How Positive Thoughts And Actions Protect Against Stress

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Avoid The Dreaded Downward Spiral of Stress

You can create upward spirals for yourself rather than being prey to downward spirals of stress!. Paul Thuysbaert/ Stone/ Getty Images

When we experience too many stressors with too little time to recover, we can be at risk of experiencing a downward spiral of stress.  This refers to a negative cycle where each stressor leads to a decreased ability to cope with the next, and an increase in sensitivity toward stress.  This is what can occur when we become stressed, make poor decisions because our abilities are compromised due to the stress, and then see those poor decisions lead to more stress. 

This can be a difficult pattern to break, but it is definitely possible to stop the cycle.  Even better news is that an upward spiral can be created as well.   When you put an upward spiral of positivity into motion, you create small experiences that lead to increases in positive affect, or boosts to your mood, which can help you to feel happier, notice resources in your life, and use them to master the stressors you face, thereby creating less stress for yourself as well as greater resilience toward the stress you do face. 

Sometimes these upward spirals can be created through positive thinking alone, but specific actions can help as well. Creating an environment that works for (rather than against) you, cultivating positive patterns of thinking, and taking other steps toward creating positive affect in your life, can help you to build resilience for those difficult days.  It can also help you to stay away from those downward spirals, or reverse their course once you notice you’re in a bad place.  Here are some ways that you can create upward spirals for yourself.

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Build A Lifestyle That Includes Simple Pleasures

The little things that make us happy--also known in the positive psychology literature as "pleasures"--can lift our mood and help us build positive affect.  This is convenient because, when we are stressed, we often want something quick and easy to make us feel better; pleasures offer just that. Pleasures include objects and activities that engage your senses--lighting incense, enjoying a favorite meal, going dancing with friends, seeing a great movie.  Things that bring a smile to your face and don't require a lot of effort fit in this category. (Just be sure to choose the right pleasures--be careful to watch out for pleasures that can wreak too much of a toll on you!)  

 Also, be sure to change the pleasures you use regularly--we tend to habituate to pleasures, or get used to them to the point that we get less and less pleasure from them if they are overused.  (Think of eating your favorite dessert--then think of eating it for every meal. That's habituation in action.)  You can schedule your day so that there will be a few pleasures involved--music while you drive, incense when you get home, fresh flowers on the table and fruit for dessert.  It's a good idea to think ahead and add pleasures when the opportunity presents itself, rather than waiting when you are already stressed and looking for a way to feel better--that way you can more easily opt for fruit rather than cake, for example.
For more ideas on what kinds of pleasures you can use to relieve stress, see this article on pleasures and stress relief.

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Cultivate Empowering Thought Patterns

 While we can't always choose our circumstances, we can choose our reactions to these circumstances.  This is not a new idea, of course, and it does come with some caveats.  We can choose to forgive, but it may take some work before we are able to forgive particularly injurious actions.  We can choose to accept a situation we can't change, and value the benefits that may not be apparent at first, though it can take work to process our initial disappointment and be able to recognize hidden benefits, particularly when heavy losses are involved.  Similarly, we may feel overwhelmed by experiencing too many demands in a short period of time, but we can choose to take a moment to recover and reverse our triggered stress response as soon as we are able, and then move forward from a less stressed place.  And we can choose to take a more optimistic perspective than a more pessimistic one if both perspectives are realistic; we can cultivate positive habitual thought patterns so it's easier to pull ourselves out of a stressed place (or even avoid falling into one!) on rough days.  In all of these ways, we really can choose how we view our circumstances and what we focus on, and these choices in thought and perception can lead us to greater opportunities for positive feelings, and the ability to minimize stress.  
Read more about cultivating positive thought patterns in your life.

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Reach Out To The Right People

All you need is love.  Get by with a little help from your friends.  The Beatles were onto something: good friends can keep you going in tough times, and can help you to get yourself out of a downward stress spiral, too.  The trick is to remember that not all friends are created equal.  A little conflict in your life can lead to a lot of stress (speaking of the downward spiral itself), but having supportive people can be a strong stress buffer; the important thing to remember is that not everyone who smiles to your face is a friend, or the friend you should reach out to in every situation. 

Think about which friends are good with listening and giving good advice when it's asked for, which friends are good at pulling you out of a funk by getting you out and having fun, and which friends are great with offering a hug when you just need to feel heard. Take care of those relationships, and offer the same (or offer them what they need that you are good at providing.)  Think about the friends who offer unsolicited advice that's really just judgement couched as "trying to be helpful," the friends that make you feel "less than" when you're with them, and the friends who speak less than kindly about you when you're not around.  Avoid those people whenever possible, particularly when you're feeling vulnerable.  Steering clear of those who drain you when you're down, and reaching out to those who lift you up can turn the tide of the spiral quickly. 
Read more about different types of social support, and when you need them.

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