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God Gives Us Hope

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“I cry out in the night before thee. Let my prayer come before thee; include thy ear to my ear. . . I’m standing my ground, God, shouting for help, at my prayers every morning, on my knees each daybreak. For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting, I’ve taken the worst you can hand out and I’ve had it. . . I’m bleeding, black and blue. ”

—Psalm 88 (New Oxford Bible and The Message)

In those frantic days between good health and the rapid advance of a brain tumor that took the life of my husband, I found the inner strength I needed to deal with our crisis within the book of Psalms. The psalmist spoke the words my heart was experiencing. He articulated my pain, tears, and cries for help, both before death and later, as I grieved my loss.

In my book, A Love So Great, A Grief So Deep, I shared my story and described hope as a “double-edged sword.” Others shared stories of loved ones who survived, and I was stirred to believe my prayers, too, would be answered and my husband would survive, even though deep down, I could not ignore the symptoms before me.

I went on to say:

“Hope is the effort to fly with wings not yet grown. If I don’t hope – don’t try – don’t struggle, there will never be the possibility of flying.”

In order to fly, you have to exercise your wings.

In order to fly, you have to be willing to let go of your fear of heights, and free fall, spreading your arms to catch the updrafts and float.

In order to fly, you must believe and have hope that you can. Hope was a gift God gave me. Whether my husband lived or not, I knew that God was there with us and would hang on to me when his life was gone.

In Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman wrote:

“Optimism and hope cause better resistance to depression when bad events strike, better performance at work, particularly in challenging jobs, and better physical health.”

Optimism doesn’t just happen – it is learned.

We cannot live without hope. We might get bruised and bloodied in the process, but to live without hope is worse than struggling – it is flapping our wings and going nowhere.

And yet, flapping our wings can help make them stronger.

I want to soar like the eagles. I always have. I just never knew it required such a workout to get started.

eagle soaring

Hope is an expectation – a wish that something good can happen – will happen. It allows us to keep going. It motivates us to keep believing that there is the promise of a better tomorrow.

Even when our prayers are not answered in the way we want, God gives us hope for another day – another possibility. He gives us strength to endure. He gives us peace in the midst of sorrow.

“… but they who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not  be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

—Isaiah 40:32

We want to live happy and fulfilled lives. We want to believe there is predictability, an end to sorrow, and the possibility of a new tomorrow.

Even in death, we want to know we can let go of our loved ones and believe we will not only survive, but will be able to create a new life. We want to believe we will see them again.

In today’s world, change is happening so quickly that it is difficult to keep up. We plan, but then tragedy strikes and changes our life forever.

At such times, as it was when my husband so unexpectedly got sick, we are left with uncertainty and wondering, “Now what do I do?”

You not only have to grieve your loss but create a new beginning. In order to do that, you need to believe you can. You need to believe that God will give you what is needed. Because hope is the expectation that it will happen. “I will make it through this. I can do this.”

Wikipedia defines hope as an “optimistic state of mind based on an expectation of positive outcomes…”

In the Bible, hope is not just a wish but “the confident expectation” of what God promises us.

We hang on to that hope because we know He is faithful. And we know that with that hope, we can develop both resilience and confidence.

Why It’s Important to Define What You Believe In

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There is a spiritual side to all of us, whether we believe in a God, are a Christian, an atheist, or agnostic.

If you look online you will find numerous definitions and descriptions of spirituality. Basically, it is a recognition that there is more, something greater, than just us.

What do you believe in?

What do you believe and why? Perhaps you never considered the importance of asking yourself this question. And yet our beliefs influence every aspect of our life – the decisions we make, the people we hang out with, and the lifestyle we choose.

Are you able to define what you believe in and the value you place on those beliefs?

Core beliefs and values are often acquired haphazardly as we grow up. Many are just some versions of the beliefs held by family and friends. As adults, we rarely take the time to examine or question what we believe and why.

And yet, it is those deep core beliefs we hold of ourselves and our world that impact how we think and respond to life.

Because they were put in place when we were too young to evaluate, we often hold many biased beliefs. It is these distorted beliefs that influence our judgments of self and others.

In his books, A History of Christianity and Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties, Paul Johnson wrote, “I must believe in God… belief in God makes me a better person than I would otherwise be. Without God, mankind quickly degenerates into the subhuman.”

“Man without God is a doomed creature. The history of the 20th century proves the view that as the vision of God fades, we first become mere clever monkeys; then we exterminate one another. While it is a terrifying prospect, the restoration of that vision of God can arrest it. Society as a whole will be less self-destructive if it stands in awe of moral rules which cannot be changed at the whim of congresses or parliaments or central committees, but which owe their authority to God. Only a belief in God will make society decent, but we do not believe in God for that reason. Purely social religions are the route to idolatry. We must truly believe. It is part of our struggle to be human. But in this struggle, God himself will help us.”

To survive as human beings, we need a belief in something greater than ourselves. Christianity is the only religion in the world that offers us the gift of salvation, grace, and love that we find within Jesus Christ.

We can’t earn it – we can’t work hard enough for it – it is a gift. And within that gift God extends to us through His Son, Jesus Christ, a love that transforms our lives from our heart outward. It is where we learn how to live as God had intended us to live.

Purposive – Optimism – Values

I believe it is through our need for spirituality that we find a larger purpose for our life. Purposiveness can be defined as “finding meaning in life.”

Without a sense of purpose and meaning, we would have little optimism or hope for our future. Victor Frankl wrote that man’s search for meaning “is the primary motivation in his life.” 

In Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman wrote,

“Optimism and hope cause better resistance to depression when bad events strike, better performance at work, particularly in challenging jobs, and better physical health.”

