and situation where you want to be exactly this time next year. Describe to yourself what it is like - what you have, what you feel, and most importantly, what you are doing. Now add an affirmation such as, "I can make this happen." Practice this twice a day. 

At the end of the day write down three things that went well that day, and tell why. There are no rules here about minimum criteria. Your list might include time spent with a friend or creating a healthy meal for your family. A walk in the park may have gone well because the sun was shining, the weather was perfect, and you had the strength and energy for a nice long walk. 

A similar exercise, equally powerful in relieving stress and elevating mood, is the gratitude testimonial. This exercise calls for you to write and deliver a testimonial about something for which you are grateful. This should include something you consider to be pretty important. It could be something from the past such as an opportunity that was opened for you or a gift you still cherish. It might be that you have overcome an illness and are now back to enjoying good health. You might be grateful for the joy of your children or the patience of your spouse. Whatever it is, choose someone to describe it to. 

If you practice these exercises you will contain your stress. Keeping things in perspective against the backdrop of a life that includes good things along with the bad prevents stress from growing out of proportion, interfering with your ability to think and plan. But let's not stop there. Stress in your life means there is some problem to solve. 

To begin your plan of action, think of your strengths. Examples are: creativity, persistence, kindness, humor, etc. Make a list and order them with your greatest strength on top. Try to come up with three to five. If you have difficulty with this, it often helps to ask those who know you well to describe what they think your top strengths are, then pool the results. For extra help you can visit www.viastrengths.org and complete an inventory which identifies 24 "signature strengths" taken from the science of positive psychology. 

Next, think about the problem in a different way than you normally do. Often, when we feel stressed, we have a tendency to ruminate over some distressing aspect of the situation, staying stuck in the problem. We need to focus instead on a solution. Remember that vision you created of where you want to be in one year? What has to happen between now and then to turn your vision into reality? Which of those things do you have some control over? Do you see a kind of mental to-do list emerging from this? Think of all the steps that need to happen, breaking each task into doable components. For example, finding a new job may seem like an overwhelming task. But mailing your resume to at least three employers this week is doable. Breaking tasks into smaller components allows you to experience progress and success on a daily basis. 

Now think about your signature strengths. Which of those strengths can you use in a new way that can be applied to your action plan? Let's say your top strength is kindness. Perhaps you can use this to do volunteer work in an industry where you would like to be employed. You would not only gain experience but you would get to know those who are in a position to recommend you. What if your strength is humor? Can you think of a way to incorporate this into a way out of the mainstream cover letter that would capture a reader's funny bone and place your resume at the top of the slush pile? 

Finally, be sure that your goals are based on your core values. Working toward goals based on someone else's expectations of you only creates more stress. Value driven goals need to emerge from your sense of purpose. To identify your purpose, think about what gives life meaning for you. An artist's purpose, for example, might be to create beauty in the world. The important thing about purpose is to find meaning in something greater or larger than yourself. It could be a political or social cause, spiritual or religious growth, a contribution to the world's knowledge base, or anything that gets you out of the center of the universe. 

That said, lighten up. Take time to play. Create something just for fun. Not every moment has to be serious or goal driven. Your kids don't have to be perfect. You'll survive even if the lawn doesn't get mowed this weekend. And just in case you're wondering what I did about Detroit: I took a geographical cure and ended up in Philadelphia.