Better ways to handle stress

U.S. Sen. Al Franken may very well be the reason so many of us are bashful about self-affirmations.

Franken, a comedian in the 1990s, brought us what is undoubtedly one of the most well-known -- and cringe-worthy -- affirmations of all time through his "Saturday Night Live" character Stuart Smalley. Smalley was the one who kept insisting, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!"

But what if self-affirmation isn't quite as awkward as you imagine it to be? What if engaging in a serious practice of self-affirmation could boost your capacity to cope and to perform in challenging circumstances?

Instituting a self-affirmation practice, says J. David Creswell, assistant professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, may protect against the damaging effects of high stress on creative problem-solving and performance under pressure.

The possibility of counteracting the effects of stress in high-stakes situations caught my attention.

Last year, I had my brain mapped for a story to find out how I handle stress. As part of the test, I underwent a series of progressively more difficult challenges while hooked up to a quantitative electroencephalogram (also known as a qEEG).

The results revealed that while I perform optimally when everything is going fine, in high-pressure situations, I begin to make mistakes -- lots of them. I'm also less likely to be able to recover and reset after those errors. This, I found out later, is a common occurrence among people.

So we know that we're likely to melt down when things get hectic, but what exactly are we supposed to do with that information? Creswell's research may offer a remarkably effective and simple recourse.

As Creswell puts it, self-affirmation provides "an easy and portable strategy that you can roll out before you enter a high-pressure situation where you are required to perform well," whether it's engaging in public speaking, readying for an important exam or giving a critical presentation to your boss and her boss.

In their study, Creswell and his colleagues asked participants about their stress levels over the previous month. They then instructed half the subjects to undertake a self-affirmation activity. These participants ranked things -- friends, family, a hobby or a religious value -- that were important to them and wrote down a few sentences about why their top-ranked value was important (this is a standard self-affirmation exercise, Creswell says).

All participants were then asked to complete, under time pressure, a series of challenging problem-solving tasks, for which they needed to use creativity to generate the correct solutions.

The subjects who were suffering from high levels of chronic stress in the past month had impaired problem-solving performance by a wide margin. They solved roughly 50% fewer problems than the group with low chronic stress.

The exception: those participants who had completed the self-affirmation.

"We found that self-affirmation completely eliminates the effects of chronic stress," Creswell observed. "Those subjects managed to erase the negative effects of the chronic stress on their problem-solving performance."

In fact, the chronically stressed participants who performed a self-affirmation performed as well as the participants who reported having low chronic stress levels.

So what exactly is self-affirmation?

It's reflecting on an important personal value, Creswell said. "We all thought the Stuart Smalley's 'Gosh darn it, I really like myself' bit was hilarious, but that kind of affirmation may, in fact, undermine the overall effect. Telling people to like themselves more is definitely not the phenomenon we are talking about."

Why not? Does telling yourself you're awesome hurt you?

No, but it probably doesn't help, either. According to Creswell, general affirmations do not direct our attention to anything concrete. For example, telling an athlete to "focus" during the heat of a competition does not help. But telling that same athlete to "focus on your breathing" does.

In the same way, the focus of self-affirmation should be on something specific and authentic: for example, "I am a loving father," "I'm a great tennis player" or "I spend a lot of time volunteering for my church." These are all values that you can confirm, as opposed to something vague like "I am awesome."

While research on the benefits of self-affirmation goes back several decades, we still don't have a good understanding of the underlying pathways or why it produces such wide-ranging effects, Creswell says.

What's clear for now, he emphasizes, is that people who suffer from high stress levels can foster better and more creative problem-solving simply by taking a few moments to focus on something that's personally important to them.

There is no hard and fast rule about how often and how long one must engage in self-affirmation for it to work. Creswell was also involved in a 2009 study that showed just two 10-minute

affirmation writing activities in the weeks leading up to a test were sufficient to relieve the study subjects' stress-related reaction to the examination.

"This is one remarkable feature of self-affirmation," Creswell said. "It can be quite brief, it is easily implemented, and it can have big effects."

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