Optimism doesn’t just happen – it is learned.

The science of Psychoneuroimmunology teaches us there is an interaction between the brain, endocrine system, and immune system and to this degree belief becomes biology.

Optimism is a biological phenomenon that creates a definite physiological response within an individual. It reduces anxiety and stress and its accompanying physical symptoms. Other studies reveal that when optimism was used as a prime coping strategy, people were less anxious and had fewer physical symptoms (Witmer & Rich, 1983).

How do we develop the skill of optimism?

In studies by Maslow, we learn that having a definite philosophy of life and religion are as important as sunlight, calcium, or love is to a person. We cannot live and survive without strong ethical and defined moral standards.

Valuelessness is the ultimate disease of our time. It leads to vague illnesses: apathy, alienation, hopelessness, and cynicism, which lead to psychological, physical, and social illnesses.

Having a meaningful purpose in life helps us develop optimism. Understanding the value of our beliefs will enable us to develop a moral compass to guide our behavior. Morality guides behavior that can maintain our well-being, along with giving respect and compassion to others. Religion and optimism go hand-in-hand.

Dr. Sydney Sharman, author of Psychiatry, the Ten Commandments, and You, wrote:

“Almost half of all patients consult their doctors because of non-organic disease, and almost all of them really do need to consult them or someone! If there were ten times as many qualified and experienced psychiatrists as there are at present, there would not be enough to cope properly with the volume of work.”

The Ten Commandments are just as relevant today as they were when first set down on tablets of stone; they offer the basis for the prevention of and cure for many of our neuroses.

Sharman’s thesis was that the Commandments are fundamental laws of life, and are not just a code produced by an ancient religious and political leader.

If you have never given much thought to what you believe and why, perhaps this is a good time to do so.

Changing your focus includes evaluating what you believe right now. Those beliefs influence everything you do.

Where Do You Find God?

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We begin each day without the thought of any problems we might encounter. Even when troubles hit, we quickly resolve them and move on. That is what life is all about. There will be ups and downs as well as exciting, unanticipated moments.

But there comes a time when those problems aren’t so easily resolved, and we struggle to find a way to handle the upset.

Believers typically send up a prayer asking God to help. Then we keep going. At first, we may not even recognize God’s answer to our prayer. Sometimes it isn’t until much later that we realize how He has intervened.

Sometimes we don’t believe God has answered us at all. How do you know God will answer?

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

—Hebrews 13:5

Throughout history, we are told stories of individuals who have dealt with enormous obstacles. I shared some of those stories in my posts, Lessons We Learn from the People of the Bible and Expand Your View.

Because we often do not give credit to God for His help and strength, I wanted to share a few more stories of how God has intervened, helped, and rescued His people.

Encounters with God

Elijah

When Elijah fled Queen Jezebel, running for his life into the desert, he was so exhausted he wanted to die. But God supplied food for him. Elijah retreated further into the mountains where he struggled with his inner fears, doubts, and insecurities, wondering whether it was all worth the struggle.

God met him there in the midst of his exhaustion and questioning spirit. It was there that Elijah found God – in the still, quiet voice that spoke to his spirit.

Naaman

It was in his affliction of a skin disease that Naaman, the mighty, esteemed, and proud general of the King of Aram, discovered humility and God. In order to be healed, he had to wash himself seven times in the muddy, dirty water of the river Jordan.

In that inner struggle, Naaman had to put life into a clearer perspective. All his wealth, possessions and battle trophies could not buy him the restoration of his health. And he was forced to consider which was more important: his pride or his physical health. He found more than healed skin from the prophet Elisha’s directions – he discovered the God of Israel.

Job

It was in the indescribable pain and ongoing adversity in his life that Job discovered lessons from suffering. Job had led an honest, good, and faithful life following the principles of God. But when he was hit with one adversity after another, he became angry and confused. He protested loudly to God. He lost his home, his wife, and his family. His friends were more accusatory than supportive.

But it was in this adversity where Job discovered the character of God. As Eugene Peterson writes in his Introduction to Job in The Message:

“At first Job rages in pain and roars out his protests, but then he becomes silent in awestruck faith before God, who speaks from out of a storm – a “whirlwind” of Deity. Real faith cannot be reduced to spiritual bromides and merchandise in success stories. It is refined in the fires and storms of pain.”

Joseph, Paul, and Peter

It was in his affliction that the Apostle Paul learned he needed to rely on the strength of God. It was in prison cells where Joseph of the Old Testament and Apostles Peter and Paul of the New Testament became examples to their guards of what it means to live in acceptance and in God’s love and peace.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It was in the adversity of Nazi Germany that Bonhoeffer, the brilliant theologian, struggled with remaining safe abroad or returning to be with his people. He chose to return and just before the war ended, was arrested, and shot by the Nazis.

But in those weeks within the prison walls, Bonhoeffer, like Joseph and Peter, and Paul, exuded peace and love and left an indelible imprint on the lives of his jailers.

Comfort in the midst of adversity

The Bible is full of stories of the lives of people who experienced tragedies and struggled in their adversities. In today’s world, we have the stories of many people who found purpose and meaning within harsh conditions. It is where they heard God calling – whispering to their inner spirit, “You can make it – I am with you.”

  • It is in adversity where we find loyal friends who stand by us, where God sends that person with a comforting touch or that word in scripture that literally jumps out from the page to gives us hope and encouragement.
  • It is in adversity where we find strength to persevere, become more flexible, and discover humility and patience.
  • It is in adversity where we discover love and understanding and grace and where we learn how to become better parents, more understanding spouses, and compassionate people.
  • It is in adversity where we learn more about ourselves, our abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. And where we find God waiting for us, to comfort, encourage and give us hope.

