Positive Stress Management and Gratitude Part 3: Negative & Positive Scanning, Gratitude, and Exercises
Chris G'Froerer, Stress Therapist
When we were growing up, we learned that it was good to look for what is wrong and what can go wrong. That taught us to exert caution, to protect us from many dangers: being burnt by fire, strangers, germs, as well as from being socially ostracised, to avoid failure and so on. When we focus on only the negative we tend to have a constricted viewpoint. Like putting on blinkers. Some people get into the habit of “negative scanning” events which can lead to exclusionary thinking, that is, they find fault in most things. If you ask them, “how was the movie?” they will tell you about the annoying person sitting in front of them rustling their lolly papers. When you say, “what a beautiful day today” they will say “It wont last long, we are in for rain”. Negative scanning can be a greased skid to anxiety and depressive illnesses. It is also the signal to avoid, to retreat, and reinforces the belief that we will not cope in such circumstances.
In this article, I want to focus on two aspects of stress management which are fast becoming effective agents in reducing stress as well as promoting well-being. These are the use of positive thinking and gratitude.
Positive scanning is the ability to see what is right and what can go right. When we look forward to something, when we anticipate success in some event or personal effort, we trigger those same centres of the brain which record the experience as real in the present moment. We experience secretions of opiates (dopamine and serotonin) and feelings of happiness, confidence and a tendency to be proactive. We are more likely to seek out opportunities, to take risks and to accept failure as part of learning. We are also more likely to gain a sense of self-efficacy due to our willingness to find the benefits of challenges rather than to see them as obstacles to stop us in our tracks.
Practicing positive scanning will, over time, reinforce and strengthen our neural pathways for success and happiness. Anthony Robbins, in his book “Awaken The Giant Within” recommends using his Evening Power Questions. I have been answering these questions regularly for years. They are: 1) What have I learned today? 2) What have I given today? and 3) How has today added to the quality of my life? By answering such questions as these on a daily basis, we can reinforce our positive experiences and find meaning in our lives.
On a personal level, I am able to remind myself that I am always learning, even despite my failures. I learned this morning, for instance, that when go to bed too late I don’t wake up refreshed and ready for the day. Today I gave my ear to a person who needed to talk about their problems. I also gave my family a special dinner because I had more time to prepare it. Today I decided to walk for 30 minutes, despite heavy rain clouds overhead, and managed to do something healthy for myself rather than sitting indoors.
Instead of looking back over the day, or our lives in general, and scanning for the negative, we can focus on positive memories, such as when we were at our happiest or when we were at our personal best. By revisiting positive experiences, we increase our sense of personal efficacy and this makes it easier for us to apply this knowledge to our future experiences. By remembering, for example, when we were happiest in our relationships, we can engage more often in those behaviours which contributed to our happiness.
Nowadays a lot of our stress is due to the measures we use for our self worth. More and more people try to get their worth from achievement, status, wealth and material possessions. Sadly, there has never been a correlation between any of these things and happiness. Society tends to reward those who work longer, harder and achieve more. We value those who contribute a lot to society and we compare ourselves to them, believing that our worth is equal to what we achieve. The last three decades has seen a rise in anxiety and depression, a tripling in youth suicide, a record number of divorces and people who report feeling stressed and overwhelmed with their lives.
Research shows that people only experience a temporary rise in happiness when they experience success, win lotto or some other reward. We quickly go back to our baseline happiness level. So the need to feel happy for many of us then becomes associated with more achievement and reward and the inherent stress that arises from this unhealthy cycle can actually lead to dissatisfaction, disappointment and even burnout. There are many successful achievers who are unhappy. For example, celebrities who rely on drugs and alcohol. Their entire lives are lived under the illusion that once they have it all, they’ll be happy. “Once I reach …. I’ll be happy.” Once they get the money, praise, exposure, adoration, it wears off. They go back to baseline but even below it because before that they at least had the belief they’d get to the highest achievement but now they have it they realise it does not really keep them happy. They had false expectations: eg: “if I earn extra money I will be happy.”
Happy people tend to speak about the small pleasures in their lives. You know these people – they have an awareness of the beauty around them. They mention the sunsets, the people they laughed with, the rainbows, the joys of parenting despite the tribulations, the precious time to sit and relax, special times spent with friends – rather than the expensive hotels they stayed in or their latest accomplishment. By using positive scanning we keep going in the face of adversity. We develop resilience to what the world throws out at us, because we believe in our ability to cope. We can do this through mindfulness and through changing the way we think from negative to positive.
We can also achieve this by regularly practicing gratitude. By writing in a journal, five things that went well each day, we will gradually become more mindful of the beauty and the benefits of our lives. However, this must be practiced over time. There is no quick fix in changing old habits. The expectation of a quick fix leads to frustration and unhappiness.
Learning to savour the journey, practicing gratitude or being mindful of our abundance, will lead to happiness. “It is the striving after goals that is crucial for happiness and positive affectivity” says David Watson. “Happiness grows less from the passive experience of desirable circumstances than from involvement in valued activities and progress toward one’s goals” advises Myers and Diener. “Gratitude produced the most purely joyful moments that have been known to man” says Brother David Steindle-Rast. “Gratefulness: the heart of prayer.” And again, “Gratefulness is the measure of our aliveness. Are we not dead to whatever we take for granted? Surely to be numb is to be dead.”
William James says, “It takes about 21 days to form a habit. We can chip away at negativity by showing appreciation and gratitude and we make our lives great – extraordinary.”
As I previously mentioned, when we are at our most unhappy state, we could take out a piece of paper and write about all the things we are grateful for. Whatever we appreciate will appreciate. We need to appreciate our health, our well-being, air-conditioning, our friends and family. Even better than this is when we show others that we are grateful for their kind deeds, friendship and so on and this helps to create an upward spiral of happiness. By moving from the constricted viewpoint to the big picture – what there is to feel good and grateful for – we open up to possibilities and naturally look for solutions. Focusing on what works helps us identify antidotes to depression and burnout.
In summing up my articles on positive stress management and gratitude, I believe we have a choice at any moment in our lives to decide to embrace change in all its forms, and see stress as an inevitable part of life. We can choose to accept the many challenges presented to us as opportunities to learn about ourselves and our abilities under stress. We can also choose how we react to what happens to us and around us by knowing how our way of thinking can affect our brain and nervous system. We can then decide to use appropriate stress management tools such as positive scanning to reinterpret what happened as a possible benefit to us. One man’s idea of failure is another man’s idea of success.
Finally, by cultivating gratitude in our lives on a daily basis, we are able to accept the fact that we are all as safe and as vulnerable as the next person; that life is short and tenuous, but that there is so much we can feel good about. By practicing gratitude, we become aware of the small things we take for granted, but which, without them, life would be less meaningful.
Each day positively scan your day and write down what went well.
Take a moment now to reflect on the many people and things you are grateful for in your life.
Think of an event which has caused you sorrow or anger in the past. Say what you did in that situation and say how you would do it differently next time from a more positive perspective.
Gratitude helps to maintain freshness. Notice, on a daily basis, for a whole week, positive aspects of your job, your children, your partner, your health and so on.