Psychologist Lea Waters talks about tools you need to tap into your strengths.
- The best way to tap into your strengths
- Why our strengths are often hiding–and how to find them
- The hack that halts anxiety
Lea Waters AM, PhD is a psychologist, researcher, professor, published author, internationally-celebrated keynote speaker and one of the world’s leading experts on Positive Education, Positive Organizations and Strength-Based Parenting and Teaching.
Professor Waters is the Founding Director and Inaugural Gerry Higgins Chair in Positive Psychology at the Centre for Positive Psychology, University of Melbourne where she has held an academic position for more than 23 years.
- Book: The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish
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- Instagram: @profleawaters
- LinkedIn: Lea Waters AM, PhD
- Twitter: @ProfLeaWaters
- Website: LeaWaters.com
Resources mentioned in the show:
- Book: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
- Event: Relay For Life
- Survey: Via Character Strengths Survey
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Lea, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Hey, Pete, thanks for having me.
Oh, I’m so glad to dig into your goodness here. But, first, I need to hear about the time you won a rap dancing competition.
Okay, that was a long time ago. Well, firstly, you can probably tell from my accent, I am Australian, and I grew up in a very small little country town in Australia. The town had 800 people, now has 8,000, which is still a very small town, but 40 years ago we’re talking now. So, when I was 14, I went along to the local townhall on a Friday night, it was a sort of disco back then in the early to mid ‘80s, and they had a tap dancing competition, which I won, because I did the worm and I did the robot rap dancing thing, and I had just learnt the Michael Jackson moonwalk, and it was only just Michael Jackson that just sort of perfected his moonwalking.
So, I was able to do the moonwalk and the worm and some little computer robot dancing, and, somehow, I won this little local rap dancing competition for teenagers. I think I won a can of Coke, I know, and I won a…because back then we’re talking records, we weren’t even at CDs, let alone what we’re at now, so I won a little like 6-inch record of a local band in Australia who had done a remake of “Oh, won’t you take me to funky town.” So, yes, that was my prized possession.
I remember I won a karaoke contest when I was a teenager at a Relay for Life, a cancer fundraising event, and that were just good memories of just being ridiculous and cutting loose. So, hopefully, we’ll bring some of that fun and energy into this exchange.
I hope so. Yes.
Even though we can’t see the dance moves.
No, no, no. Well, you just got a little sort of you through the Zoom but, yeah, your listeners are probably better off not having seen me attempting to do that now as a 49-year old when I did it as a 14-year old.
Okay. Well, it seems like you’ve taken some of that positive goodness into your current career. You are an expert in positive psychology. Can you orient listeners who are not familiar with that term? What’s that all about?
Hmm, sure. A great place to start too, Pete. Thanks. So, I’m a psychologist, been a psychologist for 27 years, and I’m also a university researcher in the field of positive psychology. And so, positive psychology is a subfield of psychology, and it distinguishes itself because it’s the science and practice of studying the positive end of the human experience.
So, we’re looking at, “How do we scientifically study and understand and, therefore, amplify joy, wonder, curiosity, or love, compassion, empathy, altruism?” It’s a strength-based science so it’s really focusing on, “Who are we at our best? What are the inherent strengths that we bring to work, bring to our life outside of work, bring into our teams? And then how do we use those strengths to sort of be at our best to be pro social and help other people, and to help ourselves and our team reach our full potential?”
Okay. Well, amplifying some of those things sounds certainly pleasant. I would enjoy that and really the course of experience in life. Can you also share with us a bit of the case associated for how that helps folks be all the more awesome at their jobs?
Okay. So, what the science tells us, and, look, honestly, even as I’m saying this, people just know this intuitively. When you feel good, you function well. When you are able to bring the best of yourself to work, when you’re in a position where you can utilize your unique strengths, the things that give you energy, the things that sort of come easily to you, the things that you are sort of self-motivated to do, that’s going to flip into higher levels of performance, productivity. And it’s really sort of challenging this assumption about, “How do we create improvement in ourselves or in our work team or in an organization?” because most of us, Pete, were sort of raised on this assumption that improvement is a process of fixing what is wrong with us.
