For the Week of April 30, 2017: An Antidote to Stress

Dear Readers,

Our house goes on the market this Wednesday, and for the past many days, we’ve been getting it ready to be shown—small repairs, removing personal objects, trimming the growth in the garden, rolling up rugs to expose the wooden floors, and a host of other time-consuming tasks.  Moving is, as everyone knows, nothing but stressful.  My husband and I have nipped at each other’s heels, just as our befuddled little dog has with strangers who come to the door—hired by us to repair or assist in heavy lifting.  We have had to remind ourselves that stress, whether from moving, empty nest, relationship mishaps, becoming parents, or the ups and downs of recovery from serious illness is real, but simply not good for either one of us.  So we’ve borrowed a lesson from Norman Cousins, who famously used laughter to cure himself from a serious illness many years ago.  Exhausted at the end of the day, we’ve developed a habit of watching comedies, whether films on Netflix, Amazon or reruns of “The Big Bang Theory.”  We laugh—a lot—together, and somehow, the anxiety and stress over the mountain of tasks that still await us each day, begin to recede, and we end the evening more relaxed and happy.

Since we’re swamped with getting the house ready for its market debut this coming week, my weekly blog posts are taking a back seat.  Instead, I’m offering a post from 2011 that, today, seems especially relevant.  I hope you enjoy it—and find some applicability to your life.


Previously posted May 29 2011: “When You’re Smiling”

If you’ve ever begun even a small house improvement project, as I did two months ago, then spent weeks of frustration as workers failed to show up, my calls unreturned by the project manager, or, at the last-minute,  told that the granite counter top, the one you picked out nine weeks earlier, was no longer available–then you know the way frustration can escalate and infect your life.  I became irritable, wore a perpetual frown a between my eyebrows, and I began to think of little else.  I engaged in repetitive tirades about the lack of customer service each night over dinner. “Lighten up,” my husband remarked on more than one occasion.  As much as his comment annoyed me, he was right. The stress and frustration were unpleasant for him and worse, not good for me.

Of course, these things finally get sorted out, and the dark cloud that inhabited my days all these many weeks has vanished.  Our bathroom upgrade was completed yesterday morning. I fairly danced as the workers finished up and carried their tools to the truck. I was smiling the entire time, and I could see the surprise in their faces when, grinning from ear-to-ear, I handed them each a bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies.  That’s we began laughing together over the project mishaps—the frustration I felt with the project manager, and theirs, trying to make “right” his mistakes.  Shared smiles go a long way to smoothing out the wrinkles of daily living, even the frustration of a bathroom renovation.

When you’re smilin’
When you’re smilin’
The whole world smiles with you.
And when you’re laughin’
When you’re laughin’
The sun comes shinin’ through.

When you’re cryin’,
You bring on the rain,
So, stop you’re sighin’,
Won’t you be happy again!

When you’re smiling,
Keep on smilin’
And the whole world smiles with you.

I hear Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice in my head. He made the song, “When You’re Smiling,” popular decades ago, although I didn’t always like hearing it then.  My mother sang it to me whenever I cried over some disappointment or pouted and acted recalcitrant.  My reaction, like any child who resists their parent’s wisdom, was to put my hands over my ears.  I didn’t want to listen.  I wanted to wallow in my misery.

“The whole world smiles with you.”  Who would have imagined that these lyrics, first recorded by Armstrong in 1929, would later be supported by scientific research?  The fact is that a smile can brighten up a room. Studies have shown us that people who frequently smile are perceived as more in control, at ease and attractive than those who don’t (Lau, 1982).  Smiles do more than that, however.  A genuine smile not only improves our appearance but there is a strong connection between smiling and health. Here are a few things smiling does for us:

We feel better. Smiling lifts our spirits. A study conducted by the British Dental Health Foundation showed the act of smiling dramatically improves your mood. Dr. Nigel Carter, the Foundation’s CEO, stated, “A healthy smile can improve your confidence, help you make friends and help you to succeed in your career.”

Smile and its positive effects multiplies among others. Smiling connects us to people. Those who smile have a more positive effect on their environment and are better received by people around them (Abel, MH, Hester, R. (2002). Workers who serve customers with a smile receive larger tips (Tidd & Lockard, 1978) and repeat business (Tsai, 2001).

Smiling also helps to shift our focus away from negative emotions.  It reduces stress and the symptoms associated with anxiety.  We know chronic stress does significant damage to our bodies and minds, but smiling and laughter offer us physical and emotional release–lower blood pressure, improved digestion, and lessening of negative effects of prolonged anxiety. 

I did a lot of smiling and laughing last night.  My husband and I went out to dinner with friends, a mini-celebration of a tiresome project completed.  “The human race,” Mark Twain wrote, “has only one really effective weapon, and that’s laughter.  The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.” Despite my late evening, I awakened this morning feeling lighter.  The irritation of all the past few weeks is gone.
Why not do a little experiment this week?  Feeling glum?  Try smiling. Feel better? Or, if you encounter someone who’s irritable or grim-faced, what happens when you flash a big smile at them? Chances are a smile will brighten up your life or someone else’s.  Smiling helps us reframe the way we’re feeling, even find humor in what can otherwise seem insurmountable. Find reasons to smile.  Write about something that always makes you smile whenever you think about it. Remember, “When you’re smiling, keep on smilin’, and the whole world smiles with you.”

Writing Suggestion:

  • Write about a time you felt overwhelmed, glum or stressed and what helped you “lighten up” and deal more effectively with the tension, worry or frustration you were feeling?
  • Fill in the blank, ________________  is the best medicine and keep writing for 15 or 20 minutes.  Were there any surprises?

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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