How forgiveness is the antidote to stress

davanti counselling forgiveness

A forgiving mentality can reduce your stress levels to zero, says study (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

There’s an old adage that says holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. The refusal to forgive another for the perceived wrongs they’ve done against you may keep you on the moral high ground, but ultimately you could remain stuck, stressed and strung out. Forgiving the other means letting them off, and so you hold on tight to your sense of what’s right and wrong.

Yet not forgiving can lead to a lifetime of stress, which can affect your mental and physical health. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is the antidote to stress. That’s according to research published in the Journal of Health Psychology, and reported in Time magazine’s article Forgiving other people is good for your health.

Researchers from Luther College analysed the stress exposure, lifestyle factors, propensity to forgive, and physical and mental factors among 148 people. They concluded that people who are more forgiving are also more able to handle stress, and that “stress degrades and forgiveness protects” health. They added: ” Developing a more forgiving coping style may help minimise stress-related disorders.”

How so? More research may be needed to determine exactly how forgiveness provides a buffer from stress – but there is something healing about letting go of painful and resentful feelings regarding a situation. It’s not about letting the person get away with it. It’s about not letting your feelings consume your life.

Lead researcher Professor Loren Touissant from Luther College said: “More forgiving individuals may have a more adaptive or extensive repertoire of coping strategies that mitigate the negative effects of stress on health… People with higher levels of forgivingness also have a greater tendency to use problem-focused coping and cognitive restructuring, and are less likely to use rumination, emotional expression and wishful thinking.”

In summary, forgiveness means making the decision to let something go instead of torturing yourself by over-thinking it and wishing life could be different.

How creating art can reduce your stress levels

inktuition artCrayons, felt tips, watercolours, acrylic, clay or chalk: whatever material or medium you use, the act of creating a piece of art can help to reduce your stress levels. And that’s whether you’re a gifted artist or not, according to a new study.

Researchers from Drexel University measured the stress hormone (cortisol levels) in 39 study participants aged 18 to 59 to gauge the impact of making art on their stress levels. Basically, the higher the cortisol, the higher the stress in an in individual.

Half of the participants had little experience in creating art, and the activities in the experiment included clay modelling, drawing with marker pens, and making collages. They were given free rein to create anything they wanted.

The results showed that 75% of participants experienced lower cortisol levels after 45 minutes of art – with younger people benefiting most. One participant said that through making art he felt less anxious and more able to put things into perspective.

The researchers said: “While there was some variation in how much cortisol levels lowered, there was no correlation between past art experiences and lower levels.” There was no correlation with the materials used either.

This survey goes some way to proving the theory behind art therapy, or any other expressive therapy, that anyone can benefit therapeutically – irrespective of talent, skill or prior experience.

Time to pick up those pencils…

Why uncertainty creates the worst kind of stress

davanti counselling uncertainty

Not knowing what will happen is more stressful than inevitable pain. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/dream designs)

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

So Alfred Hitchcock famously said, in relation to the suspense in his movies. And yet this quote has tremendous resonance for those of us living with the terror of uncertainty. Not knowing what will happen, or if something will happen, is far worse than knowing pain is on its way and having to deal with it. This is backed by research from University College London (UCL) proving that “uncertainty can cause more stress than inevitable pain”.

The researchers asked 45 participants to play a computer game that involved turning over rocks that might or might not have snakes underneath them. The volunteers received a mild electric shock on the hand every time there was a snake. The rocks changed each time, to increase levels of uncertainty. The study measured how stressed participants would be from getting shocks, and also the stress caused by the uncertainty around when or if they would get the shocks. The conclusion was that uncertainty causes more stress than knowing what’s going to happen to you.

Study lead author Archy de Berker, from UCL’s Institute of Neurology, says: “Our experiment allows us to draw conclusions about the effect of uncertainty on stress. It turns out that it’s much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or won’t.”

Co-author Dr Robb Rutledge adds: “The most stressful scenario is when you really don’t know. It’s the uncertainty that makes us anxious. The same is likely to apply in many familiar situations, whether it’s waiting for medical results or information on train delays.”

Can seeing green boost your happiness?

davanti counselling green grass heart

Seek out scenes of green to soothe your stress. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Master isolated images)

“When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,

And the dimpling stream runs laughing by;

When the air does laugh with our merry wit,

And the green hill laughs with the noise of it.”

William Blake

The poet William Blake had a strong sense of the power of green for joy and happiness. The colour green is often associated with peace, harmony, growth and balance, and symbolises the colour of the heart. Walking in nature, and enjoying the greenery, is often cited as a natural and effective remedy for alleviating stress and depression.

Yet new research suggests that it’s not just BEING in nature that can help with mood. Even LOOKING at green scenes can help people recover from stress and feel happier.

A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed the results of research that recorded participants’ stress responses during a series of tasks that asked them to view green and built scenes before and after doing some challenging mental arithmetic.

The researchers concluded: “The findings provide support for greater recovery in participants who viewed green scenes as compared to participants who viewed built scenes. Viewing green scenes may thus be particularly effective in supporting relaxation and recovery after experiencing a stressful period, and thereby could serve as an opportunity for micro-restorative experiences and a promising tool in preventing chronic stress and stress-related diseases.”

