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Beating the Odds: Reframing Anxiety as Excitement

Both positive and negative life events can create stress.

I distinctly remember learning about the Holmes-Rahe stress scale while in graduate school. This scale is based on research on the association between life events and illness. The scale lists 43 common life events and provides a "life change score" associated with each. The higher that one scores, the higher one's risk for illness. Perhaps the biggest contribution of this scale--or at least the most important lesson that I learned from it--is the notion that both positive and negative life events can create stress. To illustrate, marriage (a positive event) and dismissal from work (a negative event) have similar life change scores associated with them.

The last two weeks I have been keenly aware of the association between life events and stress. My youngest daughter left for college. I am preparing for a new work position in a different part of the country. I am packing up my home where I have lived for more than two decades, and preparing to buy a new one.

On the Holmes-Rahe stress scale, this all adds up to a score that puts me in the "moderate life crisis" category and gives me a 50% chance of an illness, such as chronic headaches, fatigue, back pain, or ulcers.

This score helps explain my periodic emotional "meltdowns." It also underscores my need to double my coping efforts.

While I have been coping through exercise, something that a prior Psychology Today Blog explains is a very effective stress reducer, what I seem to be benefiting the most from is my efforts at positive thinking. As a psychologist I know that thinking has as a vast impact on feeling. In fact, this is the cornerstone of one of the most widely used forms of therapy for anxiety: cognitive therapy. The premise of this therapy is that changing negative (maladaptive) thoughts to positive (adaptive) ones is the gateway to change.

Starting today, I have begun to stop myself from thinking about all the reasons I don't want to move. Instead, I started thinking "I am excited for my new adventure." Honestly, this little trick has worked wonders already.

In this same spirit, I have begun changing my thinking about my daughter's leaving for college. Instead of standing in her empty room thinking about how much I miss her living at home, I am mulling over the words of Anna Quindlen and Mary Kay Blakely. In Thinking Out Loud, Quindlen said that "Each day we move a little closer to the sidelines of their lives, which is where we belong if we do our jobs right." In American Mom, Blakely said that "...a mother starts out as the most important person in her child's life and if she is successful, a mere 15 years later she becomes the most embarrassing." I have combined these, and my mantra is now that "A mother starts out as the most important person in her child's life and if she is successful, moves to the sidelines." This thought is comforting to me.

In a nutshell, I am re-framing my anxiety as excitement. My sister-in-law reinforced this positive thinking today when she sent me the following quote from Soren Kierkegaard:

If I were to wish for anything I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of what can be, for the eye, which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. ... And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility?"

With thoughts like these, I think I can beat the odds given to me by the Holmes-Rahe stress scale!