Tag Archives: stress

Is life a drag?
Living the Moment

"Enlightenment" Dalai Lama by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Enlightenment” — Dalai Lama by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

The extraordinary moments of life are outbalanced by the more frequent ordinary moments, such as working at the computer, going to the store, or sitting in traffic. The good news is that brain research shows that happiness is related more to your state of mind than the state of your current external circumstances.

One way to improve every moment is by learning to have a relaxed, mindful attitude, even when you might be bored or under stress. So there is no need to wait for the next time you go on vacation, go to a yoga class, or have a couple of drinks to improve your state of mind.

When you relax while focusing on the present moment, you can learn to be at ease, quick and on task without rushing. If you learn to be “in the zone” even in ordinary moments, life will flow more easily and your feelings of fulfillment will be enhanced.

We can consider life as a precious gift or a strenuous chore. To a large degree, it is our choice because we filter life through our mind. Here are some ways in which we can improve our state of mind, make the ordinary extraordinary, and be more enjoyable to be around:

1. Notice sensations, the air, the view, and the environment around you. This puts you in the present moment and mitigates anxiety and fear.

2. Observe your own energy and that of those around you. Intentionally transform your energy, whether you decide to focus on being peaceful, excited, appreciative, or ready for action.

3. Be mindful of your body. Correct your posture and reposition yourself to feel strong and relaxed.

4. Notice your facial expression and decide if you you’d like to change a frown into a more pleasant expression. Smiling alone will improve your day.

5. Focus on your breath. Breathe more slowly and deeply.

6. Be ready to handle anything that comes your way in a positive way. View every challenge as an opportunity for growth.

7. Focus on others, that is, engage others with wit, intellect, or a compassionate attitude. This takes the focus off of one’s own complaints. And most important,

8. Be happy to be alive.

If things get rough, then breathe deeply, think about what you can be grateful for, and if possible, look for the irony, humor, or philosophical insight that many situations present.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “I want to enjoy life and not just think about money.”

Read “Fear and Panic: ‘If I don’t keep on top of everything, I don’t know what will happen.’”

“I feel frustrated and under stress a lot.”

"Tranquility" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Physical health and balance

First make sure that your lifestyle is healthy. Lack of sleep, too much sugar, alcohol, drugs or medications, lack of exercise, as well as physical disorders can cause stress hormones to get out of control. Revitalizing your physical health strengthens your ability to handle stressful situations.

Expectations, thoughts, and worries

Much of our stress and anxiety results from dwelling too much on our expectations—negative and positive. We live in fear of our negative expectations coming true.

“He’s going to be angry.”

“I won’t be able to pay the rent.”

“I’m never good enough.”

We feel let down when our positive expectations are not met.

“If I were thinner, he would love me.”

“If I had gotten the promotion, I would be happy.”

Our thoughts cause much of our physical and emotional stress. Imagine seeing your new boyfriend with another woman. The bitter disappointment felt in your body reflects your thoughts—that he’s cheating on you or that he’s no longer interested in you and too selfish to be honest with you.

Later he calls to invite you over to meet his sister who’s in town visiting. Suddenly all the stress vanishes and you feel relief and joy, simply because your thoughts have changed. Or perhaps he really was cheating, but many months or years later, your life takes a wonderful turn and you realize how fortunate you were to leave that relationship.

Refocus your thoughts

If you could learn to think differently, much of your stress and unhappiness would vanish. If you could live your life without wishing things were not as they are and without fearing the worst, you would be more fully present to the moment and not overcome with fears about the future.

Letting go of your expectations does not mean that you shouldn’t have personal goals, that you shouldn’t have boundaries and consequences for bad behavior in your relationships, or that you shouldn’t be prepared for potential risks in the future. It means that you should stop trying to control aspects of your life that you cannot control.

Make room for the unexpected

When you actively expect the unexpected, you can more easily handle whatever comes your way with equanimity. If you are over-scheduled, then whenever something unexpected occurs, you will experience frustration. If you have no space in your life for the unexpected, then when someone calls, drops by, needs you, or when you forget something, it will cause unnecessary agitation.

Avoiding over-scheduling your life will give you room to accept the inevitable unforeseen challenges, opportunities, and adventures that life offers us. It also allows you time to relax, enjoy, be creative, and engage with other people without feeling rushed.