So, seek out green if you’ve had a stressful period and would like some respite and recovery.

Biggest source of employee stress is not knowing what bosses want

davanti counselling confused employee

Unclear expectations from managers can create stress among workers (pic courtesy of iosphere/freedigitalphotos.net)

Never mind heavy workloads, long hours or annoying colleagues. The greatest source of stress for employees is having bosses who aren’t clear about their expectations.

Nearly a third (31%) of employees in a survey carried out by US employee assistance firm ComPsych said lack of clear direction from supervisors was the primary source of their stress. Second (20%) came confusion or conflict between colleagues or departments. Belief that workload would intensify was the third stressor (18%) and fourth was uncertainty about the future stability of the organisation (15%).

Dr. Richard A. Chaifetz, Founder, Chairman and CEO of ComPsych, said: “Change has become a constant for many workplaces, whether in the US or globally. Employees are telling us that much of the disequilibrium around change is coming from managers.” He added that employees are increasingly asking for training around resiliency in the workplace.

I agree that change can be stressful, as you just don’t know what it will mean for you. When your stability becomes threatened it can trigger a survival response (like fight, flight or freeze) and you can become stressed. It can be a terrifying time not knowing what lies in store for you, and you can end up with anxious days and sleepless nights fretting over what will unfold. It can put you in a place of second guessing what your boss might want – not knowing if you’re right or wrong – which can leave you feeling deskilled and fearful.

The unknown can also bring up feelings of powerlessness, like being a child again. Hard though it may be, the antidote to this is to step into your adult state and take steps to feel as though you are taking charge of something at work. That may be asking for a meeting with your boss to clarify what is required of you, no matter how hard that might seem. Your stress levels will thank you for it, though.

The ‘dark side’ of perfectionism can cause stress and burnout

Worrying about meeting standards, and fear of failure are two aspects of the darker side of perfectionism, which can lead to burnout (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Marcus74id)

Fear of failure and worrying about meeting standards are two aspects of the darker side of perfectionism, which can lead to burnout (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Marcus74id)

Think of a perfectionist, and you’ll picture someone conscientious who goes the extra mile to produce top-notch work. Someone with extremely high standards who is motivated and energised to achieve them. That’s the ‘light’ or positive side of perfectionism, according to researchers, who say that these qualities and attributes can contribute to a strong sense of achievement.

But there is also a darker side to perfectionism, which is when people “constantly worry about making mistakes, letting others down, or not measuring up to their own impossibly high standards”, according to lead researcher Andrew Hill, associate professor of sport psychology at York St. John University in England, whose findings were published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review. People who become consumed by perfectionism are more likely to achieve the opposite, by sabotaging their success in relationships, on the sports field, and especially in the workplace.

The results from this current study came from an analysis of 43 other studies over the last 20 years. The dark side of perfectionism – or ‘perfectionistic concerns’ can lead to people fearing they’re not being good enough, of berating themselves every time they make a mistake. Instead of feeling good about their achievements after all the work they’ve put in, sometimes a lack of support or acknowledgement in the workplace can turn perfectionism into cynicism, and the darker aspects can turn in on themselves – sometimes leading to mental health concerns, such as stress, anxiety and depression. Not to mention self-criticism and the voice of the inner bully/critic, mercilessly tormenting the perfectionist who feels that nothing will ever be good enough.

The antidote to dark perfectionism is compassion and forgiveness (not always easy for a perfectionist), and seeking out environments and people where mistakes are not only tolerated but encouraged as an opportunity to grow and learn. Admittedly, this isn’t always easy. Hill added: “People need to learn to challenge the irrational beliefs that underlie perfectionistic concerns by setting realistic goals, accepting failure as a learning opportunity, and forgiving themselves when they fail. Creating environments where creativity, effort and perseverance are valued also would help.”

Related articles:

Sugar, spice… and all things stressed

Scientists have proved the link between stress, sweets and emotions - and the impact that can have (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/rakratchada torsap)

Scientists have proved the link between stress, sweets and emotions – and the impact that can have (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/rakratchada torsap)

If you find yourself reaching for the biscuit tin, searching in the treats cupboard, or raiding the kiddies’ sweetie stash when you come home from work feeling stressed – and need to find an antidote that calms you down, quickly! –  it will come as little surprise that researchers have found that eating sugar is one of the best stress relievers around.

You can read on ‘Women’s Doctor’ that sweets relieve stress – but you can of course try to substitute sugar for healthier alternatives. However, the answer may not be as simple as that. Body fat can have an effect on the way the brain responds to stress and metabolism, according to a University of Florida study.

The research found that: “Stress causes a desire to eat more, which can lead to obesity. And too much extra fat can impair the body’s ability to send a signal to the brain to shut off the stress response.” So, stress isn’t just in the brain after all.

This is a new finding in this field, where stress was generally thought to be an emotional response. Now that the ‘fat to brain pathway’ has been detected, researchers are going to look at those signals that prompt overeating in response to stress, and work out how those links can be recognised and broken – both ways.

Further articles on the link between stress, diet and emotion include: