How to Improve Your Mood During Stressful Times

Happiness may be a loaded term, but keeping a daily gratitude journal, and other wellness practices, should help.

Laurie Allen
Wendy Hills takes in the sunset at Scioto Audubon Park April 13, 2020. Wendy who works as a nurse at OSU said she had heard on the news that the sunset was going to be good and wanted to take it in.

There wasn’t a lot to love about 2020.

Stockpiling sanitizer, disinfecting groceries and settling for smiles on Zoom rather than seeing them in person became pile-on stressors in an already unsettling time. Besides an unprecedented global pandemic, we lived with racial tensions, political unrest, economic recession and natural disasters. The resultant shockwaves riveted through society, generating turmoil and unease in undeniable proportions and triggering spikes in depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

Still, there’s hope. Looking ahead to 2021, experts advise that no matter the external conditions around us, we can shape our own happiness.

“Happiness is a loaded term,” says Parker Huston, pediatric psychologist and clinical director of the On Our Sleeves program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “To some extent, there is a genetic predisposition toward happiness or unhappiness, but your experiences and thoughts play a role. In reality, we have more control over things like our happiness than we think.” By regularly engaging in practices such as mindfulness and gratitude, you can retrain how you see the world.

In clinical terms, happiness is “subjective wellbeing.” There are even two types of happiness: Hedonic happiness is based on pleasure, enjoyment and pain avoidance. Listening to music, watching Netflix or hugging a dog are examples. But burying your head in Netflix may not be the end-all to achieving balance.

The second type of happiness is eudaimonic, which focuses on purpose, meaning and self-realization, which may be found through work, volunteerism, or social and spiritual connections.

“Both are really important,” Huston says.

The “science of happiness” is a growing field and the subject of books, podcasts and college curricula. It’s also an emerging field of research as scientists seek evidenced-based approaches to achieving emotional well-being and productivity.

Happiness 101

The year 2020 provided a living laboratory in which to study emotional well-being, says Jennifer Cheavens, professor of psychology at Ohio State University. The COVID pandemic in particular “provides us with the opportunity to look and see who’s coping well, and who’s not, from a comparative standpoint but in an intellectually curious way … with the aim of teaching that to everybody else.”

So is happiness a skill that adults can learn, like painting, piano or speaking French? “It’s more that certain skills, such as kindness, are likely to increase your happiness,” Cheavens says. “It can be a small act of kindness like buying a cup of coffee for the person behind you in the drive-thru, or a long-term volunteer commitment.”

Practicing skills such as kindness, gratitude and mindfulness are based on the idea of stopping a cycle of negative thinking and worry and engaging in a new, more optimistic way of seeing and living in the world. Cheavens calls it an “upward spiral.”

A regular gratitude practice is a simple yet powerful way to shift perspective, experts agree, and sharing it with others is even more helpful. Huston shares a daily gratitude list with his young children, who remind him to do it if he has forgotten. In studies, people have self-reported a greater sense of well-being after practicing gratitude for a month, Huston says.

In a placebo-controlled study, two weeks of daily gratitude practice were as effective as Prozac in reducing symptoms of mild to moderate depression and increasing subjective well-being, says Dr. Laurie Hommema, medical director of provider and associate well-being at OhioHealth.

Research using functional magnetic resonance imaging appears to bolster the case for gratitude. FMRI studies have shown different areas of the brain “lighting up” as people move through emotional states while practicing gratitude, Hommema says. Generally speaking, the more evolved, thinking areas of the brain become more active while the primitive, reactionary parts are quieted.

Similarly, imaging studies have shown that regular meditation practice enhances areas of the brain that regulate and reduce stress and contribute to creativity, insight and a positive mood.

Gratitude tools aren’t hard to find. A Three Good Things exercise, such as the one created by the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, asks participants to name three positive experiences each day, and think about their role in bringing them about.

Nationwide Children’s Growing Our Gratitude program provides activities families can do together. Regular, scheduled gratitude practices yield the best results, Huston says. “At first, you have to do it purposefully, you have to force it into your family’s routine. Then it becomes a habit. It takes some effort and focus to see benefits down the line.”

