Tag Archives: anxiety

Do You Have Any “Tells” That Show That You’re Feeling Stressed?

I really work on paying attention to the clues my self is giving myself.

For instance, I think of myself in the third person. That allows me to manage myself better.

I also follow the resolution to Pay attention to my “tells.” (A “tell,” in poker, is an action or expression that serves as a clue to whether a person has a good hand or bad hand; without meaning to, you “tell” what you’ve got). A few years ago, I finally noticed that I have two very obvious “tells” that indicate that I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed.

First, I need about three extra hours of sleep each night.

Second, I hanker to re-read some of my favorite works of children’s literature. Notice, I say “re-read,” because when I’m in this mood, I don’t want to read anything new. I want to re-read something I already love. That way, I get the pleasure of reading without the special effort and suspense of reading a book for the first time. I can really savor the details.  (Along the same lines, a recent study made the interesting case that watching re-runs of a favorite TV show can boost your will-power.)

Well, today I feel perfectly normal, but I suspect I’m feeling overwhelmed–did I mention that my new book, Happier at Home, came out a few days ago?–because I went to sleep at 8:15 pm last night, and I’ve been standing in front of my Shrine to Children’s Literature, to try to decide what to re-read this weekend.

I’ve worn out so many books (His Dark Materials, Narnia, Little Women books, Anne of Green Gables, etc., etc.) that they need to lie fallow for several years, before I can re-read them again. So…what will it be? Something excellent, and epic, and I do believe I’m in the mood for fantasy. Although some people argue that The Lord of the Rings isn’t properly considered children’s literature, I do put it in that category, and I think that’s what I’ll read.

Children’s literature is one of my joys, and it’s also my mental comfort food.

I used to ignore or fight my tells, now I pay very close attention to them, which allows me to handle stress much better.

How about you? Do you have any “tells” that show that you’re under stress–even when you might not have consciously realized it? Do you have any comfort food activities that help you deal with it?

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 Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.


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Enter your name and email in the sign-up form here, and every day, a name will be picked at random. U.S.Canada, and U.K. only–sorry about that restriction on the give-away.

Feeling Stressed Out? Find a “Comfort Food” for Your Mind.

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 Friday’s 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? When I’ve lost my job, or I’m worried about my child, or I’m scared about a medical diagnosis?

When I’ve been 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 re-charge my battery, find it easier to stay calm and cheerful, 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. Research shows 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 multi-task; 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 if I’m inclined that way.

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?

* 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.

* Want to get my free monthly newsletter? It highlights the best of the month’s material from the blog and the Facebook Page. Email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com. Just write “newsletter” in the subject line. About 50,000 people get it.

“The Less Money Matters to You, the More Careful You Need to Be With It.”

Happiness interview: Zac Bissonnette.

I met personal finance expert Zac Bissonnette when we were on a panel together, and I was impressed by his command of the research and statistics related to working, debt, higher education costs, and money — particularly because he was still in college! He’s now entering his senior year at the University of Massachusetts.

His new book, Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents, just came out.

The relationship between money and happiness is one of the most complex, and most emotionally charged, topics within the large subject of happiness, so I was very interested to hear what Zac had to say.

Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
Zac: A few years ago – when I was in high school — my dad was going through a ton of financial problems that culminated in him living at a friend’s house.

My dad was born in 1948 and is a classic hippie; He lived in a treehouse in a state park for awhile in the early 1970s, he’s a carpenter, and he is probably the coolest, most loving person I know.

But he’s never really given much thought to money. He always said that it wasn’t important to him and that it didn’t matter. So I was sitting on the couch with him at his friend’s house watching the Red Sox (weirdly, this was the same game during which Denis Leary gave his famous pro-Jewish baseball player/anti-Mel Gibson rant, which is guaranteed to make you happy if you haven’t seen it before) and I asked him, just off the top of my head: “Who do you think thinks about money more? You or Bill Gates?”
And I’ll never forget his response: “Without a doubt, me. I spent my whole life thinking I was above money and that it didn’t matter and now it dominates my life and is all I think about. It’s like money is exacting its cruel revenge on me.”

