First of all, let me express how deeply sympathetic I am towards those who are struggling with anxiety and fear in the current global health crisis (especially those hit the hardest). I am working very hard myself to not give in to profound pessimism, but let me try and make an important distinction. While it is appropriate to have a high level of concern, panic can be both harmful and unhelpful. When you are concerned, that means you judge something to be a matter of importance. Panic refers to uncontrollable fear and anxiety, which can be highly destructive. Stress, fear, and panic produce high levels of cortisol, which not only can trigger depression, high blood pressure, a lowered immune system, ulcers, and migraines, but can also impair cognitive performance. That means just when you need your wits about you, your mental capacities are diminished.
How is it possible to not panic when you are facing potential disaster? The answer: brain chemistry, and knowing what brings happiness.
The majority of Americans today (myself included) have had it so good, for so long, that it is easy to associate happiness with favorable circumstances. This was not true for many of our parents, grandparents, and distant ancestors. Many of them had hard lives. They worked difficult jobs for meager pay. Compared to us, they had next to nothing. They had to contend with world wars and economic depression. They lived very simple lives on very meager incomes. What we need right now is to remember what they knew, and that is how to find wellbeing in the midst of adversity.
Research has concluded that happiness is much more about activities rather than circumstances—activities that stimulate the production of certain positive neurochemicals. I would like to recommend three of my favorite activities that have been clinically proven to increase wellbeing (in spite of circumstances):
1) LIVE IN THE MOMENT – It may sound cliché, but it can change your life. Many people live in the past, brooding over bad things that happened to them weeks, months, or years ago. Many people live in the future, worrying about bad things that could happen to them down the road. Those who have learned to stay in the present greatly reduce their cortisol levels. It doesn’t mean they ignore the past or the future. They learn from what has happened and they plan for what’s ahead, but they don’t ruminate or dwell on what is simply in their imagination (past disappointments or future fears). They focus on what is real and what is in front of them—right here, right now. Meditation (mindfulness) can be a wonderful way to learn to live in the moment. The simple practice of focusing on your breath and curiously noticing your thoughts for ten minutes a day can profoundly change your sense of wellbeing.
2) SAVOR THE GOOD – Thousands of wonderful things happen to us every day, and yet we can be so consumed by our to-do list and our cares and worries that we don’t even notice them. Savoring the good means hitting the pause button and taking in the beauty, the joy, and the love that surrounds us. If we want those good things to have the maximum benefit on our neurochemistry, then we need to savor them for about five seconds to allow them to download into our memory banks. Fully engage your five senses. Stop and feel the sunshine on your cheek; let that taste of your food linger on your tongue before you swallow it; take time to smell the roses; notice the birds singing, the breeze blowing, the sun setting. Savor the small treasures of life; it will increase your wellbeing—even in hard times.
3) LEAN ON OTHERS – Finally, I think most of us would agree that the greatest source of happiness is relationships. Each time we hug, hold hands, kiss, cuddle, have meaningful conversation—oxytocin is released. Oxytocin is called the “bonding chemical” or the “love molecule.” Most importantly, given the current challenges we are facing, oxytocin has been shown to reduce fear. This is why a hug can calm you down and make you feel safe. And even in this time of “social distancing”, we can get our dose of oxytocin through Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, Marco Polo, or a live chat on Facebook. If there are no humans to bond with, simply petting your dog or cat can bring you comfort.
Here’s the point. Don’t look for circumstances to bring you happiness. Engage in the right activities and you will reduce fear and increase happiness, even in spite of circumstances.