Strengths Under Stress – Mary Judd
(From the VIA character strengths website- www.viame.org)
As the writer for the VIA Story Project and a long time student of Positive Psychology, I often have Character Strengths on my mind. I speculate about the strengths of others while buying groceries. I’ll devise new ways to apply strengths when I’m having trouble falling asleep. But, it wasn’t until a recent health scare that I realized the true extent of my character strengths awareness, and how it has impacted my life.
I sat in my doctor’s office, hoping he’d OK my treatment, which was already delayed three weeks. My blood pressure had been extremely high due to recent stress. If I didn’t get the numbers down, the injection could prove to be unsafe. A delay in treatment, combined with heightened stress, could trigger a flare-up in my RA (Rheumatoid Arthritis). I needed the treatment. I needed to relax. I needed a miracle.
No newcomer to doctor office stress, I’d been dealing with RA for more than 25 years. This was my 85th treatment. Usually, I considered myself a master at finding the silver lining in a treatment room. But, this occasion proved to be an unusual challenge. In just a few days, I’d be unwillingly deposed in a nightmare lawsuit. I’d not been able to sleep and was having a hard time taking care of myself - prescriptions for ill health in the most “normal” of bodies.
The nurse and I exchanged worried looks. She needed to keep the treatments moving or she’d face a backlog of patients. I needed to calm down, open my veins, and welcome my medication.
After several deep breaths the nurse felt secure enough to “hook me up.” In went the needle and immediately I felt a whoosh in my chest that I’d never felt before … what was that?? I wondered. More fear set in. I forced another deep, slow breath. The whoosh was gone and in its place an absolute knowing that I was separate from my problems. My body needed my full attention, right now. Period. I had to calm down, and fast.
So, who am I – separate from my problems, my disease? It was one of those moments when I truly knew that I had to figure out how to control myself, my whole genuine Mary self, no matter what else was going on in “my life.”
There had been many times in the past that I had summoned my signature strengths to guide different situations – from writing assignments to family outings. This time, I reached for them like a child reaches for a mother’s hand. I needed immediate help. Could they “work” in a situation as tough as this? Could I use my strengths right now to lower my blood pressure, find clarity and calm?
I deliberately used my Appreciation of Beauty to find something beautiful to look at. I let my eyes settle on the smock of my nurse, bright fuchsia background with cheery green and yellow teacups and saucers scattered about. The colours felt good to my artistic soul and the playful design distracted my worried mind. “I like your smock,” I said and managed a smile. Her surprising giggle let me know I had made her feel good. This awareness pleased my Social Intelligence and Love. What else could I do?
I looked around the room and let my Curiosity roam. How had the nurses chosen the things they hung on the wall? Some had family photos; others had comics, calendars... One had a long folding poster of a pond in autumn. Soothing.
My love of learning was fed by an episode of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” I knew about half of the answers and learned from the ones I didn’t. The strengths distractions were working. I was feeling better.
Strengths as sustenance...
Within an hour or so, my blood pressure was falling. Not to normal, but getting better. I closed my eyes and let Gratitude kick in. How fortunate I was to have medicine that helps my condition, to have people take my care seriously, people who have their own set of strengths that they rely on to do their jobs well.
My Curiosity wanted to join in. What might the strengths of these people be? Prudence and Caution --the nurse as she monitored my vital signs, gentle as she inserts and extracts the needle; Capacity to Love--the staff offering warmth, snacks and a kind ear when needed; Commitment and Loyalty--they show up each day; Kindness--I’ve received bags of tea, homemade cookies…. The more I thought about strengths, the more strength I observed around me.
Eventually, I was able to relax enough to enjoy reading my book.
I know, as does anyone who’s dealt with overwhelming stress, that this story, this shift may seem simple, and even go unobserved by others, but it is a deep shift that can alter our future. The difference between my state of mind and body when I first entered the office and how I felt when I went home was hugely affected by my self-imposed “strengths infusion.” What a powerful antidote to the stress infusion I’d been receiving!
Now, more than ever, when I take the time to apply my strengths, I’m deeply aware of how strong I am, in ways that have nothing to do with my physical body.
This Week’s Activity
This week try a character strengths infusion for yourself. If you find yourself feeling tired, impatient, annoyed, fearful, or in any other way stressed… Stop
Consider your own character strengths.
Think, how can I use one or more of my strengths in this moment to lighten my emotional load, distract myself, or reset my thinking?
The table below can be used to organise my thinking or record my experience.
Emotion | Strength Focussed On | Strength Behaviour | Result
Like a cup of tea, only stronger!!
Here’s to a successful strengths infusion for us all.