So, let me give you a scenario. Let’s just say that you and I did work in the same workplace, and I happen to be your boss, and we’re passing each other in the hallway, and I stopped for a minute, and I say, “Hey, Pete, can you make an appointment with my assistant? I want to catch up on Friday afternoon because I’ve got some areas of improvement that I’d really love to talk to you about.” What do you think would be the first sort of response inside your head when your boss says, “Come and have a meeting with me to talk about some areas of improvement”?
“Oh, I’m screwing some things up, and so I’m kind of on high alert now.”
Exactly, yeah. So, we’ve all been conditioned to think that improvement is this process of fixing what is wrong with us. And so, we have that scenario and you immediately think, “Oh, goodness. What have I done wrong? What do I need to fix? What’s not going so well?” And yet improvement can also be a process of building up and amplifying what is right about us.
So, unbeknownst to you, I actually want to meet with you on Friday because your sales figures are through the roof, and I’m like, “All right, if he’s already at this level, and this is clearly a skillset of his, if we can figure out what and why he’s doing so well, and we can improve that, he’s going to sell even more. If we can then figure out his sort of secret sauce and get him to help his fellow teammates, then we’re doing better.”
And so, our natural inclination is to sort of engaging improvement by fixing what is wrong with us. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t do that. We still need to look at areas of weakness and faults and flaws, and try and sort of shore those up. But what does science shows us is that you can spend a lot of time working on a weakness, and you can improve it, but it’s never going to turn into a strength. A weakness is never going to turn into a strength. You can improve it up to a point of a level of proficiency, but beyond that you’re better off just spending your time actually working on what are the strengths, what are the things that come naturally to you, what are the things that you enjoy doing, you get energy from, you perform well.
Okay. Well, so understood. Well, then I’m curious, when it comes to these strengths, well, first, let’s zero in on how does one identify them?
Yeah. There’s a number of different ways you can identify your strengths, and the most obvious way is surveys. There’s quite a lot of surveys out there that allow you to identify what your unique strengths are in a workplace but also outside of work. So, many of the listeners here are probably familiar and they may have done these kinds of surveys at work that help you to identify where are those areas of self-energy and self-motivation. And I do have a free survey on my website, if people want to go to that, and sort of get a start on using a survey to identify.
More deeply than a survey, it really is about tuning into yourself and looking at where are those moments where you get into flow, you have high levels of energy. There’s a quick learning curve, so it’s a skill or a process that you’re able to learn with relative ease and more quickly than someone else. Where are the areas where you seem to learn quickly, do it a little bit better than anyone else? And also, as I mentioned just, you’ll know a strength because this is energizing.
When we use our strengths, using your strengths gives you more energy. When you’re using a weakness, it’s exhausting, it’s depleting. Often, when I run my workshops, for example, I ask people or invite people, “Pick up your pen with your non-dominant hand, and for the next few minutes, when we do this exercise, use your non-dominant hand.” It’s always quite amusing, Pete, because you see people with their tongue out and their brows are really kind of furrowed, really concentrating on, “How do I write with my non-dominant hand?” And it’s a slower process, it’s frustrating, it’s messy, you don’t perform as well.
And then I say, “Okay, now swap back to your dominant hand.” And it’s a good example of the energy and effort that’s required to build up a weakness in contrast to leaning towards using our strengths more often. So, we can identify our strengths through surveys, we can identify our strengths just by tuning in and saying, “Where are the areas where I feel energy, where I have passion, where I perform well with relative ease, where I’ve got a fast learning curve?”
But another key way of identifying our strengths is through social mirror. And what I mean by that is other people are a mirror to us for our strengths. So, tuning into or deliberately asking, intentionally asking other people, “Where do you see my strengths?” having those conversations at work where you’re engaging in this technique called strengths spotting.
So, strengths spotting, as the name would suggest, is just a technique of looking at where you see the strengths in other people and acknowledging those, “You know, I really love your curiosity, Pete, and the way that you’ve come to this, and you thought about the questions beforehand, and you’ve done a little bit of research. So, that says to me that you’ve got these strengths of sort of curiosity, and love of learning, and being organized, and wanting to share things with other people.”
So, using, allowing other people to be that social mirror, because the research shows us that, for many of us, we have this phenomenon called strength blindness. And strength blindness, as the name would suggest, is that we can become a little bit blind to our own strengths, sort of an interesting and cruel irony because our strengths are partly nature and partly nurture. And what the developmental psychologists have shown us is that we’re all born with our own unique kind of inherent strengths potential.
Some of you were born with the gift of the gab. You’re really, really good communicators. Others of you were just born with the natural ability, for example, around math. Some people are really, really good at problem-solving. Some people just have those really natural kind of social intelligence skills. And so, because we’re born with our strengths, and then the environment helps us to cultivate them, we can end up having this experience of strength blindness.
Because if you were born as a person who could do math fairly easily, or have very good organization skills, or great people skills, when you’re utilizing those skills and utilizing those strengths, they’ve come so easily to you and they’ve been with you your whole life, so you don’t think of them as an asset. You don’t realize that, “This is actually a strength. This is something that I’ve got that other people don’t necessarily have.” So, we become blind to our own strengths. And that’s why using your work colleagues, your friends outside of work, as that social mirror is a sort of third key way of finding out what our strengths are.
Okay. And now when you talked about the surveys, I know about StrengthsFinder, which I think is great, and so you’ve got yours. You talked about the left hand, right hand assignment, I thought about Myers-Briggs. I’ve done the exercise in many workshops. I’ve facilitated as well. But what are some of your other just total favorite tools in the survey realm that really elucidate this for people?
There’s a fantastic survey called the VIA survey, V-I-A, and it stands for values in action. And what I like about that survey is it’s based on our strength of character. So, strengths are kind of coming to broad back. So, we’ve got our strengths of talent and then we’ve got our strengths of character. So, strengths of talent are performance-based, they’re observable. You can see if someone is a fast runner, you can hear if they’re a gifted debater, you can see if they’re a gifted artist, you can taste if they’re a gifted chef.
The VIA strength survey identifies that second bucket which is our strength of character. So, where our strengths of talent are observable and performance-based, our strengths of character are personality-based rather than performance-based. And, in a way, they’re less observable because they sit inside us. So, strengths of character include things like courage, perspective, wisdom, kindness, humility. So, these are not necessarily observable. They’re positive strengths, positive aspects of our personality that sit inside of us, and come out through our choices, through our decisions, through the way we relate to other people.
And so, that VIA Character Strengths, that survey that I’m talking about focuses on those inner assets, the character strengths. And I also like because it’s free, and it’s been around for about two decades, and it’s been validated, and it’s got population norms, it’s been validated and translated into 20 plus different languages, so it’s a really, really useful survey for our listeners to go in and have a look at. And you can do it as a team within your workplace and sort of identify, “Well, what are the unique constellation of this team? Who’s got humor?” which we really kind of need right now during COVID times, “Who’s got perspective? Who’s got grit? Who’s got those fantastic sort of curiosity, love of learning, problem-solving type skills?”
And I also love it because, for any of the parents who are listening, there’s a youth version. So, if you have younger kids, they can also do the equivalent survey so you can have that conversation at home, of like, “Well, these are my strengths, as mom or dad, and these are my children’s strengths.” So, that’s a lovely family bonding thing to do.
And there’s another survey that I’ll mention, too, which comes from the UK called Cappify, C-A-P-P-I-F-Y. What I really like about that particular survey is that it also identifies your weaknesses. So, a lot of the strength surveys are really nice because we have this strength blindness where we’re not so good at identifying our own strengths, we’re all pretty articulate when it comes to identifying our weaknesses. When it comes to identifying our strengths, we don’t have that same level of knowledge. So, strengths surveys are really useful for that. But what I like about Cappify is that it gives you your strengths and your weaknesses so you sort of got that balanced profile. And it also identifies this third category called learned behaviors.