Accept reality

Try and enjoy or at least be accepting of whatever happens. If there’s a traffic jam on the freeway on your way to the airport, you’ll either make the plane or you won’t. You might as well make the most of the time you have in your car rather than panic.
Some of the worst disasters turn out to make the best stories. Some of the most unwanted outcomes lead to great adventures and opportunities. The more quickly you can accept the inevitable, the less time you lose fighting reality.

When you become willing to accept reality, you can base your decisions on what is rather than on what you wish were true or what you dread might be the case.

Embrace some stress

It turns out that having a moderate amount of stress as well as some control over your life is healthier and results in more happiness than having no stress or no control in your life. Thus, the goal should not be to eliminate stress but to focus primarily on things you can do something about. Taking control requires taking positive steps to deal with challenges. So, do not ignore problems, suppress stress, or allow yourself to be consumed by stress.

Taking control includes prioritizing your life and changing your situation. Equally important is relieving your stress in healthy ways such as exercising, finding a way to laugh, and relaxing with friends or family. In situations where there is no course of action to take, try slow deep breathing and consciously change your attitude and perspective about the situation.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Performance Anxiety:
“I get extremely anxious when I compete in sports or engage in public speaking.”

"Purple Rain" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Purple Rain” by Mimi Stuart ©

As long as I do not take myself too seriously I should not be too badly off.


Think of how little anxiety you experience when you are comfortably on your couch watching TV. Now imagine that you are going to perform a concert, give a speech, compete in a tournament, or go on a first date. Would you want to be as stress-free as you are in front of the TV? Or would a totally relaxed, lackadaisical attitude hurt you?

Some stress is good

Some people think that they want to eliminate all anxiety and stress from their lives. Yet a total lack of anxiety generally only occurs when someone feels low energy, apathetic, or indifferent.

In situations involving danger, the unknown, and peak performance, you need to be at your best and on your game; you need to be alert and ready to take action. Anxiety — or stress — in moderate doses prepares you for those situations.

Anxiety is a physical response to a mental state, in addition to other factors such as genetics, personality, history, disease, and drugs. Stress generates an increase in cortisol and adrenaline, which cause you to be alert and ready for action. In excess, anxiety can cause you to freeze, panic, or lose mental or motor control. Yet in moderation, it arouses the senses and increases awareness and the ability to react quickly. It turns out that having too little cortisol can be just as much a problem as having too much.

Excitement and passion

Falling in love, traveling, and intellectual and physical challenges cause anxiety and concurrent chemical changes in the brain known as “excitement.” Events involving situations of novelty, significance, or the unknown cause an arousal of the senses and a state of alertness that allow you to notice everything vividly. Without some anxiety, you won’t experience the exhilaration involved in anticipation, adventure, and peak performance.

Having stress in your life is healthier than no stress, as long as you can exercise some control over the situation. Thus, the goal is not to eliminate stress completely but to re-train your brain to handle anxiety better in the more extreme situations you may face.

Four ways to train your neural-circuitry

1. Practice

Whether your goal is public-speaking, performing at a concert, or competing in a sport, the most effective way to practice is to practice extensively, always with focused attention, and not necessarily in “perfect” external circumstances. With such focused practice, the required movements will occur more naturally and automatically in the future regardless of your anxiety levels.

If you have performance anxiety, it’s good to start with mildly stressful situations to avoid traumatizing yourself. A gradual increase in stress is much more effective than jumping into panic-inducing situations. If you want to do more public speaking, for instance, practice in front of the mirror, make toasts at the dinner table, go to toastmasters, and eventually give small workshops. If you play an instrument, start by practicing with other people in the room, and invite more and more people over to listen.

2. Imagine the worst-case scenario

Prepare yourself by imagining how you would handle the worst-case scenario. For example, at a Nationals water ski tournament, I saw a slalom competitor respond beautifully to a worst-case scenario. After falling at the one ball on her opener, which is about the worst performance possible, she came out of the water without any hint of anger or embarrassment, and simply shrugged it off. She laughed and said that she felt fortunate to be competing at Nationals, and that she hoped to do better the following year. Because she had such a great response and demeanor, other people did not feel embarrassed or sorry for her. Instead they felt comfortable, and retained respect for her.