If you are struggling right now, reach out to God and discover His comforting arms.

Start your day with God.

If you’re not sure how to begin, start by picking up a contemporary version of the Bible and begin reading the Psalms. Pay attention to how freely the psalmist talks to God. He doesn’t hold anything back… he tells God when he is depressed, angry, or feeling on top of the world. He thanks God for how he is feeling.

Start your conversation by thanking God for your life. Continue by thanking Him for forgiveness, grace, and hope.

Every day, blessings are showered on us, like silent snowflakes tumbling from the sky, shimmering and glittering like tiny diamonds in the winter sun. I have been touched by the quiet serenity of an earth blanketed in mounds and mounds of downy snow when even nature holds its breath and is silenced by its beauty.

We find God waiting for us when we choose to look for Him: in the breath of spring, the blooming of trees and flowers springing out of the still, cold earth.

We find Him in the vast expanse of His world and the universe, the changing seasons, and the ebb and tide of life.

We find Him everywhere in life and in death. His grace touches the wounded heart, the bruised spirit, and our tired and exhausted engagement with life’s trials.

When I allow my mind to become quiet and remain still long enough, I not only see the beauty of our world and universe but experience God on a deep, penetrating, healing level.

How often we miss these timeless acts of God that occur every day. The mystery of life is constantly unfolding around us.

I am humbled by the power of God as I witness storms that lash out with gale-force winds. Perhaps you are as well. But do we ever consider storms’ blessings?

It is through storms that the earth is swept clean.

If we stop to observe the awesome power and majesty of God in nature, is it not just one step further to recognize that same awesome power of God in our lives?

And aren’t the storms of our lives sweeping our lives clean and bringing about needed change? Isn’t that a part of the personal blessings He showers on us? Often we are so sidetracked by the storm that we don’t see the blessings that follow.

Lessons We Learn From the People of the Bible

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We are learning something new all the time. We acquire information from people we know, from the books we read, the media, and lessons we learn from the choices we make and just plain living.

The Bible tells us many real-life stories about people, their struggles, and the outcomes of their decisions.

Some of us don’t spend as much time in the Old Testament as we used to or give a lot of thought to how the stories could benefit us today. These stories reveal people just like you and me who struggle with life.

Sometimes they resisted doing what was right and were overwhelmed with temptations that got them into a lot of trouble. Their lives were not perfect. And neither are ours. But we can learn and improve.

Consider the following:

  • Noah started drinking in excess after his successes.
  • Cain was jealous and murdered his brother.
  • Jacob was a liar and conniver.
  • Joseph became a victim of jealousy and hatred.
  • Gideon was afraid.
  • Samson was a womanizer and his lifestyle had disastrous results.
  • Rahab was a prostitute.
  • David had an affair and his adultery led to murder.
  • Samuel, a faithful servant of God, was a terrible parent.
  • Elijah had depression.
  • Jonah ran from God and had a bad temper.
  • Job lost everything and was taunted by his religious friends.
  • Peter denied Christ.
  • The disciples fell asleep when Jesus asked them to pray.

Why read the Bible?

If the Bible is full of stories about people who do hurtful, vindictive, and destructive things, why should we read it? All we have to do is watch the evening news, and we can see and hear the same thing.

However, the stories in the Bible don’t just show a slice of human nature. They also offer alternatives – a different way to live. They include insights into the character of God. He loves us, warns us, gives us instructions, and allows us to suffer the consequences of our behaviors while giving us grace.

Within these stories we find ourselves!  We also find redemption and forgiveness and the precepts to live principled lives. And we find a God who reaches down to us, a God who sent His Son to die for us. His love is so great.

Let’s take another look at these stories. What can we learn from each of them that, if applied to our own life, would make a great difference?

Cain

In the book of Genesis, man’s desire to rely on his own wisdom and intellect instead of obeying God is revealed in the first chapters. The first family experienced sibling rivalry, jealousy, and murder. When Cain was challenged by God to be responsible for his life, he chose to nurse his anger and resentment until it led him to murder.

Noah

Noah was chosen by God to save his family from a corrupted world. While enduring taunts and ridicule from neighbors, Noah continued to build the ark, trusting in God. He chose to believe and followed instructions. It was only later that he allowed alcohol to dull his thinking and emotions.

Jacob

Jacob took matters into his own hands and decided he would carry out what he believed was God’s prophecy. He lied to his father and cheated his brother out of his inheritance. His conniving resulted in him fleeing for his life. He, in turn, was manipulated and cheated. Later he returned home to face the brother he had deceived. There was a reckoning both with God and his brother.

Joseph

Joseph was his dad’s favorite, and his brothers were jealous of the special love and attention he received. Their resentment fueled a grievance story that led to a murder plot. At the last minute, however, Joseph was sold as a slave instead of being killed by his brothers. Later in life, these same brothers were at the mercy of Joseph. Joseph had to choose whether to be vindictive or to forgive.

Samson

Samson was given extraordinary abilities. He became arrogant and flippant and used his strength and charm to flirt with danger – the enemy of his country. He paid for it with the loss of his eyes, his strength, and his life.

Rahab

Rahab lived at a time when, if a woman was not under the protection of a husband, prostitution was a way to survive. Rahab was a prostitute. Yet she was challenged to put her life on the line to protect men of God. She believed this was the God to follow, not the culture and king of the day.

Gideon

Gideon was asked to lead a battle. He was not in the army. He was afraid. He had to ask repeatedly if God was really going to be with him. But then he stepped out in faith, followed instructions, and his people were saved.