And, for me, that was something…that was a real sort of epiphany moment because our strengths, in order for something to be a true strength, so normally if you ask someone, “How would you define a strength?” And most people would say, “Strengths are the things I’m good at,” and, yes, that’s absolutely true, but it’s only part of the answer. So, psychology research tells us that a strength is something you are good at, but it’s also something that gives you energy and you’re self-motivated to do.
And why it’s important to have those sort of three elements of a true strength is because there’s lots of things that we grew up to be good at. We grew up to be good at them because it’s expected of us, because it’s part of our role at work, because we were praised by parents, teachers, our boss, so we have that performance element, and we mistake it as a strength. And in the Cappify research, what they would say is it’s not actually a strength. It’s a learned behavior. You’ve learned to be good at it. You’ve got the performance element of it but it’s not giving you energy, and it’s not something that you would choose to do. You’re not self-motivated to do it.
And, for me, that was a real eye-opener because, in my role at the university, I was being asked to chair a lot of projects and a lot of sort of committee meetings, and so, over time, I’ve learnt to become good at that. A quick meeting is always a good meeting as far as I’m concerned. We set an agenda, I’m a trained psychologist so I’m reasonably good at sort of group dynamics, and people would leave those meetings and say, “Oh, that’s such a strength of yours, Lea.” But I would leave those meetings feeling quite depleted, quite de-energized, and thinking, “Oh, God, all right. Well, I got through that. Now let’s get back to the things that actually give me energy at work.”
And so, I learnt through the Cappify that, yes, I was good at chairing meetings, I had the performance element of it, but I do not have the energy or the self-motivation piece behind it, so it wasn’t a true strength. It was perceived as a strength by others. But when I started, “That’s not actually a strength of mine,” it was helpful for me to say, “Okay, I need to know that when, if I can, when I’m structuring my week, if I’m chairing a meeting that the hour after that is time-tabled for something that is going to re-energize me, something that using my natural strengths. And, for me, that’ll be research and writing, or working with my students, or going out and doing some corporate work because that’s what gives me my energy back.
That’s great. All right. So, we’ve got some good views for strengths, what they are, how to find them, why we’re better off trying to improve those than work on a weakness forever. So, let’s shift gears a little bit over to some of the other tools in the positive psychology toolkit. If folks are feeling an extra dose of stress and anxiety and blah in the midst of pandemic, or even, hey, months, years after the pandemic, what are some positive psychology tools that are ideal for this challenge?
I love that question, Pete. We’re all, I think, so many of us have got just this classic case of mental fatigue because we’re way too many months into a global pandemic, and we’re tired, and we’re working from home and we’re stressed, and it’s playing out in our body. So, I guess, one of the questions is, “To what degree do we engage in stress management? And then to what degree do we say, ‘Okay, I can only do so much to manage my levels of stress. I’m going to turn my attention more towards boosting my positive emotions.’”
And so, there’s lots of things that we can do in positive psychology. Savoring, ecotherapy, the use of laughter, capitalizing on these sorts of micro moments of positivity. These are all about amplifying the positive moments that are still in our day despite everything that’s going on. And I can go into the detail of some of those for us in a moment. But then, also, one of the things that positive psychology does is recognizes that we can gain from adversity, that positivity can come out of negativity. And, in fact, you can’t really appreciate the feeling of warmth until you understand the sting of the cold. The two things kind of go hand in hand.
So, we can definitely talk about amplifying those positive moments but I think one of the other things that positive psychology science really lends to us right now in the moment of this sort of global crisis is techniques on how to better handle those negative emotions. So, mindfulness, how to grow from adversity, this notion of post-traumatic growth, or adversarial growth, and how to practice self-compassion. So, take your pick, Pete, because we really got a whole list of things in the field of positive psychology that we can do.