I interviewed you once for a piece and you told me that “Money affects happiness primarily in the negative” and that’s exactly right. When it comes to happiness, the less money matters to you, the more careful you need to be with it. If you don’t like thinking about money and don’t pay enough attention to it, it will one day become all you think about.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
One of the most discouraging things I see in a lot of young people is a defeatist mentality when it comes to their financial lives: “Student loans are a fact of life, and I’ll be repaying them well into my forties. I wish Congress would do something to make my life better.” I remember a high school history teacher telling our class that in a joking way – “This is the way it is: You’re going to graduate with a bunch of debt and it will be with you for a long time.”

The problem with this defeatist mentality is that it leads people to lose the financial game without even trying to play it. What I’m saying is this: Before you resign yourself to $20,000, $30,000, or even $100,000 in student loans for an undergraduate education, stop and look at all the alternatives and get creative: Is there a way to do this debt-free? What if I attend a cheaper public college instead of a fancy private one? If I work 30-hour weeks during the summer, my parents drive their car an extra year instead of getting a new one, and we sell some stuff on eBay and cut back on dining out, can we make this work.

I started working when I was in high school and saved a huge chunk of everything I earned – enough that I’ve been able to pay for college in cash without help from my parents. That makes my mom happy and if mom’s happy, everybody’s happy.

What’s something that people think will make them happy – and put a lot of effort into getting – that often doesn’t lead to the desired result?
Without a doubt, it’s the college admissions game.

In recent years, we’ve seen a considerable amount of research showing that the financial benefits to attending an elite college are not as strong as most people think. A study at NYU found that, once you control for SAT scores and high school GPAs, at least 60% — and possibly a lot more – of the gap in earnings between graduates of elite schools and graduates of non-elite schools is eliminated. A study conducted at Princeton found that students who get into elite schools but attend less selective schools earn the same amount of money as students who attend elite schools.

In other words, a tremendous amount of stress and an entire cottage industry of admissions gurus and magazines has been built around a shell game of selling people something that they often can’t afford that doesn’t deliver nearly the benefit that people are thinking it will – and very possibly doesn’t deliver any benefit at all. And they’re borrowing an amount of money that will impede their pursuit of happiness to make it happen and getting really stressed out in the process. It’s sad.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Everything in Gretchen’s book. [Awww, Zac!]

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
This is going to sound like a totally weird answer, especially because of my age – but I guess most answers to this question are probably strange.

When I’m not happy, I listen to Perry Como and it gives me an instant happiness boost. I first heard his version of “”Magic Moments” (an exceptionally cheesy, sentimental song) in the car with my mother when I was in sixth grade and, for whatever reason, ever since then I’ve turned to him for “feel good” music.

Incidentally, one of the better (and more apocryphal) quotes on happiness is sometimes attributed to Perry Como: “Happiness is a byproduct of making other people happy.”
If Debt-Free U can help people make college selection and financing decisions that will enable them to have a shot at the happy life that I believe everyone deserves, I’ll be happy.

* I was intrigued by this study which suggests that people who have something to do, even something pointless, are happier than those who are idle. One question about the study, however: the “something to do” was to take a walk, which itself boosts happiness. So was the effect from the mere activity or from the walking?

* If you’d like to sign up for my free monthly newsletter, which highlights the best of the month’s material from the blog and the Facebook Page, sign up here or email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com (just write “newsletter” in the subject line). About 49,000 people get it.

7 Tips for Dealing with a Sweetheart Who Is Constantly Crabby.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 7 tips for dealing with a sweetheart who is crabby all the time.

If you’re in a relationship, your sweetheart’s happiness matters a lot to you. Not only because you care about that person’s happiness, but also because — due to a phenomenon called emotional contagion — you’re very likely to “catch” that mood. Unfortunately, bad moods are more catching than good moods.

