Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Doing nothing but worrying? Develop a sense of proportion
Stress for Success
June 26, 2007

Can I trust my daughter’s friends? Is my job safe? Will we have hurricanes this season? Are my parents being well taken care of? Do we have enough retirement income? Will terrorists strike again? There’s an endless list of things to worry about.

The original intent for all stress emotions, including worry, was to motivate you to take positive action regarding whatever is bothering you. An example of healthy worry is if at bedtime you fear that you didn’t lock up the house, you go check. Theoretically, once you investigate and secure any unlocked doors -- you take positive action -- your anxiety should dissipate.

However, worrying may become unhealthy when you:
§ continue worrying about something after you’ve attended to it
§ take no positive action about whatever you’re concerned with
§ obsessively fret over anything

If you could clearly see that most of what you worry about isn’t worth your energy, would it motivate you to worry less? See if you’re like Althea, a mother who worried nearly constantly and was treated for this at an Adlerian Psychology family counseling center.

Althea especially worried about her 10-year-old son. She started worrying the second her eyes opened in the morning and throughout her entire day. The psychiatrist assigned her to:
§ Daily write down on paper every single worry (large and small) that entered her mind, and put them all in the one spot
§ After writing down each worry she was to stop fretting about it.
§ Make a one-hour weekly appointment with herself to do nothing but worry about each concern she’d written. She chose Wednesdays from 8 - 9 a.m. to worry at her family-room desk. Outside of that one hour she was not to worry at all.

During her Wednesday morning meetings with herself she’d do her best to worry about what was on those pieces of paper like, "Sammy’s 5 minutes late", "I wonder what the expiration date was on that milk he drank", "It’s going to rain and Sammy forgot his jacket."

It’s very difficult to sit for one hour and do nothing but worry; try it.

Althea was amazed at the myriad of things she worried about. It didn't take her long to discover that vast majority of her worries:
§ were trivial in nature
§ were about Sammy
§ never came to pass
§ focused on things beyond her control
§ were definitely not worth the time, energy and stress she invested in them

Once she became consciously aware of these epiphanies, she made a goal to decrease her worries by 50% each week. After just one month she quite easily decreased worrying to a more “normal” level.

It’s difficult as a parent, a business owner, or as someone with a medical condition not to worry. Often the worry is appropriate because something does require your positive action. Learn the difference between your own healthy and unhealthy fretting and preserve your stress energy for the concerns that can actually benefit from your attention.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Channel storm fears productively
Stress for Success
June 19, 2007

Here we go again! We’re less than two weeks into the hurricane season and we've already had two named storms. Wow!

Tropical Storm Barry, however, also demonstrated that tropical storms are a natural and important part of Florida's ecological balance. In other words, storms are not necessarily bad; in fact they’re necessary.

If you’re already stressed-to-the-max about hurricane season you’ll need to productively channel your fears to avoid being exhausted by the end of November. If you excessively worry it may be because:
§ You’re experiencing post-traumatic-stress disorder from having been through a life-threatening storm before. Please consider getting counseling for this. There’s no reason to suffer needlessly.
§ You’re a worry-wart no matter what the situation. I’ll have a great technique for you in next week’s column.

To keep your imagination from going wild, creating unnecessary tension, there are three basic stress management principles you can use when experiencing storm anxiety.

The first is to understand that Mother Nature’s survival emotions, anger and fear, are intended to motivate you to take positive action in response to whatever is triggering them. Take your storm anxiety energy and invest it into identifying positive actions you could take to calm your fears.

Secondly, putting your energy into preparing for hurricanes gives you a greater sense of control, which automatically lowers your stress.

Thirdly, keep your anxiety commensurate with the reality of the storm threat. This begins and ends with what you say to yourself. Wherever your thoughts are going that’s where you are going. Thinking fearful and stressful thoughts leads you toward fear and stress. Replace scary thinking with “What are my options?” repeated over and over until you think of a positive action you could take.

To practice these principles also get reliable information to educate yourself so you can gauge how stressed you need to be for each storm. For example, knowing two hurricane terms can help you decide how worried you need to be.
§ "Hurricane watch"; a hurricane is possible in your area
§ "Hurricane warning"; a hurricane is expected
Doesn’t it make sense to invest less fear into something that’s possible rather than expected?

To moderate your fear level, watch weather updates (but not obsessively until and unless there’s a hurricane knocking on our door). Remain watchful as long as we’re in the "cone of uncertainty". Once we’re out of this cone your anxiety level should drop in proportion to the decreased threat. Not all storms are created equal. If you remain as stressed it means you’re not allowing reality to influence your fears. Accurate information counters unrealistic fears so get the News-Press’ Hurricane Guide 2007 in the Sunday, June 3 newspaper (also distributed through Circle Ks) to help you prepare for storms ahead of time.