Well, so we’ve talked about savoring a couple of times in the show. So, ecotherapy, what is this?
Yeah, lovely. Okay. So, ecotherapy is basically having an intentional relationship with nature. So, that can be things like using urban spaces, going for a walk around your neighborhood, going to the local park. It can be getting out into nature reserves if you have some that are close to you. It can be as simple as going out and looking at the skyline at the end of the evening. Plant therapy, so saying if I have a garden outside, I’m going to do a little bit more gardening at the moment, or I’m going to setup a little plant wall or an indoor area for plants. Even using wood, wooden materials.
And so, this kind of broad idea of, “Let’s connect back with nature,” is really, really helpful to us all right now during COVID. In fact, some of the research is now coming out to say that we must have this in-built wisdom because there’s a lot more people now who are going out, exploring their local neighborhood, connecting back with nature in various ways. And what’s important about that is that when we do connect with nature, whether it’s real nature, as in sort of a wildlife park or whether it’s using our urban spaces or plant therapy or just looking up at the sky and looking at the clouds, when we do that, it changes our physiology.
And what the research shows is that even within five minutes of intentionally connecting back with an outside space, intentionally taking your shoes off if you go to your local park, take your shoes off and feel what it’s like to have grass and earth on your feet, that when we do that, it triggers our relaxation response in our nervous system. Your heartrate decreases, your parasympathetic nervous system starts to kind of get activated. And so, the parasympathetic nervous system is the nervous system that helps to calm us down, have good digestion, clear our mind of cortisol. So, ecotherapy is such an important thing for us all to be doing during this time.
And I’d love to get your take on, let’s say I’m in Chicago, winter, cold, a lot of parks, etc., shut down, what are some…I like the notion of using wooden things because it’s sort of like, “Okay, I can do that anywhere no matter what their restrictions are.” Any other goodies like that?
Yeah, okay. So, using wood plant therapy, I can see a plant right behind you, Pete. So, bringing some plants into…getting some indoor plants, and saying, “Okay, over these really chilly winter months, my focus is going to be on taking care of this plant.” Skylines, like I said, anything to do with skylines. So, even though it’s very ridiculously cold where you are, sort of getting out onto your balcony, ragging yourself up so you pretty much just got your eyes that are showing, but spending that five minutes at the end of the day watching the sunset, feeling the…
Anything to do with water as well, even though it’s water inside. Water is a part of nature so connecting ourselves with water intentionally, doing that through showers, footbaths, hand baths. We have to wash our hands a lot at the moment because of biosafety and hygiene measures with COVID. So, instead of just washing your hands, do it intentionally, really experience the flow of water, use it as a kind of mindfulness hack in that moment. So, tuning into, “How am I feeling? What does it feel like to have water sprinkling on my hands? What does it feel like as I’m sort of patting my hands dry with a towel?” So, giving myself a little kind of emotional vacation for that minute as we’re washing our hands.
And then even short of that is nature apps. So, there are quite a lot of apps out there now where you can listen to the sound of water, you can listen to the sound of clouds, you can listen to the sound of rain, birds, etc. So, obviously, it’s not quite the same as being out in a nature reserve but it still has that physiological healing benefit for us.
That’s great. Okay, thank you.
So, now let’s talk about dealing with stuff that isn’t so pleasant. What’s the post-traumatic growth concept and how can we do more of that?
Post-traumatic growth is, I mean, we all know about PTSD and the fact that if we go through adversity or a trauma, it can compromise our ability to cope, and it can lead to sort of more permanent stress. So, post-traumatic growth is sort of the positive opposite of that, and it was borne initially out of psychology research that was looking at PTSD and how it is that we can help people who have experienced a trauma or adversity or grief or loss, how it is that we can help them to go from a weakened state and adapt back to their sort of level of happiness and functioning that was there prior to the trauma or the adversity.
