3 Tools for Stress Management With Your Strengths
Bring the science of character strengths to your problems.
Posted Jan 22, 2020
When you’re upset, do you think to use your strengths? It's not likely a first response. Tunnel vision reactions are much more common.
Tunnel vision occurs when we get upset and then focus even harder on our problem, our self-criticism begins to rumble, and we feel our sense of control evaporate. This is a normal fight-or-flight response that has likely helped you (and me) hundreds of times to find a new solution or to expedite an action. But, sometimes this response is overkill and leaves our body and mind cycling in tension, as if we're on a stationary bike, unable to take off.
There are new approaches. One example comes from something special that emerged in the last couple of decades and offers a shift in our response to stress. It was a groundbreaking uncovering of 24 strengths of character, tested and explored by scientists across cultures. The science of these character strengths shows we can create numerous benefits for ourselves in many ways, including stress.
Let’s take a look at three ways your character strengths can bust your stress. Then, armed with your best qualities right at the top of your mind, try out one of these tools.
I’ll share ways you can bring character strengths to stress across time orientations: understanding your past stressor, tackling your current stressor, and planning ways to handle what’s stressing you out in your future.
Stress in Your Past
A great way to learn about your strengths is to begin to look at your past difficulties. There are many problems and conflicts you have handled and resolved in your life. No doubt it would be easier to focus problems you haven’t resolved that are still getting under your skin. But, for this activity, try learning from your success.
- Name one stressor, life challenge, or conflict that you successfully resolved. This might be something from last week or five years ago. It might be when you recovered from breast cancer, overcome a relationship breakup, or got through a very tense week at work.
- As you think about what you overcame, consider this: Which of your character strengths (any of the 24) helped you overcome or resolve the issue? By definition, you’d have had to use a couple or several strengths, so name at least two. Was it perseverance to overcome the adversity? Creativity to come up with new ways to handle the problem? Fairness to reach a compromise?
Stress in Your Present
What’s stressing you out most at the moment? Mindful attention means to face whatever is happening in the moment – pleasant, unpleasant, mundane. Mindfulness can clear the way for your character strengths.
- Name a minor stressor or irritation you are experiencing right now. You might be irritated by a loud noise while you’re trying to work or read, you might be feeling some lower back pain, or you might be feeling overwhelmed by the numerous tasks on your immediate to-do list.
- Find your inbreath and outbreath. Focus on your breathing in and out, letting go of your monkey-mind tendencies and wandering thoughts. Connect with this part of you – your breathing – for 15 seconds. Before stopping, ask yourself: Which of my character strengths might I bring forth right now? Listen to what emerges as a thought, image, feeling, or idea.
- Reflect on these questions: How will you use this strength right now? How might you use this strength to face and embrace your present moment? How might it help you rethink or reframe your current stressor?
Stress in Your Future
We all have worries, concerns, and expectations for the future. You might be concerned your routine after work is going to be interrupted with a new to-do task. Or, you know you’ll soon be facing a difficult conversation with your manager, you have to give an anxiety-provoking presentation, or you’re worried about what you doctor will find at your next check-up.
- Identify your future stressor.
- Prepare with your strengths! Use the strategy called resource priming which means to think about strengths immediately before the situation. In other words, prime yourself with your best qualities. Prior to your stressor, think about each of your top 5 strengths for a few minutes. Consider specific ways you’ve used them in your life, and how you might bring them forth to handle your upcoming challenge. Research shows that when you do this you’ll be more likely to activate your strengths when you are in the midst of the stressor.
You can learn more about the VIA Character Strengths Survey here.
Niemiec, R. M. (2019). The strengths-based workbook for stress relief. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Hogrefe Publishing.