It also helps to have a sense of humor about yourself and to remember what Michael Jordan once said:

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, lost almost 300 games, missed the game-winning shot 26 times. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed.

3. Practice getting centered.

During practice or performance, we need to be prepared to deal with self-defeating thoughts that do nothing but intensify our anxiety.

“What an idiot I am! That was horrible!”

“What if I can’t remember?”

“Oh no. Look who just walked in.”

When people get distracted by a negative thought or an unexpected interruption, they get centered again in very different ways. Here are some examples of how to get your focus back quickly:

1. Take a slow deep breath.

2. Focus on others rather than how you appear to them.

3. Focus on kinesthetic feeling rather than on your thoughts about how well you must perform.

4. Imagine a relaxed place — a serene beach or a loved one appreciating you.

5. Practice simply letting go of distracting thoughts and moving on. Meditation is a great way to practice getting centered.

6. Pretend you are someone who exudes the right kind of confidence or does your activity well. Mirroring is the fastest way to learn new attitudes and behaviors, just as infants and children do. With practice, you will own that energy and embody it in your own personal way.

4. Gain Perspective

Given personality traits, upbringing, and other environmental factors, people develop unconscious assumptions of what will happen if they fail or make mistakes. For example, they may feel that they will be unlovable, a failure, worthless, or unhappy.

To put your fears in perspective, it helps to investigate what makes people feel happy, worthwhile, or lovable. Research shows that the greatest happiness comes from activities such as maintaining meaningful relationships, helping others, having a sense of community, meditating, smiling, and laughing. Exercising, adequate sleep, and eating healthy foods also have a serious impact on our well-being. Learning and executing skills does positively effect our well-being as well, but it is lower on the list than having good relationships, helping others, and feeling a sense of community. We want to make sure that our perfectionist thinking about performing skills doesn’t sabotage the more important ingredients for a happy and meaningful life.

Living life

Life is rarely stress-free because life by its nature requires us to deal with the unknown on a daily basis. However, the more practice we get in handling the unknown, the more confidently we can approach life and its challenges. If we are experiencing anxiety, we are living. Only by doing mundane activities mindlessly do we get relief from all stress — by sleeping through life. Is that what we really want?

Look at the adventure, challenges, and growth we would be missing if we chose to eliminate all stress! Through facing the anxieties of living life, we learn to handle new exhilarating and challenging situations.

Sometimes it takes years to become an overnight success.


by Dr. Alison Poulsen

“Stress is killing me.”
The surprising facts about stress.

"Nessun Dorma" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Nessun Dorma” by Mimi Stuart ©

Research shows that having stress is healthier than having little or no stress at all, as long as you have some control over your life. People who have some stress and some control over their lives tend to live the longest, feel happiest, and have the strongest immune system. Thus, active participation in directing your life with its built-in difficulties turns out to be better for you than passive acceptance of an easy life or feeling helpless in face of a difficult life.

Stress triggers release of cortisol in your body, and having too little cortisol can be just as unhealthy as having too much. Moreover, research shows that simply embracing stress rather than trying to get rid of stress causes people to handle difficulties better, and makes stress less likely to lead to depression, divorce and health problems.

This is good news, because an interesting and enjoyable life involves taking risks and facing the unknown, both of which are inherently stressful. The more practice we get in dealing with uncertainty and hardships, the more confident we can be in our approach to life. The more actively we endeavor to face and deal with challenges, the better we become at taking appropriate action, and the healthier the accompanying stress is to our system.

Imagine that you are deciding whether to take on a stressful job or a stress-free job. Consider first that there is a point where having too much going on in your life can cause you to lose control over your life. However, if you have too little going on in your life, your passivity and boredom are likely to lead to unhappiness and a feeling of meaninglessness or emptiness. Thus, it is important to pursue what gives you meaning and that you gain the confidence to handle the accompanying stress.

Taking control of your life means taking positive steps to deal with challenges. Such positive steps include the following:

• prioritize what is important in your life,
• face your difficulties head on,
• take steps to change what you can about any given situation,
• change your perspective about circumstances you cannot change,
• develop your sense of humor,
• take care of yourself physically and emotionally.

