If you’ve felt stressed or overwhelmed when reading the news lately, you’re not alone. Reading news headlines about coronavirus can cause feelings of anxiety, and social distancing—while imperative to stop the spread of the virus—disrupts our familiar routines. Additionally, it can be stressful to cope with feelings of uncertainty (especially since what we know about coronavirus and guidelines on how to practice social distancing can change quickly).
While it may seem counterintuitive to focus on the positive in these times of stress and uncertainty, researchers who study positive psychology have found that cultivating positive emotions can be a powerful tool to help us through difficult circumstances. Importantly, cultivating positive emotions doesn’t mean suppressing negative emotions or denying the reality of a stressful situation: instead, positive psychology provides tools that allows us to cope with feelings of stress that arise in difficult circumstances. Psychologists Susan Folkman and Judith Moskowitz have suggested that, not only do people experience positive emotions even in times of significant stress, but these positive emotions may have an adaptive function. They explain that “under stressful conditions, when negative emotions are predominant, positive emotions may provide a psychological break or respite, support continued coping efforts, and replenish resources that have been depleted by the stress.” Similarly, psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Thomas Joiner have found that people who experienced higher levels of positive emotions were more likely to use creative strategies for coping with stress (such as finding a new way of managing the stressor).
“Positive emotions produce patterns of thought that are notably unusual, flexible, creative, and receptive.” – Barbara Fredrickson & Thomas Joiner
If you’re looking for ways to cultivate positive emotions during times of stress—or at any time—read on for some research-backed strategies to accentuate the positive:
1.) If you’re feeling helpless, consider whether there are ways to help others.
During the past week, I’ve seen an outpouring of support on social media networks such as Nextdoor, as people have offered to run errands for elderly neighbors who may be at higher risk. Positive psychology research suggests that, not only are these individuals providing a valued service for the community, but that helping others may be contributing to their own well-being. Research studies have found that people who help others are happier and report feeling a greater sense of purpose and meaning.
Taking action can also help reduce feelings of helplessness. Even if you’re not able to leave your house right now, there are many ways to help others, such as calling a friend or relative, cooking a meal for your housemates, or seeking out a virtual volunteer opportunity. Of course, while helping others, it’s important not to neglect our own needs (and to speak up if we find ourselves needing support from others).
2.) If you find yourself catastrophizing, mindfulness can bring you back to the present moment.
Research has suggested that mindfulness is an especially powerful tool to reduce stress: it makes negative emotions more manageable and helps us to stop ruminating about negative events. If you’re interested in trying out mindfulness, you can even gain the benefits without making a huge time commitment (consider trying a 30-second mindfulness practice to get started).
If you’re able to walk in nature, this can be a powerful tool for increasing mindfulness, as well as feelings of awe. And, if you’re not able to go outside, consider taking a moment to enjoy the view from your window or take a “virtual nature tour” online.
3.) In times of stress, self-care is essential.
Research has found that practicing self-care is linked to a variety of benefits, such as higher well-being and being happier with one’s relationships. However, under times of stress, it’s not uncommon to find that your usual self-care routine has been disrupted. (For example, one way I practice self-care is by going to cafes to read, which is something that’s clearly not feasible when I’m practicing social distancing.) However, there are a variety of strategies we can use to practice self-care even while staying inside, such as following along with an online workout video (Yoga with Adriene has quickly become one of my favorites), cooking a favorite comfort food, or working on a craft project.
Moreover, cultivating our support networks is an important part of self-care: for friends and family you are unable to see in person, consider scheduling regular times to call (or video chat) and check in with each other. It’s also important to remember that it’s okay to unplug from the news for a bit: if refreshing Twitter is negatively affecting your stress levels, that’s a sign that it’s a good time to rest and recharge.
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Reading the news right now can be stressful, and it can even make us feel helpless—that things are beyond our control. But, while it’s true that much of the situation is uncertain, it’s possible to take steps to protect our mental health and promote a feeling of community even while we’re practicing social distancing. So if you’re finding yourself feeling stressed and anxious, consider following the tenets of positive psychology by taking some time to develop a new self-care routine, practice mindfulness, or look for ways to help others in your community.
Sources and Additional Reading:
- Folkman, S., & Moskowitz, J. T. (2000). Positive affect and the other side of coping. American Psychologist, 55(6), 647-654. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2000-15774-008
- Fredrickson B.L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science 13(2), 172-175. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9280.00431
- Van Tongeren, D. R., Green, J. D., Davis, D. E., Hook, J. N., & Hulsey, T. L. (2016). Prosociality enhances meaning in life. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(3), 225-236. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2015.1048814
About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper received her PhD in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she conducted research on positive psychology and gratitude. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include gratitude, positive emotions, close relationships, and health. When she’s not writing about psychology, Elizabeth can often be found exploring the Bay Area and spending time with her dog, Luna. In addition to HealthyPsych, Elizabeth’s writing has also been published by the Greater Good Science Center.
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