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Replacing Your Stress Habit: Jest for Stress

We’re cruising down the highway on a sunny California afternoon—the sparkling ocean to our left, the picturesque mountains to our right—then as we come around a curve we see motionless cars stretching for miles and miles ahead of us.
“Shoot! Dang!” cried my husband. (Okay, so those weren’t his exact words. Hey, I want to keep this article rated PG-13!)

His knuckles whitened around the steering wheel, his jaw tensed, his muscles stiffened. “Look at this frakkin’ traffic.” (Note: He actually did use the word “frakkin’.”)

The sight of a traffic jam sent him immediately into a stress response. But I reminded him that we had plenty of time to get to our destination, we had plenty of gas, we had food and drink in the car (and neither of us was in need of a bathroom break!). So rather than fume about traffic I pulled out my phone, and played several episodes of a show that we both find hysterical (Cabin Pressure, a BBC radio sitcom, starring Benedict Cumberbatch). And we relaxed and laughed our way to our destination.

Stress can be habit-forming. We see a stimulus (a traffic jam, a virus alert on our computer, that neighbor who rambles on incessantly) and we respond with irritability, muscle tension, anxiety, loss of focus, and the urge to strangle some jerk who desperately deserves it.

Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl once said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” So often, when challenges pop up, we fly into an automatic response. But we do have a choice. There are lots of interventions you can initiate in that space between stimulus and response. One of the easiest and most effective choices is humor. Rather than experience a stress habit, create a humor habit.

The trick is having humor easily available so that accessing it is a no-brainer. Here are three quick techniques for the next time you feel stress coming on. Pick one!

  • Use your smartphone. Depending on the time you have, you can access a funny podcast (10-60 minutes), a funny video (30 seconds to 10 minutes), or funny memes through apps like Tumbler, iFunny, and Pinterest (mere seconds).
  • Use another person. Ask a colleague, a friend, or a customer to share something funny with you: A funny story, a joke, an embarrassing moment. It doesn’t have to be wet-your-pants funny. You’re just going for a quick reframe of your mindset, from stress to jest.
  • Use your mind. Have some go-to images that bring a smile to your face just thinking about them:

The look of delight on your toddler’s face when she first met your new puppy. Your husband on the dance floor trying—hilariously—to disco dance like John Travolta. Kramer bumbling his way into Seinfeld’s apartment. Tapping into a quick humorous memory can change your body chemistry—and your day—almost instantly.

And here’s one last tip: You’ll get the maximum benefit from humor when you use it consistently. You can actually rewire your brain—so practice some kind of humor every day!

Stress is always going to be part of our lives, but it doesn’t have to dominate our daily lives. Exchange your stress habit for a humor habit.

Karyn Buxman, neurohumorist, is the author of the book Lead with Levity: Strategic Humor for Leaders and creator of an 18 (or 30) day online program to help leaders authentically, consistently and strategically use humor to enhance communication, build resilience and boost engagement.

She can also be reached via:

[email protected]
Twitter: @KarynBuxman
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