By all means, take risks!

It is key to recognize that even when we don’t have control over external circumstances, we do have control over our perspective, attitude and response to external circumstances. Thus, Viktor E. Frankl survived the holocaust.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

~Viktor E. Frankl

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Watch Ted Talk by Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend

The power of a pause against anger and impulsiveness:
“That’s it! Get out!”

 "Peace - Buddha" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Peace – Buddha” by Mimi Stuart ©

Anger and stress hormones

Staying calm is key to making wise decisions and essential to maintaining healthy relationships. Yet there are times when it’s impossible to stay calm. A teenager has lied to you, your spouse insults you, a co-worker yells at you. Anger or shock can trigger your fight or flight response, which activates powerful stress hormones.

Those hormones trigger many physiological, biochemical, and psychological changes. They increase alertness, and generate fear, aggressiveness, and anger. Such biologically-driven changes may be helpful when you are physically threatened. Yet they can be harmful to your relationships and social and work-related interactions. When the primary stress hormone cortisol is rushing through your body, you are much more likely to say or do something that you will later regret.

Delay your response – time for a pause

You need to find a way to delay responding until your stress level has subsided.

Exercise: The quickest way to decrease the levels of cortisol and related stress chemicals in your body is to do five minutes of strenuous exercise allowing you to sweat lightly. For instance, you can go for a run or do push-ups, sit-ups or jumping jacks.

Meditation: Another way to forestall harmful reactivity in emotionally-heated situations is to meditate for at least fifteen to twenty minutes. Focus on breathing deeply while relaxing and letting go of any thoughts or emotions that pass through your mind.

Distraction: At a minimum, pursue other activities and wait until you feel calm before dealing with a particularly heated emotional situation.

Once calm, you will be able to ask questions and find out the how and why of the situation. You want to avoid simply jumping to conclusions and striking out against the people involved.


A pause is also a powerful defense against making impulsive decisions. The desires for pleasure, food, sex, and approval from others have their bases in biology and can thus easily become excessive. Uncontrolled pleasure-seeking and impulsive decision-making can end up being more harmful than beneficial.

Thus, pausing before taking action is a key in preventing bad impulsive decision-making. Here are some examples of impulses that may be wise to forestall:

Eating too much: You’ve just eaten a big plate of delicious pasta and you want to have seconds although you know you shouldn’t.

Drinking too much: You crave that third or forth glass of wine regardless of the consequences.

Buying too much: You want to buy an expensive jacket although you can’t afford it and you don’t need it.

Pleasing others too much: You feel pressured into saying “yes” to a request to volunteer, although you are already over-burdened with other obligations.

Wasting too much time: You feel like going on social media rather than doing something productive or spending time with family or friends.

Slipping into inappropriate relationships: You can’t resist responding to a married person’s inappropriately-flirtatious text with a suggestive text of your own.

By simply delaying taking action or making a decision, the impulse to act immediately will tend to diminish. Forestalling taking action is easier than resisting an impulse, because you’re not saying “no” to yourself or to others. You are simply saying, “I’m going to wait for five minutes/15 minutes/a day before making the decision.” With a little time and distance, other priorities and desires will tend to decrease your overwhelming urge to act impulsively.

Impulsive behavior becomes stronger when a person is bored. So taking the time to engage in another activity and gain distance from the temptation will also help the impulse fade away.

Prepare yourself

If you know what kind of situations present temptation or tend to make you angry, try to imagine the situation likely to occur and imagine how you are going to respond.

Example: If my teenager does something terrible, I will say, “Let’s talk tonight/tomorrow.” Then I will go for a run. I may try to get the situation in perspective by talking to a friend. I will put myself in his/her shoes and imagine how I can be most effective in a conversation. I will have a calm tone of voice and allow him or her to explain before interrupting or making any assumptions.

Example: If there is a buffet tonight, I will pace myself during the meal, and take a fifteen-minute break before deciding if and how much seconds I’ll have.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Read “Live in the now, not in the future!”

Read “Anger: ‘I have a right to be angry.’”

Read “Impulsivity: ‘I knew the negative consequences, but couldn’t resist.’”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:
“Since he lost his job, he doesn’t seem to care about our relationship.”