And as psychology research was studying, “How do we help people diminish and manage PTSD?” what they identified was that there was a certain percentage of people who had been through that same experience, that same loss, that same trauma, and were not only…this is going to please…I’m going to apologize in advance for some bad grammar here, but they were not only not experiencing stress, they were actually saying, “Look, I wouldn’t wish this experience on my worst enemy, but I’ve actually grown. I’ve grown as a result of this experience. I have a different perspective on life. I’ve got different priorities now. I’ve learnt that I can handle more than I thought I could. I found out really who my true friendships were and what it is that I want to move forward, spending my time on.”
So, this was a curiosity for these psychologists because they hadn’t really considered their role about, “How do we help people deal with the negatives of trauma or adversity or stress?” And, it turns out, that there are some people who not only didn’t have the negatives but have this positive. And so, that was kind of the origins of post-traumatic growth. It’s been studied a lot since then, and it’s really relevant for us all right now because so many of us are going through trauma and stress and adversity.
And just to know that this doesn’t have to permanently affect us in a negative way, that if we approach this adversity by asking ourselves, “What can I learn from this? How can I grow from this? What strengths do I have to bring to this situation? How can I learn that, in the midst of a lot of darkness, there are still these small little pockets of light? How can I help myself develop those skills to look at those things?” then we come out of that with a different skill set.
And we also come out of this experience knowing, “Okay, that was not a great experience. There was a lot of adversity, there was a lot of distress but I learnt about myself, I learnt that I’m stronger than I thought I was. I learnt to let go of some of those small issues that I used to put a lot of energy into and stress about. It’s not important to me anymore. I’ve changed my priorities.” And we’re seeing that already, Pete.
There’s a psychology research that’s coming out now through the pandemic is showing that people are saying, “This is a distressing experience but I’m enjoying more downtime, I’m enjoying time with my family. I’ve made more of an effort to stay connected with my friends even though it’s a virtual connection. I’ve learnt something new about my colleagues that I didn’t know.” So, we’re coming out with some positives through this. And, individually, a big factor that influences whether you come out of adversity, having grown, is the questions you ask yourself, is the way you frame that adversity in the moment.
It’s not about denying the adversity by any means but it is about saying, “Okay, this is really hard. I’m tired today. I can’t understand why I’ve got brain fog. I can’t think clearly. I’m feeling overwhelmed. What am I going to do about this?” It’s not about ignoring it. It’s about acknowledging, and saying, “Oh, okay, what meaning can I make from this? How can I grow from this? And what can I learn about myself? Maybe what I can learn is my limits, and I need to know. So, pushing myself as hard as I used to,” for example.
Well, so then it sounds like these are all productive questions, “What can I learn from this? How can I grow from this? What meaning can I make from this?” Maybe the hard part is just sort of shutting down the alternative voice that can crowd out those questions before they start, like, “Oh, I was stupid. What was I thinking? Aargh, this sucks. I hate this. I want it to end right now.” So, any pro tips for, right in the heat of battle, how do we kind of head that off with a pass and shift gears into the more helpful questions?
I think there’s two ways to go with that one, Pete, and one is mindfulness and the other is self-compassion. So, let’s start with mindfulness, and I think mindfulness helps you to slow your brain down, have that moment of perspective and pause where you can hear what the inner voice is saying, and so you’re able to catch that inner voice more quickly, and then make a decision, “Do I head off that inner voice or do I just show compassion because it does suck?”
What we’re going through does suck, Pete, and we do have our own overlay on top of that of, “I’m not good enough. I’m not getting enough work done. I’m not managing my time well enough. I’m not being a good colleague. I’m not being a good parent. I’m tired all the time.” And so, sometimes it’s about heading off those thoughts and then going on to those more constructive questions, and other times it’s actually more about that moment of self-compassion, which is a big area of study in positive psychology. And it’s about sort of reversing the Golden Rule and turning it back onto yourself, “Do to yourself,” and be kind to yourself and have that moment of mindfulness where you’re recognizing, “I’m struggling right now. I’m not feeling so good right now.”
