Positive Psychology Strategies for Keeping Stress at Bay
Coping during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
Posted Jun 07, 2020
Take a deep breath … This has not been easy. Without question, we are exploring uncharted territory with the COVID-19 global pandemic. Within days we experienced sudden, rapid, and unexpected disruptions in our social, economic, and psychological lives.
I’m a professor of psychological science and the sophomore class advisor on the Dean of Studies team at Vassar College, where we are now moving to distance learning. Like many colleges and universities, our students were on spring break when they were asked to stay home or return home instead of back to campus from their study abroad. Students were not able to say goodbye to their friends or professors, or pack up their cherished home away from home.
As uncertainty builds in our daily lives, many are overcome with fear and anxiety, shifting to anger and sadness, and then back again. Feelings of stress are undeniable. And that is OK! The stress we are all feeling is natural and, in fact, it is necessary during times of adversity. Stress prepares our mind and body for action, and calls our attention to what is important. Knowing how to use that stress effectively is essential.
This is a test of our resilience. The measure of our success will be how well we cope today, at this very moment. What’s reassuring is that we have easy, internal tools readily available to us. One important tool is our capacity for positive emotions. Even when it feels paradoxical, feeling positive emotions (love, gratitude, joy) in the midst of a global crisis can promote resilience (Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003).
“Resilience” is having the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity. Resilient people know how to manage stress effectively to optimize performance, engagement, and focus. And importantly, resilient people also allow themselves time to rest. Then they repeat the cycle. After sufficient rest, they can focus their attention to take on difficult tasks. This, of course, is the challenge. In the midst of prolonged stress, how can we cope? Research supports the following resilience strategies for keeping stress at bay through the ongoing crisis.
Social connection: Keep your physical distance, but stay connected
One of our greatest human strengths is our desire to connect, to help, and to give to others in times of stress. We crave hugs, closeness, and togetherness. The biggest change in our lives is having regular, face-to-face social interaction. But what is especially challenging about the COVID-19 pandemic is that there are mental health challenges that may arise as a consequence of the social isolation required of us in order to protect others from the spread of the virus. In many ways, this viral pandemic may be fueling a loneliness pandemic (Santos & Zaki, 2020).
Even in the midst of social distancing, however, it is essential to stay connected with others. Be deliberate and intentional about social media use. Rather than panic-scrolling, find new ways of connecting with others. These may include tele-coffees, virtual dinners, cooking sessions, happy hours, online group chats—and good, old-fashioned phone calls. Check on your friends and others in your community, and let them know you are thinking of them. The important thing is to connect with others.
Your body’s stress response also has benefits for social bonding. When stress levels rise, our bodies release a neurohormone, oxytocin, which signals a need for social connection and social bonding (Olff et al., 2013). In this way, stress alerts us to the need to connect with others, to check in on our loved ones, and to build community.
Research has examined the physiological and psychological mechanisms that protect and heal the body and soul. Oxytocin can induce anti-stress-like effects such as reduction of blood pressure and cortisol levels, and stimulates various types of positive social interaction, like the desire to be close to others and defend those we care about (Uvnas-Moberg & Petersson, 2005). Beyond the benefits of social interaction, oxytocin also increases pain thresholds because it is also a natural anti-inflammatory that facilitates healing from any stress-induced cardiovascular damage.
Loneliness levels are on the rise, so we need new ways to combat the negative effects of social isolation. Rates of loneliness among Americans rose from 54% in 2018 to 61% in 2019 (Cigna, 2019), and that rate may continue to rise. This is the time to harness our instincts to be compassionate to others, but do it in a different way. With new precautions, we are strongly discouraged from hugging, shaking hands, or gathering together at this time. Indeed, our instinct is to help others and volunteer in order to combat loneliness. We need new ways of doing so today, and still engage in our social lives. Just feeling physically isolated can have harmful consequences, but technology can be a vital tool to connect us with others. Also, the act of “sheltering in place” is an act of helping others. When you reflect on that act as a choice to help others, it gives you control over the spread of the virus, thereby helping to strengthen community bonds. Taking the time to be other-focused can alleviate anxiety, and, by consequence, help yourself along the way.
Nature heals: Go outdoors and breathe fresh air
Spending time in nature is restorative and aids in decreasing stress levels and hastening recovery from stress (Bratman et al. 2019; Ingulli & Lindbloom, 2013; Parsons, 1991; Ulrich, 1993; Ulrich et al., 1991; Wells & Evans, 2003). The fresh air and open space can provide healing properties, restore mental clarity, and energize people, serving as “fuel for the soul” by increasing feelings of vitality (Ryan, et al., 2010).
