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A 30-year-old research scientist moved from Mumbai to Bangalore when her husband and she changed jobs. With a one-and-a-half-year-old child, she juggled work and home, not getting much time to socialize or do other things. Long hours at work, criticism by her boss, and the absence of a social support system of family and friends in a new city, led to a lot of stress. Her project at work was not going as expected.

She started feeling anxious about going to work, her self-esteem spiralled downwards. Unable to cope, she would take out her frustrations on her child, leading to a vicious cycle of guilt, anxiety and stress.

It came to a point where she wanted to quit her job and move back to her hometown.

Most people have struggled with worry and stress at some point. Some people even thrive on stress when it’s temporary. But when it affects the ability to function normally on a daily basis, it can be traumatic and affect physical health.

Johnson Pradeep R., assistant professor, department of psychiatry, St John’s Medical College Hospital, Bangalore, says: “Several young working people suffering from anxiety caused by marital issues or problems at work, come to us. Sometimes, the cause could be a simple thing like being unhappy with the project at the workplace or (being) unable to meet personal ambitions. If the anxiety persists for long, over time, this can lead to anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, social phobia and generalized anxiety, which require medical treatment or counselling."

The inability to cope with minor stresses can leave one feeling trapped and overwhelmed. Although each person has inborn mechanisms for resilience, the extent and way we cope with stress can be different. Some tend to obsess over negative experiences more than others. Priya Pothan, a Bangalore-based clinical psychologist, says: “Negative thoughts are more automatic and primitive. We also tend to develop negative thoughts through our growing years and unless we actively change these patterns, they come up quickly in any stressful situation. However, we can learn and train ourselves to be positive and happy by changing self-defeating negative thought patterns and creating positive adaptive responses."

In his book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science Of Contentment, Calm, And Confidence, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says we can build upon our own experiences to enforce positive thoughts. He describes four steps to achieve this: Have a positive experience; enrich it; absorb it; and find a positive experience that matches the nature of the current worry or negative thought.

For example, if a person is feeling insecure and unloved, he/she should choose positive experiences that will bring a sense of feeling loved and the insecurity will disappear. According to Hanson, the first step is to choose a positive experience—it could be something as simple as completing a satisfying task or something as major, like a job promotion or the birth of a child. Then one should take 10-20 seconds to savour the moment of the positive experience and allow it to sink into the mind, to “hardwire happiness into our brains".

Letting the mind linger on these happy moments increases the intensity of joy, turning them into positive, strong, emotional memories which can help get rid of negative thoughts. “Positive thinking or positive psychology is a new branch of psychology that has potential in dealing with stress or worry. Each person has their own innate resources to deal with adversity that do not need intervention from professionals. Positive thinking is one way of coping that can help in the development of emotional well-being," says R. Raghuram, professor and head,
department of psychiatry, at the Kempegowda Institute of Medical sciences, Bangalore.

To divert attention from negative or worrying thoughts, one would need to make a concerted effort to focus on positive experiences and create lasting positive memories. Tapping positive experiences can help build the inner strength and resilience to cope with stress and hardships. Pothan says: “Resilience is an ability to adapt to stress and adversity. Like an elastic rubber band, do we break when stretched or can we manage? Resilience or positive coping patterns can be easily taught and practised."

The research scientist says she was finally able to break the cycle of stress by becoming aware not just of the events that brought on the stress, but of her own emotions and reactions to it—and talking steps to counter it. Thinking about the important people in her life who mattered—her mother and child, and becoming part of an online support group, fostering positive interactions with those who had overcome their anxiety and stress, also helped her develop a positive outlook.

By Deepa Padmanaban

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Be positive

Some techniques to harness optimism:

uReinforce positive beliefs: Look at how you can think positive thoughts and replace negative, self-defeating thoughts such as “nothing is fair", “everything is bad for me", “I can’t manage". Make your expectations effort-based and believe in your intentions rather than outcomes.

uDevelop gratitude and happiness: At the end of every day, write down one thing that made you feel grateful and one thing about yourself that you like. By doing this, you will train yourself to search for the positive rather than the negative, neutralizing negativity.

uAdaptive choice-making: Choice-making occurs only if we can evaluate situations and find out whether the whole situation or parts of it are in our control or not. If controllable, we can use problem-solving strategies. If not, we can use acceptance strategies. If we don’t evaluate, we often feel helpless and resigned, for we believe we have no choice.

uEnhance close relationships: Relationships can help or hinder and each of us can influence our expectations in a relationship and therefore reduce disappointments. Have realistic expectations that factor in the other person’s limitations. While we can’t influence other people, we can definitely choose how to respond. Based on this, widen your social network by building/strengthening a relationship with someone new or an old friend on a regular basis.

uRelaxing and rejuvenating mini-breaks: The human body is not made to deal with prolonged stress. Relaxing activities should calm you down, while rejuvenating activities should energize you. Build a repertoire of three-four such activities that you can practise for 10 minutes in each group and practise one each on alternate days.

uMaintain a regular routine: Make sure your daily routine involves a minimum of 6 hours of sleep (unless otherwise advised by a physician), 90 minutes of exercise and a balanced diet. What’s more, look at one monthly goal that you can set for yourself and work towards it.

—Priya Pothan, clinical psychologist, Bangalore.

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