And giving yourself that same compassion you would give to your colleagues or your friends when you see that they are struggling. So, just witnessing that struggle, embracing the suffering, “I’m tired. I’m distressed. I’m fearful. I’m fat, ugly,” whatever comes to you in that moment, and just being with it, and saying, “I’m sorry that you feel that way. Like, I recognize that you feel that way right now.” So, being in that moment, having that mindfulness, showing that sort of self-kindness, that self-compassion. And a big part of compassion is embracing the suffering but not feeling lonely in the suffering.
And so, recognizing that we’re all…everyone struggles, everyone suffers in their own way. Right now, that’s easier to see because it’s a global pandemic, and so we’re having this kind of shared struggle. But recognizing that, “I’m not alone and there are other people who are going through this,” and engaging in self-soothing techniques. Those self-soothing techniques can be just as simple as, like I said, that inner voice that says, “Oh, you know what? Yeah, you’re really tired. Maybe we can go to bed early tonight.” Or, self-soothing through ecotherapy that we talked about before. Self-soothing by reaching out to a friend.
One of the really basic parts of self-soothing is actually holding yourself. You can emotionally hold yourself but physically holding yourself, it seems like a funny or silly or embarrassing thing to do, but, literally, like wrapping your arms around your shoulders and giving yourself a hug in that moment, or patting yourself on the back. Or, a big one, and people tend to do this quite naturally, and you’ll often watch, our little kids will do this too, they do it quite naturally. So, getting your hand and just gently rubbing from your ear down to your shoulder blades, so rubbing that kind of right side of your neck, because what’s sitting underneath that right side of your neck, if you rub from your ear sort of down the right side of your neck and across your shoulder, is the vagus nerve, and that’s a major nerve that helps communicates between our brain and our digestive system, but also helps to calm us down.
So, this would be the right side and not the left?
Right side, yeah.
Our right. It’s like I’m looking forward, I got my right eyeball, and it’s…and I’m on it, all right.
Yeah. So, just gentle self-touch that’s why going back to that hand massage, when you’re washing your hands and having that moment of mindfulness. And another key self-soothing technique is helping yourself to laugh. And laughter doesn’t mean that you’re ignoring that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, or whatever it happens to be. I had the very sad loss of, I lost my sister a couple of years ago, and she has a son, and we had that sort of moment a couple of weeks after she had died, and we’re deep in grief and just missing her so, so, so desperately.
And my nephew, who was 20 at that time, said a joke, and, honestly, it was dark humor but it was this funny little moment of like “How mom would’ve felt about this particular thing,” and we both cracked up laughing. But then he looked at me, and I could see he had this like feeling of this flash of like guilt, like, “Oh, was I allowed to do that? Was I allowed to have this moment of laughter?” in his really intense deep grief, and I was able to sort of look at him, and say, “It’s okay, mate. You’re allowed to. We’re still allowed to laugh even in the dark times.”
And so, for me, at the moment, I’m very intentionally looking at funny YouTube clips, funny memes. I’m asking my friends, “Anything you see funny? Like, pass it my way,” because in that moment of laughter, that changes our brain chemistry. Laughter triggers endorphins and it triggers dopamine. Laughter also resets our nervous system and, particularly, if you’re having that big belly laugh. When we laugh, our ribcage expands so our diaphragm expands as we’re sort of engaging in that laughter. And the reason that it does that is because, when we laugh, we exhale more forcefully, so we, “Ha, ha, ha.”
Because we’re exhaling more forcefully, we’re actually releasing more air, and so our lungs take back in, they have to kind of counterbalance by taking back in more. And because we inhale more deeply, it expands our thoracic region and it expands our ribcage. And why that’s important is because when we’re expanding our ribcage through laughter, the body’s intuitive system means that the expansion of the ribcage and its thoracic system, we’ve got a whole lot of nerves that run through that area. And so, it’s like the ribcage talks to the nerves, and says, “Hey, we’re expanding and we’re laughing and we’re happy.” And what that does is it triggers a relaxation response in our nervous system.