David

David, who loved God and who God set up as king of Israel, jeopardized his entire kingdom by thinking because he was king he could make his own rules. A king’s power was like the dictators of today – they made the rules and imposed the power over them. However, this kingdom was supposed to be run by God’s rules. David’s misuse of power ended up in adultery, breaking up a marriage and murder. The consequences followed him throughout his life.

Within these stories (and many others) we see the effects of jealousy, resentment, grievances, anger, lust, manipulation and misuse of power, alcoholism, dysfunctional families, cheating and lying. These characteristics seem to be in the very nature of humans.

What we can learn about ourselves from Bible stories

But also within these narratives, we see how God intervenes in our lives to save us from ourselves and bring us back into right standing. Without that intervention, we would not make it.

He not only gives us instructions on how to live, but grace when we screw up. But it is not cheap grace that says, “You can go on as usual.” That grace had a price that was paid for by the death of His son on the cross.

As therapists, we try to help people who have been victims of trauma. We work with them to overcome anger problems and abuse and find constructive and positive ways to establish self-esteem and worth.

There are cognitive methods to neutralize fear and anxieties without alcohol and drugs. As a counselor, therapist, and teacher I have taught strategies on how to replace habits, change our thinking to reduce emotional upsets, and ways to turn our lives around. Within each of us there is an amazing resilience and the ability to heal and make changes.

Yet, our efforts will ring hollow if we don’t recognize that we need God to teach us the basics on how to live. We need His intervention to help us heal and forgive and give our lives purpose and meaning.

It is only then that we will find the peace we all so desperately want and cannot find any other way.

Mini-Relaxation Exercises

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In last week’s blog post, I talked about letting go and learning how to breathe. You learned how the process of deep breathing releases tension and stress.

You may have tried to meditate or relax the parts of your body, only to find your thoughts kept intruding, reminding you of all the things you had to do or had forgotten to do.

The harder you tried to relax and push those thoughts away, the more stressed you became. So, you gave up and went back to using other things that gave you a quick fix, like having that extra glass of wine or chilling out on social media.

Relaxation Audio - Marlene Anderson | Focuswithmarlene.comI produced my Relaxation audio recording because, with the learning I had done about the body-brain connection, I knew how hard it was to get started. But I also knew the incredible results once you mastered the skill.

Before producing my Relaxation audio, I worked with clients and groups, teaching them how to use both relaxation and visualization to create a productive life.

The downloadable MP3 audio recording takes only about 15 minutes a day. All you have to do is listen.

The narrative begins with breathing deeply through your nose and releasing your breath through your mouth.

It then takes you through the process of relaxing all the parts of your body. You will be asked to tighten, then release certain groups of muscles: around your eyes, your jaw, your neck, your shoulders, and so on. By tightening and releasing you immediately feel the difference between tight, tense muscles and relaxed muscles.

As you become more relaxed, your heart stops racing and your breathing slows, while your mind remains focused.

As you practice using this relaxation audio every day, you soon become aware of where you store your tension and how good it feels when it is released. After a while, you will be able to “catch” yourself during the day and begin releasing tension sooner. Your mind will respond more quickly to new relaxing “trigger” words or phrases, such as “letting go,” “relaxing more and more,” or “deeper and deeper.”

Over time, simply taking a deep, slow even breath and saying, “let go” can reduce tension right away.

Relaxing also gives us the opportunity to let go of harmful emotions and attitudes we hang on to, such as anger, revenge, rage, anxiety, fear, depression, hopelessness, helplessness.

It also begins the process of visualization: “seeing” with your internal eye your body relax, your organs relaxed, your body healing itself.

These images become part of your mind-body communication system. As with any skill, the more you repeat it, the easier it is to activate and the faster the response.

Mini-Relaxation Exercises

Here are three additional ways to reduce stress and address the habitual ways we think.

Whenever you have a minute, take a deep breath.

As you breathe out, say to yourself, “Let go,” and then create an image of the tension draining away.

On the second breath, imagine yourself standing under a beautiful waterfall and as you let out your breath, feel and see the tension washing away.

On the third breath, simply enjoy the feeling of relaxation.

Whenever you feel tension, anger, anxiety, or stress:

Stop, pause, then take a slow, deep breath and focus on whatever you are doing at the moment. Then ask yourself the following:

I am feeling this way because…

  • What is the problem I am facing right now? What are my options?
  • Do I really want to hang on to this anger, anxiety, stress, etc.?
  • Is this situation worth getting so upset and anxious over?

We can choose a different attitude and thought process. We can choose to think positively about the situation we are in and choose a more productive response.

Now release the tension from that anger, anxiety, or stress by breathing into it as you let go of it and its accompanying negative thoughts.

Take a quick inventory of your body tension throughout the day:

  • Close your eyes. Where are you holding that tension?
  • Create an internal picture of what that tension looks like and when it is released. For example, imagine a knot untying; or throwing out tension like rocks from your body.
  • Breathe in and out slowly and let go of that tension.

When under pressure to complete a project, we typically throw ourselves into the work nonstop until it is completed. But without taking purposeful breaks, the additional tension soon compromises our work.

Taking mini time-outs might seem counterproductive when you are on a deadline, but those breaks can actually maximize your performance and minimize the time to complete the job.

Five-Minute Walk-Away

  • Get up and walk away from your work. Physically remove yourself from your work area and find a quiet spot by yourself.
  • Stand with arms at your side. Take a deep, slow breath and slowly raise your arms, stretching them high over your head.
  • Hold them there for a minute and then slowly expel your air and gradually bring your arms back down to your side.
  • While doing this exercise, focus your mind on relaxing.
  • Repeat several times. Before returning to work, take a few additional minutes to walk around, stretching muscles, and focusing on anything other than work.

