Thursday, December 19, 2019

Taking it easy while home for the holidays.

After a month of hanging around Buenos Aires, Argentina, my tiny, nomadic nuclear family migrated across continents and international borders to settle into the land of the North. North Carolina, that is. We left the southern hemisphere behind, with its longer daylight hours and summer weather, to join our larger extended family for a set of cultural rituals we commonly refer to as “the holidays.” I am grateful that we have the means to travel and grateful for the opportunity to do so, but most importantly I am grateful to be back in familiar surroundings among people we love.

Also, I am grateful for ice tea, which doesn’t exist in Argentina.

I just listed four things that I am grateful for and this is something that I have been doing every evening for the past several years. I even post my list publicly on social media, check it out:

You probably have some idea why I do it, even if you aren’t a psychologist or familiar with research you most likely have seen articles, links and memes circulating on the internet about the power of gratitude and it’s ability to rewire the brain (whatever that means). Just yesterday someone tagged me in a post about gratitude. It’s a movement, a fad, an internet buzzword, and I would like to point out that there is really nothing special about expressing gratitude.

But before I go into it, let me introduce another subject, one that I have a lot of interest in: Stress.

The holiday season, for a lot of people, is one of significant stress. For whatever reason, we travel great distances to spend some quality time with people we chose to live very far from. The kind of people whose idiosyncratic behavior may seem fine in small doses, but really crawls under our skin like nothing else after a week or two of exposure. We may share genes or social bonds like marriage, but often we have few common interests with those with whom we make our annual pilgrimage to exchange gifts. Normally empty bedrooms are now full with extra people competing for bathroom time and TV channels, each cluttering the environment with their belongings, suitcases, and just their lazy ass sitting on the couch. In your favorite spot, like all the time. I generally don’t get stressed around the holidays, but I understand it.

At the most basic level stress is simply our brain’s reaction to a perception of threat. That’s what stress is, and that is all it is. Obviously, there are different types of threats that we react to, from something objectively horrifying like being attacked by a bear to something relatively innocuous like a line for the bathroom when we really have to go, but all stress is our reaction to a perception of threat. That’s it.  It is important to understand that, but it is also important to understand that what causes us to experience threat isn’t just a function of our situation, but it is our perception of that situation. How we perceive an event is influenced by quite a bit, but one major player is the nature of the thoughts in our head when we encounter the potential threat.

Here with family, our cousin may be taking more than her share of time in front of the bathroom mirror but it is our own thoughts about the situation that make us annoyed. Like in traffic, it isn’t necessarily the other cars that present a threat to us but our thoughts that we might be late for work and what those consequences may be. Our thoughts have a great deal of influence over our stress response and the emotions we experience as a result of that stress.

Because stress is our brain’s reaction to a threat, its primary function is to get us ready to deal with that threat. If we are being attacked by a bear, we are going to need to do something to help us survive and whatever we do is going to require lots of energy fast. This is why stress increases our heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar among other things. Getting that sugar to the parts of the body that need it is going to help us survive the situation. But what if we are just sitting in traffic or waiting on our cousin to finish her lengthy morning beauty process to the delight of her Instagram followers? The increase in blood pressure and sugar is probably not necessary, and if you do it frequently enough over the long period that is your life then you can understand how stress can become problematic.

In all my work I try to help people understand the role of thoughts in mediating our stress response, which in turn affects our emotions and physical health. I frequently tell people if they don’t like the way they feel, to change their thoughts. Changing our thoughts in the moment of stress can be tough, but changing our mindset before we have those moments is much easier and can have a longer lasting impact.

So, how do we change how we think? The simple answer is “just have different thoughts, dummy!” but for most of us simple does not mean easy. The answers to our biggest challenges are often very simple: How do I lose weight? “eat less, dummy!” How do I quit smoking? “quit putting cigarettes in your mouth, dummy!” However, they may be simple answers but they are far from easy to implement.

There are two relatively easy ways to change the thoughts in your head. One is to speak. When you talk out loud your speech tends to reflect what you are thinking. It is very difficult to simultaneously think one thing while saying something different. Say more positive things and you’ll think more positive thoughts. That connection has been understood way before there was an internet and as a result positive people suffer a lot less stress. I like to encourage people to try and be more positive in their expressions, and to say positive things more often. You don’t have to go around giving out insincere compliments or constantly commenting on the weather, it could be something simple and easy: Tell the people you care about that you care about them more often. Love is an extremely positive emotion and when you say the words “I love you” to someone you love, for a brief moment anyway it puts the thought of love into your head. Do that frequently enough over the long period that is your life and stress will become less problematic.

But we don’t love everyone, do we? Even Hugh Heffner had his limits. At least in our culture, the emotion love is something we only feel for a small handful of people in our lives. We could extend our use of the word to others, but if it isn’t a sincere expression of an emotion then it isn’t going to do jack to change the way we think. So many psychologists started talking about expressions of gratitude, because we can feel thankful toward just about anyone. Like earlier when shopping for presents, I felt perfectly comfortable telling a total stranger that I am grateful he held the door open for me but I’m not ready to admit that I love him. I still need to see other people. Expressions of gratitude are easy, don’t make us that vulnerable, and put positive thoughts into our heads. Be more expressive of positive emotions to other people, simple as that.

Yeah, but what if the people around us are annoying? Thankfully for those of us that have temporarily locked ourselves in close proximity to people with whom the only things we have in common are a few strands of DNA, there is another relatively easy way to change the thoughts in your head. Write something. Just like speech, when you write something you are thinking something. It is very difficult to entertain a thought different than the one you are writing. Trust me, I just tried this on that last sentence. Writing is a great way to formulate thought. Structured writing, that is writing with some specific purpose, is a great way to force your brain into a desired direction.

And so, along with countless people in the world, I write my list of three to four things I am grateful for every evening. We can do more, I understand that Oprah Winfrey writes five things every night because Oprah is better than us. Usually I write three things as studies show that less than three does not give us enough practice to make a significant dent in our thought processes. I started doing mine on Facebook to model the behavior for others and I really enjoy spreading the behavior. It does not have an immediate effect, but over a long enough period of time it does help our brain to have more positive thoughts and in turn suffer a lot less stress.

In the face of the holidays isn’t that worth a few minutes of your time? What are your 3 things?

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