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Stressed? Time to rewire your mind

If the holiday season has you feeling stressed, you’re far from alone. A national survey by Healthline, a leading health information website, found that nearly two-thirds of respondents reported feeling somewhat or very stressed this time of year.

Finances led their list of worries, followed by trying to eat healthy and exercise, picking out gifts, and juggling hectic schedules with family and friends. It doesn’t matter what generation we belong to either; the holidays are evidently a challenge at any age.

Conventional wisdom says stress is an unavoidable part of life – now and at any point throughout the year – and we just have to accept it. But two new books by authors with North Carolina ties are turning that notion on its head – and providing inspiration for positive change as we head toward the New Year.

Nick Petrie, a senior faculty member at the Greensboro-based Center for Creative Leadership (where we are both affiliated), is the co-author of “Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success.” Petrie and co-author Derek Roger, a psychologist and researcher from the United Kingdom, make the case that “stress isn’t something you have to learn to live with. You can be completely free of it.”

Their book, released last month by McGraw-Hill, distinguishes between pressure and stress. They define pressure as a “demand to perform,” which we all face in various aspects of our lives and which is not inherently stress-inducing. The stress actually comes from rumination – or becoming emotionally fixated on things that have already happened and can’t be changed or on things that have not yet happened and can’t be controlled anyway.

“You’re not genetically programmed to ruminate. It’s a habit you’ve developed and cultivated for years. And because it is a habit, it can be changed,” write Petrie and Roger. Based on extensive research and practice, they propose four mental habits that can reduce stress:

▪ Wake Up – focus on the present rather than the past or future;

▪ Control your attention – train your mind to focus consciously;

▪ Detach – give yourself space to maintain perspective on events; and

▪ Let go – don’t continue to ruminate.

Ski Chilton, a North Carolina native and professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, takes a like-minded approach in “The Rewired Brain: Free Yourself of Negative Behaviors and Release Your Best Self,” published in August by Baker Books.

Chilton, like Petrie, is a cancer survivor who knows a thing or two about daunting challenges. He is on a mission to help people understand that they have much more control over their thoughts and behaviors than they might realize – and that fulfillment starts with learning how to harness them. Our mind, he writes on his blog, is “where we either become and stay imprisoned in unhappiness or discover and live in freedom.”

A professor of physiology and pharmacology, Chilton blends scientific and spiritual principle in exploring the brain and the habits and behaviors that we too quickly write off as unchangeable. He offers a guide for reversing course, with a focus on the self-destructive role that fear plays in our lives and a roadmap for reframing negative experiences, that will resonate especially well with people of faith.

For those of us interested in a community-based approach to tackling stress, practical options abound across the state. The Charlotte Center for Mindfulness, for example, offers eight-week courses (with a new round beginning in January) on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a technique pioneered at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the late 1970s that has since gained a worldwide following.

MBSR uses a combination of meditation and yoga to create greater awareness of the present moment and develop skills for dealing with day-to-day stressors. Research has demonstrated its ability to foster lasting improvements both physically and psychologically. In the Triangle, Duke Integrative Medicine is a prominent provider of MBSR, with its next 10-session program launching in January as well.

If you need extra incentive to start looking at stress in a new way in the New Year, here’s another fact worth considering: research from N.C. State shows that the more positive older adults are about aging, the greater their resilience in stressful times. It’s yet another reminder of what Petrie and Chilton are preaching – in the end, stress is linked fundamentally to the stories we tell ourselves and the behaviors they drive.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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