Use Visualization

Visualization is a powerful tool. Here is an example of visualization that can be relaxing and inspiring.

Close your eyes and imagine yourself taking a walk in the woods. Your path takes you beside a stream. As you stop and listen to the gentle sound of the water and the birds chirping, feel the warmth of the sun. Visualize your surroundings.

Find a quiet, safe place to lie down. Feel the soft grass beneath you and breathe in the aromatic smell of the trees.

The cares of the day melt away and time is suspended. Any problem that weighed you down is slipping away.

Gently stroke your face warmed by the sun. Feel your inner spirit calm and problems resolved. Stay lying down while feeling totally at peace with yourself and your world.

Then, when ready, open your eyes, stretch, and when energy has returned, resume your day’s activities.

I shortened these exercises so you could get the idea and expand on them as you want. They will help you develop imagery that is peaceful, calming, and relaxing.

And yes, imagining yourself breathing in pleasant smells and hearing pleasant sounds is part of it.

Build on the suggestions or create your own.

It is helpful to do these exercises when you have time free from interruptions from the phone or people.

Let Go and Breathe

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Letting Go

“Letting go” is a favorite phrase of mine.

In order to make the changes we want, we need to let go of bad habits that keep us from accomplishing those goals. Letting go is where we learn to relax, release tension, and reduce the stress in our life.

Letting go might seem terrifying at first.

We are action-oriented and want to be in control of everything. Relaxing can be construed by our conscious mind as laying down all our defenses and opening ourselves up to being vulnerable.

From early childhood we learn to keep our defenses up to protect ourselves. While this may protect us from the arrows and barbs thrown our way, these defenses, if too rigid, can keep us from relaxing, enjoying our world, and allowing great relationships to build.

Letting down our guard may feel as though we are risking our sense of control. If I make myself so vulnerable, won’t others take advantage of me?  How will I know when to defend myself?

Letting go means accepting yourself

Letting go is acceptance of self just as we are, with all the complexities, negative and positive sides of us, the traits that are developed and those that are yet to be discovered, and the exciting potential of our hopes, wishes, and dreams.

It doesn’t mean we stop working to improve our lives; instead, it excites us to new possibilities.

When you are willing to let go, recognize your vulnerabilities, and accept them as part of who you are, you will not feel so vulnerable to others.

You put aside the facades and find strength in your own acceptance. Letting go is a nonjudgmental position. It is gradually becoming comfortable with who you are. You can just “be.”

Learning to relax

Every day, we will be challenged with more and more things requiring our attention. We are able to adjust at first, but gradually, these demands create more and more pressure and strain, wearing us down. As we become burdened with what has to be done within a limited timeframe, and tension increases, our need to reduce that tension becomes vital.

Relaxation Audio - Marlene Anderson | Focuswithmarlene.comEarlier in my career, I worked with Kaiser Permanente in producing a relaxation tape for a class they were giving on chronic pain. Later, I produced my own Relaxation audio with a good friend. I wrote and recorded the script while he composed special music for the background.

The downloadable MP3 audio is available for purchase on my website. It takes you through the steps to relax, let go, and visualize a different outcome.

Learning to relax on our own is often difficult because we try to “make” it happen instead of “allowing” it to happen. Here is where listening, relaxing, and following can be so beneficial.

Relaxation techniques

Learning to relax begins with stopping and becoming aware of how you breathe. Our breathing is typically shallow, and when we’re stressed, it becomes rapid and hurried.

To relax, we want to shift from shallow breathing to slow, even, deep breathing. Relaxation techniques, including deep breathing, when learned, can be applied any time we feel pressure and tension building.

To become familiar with this breathing technique, sit comfortably in a chair and with your eyes either open or closed. Slowly take in a breath of air, expanding the stomach area as you do.

Then gradually exhale. Put your hand on your stomach and feel it expand when breathing in and then feel it release as you exhale.

Count to four as you take in that breath, hold it for 4 counts, then release it slowly on 4 counts. Rest. Then take in another breath.

As you continue to do this often throughout the day, you will soon notice how this simple breathing exercise helps you release tension.

When you have become accustomed to slow, calm, even breathing, you can extend that exercise. With your eyes closed, begin breathing slowly and evenly. As you do, imagine that with each breath, you are “letting go” of tension.

As you breathe in and out, say to yourself, “I am letting go.”

Continue the exercise, releasing tension throughout the body. Start by focusing on your face – breathe in, let go, and feel the tension drain away. Continue down your body – neck and shoulders, abdomen and lower back, legs, and feet.

As you experience the tension draining away, imagine replacing negative thoughts with positive ones.

The benefits of the “Relaxation Response”

The term “Relaxation Response” was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School in the early 1970s. What Dr. Benson discovered in his research was that the relaxation response actually counters the stress response.

While the stress response gears the body up to run or fight, the relaxation response brings the body back to a restful state.

When practiced daily, blood pressure, heart rate, breath rate, and oxygen consumption all can be lowered. With long-term practice, even the body’s response to adrenalin could be altered.

People reported a decrease in anxiety and depression as well as an improvement in their ability to cope with the stresses in their life.

Initiating the Relaxation Response is not the same as “relaxing” with a book, watching TV, or listening to music. While the Relaxation Response is a natural response for the body, it often requires training and practice.

We can initiate the Relaxation Response in many ways, such as by focusing on a word or phrase that we repeat over and over (mantra) or by breathing slower and more evenly.

