I’ve never been a big New Year’s Resolution fan. How many times have you decided to get in shape or spend more time with friends, only to have your motivation fizzle out after a few weeks? Science shows that the real reason we fail is not for lack of trying, but because it’s super hard to change big habits. It’s much easier to make teeny tiny micro adjustments. They can slip right into your established routines without alerting your nervous system. And they fit more readily into the busy life of a parent whose child (or children) needs extra support.
I talked with a few parents in December, and their general reaction about New Year’s was “Why add a resolution to my list? I’m already overloaded!” You may have a lot you’d like to accomplish this year, I do too. Instead of setting ourselves up, let’s chip away at the stress, one small action at a time. The cumulative effect of taking a few positive daily micro actions can make a huge difference. Let me explain.
When your body’s stress response is running on constant overdrive, it wreaks havoc on your health and happiness. Our fight or flight system releases a cascade of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that are meant to prepare us for survival. They speed up our heart rate and blood pressure and redirect blood from our skin and digestive system into our large muscle groups so we can rise to the occasion.
Chronic Stress = Blunted Brain Function. Yikes.
Plenty of other physiological effects occur in fight or flight, but the one that takes the cake is that our system also triggers the fear response, which blunts activity in the prefrontal cortex. That means our system dims the part of the brain we need to concentrate, think rationally and solve problems . We need to be able to manage complex demands with compassion and skill – and to do that, we need blood to flow freely in the front of our brain!
Many of us have run on stress for so long that we don’t even notice the signs. Fluttering heart, clammy hands anyone? Imagine how much more productive, creative, and resourceful we could be if we weren’t flooding our bodies with stress chemicals. When we lower our stress, we can think more clearly. We can manage complex demands with more calm, compassion and skill. Think of all the good things that could fall into place if we found the space to respond to situations with our natural grace and intelligence.
I’m shooting for the magic ratio of 3:1.
Research shows that people flourish when their ratio of positive to negative emotions is 3 to 1. * Positive emotions deliver their own biochemical effects that can help unwind the damage of stress and bring us back to base. All we need to do is produce some more positives. And the good news is that small actions can do exactly that.
Micro Actions for a Virtuous Cycle of Positivity
Here are some examples: When we gaze into our dog’s eyes, hug a loved one, or massage our own shoulders, we release oxytocin, nicknamed the “love hormone” because it induces feelings of profound well-being and trust. When we act the way we want to feel, say by cracking a real smile or walking in an upbeat manner, our bodies release endorphins – which are natural painkillers, and serotonin – which acts as a natural anti-depressant. By taking a few deep belly breaths, we massage our vagus nerve, which can lower our heart rate and usher in calm.
There are other simple ways to expand positive emotion. Cultivating gratitude and appreciation is powerful. A simple gratitude practice (in Toolkit), or recalling and savoring positive experiences can amplify the positive – and block the negative. How about thinking of one thing you’re grateful for as you make your coffee (or matcha!) in the morning?
Calming the mind and body with proven mindfulness tools is another way to make room for positivity. The S.T.O.P. method (also in Toolkit) is a great way to find that space. Why not practice S.T.O.P. whenever you’re stuck at a stop light? Or tune in to all the sounds you can hear on a quick walk outside?
We can also practice being kind to ourselves. Telling yourself “I’m doing the best I can” helps calm the nervous system. And don’t forget to connect with others. Taking a moment to text your friend, call your mom, or thank a teacher helps remind you that you’re not alone and builds resilience.
Instead of shooting for the stars, let’s start small. By resolving to take some of these tiny positive actions each day, you will be on your way towards flourishing. When we stop the runaway stress train, we can respond – to our kids, our family, or lives – with more flexibility, leading to more positive outcomes and satisfaction.
So here’s to a wonderful new year, full of simple pleasures and more positivity.
Image by artist Takashi Murakami
*Losada and Fredrickson, 2005 and subsequent other studies have shown that there is a critical positivity ratio (though it may vary somewhat by individual).