Given the experiences of the past few years with hurricanes, it’s wise to be alert and prepared. As your anxiety increases use that energy to review and act on your preparation plans rather than letting your fears be based on fear alone.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Live through your strengths to create happiness
Stress for Success
June 12, 2007

I'm very grateful for my blessed life, which is full of loving relationships, adventure, and a fascinating career. Taking the "VIA Signature Strengths Test" at the Authentic Happiness web site (http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu) explained why my life is so good.

This test measures 24 character strengths; from humor to humility. It's part of Positive Psychology (PP), which researches mental health vs. mental illness. To create authentic happiness PP tells us to live our lives through our natural strengths vs. fixing our weaknesses.

My test results show that my life choices are an expression of my five top strengths: genuineness, curiosity and interest in the world, capacity to love and be loved, gratitude, and perseverance. (Other character strengths measured include, optimism, open-mindedness, leadership, fairness, spirituality, forgiveness, bravery, kindness, plus eleven more.)

A high “curiosity and interest in the world” score means “always asking questions, finding subjects/topics fascinating, and liking exploration and discovery”. This helps explain why, at the age of 22, I joined the Peace Corps for 2 ½ years and why I chose the career of public speaking. My “genuineness” high score may explain why customers consistently tell me that my presentations are so practical.

My high “capacity to love and be loved” score must have something to do with being happily married for 29 years and having a large and loving circle of friends.

Interestingly at the bottom of my strengths were “modesty” and “teamwork”. These also make sense regarding my career choices (and maybe my willingness to share my character strengths with you!);
§ Too much modesty would make for a boring speaker.
§ My profession is largely a solitary one, which is fine because I don’t crave teamwork in an office environment. I'm happy as a clam working mostly by myself.

To increase your own happiness PP says to follow the following three paths. It’s better if you pursue all of them:
1) Do more of what gives you pleasure and/or joy
2) Immerse yourself in your passions
3) Live a meaningful life

Go to the above web site and take their tests to discover how to become happier. Your honest responses will lead to valuable feedback on your strengths and vulnerabilities.

Then follow PP’s advice: compensate for your weaknesses that interfere with happiness with your character strengths. For instance,
§ If you work alone but “teamwork” is one of your highest scores you’d probably be happier working with others.
§ If your “kindness” score is high but you aren’t giving a lot of energy to others, you may feel unmotivated.
§ Look for any way to live your strengths. “Catching people doing something right” can express a high “gratitude” score, as would daily acknowledging all that you’re grateful for.

Proactively increase the expression of your strongest character strengths while letting go of striving to improve upon your imperfections, which can be very difficult. It’s much easier and far more fun to express your strengths, which increases your energy, which increases your hope and motivation to continue making these easier changes. How can you lose with this formula?

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Achieving happiness by enhancing inner you
Character strengths can make people happy
Stress for Success
June 5, 2007

Happiness is that elusive American birthright enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and can be difficult to achieve.

According to psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, founding director of the Positive Psychology Center, University of PA, and author of “Authentic Happiness”, there are three major ways to achieve it. Live a life that’s:
§ full of pleasure, passion and joy
§ full of “flow”, as psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it, where you lose yourself in your passions
§ meaningful, full of purpose
He found the key to happiness comes from our internal qualities and character strengths and by enhancing these we make ourselves happier.

In recent years Seligman and his colleagues have identified 24 character-strengths that make people happy, including creativity, bravery, and kindness. They discovered that happiness was most strongly associated with what they labeled “heart- strengths”: the ability to love and be loved, gratitude, curiosity, and hope.

Not surprisingly love was at the top of the list. Because humans are a social group, being enjoyably occupied with others, including at work makes us the happiest. And it doesn’t have to be romantic love, as anyone with close friends knows.

Expressing gratitude is also very rewarding because you’re focusing on what’s good in your life. The person you’re thanking feels appreciated, which encourages him to strive to improve. The relationship is strengthened leaving you both feeling happier. What goes around comes around. Expressing gratitude infrequently, however, doesn’t impact your happiness significantly. Expressing it frequently does.

Another heart-strength is curiosity. Following your curiosities puts you into a circle of people who share them. It’s the best way to make new friends. It’s what brought my own large and embracing circle of girl friends together. Our mutual curiosities attracted us to work in the same community organizations 25 years ago and here we are still best friends and still sharing new ideas.

Regularly appreciating what has gone well in your day also boosts happiness by changing your focus from what’s wrong to what’s right. Life is good. Nightly before bed time list what went well during your day. Doing this for a couple of months you may notice a lightening of your moods and increased happiness.

The wonderful thing about living your life with more love, gratitude and curiosity is that it creates greater hope. You look forward to more tomorrows.

If you don’t think you possess any of these heart-strengths you can still find greater happiness by living your life by one of your character-strengths. In research participants identified their top five strengths and then used one of them in a new way every day for a week. For example, an adventurous person watched a TV travel show of a place she’d love to visit someday. Another day she challenged herself to learn a new sport, etc., creating more happiness.

Don’t assume happiness is beyond your grasp; pursue it. Start with easy changes: every morning upon awakening list what you’re grateful for and each night at bedtime review what went well that day.

For more information on this fascinating and important research go to http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.