November to March are typically the most stressful months of the year. There are holiday stresses, getting together, or not, with family stresses, a huge hit on our finances due to holiday parties, presents, decorating and simply traveling more for parties and shopping. More people die during these months — due to increased automobile accidents, falls, cold weather and pneumonia and other cold season diseases. I personally experienced two dislocated ribs—at the spine, bursitis, a van transmission going out, moving, two deaths and funerals, the flu, a wrenched knee and job changes in addition to the usual holiday stress. I also came back from Africa with some sort of African malaise that lasted a month.
Stress is a part of life. We can’t get away from it. But we can lower the levels. Since high levels of stress are linked to stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, decreased sexual drive, headaches and stomach problems, lower stress is a good thing. Don’t resort to pills or alcohol to cope though. They come with their own risks. I’m not saying don’t drink, but consider this:
A recent study led by Joyce E. Bono of the University of Florida shows that stress levels and physical complaints declined by roughly 15% after employees were directed to spend 10 minutes writing about three things that had gone well each day. The study was conducted by employees log on to a website where they were asked to write about events large or small, personal or work-related, and explain why they had gone well each day. Researchers say the findings suggest that this intervention could have important effects on employee stress and health. We all know about gratitude journals and daily prayer or meditation. They have been proven to reduce stress as well.
“But I don’t have time to write in a gratitude journal!” is what most of my friends and clients say. I said it too. What I do, instead of setting aside a time during the day to write down things, is I write them down as they happen. I get a new client, I write down, “I’m grateful for _____my newest client and the income this is going to generate!” or “My package from Amazon came three days early! I’m grateful that I can finish this project early now!”
I do my “on-demand” gratitude with a spiral ring notebook. Nothing fancy. At the end of the day, before I go to bed, somewhere in between Facebook and checking my email, I get a glass of milk, tea or water and lie back in bed and read over what great things happened. Sometimes it’s something as simple as being grateful I could pay the bills that came in, or that a good friend called, or that I got laundry and ALL the dishes done before I got ready for bed.
Gratitude doesn’t mean being happy for the big things in life. It means being grateful for the little things. When you’re grateful for the little things, the big things take care of themselves.
Why do gratitude journals and practices work?
Gratitude does something amazing to the brain. It releases all kind of hormones and chemical, among them oxytocin, the “feel good” rush. When we’re relaxed we’re happier, friendly and more generous. When we’re more generous, happy and exuding peace, calm and openness people like us more, trust us more and approach us more. When we’re connecting on a feel good, trust and safety level we’re exposed to more opportunities. And when we’re exposed to more opportunities we’re more successful.
I just interviewed Dr. Ora Golan, in Jerusalem. She works with patients’ emotional systems using muscle testing and a series of questions the patient doesn’t even have to answer—their body does. She is phenomenally successful—so much so I’m going to be going to Jerusalem soon to get treatments and to write about her for a national magazine. I thought it was fascinating that she said in our talk that her treatment is the same for everyone, regardless of faith, belief systems, race, age, upbringing, or wealth. She’s not dealing with the culture or personality. Like a cardiac surgeon deals with a person’s heart, Golan deals with a person’s emotional system.
“Emotional blocks are the same for everyone,” she said. “We all block around the same things: failure, competition, success.” Emotional blocks are blocks that the body sets up to protect us. The emotional system, like emotions, is universal. Just as the system protects us, it can also heal us.
She has a cell phone app that is coming out in a few months that will allow people to heal themselves, or at least help themselves, heal past relationships—even ones from decades ago. Part of that healing involves gratitude.
Gratitude journals aren’t just a warm fuzzy feeling. They actually change our brains and our body chemistry. I notice a difference when I keep my journal up and when I don’t.
It’s a fact that our brains are more likely to seek out and store negative information over positive. Why? Because it keeps us alive — or did in a time when we were running from danger, tigers, bears and snakes and things and people that would kill us. By creating a database of potential dangers our brains ensured we wouldn’t wander into danger unawares. Even if we didn’t remember dangerous stuff consciously, our brains did.
How to change your life through gratitude:
(1) Focus on the positive, not the negative
(2) Use affirmations. I know, they’re so Saturday Night Live and cliché, but they work. Simply say things like, “I’m right where I’m supposed to be,” or “Every day in every way things are getting better.” It doesn’t have to be world shaking. I chant, “I love myself, I love my life,” whenever I go to the grocery store or am feeling down. Get creative. Have fun. If it doesn’t feel right or like it’s working after a week or so, change it.
(3) Dwell on the positive, distance yourself from the negative. Yeah, stuff happens and it sucks. Acknowledge it, accept it, change it where you can and move on. Look for answers and solutions, don’t break out the streamers and fireworks and throw a pity party.
(4) Challenge negative thoughts. When you catch yourself thinking “I’m a failure, I can’t do anything right, I always make stupid decisions” etc. respond to your thoughts like you would to a friend saying those things about themselves. Respond with phrases like, “You made a mistake, you are not a mistake. Remember the time last week when you helped that client and she was so grateful? That was a success!” or “You made one stupid decision, but 99% of the time you make brilliant decisions! We’re all allowed to make a few not-so-smart choices in life. That’s how we learn.” Don’t DENY the thought. Acknowledge the failure, feeling, or reality THEN focus on the facts, that yes, we all fail but more often than not we succeed. It’s okay to fail, to make a stupid decision, to fall off track, as long as we acknowledge it, accept it, and turn it into something positive.
If you don’t want to keep a paper journal, there are digital ones:
Day One, a journaling app for Apple devices ($4.99), or OhLife, a free email-based journal, can to help you keep track of the amazing things happening in your life every day.