You maximize the Relaxation Response when, with your breathing, you focus on letting go of tension in each area of the body.

Adding visualization can increase healing as well as relaxing. I will cover more on this next week.

Choose to Be Happy

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Seek happiness as if your life depended on it – it does!

Life hurts! What is the cure?

Happiness.

But how can we feel good about life or ourselves when everything keeps going wrong? How can we assume a happy disposition when we are always feeling angry or frustrated or scared inside? I have problems to solve – I don’t have time to try and be happy!

Why it is so important to develop a happy disposition

Psychology teaches us that happy people are usually smarter and more creative.

  • They use their energy to produce a reliable income and are generous with others.
  • They are more stable and typically have happy marriages.
  • They are usually mindful, which reduces stress and improves moods. Their emotions are mostly on the positive side.
  • They are normally healthier and live longer. While constant worry, anxiety, and fear can raise the risk for major health concerns, optimism reduces heart attacks and even the risk of cancer.

Pretty good reasons, I think, to develop happiness.

Negative vs. positive emotions

Negative emotions advance anger, fear, and despair. We want to fight or run away or somehow survive by becoming meek or compliant.

Positive emotions, on the other hand, typically promote curiosity, interest, and delight, which in turn help cultivate compassion and love. Optimistic and positive solutions are sought after.

While negative emotions might help us survive in the moment, it is positive emotions that allow us to live fulfilling lives.

So, how do we make happiness happen?

Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., a renowned psychologist who wrote the book, Authentic Happiness, illustrated the following points about happiness.

  1. It’s an attitude – a mindset – make a decision to do this every day.
  2. Choose to look at both sides of your situation. We want to only dwell on the negative side. Look for the positive, as well as things you can be grateful for.
  3. Take time each week (I know, I know, you are already busy and have too many things to do) to find a way to express yourself in positive ways through a project, art, gardening, building, etc. This could be as simple as giving yourself permission to read a book, begin painting, take a nature walk, etc. Look at your schedule and see where wasted time exists. Replace it with a satisfying project.
  4. Thank someone each day for a kindness they have done to you – even if it is the harried grocery clerk.
  5. Before leaving the house, smile, raise your hands up over your head then extend them out. Take in a big breath and tell yourself, “Thank you God. I am ready for this day.”

Gratitude plays a huge role

“If the only prayer you said in life was ‘thank you’ that would suffice.”

—Meister Eckhardt

As kids, we were taught to say thank you and to say prayers before dinner. Research shows that finding ways to cultivate gratitude is more than saying prayers at dinner or before bed, but rather is a proven intervention for depression. It, too, expands happiness.

“Gratitude produced the most purely joyful moments that have been known to man.”

—G.K. Chesterton

Jot down the names of people who have been kind to you or expressed gratitude in some way. Perhaps there might be an opportunity to let them know how much that meant to you. Then write down the names of people who you are grateful for and think about ways you can express that to them.

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”

—Cicero

Ongoing optimism and gratitude

You may already be doing this, but if not, begin keeping a gratitude diary or journal. It is a way to remember all the blessings you have received.

When we write down the things we like or are grateful for, we can go back and read them, which is especially helpful when we’re having a rough day.

Optimism motivates us to continue trying when we run into snags or barriers.

And we know that we will.

Make optimism and gratitude a mindset, along with happiness.

When we do, we know that even when things get tough, it won’t last forever. But an optimistic attitude will. Good will overcome bad, just as love overcomes hate.

Put up a big smiley face on your refrigerator door or the mirror in your bathroom and every time you see it, smile. As you smile, remember happy times or something you are grateful for.

Allow that gratefulness to sink into your mind as you continue with your day.

Prolonged Stress: How it Impacts Your Body and Mind

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Make Stress Work For You by Marlene Anderson | focuswithmarlene.comIn my book, Make Stress Work for You: 12 Steps to Understanding Stress and Turning it Into a Positive Force, I define what stress is and how to make it work for you.

We can’t live without stress. It is the energy that enables us to get up in the morning, go to work, make vacation plans, solve problems, and live. It enables us to respond to whatever is happening in the moment.

If stress is so necessary, why should I be concerned?

We can handle most stressful things because they happen irregularly. It’s when stress becomes prolonged, without some way to reduce tension, that it takes its toll.

When we do not know how to take charge of our time and life, reduce conflicts and lower emotional outbursts, our stress levels will quickly rise.

Constant fear, worry and overreaction to unexpected events can have a huge impact on our stress levels. Higher levels of anxiety make it harder and harder to relax.

When we become overloaded for long periods of time without relief, our stress energy begins to work against us. Even minor things become magnified.

Researchers at the Duke University Medical Center suggest:

“…the cumulative effect of the daily mental and emotional stresses of life reduces the heart’s ability to respond appropriately to the outside world.”

It has been estimated that around 75% of doctors’ visits are in some way stress-related.

  • Stressed-out people tend to overeat, as food becomes a relaxer. Because of this, we gain weight and have difficulty maintaining a regular exercise program.
  • Stress is a contributing factor, either directly or indirectly, to illness.
  • Stress impacts the heart and can raise blood pressure.
  • Stress has a major impact on coronary artery disease, respiratory disorders and even cancer.
  • When we have high levels of stress we can’t focus or think effectively, are constantly tired and irritable and become a candidate for alcoholism, drug abuse, and addiction. Overmedication or abuse of medically prescribed tranquilizers or barbiturates, or over-the-counter drugs, also can become a quick-fix solution.
  • Smoking increases, whether cigarettes or marijuana, as it gives a quick pleasure fix.
  • Stressed lives lead to more accidental injuries and even suicide.
  • With high levels of stress, our adrenal glands are affected and pump more hormones into our body, which can then chronically depress our immune system.