What do you do if the love of your life is driving you crazy by being crabby all the time? Try thinking about these factors:

1.Does your sweetheart seem grouchy and overwhelmed? Maybe he or she isn’t getting enough sleep. Sleep is hugely important to mood and energy. If your sweetheart’s sleep is being interrupted or curtailed, figure out ways to help if you can. Turn out the light earlier, let your sweetheart sleep later at least some days of the week, work out a schedule so you two take turns getting a decent night’s sleep. Or if insomnia is the problem, help your sweetheart work on building good sleep habits: getting a little exercise, making the room very dark, spending the time before bed in a soothing activity, etc. (For more tips on getting good sleep, look here.)

2. Does your sweetheart nag a lot? Just for a week or two, try to accommodate that nagging. If you’re being nagged to do a task that you plan to do, go ahead and do it at the first opportunity. Sure, maybe you’re right that it doesn’t have to be done today, but just do it today anyway. If you’re being nagged to do a task that you have no intention of doing, tell your sweetheart. Don’t keep procrastinating in the hopes that the chore will be forgotten.

3. Is your sweetheart crabby about being nagged? Try these tips to stop yourself from nagging. (This is hard, true, but worth the effort.)

4. Does your sweetheart seem unable to make time for fun? Try making some fun plans. Just saying, “Hey, let’s go to a movie,” isn’t sufficient. Pick an activity your sweetheart would enjoy, arrange for a babysitter if necessary, make reservations or buy tickets if necessary, take care of any tasks that need to be cleared out of the way before your sweetheart can relax.

If your sweetheart seems unable to be able to have fun on vacation, take a look at how he or she is spending the day. Reading on the beach, or chasing after little kids with a bottle of sunscreen? Rock climbing, or taking the kids to see a movie starring chipmunks? I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who said, “There’s no such thing as fun for the whole family,” but try to arrange a vacation so that all family members can have fun, according to their own idea of fun, at least some of the time.

6. Is your sweetheart crabby due to chronic pain? Chronic pain, even if at a relatively low level, can really tax people’s moods. Encourage your sweetheart to take pain reliever, see a doctor, keep up with physical therapy, try acupuncture, start meditating, or whatever you think might work – and don’t just talk about it, take steps to help your sweetheart get help. Get recommendations, do research, make phone calls, pick up prescriptions, accompany your sweetheart to an appointment, give reminders, track symptoms…whatever is appropriate.

When I’ve had chronic pain, I often denied it. I kept telling myself I was getting better, even when I wasn’t. Then, after I finally sought help, relief came fast. I endured several months of nagging eye pain that was cured by a quick trip to the eye doctor and a bottle of drops. I had excruciating back pain that was substantially relieved after I saw the physical therapist that my father-in-law had been recommending for months. Of course, sadly, chronic pain often doesn’t have an easy solution. But whatever the problem is, it’s worth trying to address it. Sometimes we need a little push to seek help.

7. Does your sweetheart’s crabbiness seem to go beyond the normal range of crabbiness? Persistent low energy or insomnia, feeling paralyzed, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite or overeating, persistent sad or empty feelings, feeling guilty or worthless, pains that don’t go away…these kinds of symptoms can indicate depression, and depression can be very serious. Figure out a way to get help!

Now, as you look at this list, you might think, “Wait, my sweetheart, while not depressed, is quite crabby, and the crabby one is the one who needs to change. But all these tips are things that I’m supposed to do.” True! The fact is, with a happiness project, the only person you can change is yourself. But if you change, a relationship changes, and if you behave differently, you may find your sweetheart’s crabbiness lifting.

What am I missing? Have you found other good ways to cope with crabbiness? I have a strong tendency toward the crabby, so I spend a lot of time thinking about it.

* I always find a lot of interesting material on Motherlode, Lisa Belkin’s New York Times blog about “adventures in parenting.”

* It’s Word-of-Mouth Day, when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
Buy the book! In fact, if you’re inclined to buy the book, I would very much appreciate it if you would buy it this week (for reasons related to the publishing cycle). Thanks!
— Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @gretchenrubin)
— Sign up for my free monthly newsletter (about 46,000 people get it)
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.

Nine Tips for Feeling Happier When You’ve Lost Your Job — or Fear You Might.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Nine tips for feeling happier when you’ve lost your job – or fear that you might lose it.

