Body & Fitness

Find your joy in 2016

Executive life coach Sarah Laurie reveals the science behind stress and joy – and explains how to shape a life that brings you happiness

This time of year presents a dichotomy: we’re wrapping up our working year, we’ve made it through the very busy period of Christmas chaos, and reached the light at the end of the tunnel that is a New Zealand summer holiday. It’s the perfect time to review and reflect on your 2015 – the best bits, the hardest parts, and what you want the next 12 months to be.

Executive life coach Sarah Laurie is the perfect person to help you bring in the new year – the mum-of-four is a published author of three well-being books, including her latest title Stress Less.

As part of her research, Sarah travelled to the University of California to look in-depth at the physiological effects that stress and joy have on our brain. Here, she shares her knowledge with Good Health Choices so you can start changing your life today!

Your true priorities

There’s a difference between pressing responsibilities and real-life priorities. If we were to ask people, “What’s your priority at the moment?”, they’d most likely turn to something that’s really quite pressing – a project that’s due, something that’s happened with childcare.

But if you strip all of those things back and ask yourself, “What is actually meaningful to me in my life?”, you’d probably only have one or two things. And when we draw attention to those things, it helps bring a sense of perspective to all the other events and issues that are going on.

If we’re in a pattern of being frantic at work, and when we get home we don’t have time to engage with our family, we miss the opportunity to connect with what’s important. But if we can draw a line in the sand and say, “Actually, the way my children feel at home is of key importance to me”, we’re more likely to make it a bigger priority when we’re planning how we want things to be in the following year.

Managing stress

A great place to begin is to stop accepting that being stressed and busy is acceptable. Then we’ll be more inclined to take steps to address our stress. But we have to stop thinking always being on the go is the most productive way to live. There’s a paradox across the world where we are more stressed and depressed than we’ve ever been, yet we have more compelling information about how to counter stress.

We’re designed to thrive in a busy world but we’re instructing our brain wrong.

A rushed pace and shallow, short breathing is what indicates to our brain that danger is present. This isn’t news, we all know this, but we haven’t connected the dots fully.

There are two lightbulbs that go off and on in your head when you’re stressed. One is your fight or flight response and the other is the executive functioning area that governs memory, attention, sound thinking. When you are stressed, the fight or flight bulb switches on – which is why you feel wired, tired and anxious.

The executive functioning bulb switches off, which is why you become forgetful, distracted and can’t think clearly. Continual stress has the effect of you always feeling wired and anxious, while at the same time not being able to focus well. If someone tells you to breathe deeply or take a break when you are stressed, you’ll struggle because these activities go against your biological mechanism to keep you safe.

But when you breathe well, take short regular breaks and keep positive, this switches off the fight or flight bulb and switches back on the bulb that helps you think clearly. Breathing into our stomach is the easiest way to signal to our body, “You’ve got a challenge but everything is okay.”

There’s almost been this badge of honour of ‘I’m so busy, I’m so stressed.’ Perhaps there should be a different badge of honour. That if you’re not taking small breaks, not taking time to breathe well then you might as well be wearing a badge that says, ‘I’m working at mediocre today.’ There needs to be a new link between high performance and restorative wellbeing practices. Let’s start supporting each other to work effectively.

Power of positive

We’re used to thinking positive thoughts are fleeting, subjective; that they happen inadvertently. But it’s a physical thing – we can track that positive thought in your brain, we can see that a pattern of thinking creates tracks in your brain. When someone is positive you might think, “They’re always happy, nothing bad must ever happen to them.” But that’s not the case – they’ve created a brain that’s predisposed to being optimistic.

The same goes for someone who’s always complaining; their brain is trained to put forward a risk-averse, negative stream of thoughts.

People have said to us “think positive” for years but when you can actually see what happens in the brain with a positive thought, you realise it’s not just a nice idea, it’s a formula.

Try Sarah’s summer challenge for three steps to a life that brings you joy.

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