And round and round it goes. The problems we have become bigger and bigger with no end in sight.

Heavy problems

We were designed to deal with life’s ups and downs. The human body is extremely resilient and flexible. We can deal with high levels of stress but not when there is no relief, or when we haven’t learned how to manage stress.

Consider the following example given to a group of students by a professor as an illustration of stress management.

He picked up and held a glass of water. Then he asked the class, “How heavy do you think this glass of water is?”

The students’ answers ranged from 20g to 500g.

The professor replied, “Does it matter how absolute the weight is or does it matter how long you hold it before it becomes a heavy burden? If I hold this glass of water for a minute, it won’t be too heavy. But if I hold it for an hour, I will have an ache in my right arm. If I hold it all day, you may have to take me to ER. It is the exact same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”

Like the glass of water that becomes heavier and heavier the longer we hold it, when we constantly focus on problems without looking for solutions or have no designated times for rest and relaxation, our problems will become heavier and heavier.

But just as stress can be reduced when we put the glass of water down, the same is true for dealing with the problems we face.

“The ultimate goal of those studying stress is not to ‘cure’ us of it, but to optimize it.”

—Robert Sapolsky, Stanford University neurobiologist (2015)

What stresses you out?

Take a moment and reflect on what is happening in your life right now.

  • Can you identify what stresses you out and why?
  • Are your stress levels constantly rising?

Before we can manage our stress we need to identify the causes creating it. Only then will we be able to look for and find ways to reduce or lower unwanted and unnecessary stress. We have become so used to being stressed out we accept it as the new norm.

Lowering your stress level

We can moderate or lower stress levels when we:

  • use appropriate coping skills
  • schedule time for rest, relaxation and fun
  • problem solve
  • find alternative ways to reduce emotional upsets

You can put in place a positive lifestyle while dealing with stressful times.

Related article:

How to Handle Cumulative Stress, Duke TODAY

From Motivation to Results

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“To dream anything that you want to dream,

That is the beauty of the human mind.

To do anything that you want to do,

That is the strength of the human will.

To trust yourself to test your limits,

That is the courage to succeed.”

—Bernard Edmonds

Every day is a new day – to pursue your dreams – to start over – to put a new habit in place – to designate time for your loved ones – to write a new chapter in your life story.

Every day we have the opportunity to begin again.

Are you grieving the loss of a loved one?

Reach out to God and others for comfort.

Are you struggling with an overloaded calendar cluttered with things you don’t have time for and really don’t need to do?

Take time to find out what unessential things are keeping you from accomplishing more important things and eliminate them.

Without awareness, changes will not occur.

Every day we choose how we will spend that day. Even if you wake up discouraged or feeling low, you can reverse that by telling yourself that this is a new day with great possibilities, and you are ready to begin.

During the day remind yourself that you are in charge, and that you can make changes needed to solve problems or work with difficult people.

Time is managed by you. Change what needs changing – set boundaries where needed – then choose your attitude and move forward.

“The crisis of today is a joke of tomorrow.”

—H. G. Wells

Every day there is something we can laugh at or enjoy doing.

Often we think laughter only happens when we are with a group of friends or at a social event or when we are watching our kids or grandkids trying something new.

Perhaps it is watching a show designed to make people laugh. But we don’t have to wait to watch a funny show. Put laughter and humor in your arsenal of everyday life. We can find humor in almost anything if we want to without making light of the situation. We can laugh at ourselves because we will screw up.

Laughter is the greatest stress-releaser of all time.

Celebrate even minor accomplishments.

It can be as simple as saying, “Yes! I did it! Yeah!”

Use these celebrations as stepping stones of motivation. All goals, whether simple or complex, are accomplished one little step at a time. Consistency is necessary. There is always time to take one tiny step, even when we are busy.

Combine tasks when you can.

For example, when I am fixing my breakfast or loading/unloading the dishwasher, I will do some simple squats or upper body stretches.

When I take a time-out from my writing, I might complete some quick simple chores or make a call to a friend or go for a quick walk.

I put things that need to be done together whenever possible. It keeps one project from becoming a burden I want to ignore. One step at a time works wonders.

Just say “no.”

As you build a more meaningful life, evaluate what you can do within that time frame and what you can let go of. You will need to set limits and restrictions and say “no” sometimes, even when you don’t want to.

There will be many faltering beginnings, setbacks, disappointments, and goals left unfinished. Life will not only challenge us but beat us up.

We need the bits and pieces of wisdom we have tucked in our mind’s bank account to withdraw during times when we need continued motivation.

As we settle into a more predictable way of life, part of remaining motivated is putting boundaries in place. It sounds easier than it really is.

5 levels of needs that motivate us

To accomplish anything we not only need to expand our view of what we can do but remain motivated to keep trying.

According to Abraham Maslow, a famous American psychologist who developed a theory on motivation, there are five levels of needs that motivate us.

  1. The first level is physiological: oxygen, food, water, sleep, etc.
  2. The second is safety, which includes personal safety, a safe place to live, financial and job security, health and well-being, etc.
  3. The third level is our need to love and belong, which addresses our need for friendship, family, and intimacy.
  4. From there we advance to esteem needs, the fourth level. We have a need to respect and accept ourselves and be respected and accepted by others. Without that we will experience lack of confidence, inferiority and even depression.
  5. The fifth and final level is self-actualization, a level where we begin to fulfill our potential.