Mindfulness—the act of being present in the moment—also can promote well-being. “It doesn’t have to be complicated, it can be very brief moments throughout the day,” Hommema says. Those moments may include a feeling of accomplishment when a task is complete, noticing a beautiful sunset or relishing an extra good cup of coffee.

“To some extent, what you see is what you get,” says Craig Travis, director of behavioral science for the OhioHealth Grant Family Medicine residency program. Even the language we use to describe an event or circumstance is important, he says.

“I want things to go back to normal. This is never going to end. I can’t live with this uncertainty,” are examples of language people have used to describe their feelings about the pandemic and its fallout. Retraining the brain to see things differently can bring relief.

Change Your Thoughts

“Sometimes our brain gets tricked into thinking in ways that are detrimental,” Huston says.

“If you put all your eggs in one basket, and say, I won’t be happy until ‘x’ happens, it puts happiness out of your control.”

In the context of the pandemic and other stressors, techniques used in cognitive behavioral therapy can work to help shift perspective. CBT interventions “address some of the unhelpful patterns of thinking that can fuel unhappiness and dissatisfaction,” says Sophie Lazarus, assistant professor of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health.

“For example, if you have a tendency to discount positive feedback or catastrophize, it can help to step back and consider evidence for and against your thoughts,” Lazarus says. Doing that “can help you arrive at a more balanced perspective.”

Cheavens says the aim is to challenge negative thoughts and emotions by reminding people that nothing is permanent, crises do end and people have faced uncertainty before. When people wish for life to return to normal, clinicians work with them to identify specific things they miss, and then try to find a workable substitute, such as adding structure to the day, safe-distance socializing or regularly being outdoors.

Hommema used the practice on herself in September when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. “I catastrophized,” she says, worrying that her daughters and other girls would never have the same opportunities as men, and that the future of the country was bleak. Realizing what she was doing, she turned off TV and social media, spent quiet time alone and recognized that her thinking wasn’t realistic or productive. “I focused on something I could control. I can teach my kids to be really great people, to do activism, to try hard.” She then was able to go back to her day with more calm and purpose.

Being able to see things as neither black or white helps navigate many scenarios, including life online. Strong social connections have been shown to be powerful buffers against depression and anxiety, yet social distancing has made that difficult. Zoom and other platforms are the stand-ins for face-to-face connection, which some see as a blessing and others see as a curse.

Again, it’s about perspective. Zoom cannot replace actual human contact and interaction, but it has demonstrable upsides, experts say. Hommema admits to suffering from virtual meeting fatigue but sees the benefits. In health care, “we’ve been able to reach more people than we ever have in a meaningful, timely way—in some cases the same day.”

And she has seen its impact on caregivers, who now have the flexibility to merge home life and work life when possible. She cites a colleague who worked from her mother-in-law’s home while the woman was in hospice so she could fulfill her professional obligations and be with her husband’s mother at the end of life.

Chasing Happiness

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

In the age of social media, those are prophetic words from the 26th U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

“Social media has emphasized happiness,” Hommema explains. “We compare ourselves to the people we see on Facebook. We are more attuned to each other—where we live, what we do. There is an inclination to see others as being more happy than we are, and a feeling that we should always be happy.”

It’s not just Facebook, though. Add to that the pressure to be perfect on Instagram, youthfully engaged on TikTok, to be the uber-professional on LinkedIn, or to add spicy commentary to Twitter—participating in any social media can bring on all sorts of anxiety and even depression during the currently stressful times.

In fact, Hommema reminds us, life is more than half negative experiences. It’s the negatives that allow us to experience joy.

“Happy people don’t deny reality,” Travis says. Instead, they learn to “be comfortable in

[their] discomfort.”

“Chasing happiness is not great in the long term,” OSU’s Cheavens says. “We can overvalue happiness … and it may feel like this doesn’t map with the way my life works right now.

“Emotional well-being comes from being able to persevere through adversity and find new sources of strength,” she adds.