We all know that one of the best ways to manage stress is exercise. Of course, we could also include massages, vacations, and healthy food as effective stress managers. But all these solutions require special circumstances that cost us money and time -- money and time that we often don't have in sufficient quantities.
So what's a stressed person on a shoestring budget or full tilt schedule to do? The absolute cheapest, bargain basement stress management tool is right in your own mind -- the practice of gratitude.
Gratitude is the antidote to our most stressful thoughts. In an environment of gratitude, negative emotions cannot thrive. Dr. Robert Emmons, a positive psychologist, has shown how practicing gratitude can raise your "happiness level." Neuroscientist Rick Hanson, Ph.D., promotes the practice of "taking in the good" because it deactivates our bodies' stress response and counteracts anxiety and depressive moods.
Focusing our stressed minds on the things that we're grateful for is like dousing a fire with cool water. Gratitude is habit-forming. With some practice, we can develop the habit of turning our attention to the plethora of blessings in our lives. Gratitude is not about ignoring the hard things in life; it is about honoring the gifts.
Whenever you practice gratitude, let yourself really notice the good feelings and allow the sensations and emotions to soak into your body and your memory. Inspired by my book Shortcuts to Inner Peace, the following simple exercises can be woven through your day to create a fabric of happiness and gratitude.
"Good Morning Sunshine" -- When you first wake up in the morning, lie in bed with one hand on your upper chest and one hand on your lower belly. Think of three things in your life that make you smile. Breathe in gratitude and let it fill you.
"See Food" -- As you eat your first bite of a meal or a snack, look at the food you put into your mouth and give thanks. Try to "see" where it came from and all the steps that were required to have it arrive on your plate. Imagine farmers, factories, truckers and chefs, each step an integral part of the journey to your mouth.
"Job Fair" -- Just before you begin your work for the day, think of three things about your job that you really appreciate. Even if you're not thrilled with your job, look to see if you enjoy your co-workers, certain customer interactions, or simply the fact that you get a paycheck that allows you to pay your rent or mortgage.
"At Your Service" -- When you're paying your bills (as you write the check or send the money online), think about the service you have and be grateful. Aren't you happy to have a cell phone? Wouldn't life without electricity be tough? Doesn't the medical bill reflect your own access to Western medicine? Notice the tension recede when you face your bills with gratitude instead of resistance.
"Home Sweet Home" -- As you open the door to your home, reflect on a few qualities of this particular house, this unique home, this constellation of dwellers that improves your life. Most people take their home for granted. Here is an opportunity to be aware of your home as a gift. Let the feelings of comfort, safety and ease trigger a smile.
"Rest in Peace" -- As you lay your head on the pillow at night, reflect on your day and observe 3 things for which you are thankful. They could be simple pleasures or large successes from the day. As you recall them, try to re-experience and savor them anew, expanding the feelings within your body and absorbing the memory into your mind.
Don't let stressful circumstances ruin your days. Once you start to see the details in your life through the lens of gratitude, you will find yourself happier and less stressed. No extra time or fancy equipment needed -- gratitude is yours for free!
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