Being out of work is a major happiness challenge, and these days, a lot of people have lost their jobs, or are worried about hanging onto their jobs.

So, given this major drain on your happiness, are there steps you can take to feel better at such a time? Even if you don’t think you can feel happy, you might be able to feel happier. Keeping yourself as serene, energetic, and cheerful as possible will make it easier to handle this tough situation.

1. Get enough sleep. Not getting enough sleep affects your mood more than you may realize. It makes difficult situations seem harder, drags down your energy, and lowers your immune system. When you’re cut off from your usual schedule, it can be tempting to stay up late, so remind yourself to turn off the light at a reasonable hour. If you’re turning off the light but having trouble sleeping because of all your worries, here are some tips for getting good sleep. Also, people who have trouble sleeping sleep better when they…

2. Get some exercise. Exercise both calms you and energizes you. If you can’t face going to the gym or going for a run, just go for a ten-minute walk outside. The sunlight and the movement will boost your spirits.

3. Stay connected to other people. You may not feel like going out, making plans, showing up, or talking to other people. But prod yourself to make the effort. Seeing other people will give you a boost and will help distract you (see #8). Also, by staying connected to other people, you’re more likely to hear information and to create relationships that might be helpful in the jobs arena.

4. Cultivate an atmosphere of growth in some area of your life. You may feel like you’ve been pushed a giant step backward; that you’re out of control of what’s happening to you. Look for a place where you can move forward and take control. Learn to do something new – a new software program, watercolors. Conquer a device – master your camera, a kitchen gadget. Clean something up – your messy garage, your attic. Create something beautiful – plant a garden, catch up on the photo albums.

5. Help someone else. Your self-esteem may have suffered a blow, so remind yourself of how much you have to give. Teach someone something useful. Make helpful connections for other people. Volunteer your skills. Donate blood. Go through your closets and give away the clothes you don’t need (see #6). If you can’t face doing anything else, you can at least sign up to be an organ donor. It takes one minute, and you have potentially saved the lives of five people. You can feel great about your day if you’ve done that!

6. Clear some clutter. For most people, outer order contributes to inner calm – and clearing clutter seems to have a disproportionately positive effect. Bringing order to a messy coat closet shouldn’t make much of a difference to happiness, but for some reason, it gives a much bigger boost than you might expect. Careful: don’t overwhelm yourself. Pick one small area of the messy kitchen counter, or clean out your fridge, or tackle one corner of your desk. Bringing order to your physical environment will help calm you – and is also a good way to observe #4.

7. Be wary of “treating” yourself. One of the Ten Myths of Happiness is that A “treat” will cheer you up. That cigarette, that extra glass of wine, that new pair of shoes, that extra brownie (or two, or three), that big mess in your kitchen because you don’t want to deal with loading the dishwasher…will these treats really make you feel happy, in the long run? Or will you be happier if you don’t treat yourself?

8. Distract yourself. Find your Area of refuge. Or rent a funny movie, re-read a book you love (I always re-read children’s literature when I’m under stress), call a friend with a good sense of humor, visit a museum, or watch some sports on TV. Let yourself take a break from your worries. When you come back to them, you’ll feel refreshed and with a better sense of perspective.

9. Remind yourself of what you have. You may have lost your job, but think about what’s going right in your life, what you have to feel grateful for. It’s a cliche to say “Count your blessings,” but it really does boost happiness.

What other strategies would you suggest? What works?

* My friend, the hilarious Pamela Redmond Satran, author of the blog and book, How Not to Act Old (she’s working blue there, so enter at your own risk), among many other things, has just created and launched Ho Springs, a serialized novel, with contributions by many other people, about “a little spa town near the gates of hell.” Check it out. I think it marks a new way to approach story-telling. The mind reels.

* It’s Word-of-Mouth Day, when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
— Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @gretchenrubin)
— Sign up for my free monthly newsletter (about 39,000 people get it)
Buy the book
— Join the 2010 Happiness Challenge to make 2010 a happier year
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
— Watch the one-minute book video
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.