Your body’s ability to react to stressful situations is amazing. In the blink of an eye, your adrenal glands release a flood of adrenaline and cortisol to energize you. Blood flows from your brain to your limbs for quick movement. Endorphins blunt your pain receptacles while other neurotransmitters put your brain on high alert. Your laser-like focus on the stressor is so intense that your interest in anything else – even food and sex – disappears. You are ready for fight or flight.
The problem is that the stress you’re facing is probably not a shark attack, but an email from your boss attacking a problem situation. Physically counterattacking or running out of the building, while tempting, is not going to improve your situation. Besides, over the years you’ve learned that there’s no point in offering an immediate response. It just further antagonizes him. Eventually when he gets all of the facts he’ll modify his perspective, but not his propensity for having knee-jerk reactions.
When stress becomes chronic rather than intermittent, your brain and body change. Your thinking slows down, creativity lessens, learning is impaired, self-control subsides and your desire to engage with others diminishes. Studies show that prolonged stress overload can leave your mind vulnerable to anxiety and depression, and your body at risk for cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes.
If you think the boss is the problem, you’re mistaken. Chronic stress is our psychological pattern of responding to challenges in our life. It’s how we choose to react to problems that set off the physiological mechanisms that negatively affect our mind and body. It’s not our bad boss, hostile neighbor, critical spouse or unruly kids that are destroying our well-being – it’s how we’re thinking about those problems.
Abundant research supports the development and deployment of strengths as an effective strategy for combating stress. More importantly, people who use their strengths have been shown to be more successful at work, report more frequent bouts of happiness, demonstrate better physical health, and experience more overall life satisfaction. Positive psychologists have discovered that an extraordinarily effective method for combating stress is to focus your attention on harnessing your inner resources rather than battling what is beyond your control.
In fact, numerous studies show that the less time an individual uses their strengths in a given day the more time they’ll spend dealing with stress, sadness, anger, worry or pain. On the other hand, the research revealed that people who spent more time deploying their strengths each day felt well-rested, had high energy, smiled, laughed, learned interesting information, and were more frequently treated with respect.
A growing group of scientists have studied which strengths are most effective at buffering the negative effects of stress. A 2009 journal article by Park and Peterson found that the strengths most effective for dealing with stressful situations were kindness, social intelligence, self-regulation, and perspective. Those same researchers also reported that people who are struggling with anxiety or depression are best able to restore their sense of life satisfaction by using the strengths of love of learning as well as appreciation of beauty and excellence.
These studies suggest that there is a process for how to use strengths to cope with stressful situations. First, calm yourself by down-regulating your physical reactions with slow breathing. If you’re really stressed, take a walk somewhere you can appreciate the beauty of nature. Once you break free from your fight or flight mindset, get some perspective on the situation by learning what the other people who are involved in the situation are thinking and feeling. Respond to their needs with an act of kindness. Finally, find the courage to let others know what kind deed they could do for you to reduce your stress.
Sometimes the source of stress relates to physical health problems. In this case, Park, Peterson and Seligman discovered that people who were able to cope most effectively with their illnesses used the strengths of bravery, kindness, and especially humor. Bravery helped patients remain calm in the face of serious illness by giving them an attitude of “I will prevail.” Kindness toward others gave patients a sense that they could give help as well as receive it. But finding ways to bring humor into their lives was the strength that brought the greatest relief from their fears.
These same scientists found that people with the highest level of life satisfaction consciously and consistently practice using 5 strengths: hope, zest, gratitude, curiosity, and – most importantly – loving and feeling loved.