Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Stress Management: Positive Thinking, Appreciation, Gratitude, Happiness


My New Year 2008 present to Chatham County is a series of articles on stress management. Today I also want to tie into the theme of this edition: real estate development. Yes, the thought of real estate development usually causes stress no matter which side you are on. The tree huggers feel a rush of frustration and anger, blood pressure boils and marching shoes come out of the closet. Real estate developers grit their teeth, hire attorneys, closet themselves with land planners, and complain about the neighborhood whiners. So--no matter what side you are on--stress reigns!

Remember the skills from my last article (now on my website): A-breathing and muscle tension/relaxation. Your body always responds to stress causing immediate uncomfortable feelings as well as long-term debilitating symptoms and disease. So chill out and read about the next series of stress management life skills available to calm our minds and bodies.

As background, realize the difference between life problems and your symptoms of mental and physical stress. We call both "stress" but for purposes of stress management we need to make the differentiation. In this column I can't necessarily help you with your life problems: debts, crabby boss, car problems, long commute, nagging spouse, and so forth, but I can help you manage and surmount your sympathetic nervous system stress symptoms. Life problems are bad enough without the additional burdens experienced when you feel irritable, frustrated, overstimulated, your body tense, gut tight, and your blood pressure rising. Most people encounter their life problems with body braced defiantly, jaws clenched, on guard.

As additional background, think for a minute about the frustrations in your life. It's really easy to list them. As you go about your life in the next hour, notice how your attention zeroes in to your complaints. Our bodies are wired that way to make sure we are alert and responsive to danger. Our modern lives have many more potential "dangers" than when our ancestors planted seeds and gathered crops.

The antidote to the sympathetic nervous system stress response is to bring the positive parasympathetic nervous system responses to the foreground. A-breathing and muscle relaxation are helpful body skills. The gratitude response is a cognitive skill. You should cultivate this response daily until it is habitual. How? Simply stop for a minute, think about and picture in your mind some of the good things in your life: your love for your family, bright sun and blue skies, a baby's smile, a bird chirping, a brook gurgling, nice music, a good joke. Suddenly your mind and body get the important message: life is good and you can relax. Research has demonstrated conclusively that daily habits of gratitude thinking increase pleasure in life, happiness, positive family relationships and health.

Okay, Doc, you say, "But what about my life problems? If you had my problems you'd feel stress no matter what." Well, I've had my share of difficult life problems also. One way I've learned to adapt to problems is --always--to ask myself what is good about this problem. I can always, at least, put the problem into perspective and calm my stress response. Sometimes the answer to this question comes readily and sometimes with difficulty. An easy example. So the dinner burned; I didn't want to go out to eat anyway. Harder problems. I had cancer. The good in having cancer was increased appreciation of life, learning about the illness to help others, and the decision to invest in life and build my beautiful Forest Garden office. My beloved father died recently. The good outcome is that he was able to join my mother, the love of his life, and his other daughters for eternity in heaven. I'm closing my Durham psychology office. One good outcome is this allows me to focus on my Forest Garden office and the local Chatham County and Chapel Hill area.

So think positively and cultivate those warm fuzzy gratitude feelings. There is room for both tree huggers and real estate developers in Chatham County as long as we appreciate the beauty of our countryside. Humor also helps. Remember Roseanne Roseannadanna of the old Saturday Night Live saying: "it's always something!" And picture her laughing hysterically. Then have a great stress-free February.