Achieving Happiness: Want a Quick Way to Relieve Stress? Smile

By TOM MUHA for The Capital

Most people have gotten away for a well-deserved rest on their summer vacation. Rene, however, has been waiting to go to the beach until this week. Now she’s gritting her teeth trying to survive until she’s able to escape from her stressful life.

Rene has a high-pressure job managing a group of people in a high- tech company. Her boss gives her the big projects to tackle. On the one hand, Rene likes being seen as someone who can handle important assignments. But on the other hand, Rene feels as if she lives in a pressure cooker. Deadlines loom. The pressure builds as the project stumbles along from one problem to another. Employees make excuses. Anxiety mounts as the fear of failing to meet expectations becomes a very real possibility.

Rene doesn’t sleep well during these times. She wakes up with a feeling of dread as she anticipates dealing with another day of demands.

The other day, Rene was in the middle of a meeting when the alarm on her Palm Pilot went off signaling it was time for her to leave to take her daughter to a doctor’s appointment. She could feel her heart pounding as she stifled the voice within her that wanted to scream, “STOP! Just stop and let me get away from all of this for awhile.”

The problem with Rene’s approach to managing stress is she lets it build up until it boils over and she’s at her breaking point. Even when she is able to get away, she’s so exhausted it takes days to recuperate. About the time she has to come back home is when she’s recovered sufficiently to get into the restorative part of the vacation where she can fully engage in having fun with her husband and kids. By then it’s time to head home and get back into the daily grind.

Allowing stress and anxiety to accumulate is bad for our body. It also makes our mind miserable, ruins our relationships and saps our spirit. Stress floods our mind with fight-flight-freeze emotions. When we’re besieged by anger, anxiety and depression, our critical words and antagonistic actions contaminate our relationships. When our life isn’t working well, our spirits sag as we wonder, “What’s the purpose?”

Stress causes our arteries to clog and our blood pressure to rise. It causes our brain cells to break down, diminishing our memory and concentration. It compromises our immune system leaving us vulnerable to everything from colds to cancer.

What works to manage stress well isn’t just going on a great vacation a couple of times a year. It’s managing to enjoy our daily lives.

That’s what Linda does. She, too, is a manager who’s bombarded by demands at work and at home. But Linda never stops smiling. She can plunge into stressful situations when she needs to and emerge unscathed.

People such as Linda have learned to use smiling as a way to regain their physical and emotional equilibrium very quickly.

Smiling, studies have shown, short-circuits your fight-flight- freeze stress responses. It’s impossible to stay stressed out when you start smiling. Not only will it change the way your body and brain are reacting, smiling will create a contagious response from those around you.

To manage your stress moment by moment, learn to recognize your early warning signs. It may be that your neck muscles tighten, or your pulse starts to pound. Stress symptoms also are being signaled when your negative emotions are aroused.

Whenever your stress reaction starts to fire off, take several slow, deep breaths and resist saying anything for a moment. Loosen your shoulders and hold your head up straight. Then smile. That will disrupt your old pattern of reacting and allow you to view your situation from a different position – one in which you’re calmer, slower and have your sense of humor back. Your brain will be able to see a much wider range of responses.

Learn this lesson and you won’t have to wait for vacations to enjoy your life. You can be like Linda – able to smile away your stress reactions. Awareness of your stress allows you to adapt immediately. Deep breathing creates a gentle feeling of relaxation that can spread up from your chest and onto your face in the form of a smile.

Dr. Tom Muha is a psychologist practicing in Annapolis. His previous articles are archived on his Web site: He welcomes your comments and questions. To contact him, call 443-454-7274 or e-mail him at [email protected] {Corrections:} {Status:}

(c) 2008 Capital (Annapolis). Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

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