"Out of the Rough" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

When people are immersed in fear, they generally don’t feel secure enough to focus on higher-level aspirations such as improving their relationships or expressing their creativity. Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of needs is an elegant picture of the order in which human needs are met. Generally, it is easier to focus on love and happiness when you are not worried about food and shelter.

Understanding Maslow’s hierarchy helps us deal with people in our lives who are under stress. Where someone is on the pyramid is not solely a function of external factors, but also a function of the person’s psychological tendencies. Understanding where they are helps us to relate to them more effectively.

As with most theories, the hierarchy of needs is a useful way of seeing general patterns, but it is not a rigid structure.

Living at a lower level of needs

Many people around the world live on one of the bottom two rungs of the pyramid for their entire lives because their physiological or safety needs are always under threat. When you are hungry or living in an area of civil unrest or war, you don’t have time to worry about your child’s self-esteem or your own self-actualization.

Yet, poverty and unrest do not preclude higher levels of psychological attainment, such as pursuit of friendship, community, and living up to your potential. However, the greater the external threat the more challenging it becomes to pursue those higher aspirations.

"Maslow's Pyramid of Needs"













Living at a higher level of needs

These articles are primarily read by and written for people who value personal growth and loving relationships. They are fortunate to be free from the relentless worry about basic needs and survival, and can thus focus on higher needs such as belonging, love, and life’s meaning.

Yet, in an instant, anyone can suddenly find him- or herself at the lowest level on the pyramid, if only psychologically. A person who becomes ill or loses a spouse or a job may be racked with fear as nightmarish as someone living in the middle of a wartime environment. The chemical and psychological responses may be just as severe as if there were a deadly threat.

Even when future safety is not at stake, someone who loses his or her job may react as though it were. For instance, someone whose very identity is based on being a productive career-oriented person may feel annihilated when he or she loses that job.

Psychological response

While the hierarchy of needs is greatly influenced by external circumstances, another critical factor is the psychological state you choose when the going gets rough.

Even some of the most fortunate people, who don’t need to worry about food and shelter, may live under great stress worrying about their financial deals or the stock market, finding themselves at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy psychologically. The same is true of some healthy people who live in constant fear of disease and thus have turned into hypochondriacs, or exercise fanatics, who destroy their bodies in their obsessive quest for “health.” It is low-level fear that drives them even though they have adequate health, food, and shelter.

On the opposite side, there are people whose basic needs are constantly threatened, and yet, they are able to live in a tranquil psychological state aspiring to love and self-actualization. Thus, they manage to reside at the top of the pyramid.

Anyone can find him- or herself at the bottom, and anyone can bring him- or herself to the top. Clearly, however, the worse the external circumstances, the more challenging it becomes to have the ability, strength, and support to focus on higher-level needs.

Dealing with someone on the lower level

When someone has dropped into a lower level of the pyramid, it is not the best time to discuss how to improve your relationship or your happiness. It is more effective and compassionate to meet that person on his or her current level and try to help.

Imagine your teenage child comes home from school under great stress because of a remark made by a peer. The parent should realize that the teenager has dropped into the bottom of the pyramid psychologically. While such an event may seem trivial to an adult, to a teenager it is not. Don’t expect warmth and family affiliation. Simply be there to help if help is needed.

Similarly, if your partner has lost his job, don’t expect him to work on the relationship. He just needs to know he is loved, unconditionally. This is where your own ability to remain calm and non-reactive can help him from spiraling downwards into panic.

Sometimes getting out of the circular thinking that creates panic may require a change of activities or a change of setting to evoke a different psychological state. For some people that might involve playing with the kids, going to an inspirational talk or church, or doing volunteer work. For others, it might involve playing a sport, watching a game with friends, or going on a trip.

Nobody’s life is ever totally secure. It is left up to us to seek and aspire to higher levels of meaning despite life’s uncertainty. One of the best examples is the Greek sage and philosopher Epictetus, who wrote his most inspiring work while imprisoned.

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.


There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.


by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Conversation and Active Listening: ‘It seems like I do all the talking.’”

Read “Compassion in Relationships.”

Read “Giving Advice: ‘She never listens to me.’”