Kicking Stress and Finding Happiness in Hard Times

August 4, 2020 Updated: August 4, 2020

We are living through unique times. Stress is plentiful and happiness can sound like a mere pipe dream sometimes. The year 2020 has brought many challenges. 

We could all use a little help taming stress and keeping a positive outlook, so I asked for advice from Alyssa Shaffer, the author of “The Happiness Formula: Simple Habits for a More Joyful Life” and “How to Beat Stress: The Scientific Guide to Being Happy.” 

alyssa shaffer
Alyssa Shaffer, the author of “The Happiness Formula: Simple Habits for a More Joyful Life.” (Courtesy of Alyssa Shaffer)

The Epoch Times: There’s a lot of fear and worry out there. What are some key strategies we can use to tamp down that fear and worry?

Alyssa Shaffer: These are certainly unprecedented times—for many of us, it’s the first point in our lives we’ve had to face severe physical and emotional turmoil that is shaking up our entire society. That said, we do have some tools at hand to help us get control of our emotions, so we don’t let fear and worry rule our lives. 

For starters, while it’s easy to get sucked into the ever-present information cycle, it can be helpful to skip by the news channels or shut the TV off altogether. Constantly hearing negative updates—which, unfortunately, is what drives ratings and therefore the news reports—can take a toll on your mental health. While it is important to stay informed, cut back on that negative news diet, or at least limit your exposure. 

Next, do some form of exercise. You don’t have to invest in a home gym or take up a new sport. Just a few minutes of activity, whether that’s taking a walk around the neighborhood, going for a bike ride, or doing some light calisthenics is enough to boost feel-good chemicals in your body.  Weather and conditions permitting, take it outside—research shows just five minutes of outdoor exercise is enough to fight anxiety and boost mood. 

Finally, in moments where you feel that anxiety building up, do a few counts of deep breathing. Your breath plays a fundamental role in the relaxation response—which is your body’s ability to fight stress in the moment. Breathing can help to alleviate some of the negative feelings (anxiety, depression, fear) and bring out more positive ones (love, compassion) simply by calming down the flight-or-fight response and helping your body regain a sense of control.

Try this: Focus on breathing in fully for a count of five and exhaling fully for a count of five. As you breathe in, think something soothing like “calm” or “peace.” As you exhale, add another calming thought, like “love.” Repeat for a couple of minutes. 

The Epoch Times: For some people, the measures put in place to impede the spread of the virus, like staying home and increased isolation, have been challenging to deal with. What advice would you give those struggling with loneliness or the overall disruption in their lives?

Ms. Shaffer: We know that COVID-19 is having a big impact on our mental health. According to a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half (45 percent) of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus. And sadly, it doesn’t seem like things are likely to change any time soon. 

Reaching out to friends or family is crucial to helping reduce a sense of isolation. Low-tech measures like a simple phone call can have a big impact; if you have access to a video call like Zoom or FaceTime that can add an even greater effect in helping you feel more connected. 

If you’re able to go out, getting some fresh air—even just for a short time and at a social distance—will help break up the sense of isolation and remind you that there’s more going on in the world than the pandemic. 

If you’re staying inside, establish a routine: Get up every day around the same time, eat a healthy breakfast, give yourself a few tasks to do to help you feel productive. Doing something physical, again, is important, even if it’s stretching for a few minutes. There are many free videos that can offer some instruction; start by looking on YouTube or search for a free app like the 7 Minute Workout app. Or put on some music that makes you feel good and just dance around. 

The Epoch Times: As we face a global health crisis, we all know that stress isn’t the best thing for the immune system. What steps do you recommend people take to get a handle on stress and foster healthy immunity?

Ms. Shaffer: There are four things everyone should do, every day, to help boost immunity and our overall physical and mental health: 

Eat healthy. You don’t have to “diet” or even deprive yourself of an occasional treat. But your overall diet is crucial to your health. That means plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains or other complex carbohydrates (like wild rice or oats), some lean protein, and a moderate amount of healthy fats like olive oil, avocado, or even fatty fish like salmon. Limit the amount of added sugars, fat, and processed foods in your diet.

Be active. This is a common message of mine! But it’s an important one because exercise does so much for your body, including boosting your immune response. We know that exercise can increase the activity of immune cells and has even been shown to help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways.  Again, you don’t need a lot of time or intensity—everyone can get some benefit from activity.   

Get some sleep. Good sleep habits are crucial to help maintain a healthy immune system. Research has established that too little sleep can adversely impact your immune function, leaving you more vulnerable to illness. According to the National Sleep Foundation, when you get too little sleep (generally defined as fewer than seven hours) your body makes fewer cytokines, a type of protein that targets infection and inflammation. 

Practice mindfulness. Stress itself can negatively affect immune function, but mindful activities (like meditation or deep breathing) can do much to reduce stress and help you feel more centered. Try sitting quietly for a few minutes (even just five can help!), focusing on your breathing; if you start to worry or your mind drifts, just return that focus back to the breath. 

The Epoch Times: Most people want to be happy and they want their loved ones to be happy. Where, in times like these, can people find happiness?

Ms. Shaffer: Happiness isn’t a difficult concept and it doesn’t have to be complicated. We can find things that make us happy all around us, whether it’s getting a big greeting from a dog who is thrilled to see you or observing the delight kids have playing outside. Don’t make it too complicated or think you have to find “your happy place.” You can keep your happy place with you just by remembering a moment or a time that has made you feel joyful. 

Another way to think about happiness is to think about paying things forward. Psychologists say there’s a feel-good effect from helping someone else. So whether that’s volunteering in your community or simply paying for the person’s coffee in the drive-through behind you, small acts of kindness and compassion can make us all a little happier. 

The Epoch Times: This too shall pass, as they say. With a longer-term view, in what ways can people take advantage of this unique time to establish a less stressed or happier life in the future?

Ms. Shaffer: I think one of the biggest takeaways for many people, especially for those who have gone through a lockdown or quarantine with others in their house, has been an ability to reconnect with family members. I know for myself, having these extra weeks with my kids and not a lot of other distractions, like team practices, homework, and social events, has really brought us all a lot closer together. And I, for one, am trying to remember this feeling and not overschedule so that our days feel like we are constantly running from one activity to the next. 

It’s also been a good time for people to practice self-care, from beginning an exercise program to trying some new healthy recipes. 

Finally, I think there is a recognition of the importance of our mental health just as much as our physical well-being. I hope we can continue to remember the importance of a balanced, healthy lifestyle even when things return to “normal.”

We adapt and grow from every conflict we have to face, and my hope is that we can emerge stronger than before.

Follow Barbara on Twitter: @barbaradanza