by Janice Walton, PhD ~ November 19th, 2008
Two weeks ago, the yellow brick road I had been traveling on seemed to curl up under my toes and disappear. I discovered my younger brother had acute myeloid leukemia, which then precipitated numerous phone calls, doctor appointments, meetings, and decisions that ended with an emergency trip to the hospital for an indeterminate stay.
I began thinking about stress and what a stressful time this is for us: for me as the back-up care giver; more so, for his wife as the primary care giver; and for family and friends who have to deal with his illness and are unable to be with him as he goes through this truly life-threatening illness.
If you think about it, stress is a funny word, and one that has been written about ad nauseam since Hans Selye coined the term in the 1930s. Amazon.com shows 454,921 results on the topic. One can be stressed out, over stressed, or just plain stressed. Then, there is stress management, stress reduction, and myriads of techniques for eliminating it. Yet, as Selye says, “Without stress, there would be no life,” so, in other words, it is a part of life.
It occurs to me, however, that we do it to ourselves—this thing called stress, with our self-talk. Take for example, my brother’s illness. I started out by naming it a stressful situation. I told myself the situation was awful and worrisome, it shouldn’t happen, and I didn’t have time to deal with it. I dwelt on what about this and how will I manage that. Yada! Yada! Yada!
Yet, when I think about it, I know this frame of mind is not good for my health. Thinking about the “what ifs” and the “what will I dos” causes a tightness in my chest and tension across my shoulders. I realize I don’t know what will happen with my brother, but it does occur to me I am stressing myself out with words, and the effect isn’t particularly good for me, or for anyone else, including him.
So, as a psychologist, here’s my “prescription” for stress, and if you’re have a particular trying time right now, feel free to use more than one idea at the same time.
- Be Aware of How You Stress Yourself Out. The best way to do this is to keep a journal, and jot down what you are saying to yourself and others. Review your journal at the end of each day and recast the negative self-talk statements in a positive light. By doing so, you will find you can let go of stress, revise the negatives in a more positive way, and create a positive outcome.
- Be Positive. Look for a half full cup rather than a half empty one. Being optimistic and positive helps improve trying situations. In fact, according to the life-long researcher and psychologist of happiness, Ed Diener, positive thinkers view threats as opportunities and find challenges in negative situations. You can too, just be positive!
- Discover the Stressor. Sometimes you become confused about what is causing the stress. So, use this sentence fragment, I am stressed because…, and without thinking about it, write down twenty endings. For example, I am stressed because my boss is demanding. I am stressed because I have to go to the store again. I am stressed because the dog ate my proposal, and so forth. After you complete the twenty sentences, do it again and again; until there are no more endings. Somewhere along the way you will likely discover the real stressor, and once you know the real stressor, you can put things in the proper perspective.
- Formulate the Optimal Affirmation. Once you have your optimal affirmation, write it down and then repeat it a hundred times a day. Doing so will reinforce what you want to achieve, and you will focus on the positives rather than the stressors.
- How Do You Benefit? People gain something when they think a negative thought. How do you benefit? Explore the issue and consider what you gain with your stressful thoughts. Just knowing what the gain is can encourage you to approach the issue differently.
- Make Stressful Thoughts Positive. Write down stressful thoughts, reverse them, and turn them into positive affirmations. In other words, focus on what you want and affirm it. An example is when you tell yourself you don’t have time. Turn it around and say, “I have enough time to do whatever I need to do.” However, there is one caution, when creating an affirmation make sure the statement is acceptable and believable.
- Question Your Beliefs. Byron Katie, who suffered severe depression for a decade, had a life changing experience, and realized she could change her life with her attitude. She developed a series of four piercing questions, and she suggests you apply them in troubling situations: 1) Is it (the thought) true? 2) Can you absolutely know it is true? 3) How do you react when you believe it, and 4) Who would you be without the thought? Then, as suggested in “Make Stressful Thoughts Positive,” turn those negative thoughts around.
- Visualize. Go beyond the words and visualize what you want. Make the visualization as realistic as possible. What do you see, smell, and hear? Who’s in the picture with you? Is it a sunny day or a starry night? By visualizing and making it as realistically as possible, you’ll discover the power of your mind and the power you have to heal yourself.
Wear a Rubber Band. Although you may think this sounds similar to a memory exercise, it’s not; however, you can reprogram your mind because every time you think a stressful thought all you do is snap the rubber band and that breaks the stressful thinking habit.
- What Do You Want and What Can You Do? Why think about what you don’t want and what you can’t do? Instead focus on positive solutions and discover what’s achievable.
Because of this event with my brother, I’ve come to realize life has much to offer, and even though I know I can’t always avoid stress, I know I can make the best of it. I can take stress and make it work for me rather than be its victim. I can emerge from this stressful time stronger and more capable for the experience, if I am willing to apply myself and work through my issues. You can do the same, and I know the techniques I’ve suggested are key to your success.
As I think about this situation, I also realize that the classical tale and musical screenplay by Lyman Frank Baum, known as the Wizard of Oz, may offer some valuable insight. Just like Dorothy’s journey on the yellow brick road resulted in courage for the cowardly lion, a heart for the tin man, and a brain for the scarecrow, in the end it was Dorothy who gained the most. The yellow brick road is wherever you go, and even though you may forget it at times, all you have to do is look inward, because the power you need is already inside of you!