Maslow believed we need to begin with the first level before advancing to the next. Today there is some controversy about the need to finish one level before starting another, but overall, Maslow’s hierarchy describes our human needs and what motivates us.

When we put in place goals for the final level of self-actualization, we know ourselves better and are prepared to sacrifice comfort to reach those goals. We expand our view, reframe our circumstances, and go to work.

Pick up your remote

When you were a child, perhaps you picked up a leaf or a piece of bark, put it in a stream, and watched as the current took it downstream.

Perhaps you and your dad made a tiny wooden boat that you would “sail.” If the current was strong, you raced along the shore trying to keep up with it. Usually, however, it didn’t take long for obstacles such as tree limbs or rocks to snag your boat, preventing it from going any further.

However, if your toy boat had a tiny receiver inside, and you held a remote control, you could steer and guide it away from obstacles and keep it moving in the direction you wanted.

You hold the remote for your life.

You can choose to simply float along down the river of life, or you can direct its course. You can look for and avoid obstacles that might snag your “boat,” such as bad breaks, bad luck, outside influences, difficult times, etc.

You can set up appropriate boundaries. You are not at the mercy of the wind, current, or obstacles of life if you take control of the helm. You are constantly gathering new information, re-arranging and expanding the storage files in your mind throughout your lifetime.

If you continue to live by old rules, life scripts, and unchallenged behavior because it is easier in the moment, you will soon become discontented. You will lose your motivation and not achieve the results you hoped for.

Expand Your View

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When we think about photography, we think about the wide range of pictures we can take. We can adjust the lens of our camera to include more or less of the environment in front of us. We can zero in on a bird singing on a nearby branch or extend out to see a vast expanse of landscape.

Think about the last time you went for a walk in the mountains. As you came up a ridge, you saw before you an expansive view of beauty and diversity, from sky to mountains to deep ravines where rivers bubbled over stones and wound around the land below.

Or think of a time when you were at the beach and looked out over the vast expanse of water.

I remember walking around the upper rim of the Grand Canyon. The view from the rim was breathtaking, stretching for miles both outward and down into the canyon itself. I experienced awe at the enormity of it all.

Before we can effectively reframe our lives we need to expand our possibilities. In my article, “Reframing: A New Perspective,” I shared a story about a woman who expanded her view in order to reframe her life. She got her life back in ways she couldn’t have imagined.

Reframing helps us work with challenges that might seem overwhelming. Expanding our view gives us more ways to reframe and work with those challenges.

Yet, even with the best of examples and “how to’s”, we might feel stuck with a point of view that is narrow and limiting.

How can we expand our view?

For example, what do you see outside your window or when you go for a walk in your neighborhood? Is your view limited by houses, winding streets, trees, people walking, etc. To expand your view, you might need to walk up a hill so you can look out over the houses and trees.

Now think about your internal view.

When you try to expand your potential, is your view constrained by predetermined beliefs about yourself and the limitations you believe you have?

How can you rise above those limitations to see beyond the moment to how you can bring life to your dreams or long-forgotten passions?

As we read stories of people who started with enormous handicaps and have done extraordinary things, we wonder:

When were they able to expand their view of possibilities to begin such a lifetime work? What was the trigger for them to go beyond thinking about it as just a possibility to actually acting upon it?

I’d like to share a couple of true-life stories about individuals who took what they were handed and expanded their view of possibility. I have written about them in the past but wanted to share their stories again. That’s because there are so many stories we never hear about of brave people who step out in faith and take whatever they had and built on it.

Flying Without Wings: Personal Reflections on Loss, Disability and Healing, by Arnold BeisserIn his book, Flying Without Wings: Personal Reflections on Loss, Disability, and Healing, Arnold Beisser shares his story.

A tennis champion, Arnold had just completed medical school and was ready to become a surgeon when he developed polio. He was 24.

For three years he lived in an iron lung. While he lay there restricted from movement, he decided he needed to do something.

But what?

He began by looking around – expanding his view every day to see a little more and think about the things he saw. He refused to let his medical condition disable him.

When he was elevated from iron lung to wheelchair, even though a quadriplegic, he became a psychiatrist, an administrator, an author, and fell in love and married a woman he met while in the hospital.

He learned to expand his view enough to reframe his life from one that most people would say was over to one that allowed him to live life to the fullest.

In another, two paraplegics built a boat and sailed across the ocean. In An Ocean to Cross: Daring the Atlantic, Claiming a New Life, Liz Fordred tells the story of two people who were injured early in life and met in physical therapy.

Over time, they got married and decided to follow a dream they had. They lived in Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe). They built a large sailboat and had it trucked to the ocean, where they had it outfitted to meet their needs before taking off to cross the ocean.

Neither had sailed before and neither had “feeling” below their chest or abdominal area. They wanted to prove that just because you were handicapped it didn’t mean you couldn’t do things.

They arrived in Florida, purchased a business, raised a daughter, and continued to make that their home.

They not only expanded their view, but reframed their thinking from one of, I think I can to one that said, Yes I can.

My youngest son is an example of someone who reframed and expanded his view. Born without the muscles to hold up his head, he never let that deter him. He reframed his world to learn to walk, go to school, etc.

After college he expanded his world of possibilities to work in a highly competitive industry as a conceptual artist.  (Read his story in “Just Go to Prague!

And then there is the story about Nick Vujicic who although born without arms and legs, not only overcame but became a worldwide speaker. I share his story in “No Matter What, I Can Make It

Read more about his journey in his book, Unstoppable: The Incredible Power of Faith in Action,

Expand your world!

What are you missing that could enrich your life, make it more enjoyable or more satisfying?

What would give you the inspiration and encouragement you need?