Studies have shown that after feeling stress, being out in nature can help reduce the physiological effects of stress by lowering heart rate, muscle tension, and blood pressure (Maller et al., 2006). Nature also alleviates feelings of social isolation, as people report stronger feelings of connectedness with their community after having been out in nature (Mayer & Franz, 2004). Although it can be challenging given government ordinances and restrictions, making some time to be outdoors has vast physical and psychological benefits. “Shelter in place” allows for people to go outside. In fact, health officials encourage people to run, hike, or walk their dogs outside—while maintaining a safe 6-foot distance from others.
Controlled laboratory studies show that people who spend time walking in natural (vs. urban) environments evidence greater emotional, cognitive, and physiological benefits following stressful experiences, compared to those who walked in urban environments (Ulrich et al., 1991). Other work shows that walking in nature can improve mood and cognitive function in individuals with depression (Berman et al., 2012). These effects accrue because being outdoors in nature increases positive emotions, encourages a personal sense of meaning and purpose in life, as well as decreases mental distress. Being in nature may also have these restorative properties because they enhance sensory pathways related to sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell (Franco et al., 2017), each of which can cultivate positive emotions and experiences of tranquility (Hunter et al., 2010).
Have gratitude: Appreciate the little and big things
Gratitude can be a helpful antidote to anxiety. But what good is gratitude in the midst of dire crisis situations? My colleagues and I studied the impact of gratitude in response to a national crisis (the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center). We found that even though some people experience profound losses and tragedy, resilient people are capable of moving forward and finding happiness again. They think of the people who make them feel loved, and they reflect on experiences in their lives that make them feel joy. This gratitude in the face of tragedy results in fewer depressive symptoms months later (Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003). Individuals who experience gratitude during high-stress circumstances (e.g., natural disasters, war, campus tragedies) report lower rates of PTSD (Chen, 2017; Lies, 2014; Vieselmeyer, 2017).
We can feel and express our gratitude in a number of ways, even when we are practicing social distancing. Take a moment to think about the tireless work of first responders, doctors, and emergency medical service staff who are on the front lines of the pandemic, and others who are working to safeguard our health and well-being.
Gratitude may also arise in more simple gestures. Take a picture of something beautiful and share it. Send a gratitude text or email to a colleague or your support staff, sharing one thing you may not have considered before but now truly appreciate. Write an entry in a journal about one thing that made you feel grateful during the day (the sun was shining over the glistening lake; someone brought you soup because they were thinking of you; a friend called to catch up and check in). Gratitude promotes behaviors that build valuable relationships (Bartlett et al., 2012).
Beyond the psychological effects of gratitude, appreciation can elicit benefits to physical health as well. People who take moments to reflect in gratitude report less pain, recover from medical procedures more quickly, and have lower blood pressure in the midst of stress. Robert Emmons, one of the leaders on the study of gratitude, states that, “Gratitude is a conscious choice.” (Emmons & Stearns, 2013). Just like any habit, it takes practice—and this is our chance to do so.
Be kind to yourself: Practice self-compassion
This is hard; everything is new, and we’re bound to make many mistakes—especially when we are feeling heightened levels of stress. Self-compassion can be a useful protective factor when people feel threatened by novel circumstances. When tensions rise, stress increases people’s confidence in competing with others. They panic-buy, hoard resources, and point out flaws in others. Such competitive acts in the pursuit of self-confidence can be costly, however (Crocker & Park, 2004). A better path in times of stress is self-compassion.
Self-compassion is treating yourself like you would your best friend, even when they (you) make a mistake, say the wrong thing, or make the wrong decision. We are often compassionate and forgiving of others, and have a deep desire to alleviate their suffering (Goetz et al., 2010; Warren, Smeets, & Neff, 2016). Self-compassion is giving yourself that same manner of gentleness. Rather than treating yourself with judgment or criticism when things may not be “perfect” or as they used to be, treat yourself with kindness. Just as you do with your best friends or even strangers, pause, take a different vantage point, and offer yourself some tenderness. Think, “You are doing the best you can.” Another way to practice self-compassion when times are hard is to place your hand on your heart, take a deep breath, and exhale. Touch and slow breathing stimulate the vagus nerve, which signals the parasympathetic nervous system to initiate the body’s relaxation response. It also releases oxytocin, which soothes heightened activation of the cardiovascular system, and incites the feeling of calmness and security. These simple acts offer ease when we may need it the most.
And one final suggestion: Find moments of levity. Laughter and joy can be among our most valuable tools for building resilience (Bachorowski & Owren, 2001; Mahony et al., 2002; Owren & Amoss, 2014). Without discounting the severity of the pandemic, we all need moments of uplift in challenging times. As we forge ahead, this can be an opportunity to reinvent ourselves, and learn new ways of being resilient together.
Originally published on April 1, 2020 at Thrive Global.
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