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Feeling Stressed Out? Give Your Mind a Break

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I'm working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone's project will look different, but it's the rare person who can't benefit. Join in -- no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each post will help you think about your own happiness project.

One question for anyone doing a happiness project is: What do I do when I'm facing a big happiness challenge? What do I do when I've lost my job, or I'm worried about my child, or I'm scared about a medical diagnosis?

When I am extremely anxious about something, I've found that it helps to give myself a short break from my worries, at least occasionally. By finding a "comfort food" activity for my mind, I recharge my battery, I find it easier to stay calm and cheerful, I find it easier to take action, and I sleep better. But this is easier said than done.

For example, when my older daughter was born, she was in the intensive-care unit for a week. I spent all my time there and was worn to a frazzle, and finally, my husband pulled me away to see some silly movie in the middle of the day. I was amazed by how refreshed I was after that break, and how much better I dealt with the strain of the situation.

We all suffer from negativity bias; that is, we react to the bad more strongly and persistently than to the comparable good. One consequence of negativity bias is that when people's thoughts wander, they tend to begin to brood. Anxious or angry thoughts capture our attention more effectively than happier thoughts.

So look for ways to pull your mind away from your worries onto positive topics. One great way is to watch a movie -- preferably something funny! -- or watch a favorite TV show. Don't muddy the experience by trying to multitask; you're not going to get the benefit of taking a break from your own thoughts if you're watching "Shrek" while you pay bills or fold laundry. Give yourself a proper vacation: sit down and enjoy what you're doing.

My favorite activity is reading, and when I really need "comfort food" for my mind, I read Victorian novels or children's literature (the more stressed out I am, the younger I go; Oz books are a danger sign). I always re-read, too; when I'm upset, I want the comfort of knowing that I'll love the book and that I won't be upset by some unexpected plot twist.

I do find that some activities that are usually happiness-inducing don't work very well when I'm preoccupied with bad thoughts. Listening to music, for example, is an extremely effective way to boost mood, but I find it too easy to start thinking about my worries when I'm listening -- others might not have this problem. Similarly, although going for a walk usually cheers me up, it also gives me an excellent opportunity to brood.

Cooking, cleaning, playing with your kids, playing video games, playing basketball -- different people find different solutions. If you can find an activity that gives you exercise, gets you outside, or brings you in contact with other people, that's especially effective.

So if you're feeling overwhelmed, schedule a breather for yourself. By cheering yourself up, you'll make yourself feel better, and you'll also equip yourself to deal more effectively with tough situations.

Have you found a good way to give yourself a mental vacation -- or an activity that acts as a comfort food for your mind?

(On a side note, people debate whether technology is adding to, or subtracting from, our happiness. A study suggests that access to communication technology does boost happiness. I just remind myself technology is a good servant, but a bad master.)

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