So, laughter changes our brain chemistry and it gives us endorphins and dopamine. It helps our brain but it helps our body because it talks to our nervous system. That’s why when you have that laugh, you have that really big belly laugh, and then you kind of sigh and kind of sit back in your chair, and like your shoulders kind of drop. And so, I’ve listed a whole bunch of self-soothing techniques there, Pete. I don’t know if there’s anything you want to sort of go into in more depth or…?
Oh, no, that’s lovely. Thank you. And I’m just sort of imagining in my own mind’s eye how to enhance that all the more, like, “And do it in a bathtub or do it with a great blanket and space heater,” kind of whatever, just make the most of it.
Yeah, absolutely. And the bathtub gets us back to the ecotherapy, and the blankets get us back to self-soothing and touch, particularly for those listeners who are experiencing heightened anxiety at the moment, and that’s really common for a lot of us. In fact, the sort of global research is coming back to show that, on average, people across the globe are experiencing sort of double the amount of anxiety than they were pre-pandemic. And I’m a person who struggles a lot with anxiety and always have all throughout my childhood and adult life, so my anxiety has really, really spiked at the moment. And touch is a really, really important part of helping to reduce our anxiety.
So, it can be that self-touch that we talked about before, washing our hands, massaging your vagal nerve, giving yourself a hug. But if you have a pet, hugging your pet as much as possible because that also releases oxytocin. And oxytocin is a neuropeptide. It’s a hormone that’s known as the love hormone or the bonding hormone. But when we have oxytocin, through touching ourselves, through touching another person, so hugging family, friend, obviously at the moment we’ve got physical distancing so you can only kind of hug those people that you live with or you know are safe, like pets. But you mentioned blankets.
So, blankets and pillows also create touch, and they calm our nervous system, and particularly weighted blankets. There’s some really interesting research now on weighted blankets. And weighted blankets, being helpful, if you are struggling with anxiety. Sleeping under a weighted blanket helps you feel safe, and it puts an extra level of just sort of weight onto you, which, again, sort of talks to your nervous system and helps to calm you down.
All right. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
No, I think we’ve covered a lot. I would probably just circle back to there’s lots of techniques to use. What has to underpin that, I think, are these sorts of three more enduring approaches. The first approach is the strength-based approach. So, identifying what our strengths are and how we can bring them into…how we can use our strengths to amplify our life when things are going well, and how we can bring them into times of challenge, in times of adversity. I think it was Winston Churchill who said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” So, how can we come out of this, utilizing and knowing our strengths? So, that’s kind of the first approach.
Then the second one is just this idea that, “I can grow from this actually. That recent past that make me feel bad, I’ll have moments of distress, I’ll have days where I’m tired and I’m struggling, but I can come out of this with new priorities. I can come out of this with closer relationships. I can come out of this recognizing that I’m stronger than I thought I was.”
So, coming out with going in, and being in this experience, knowing that I can grow from it using our strengths, and then that third kind of underlying approach, which I think, at the moment, is just being compassionate to ourselves and others.
Well, thank you. Now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Yeah. I’ve really been living on quotes this last seven months during the pandemic. So, I started with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. The quote was, “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” I was like, “Yeah.”
All right. And how about a favorite book?
Whoa, I’ve so many favorite books, I don’t know which one to say. What would be a favorite book of mine at the moment? I am re-reading Charles Dickens.
I do have A Tale of Two Cities.
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
I have a website which is LeaWaters.com. And remembering that my name is spelt L-E-A so LeaWaters.com. And please follow me on socials, Insta, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter. I’m putting a lot out at the moment on just these basic little small micro-techniques that we can use to help ourselves cope with stress and amplify the best of us, our strengths and positive emotions, during this difficult time.
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
I think our final challenge right now is know your strengths, use your strengths, and go to work tomorrow and be that strength mirror for someone else. If you see someone using a strength, call it out, acknowledge it.
All right. Lea, this has been fun. I wish you lots of luck and positivity in your adventures.
Thanks, Pete. It’s been a pleasure to be on the show.