How do we cope with stress from caregiving or health-related issues? Positive feelings can counterbalance stressful experiences, changing the emphasis from struggling to thriving. Some key skills that foster positive emotions can help caregivers and people with health problems get there.
Social psychologist Judith Moskowitz, PhD, MPH, director of research at Northwestern Medicine’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, discovered the power of positive emotions 20 years ago when she was researching how men who were caregivers of their partners with HIV — a terminal illness at the time — coped with negative emotions and depression caused by their situation. Surprisingly, the caregivers wondered out loud why they weren’t asked about the positive, meaningful moments they experienced.
“It was also the time of the rise of Positive Psychology, which looks at ways people can be resilient to stress and thrive even under really difficult circumstances,” Moskowitz says. “Studies were coming out showing that positive emotions could be uniquely beneficial [in relation] to longevity, better health and better psychological wellbeing.”
As a result, Moskowitz sifted through research studies for evidence of simple skills that create positive emotions — such as contentment, love, joy and awe — to help people better cope with stressful health-related situations.
Since then, Moskowitz and her colleagues have taught the skills to family caregivers of people with dementia, advanced breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, HIV and other significant life stress. “In general, we have found that practicing these skills leads to more positive emotions and less depression,” Moskowitz says.
“The skills themselves are not challenging or difficult to learn, but you need to make them a habit. Like any behavior change, it’s difficult to make that happen,” Moskowitz adds. She points out that the skills can be helpful for anyone experiencing a stressful situation.
These eight key skills, she says, can foster positive emotions to help people better cope with stress. Pick one or more that suit you best, and practice using those new skills.
1. Noticing positive events. Although people experiencing a stressful event tend to focus completely on it, it’s worthwhile to notice something that is good each day, even if it’s something as small as a good cup of coffee.
2. Savoring positive events. Revisit positive events by thinking about them again, writing about them in a journal or posting them on social media. “This is a way of re-experiencing the positive event and also re-experiencing the positive emotion they felt,” Moskowitz says.
3. Expressing gratitude. Take a moment to feel grateful for something like your family or a friend. Being thankful promotes positive feelings.
4. Practicing mindfulness.“Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way, on purpose and without judgment,” Moskowitz explains. “We focus on small pieces of mindfulness, such as being aware of your thoughts, feelings, experiences and sensations in the moment and not rehashing what has just happened, ruminating on it or rehearsing what is coming up. It gives you space to breathe and pause.” People also can set aside 10 minutes a day to concentrate on mindful, deep breathing, Moskowitz says.
5. Reframing events. Your interpretation or appraisal of how events affect your wellbeing determines whether you have positive or negative feelings in response. Take a step back and realize that the situation may not be as bad as you initially had thought or that you can learn something from it. This process is called positive reappraisal.
6. Noticing personal strengths. During severe or chronic stress, people may forget that they have personal skills and strengths. Focus on recalling these strengths, whether it’s being a good friend or being smart or funny.
7. Setting and working toward attainable goals. When people set realistic goals and make progress toward achieving them, they feel positive emotions. For example, make lists, because every time you cross off an item, you will feel a sense of accomplishment.
8. Displaying acts of kindness. While the first seven skills focus on the individual, this one, which looks outward, is about doing something nice for someone else without expecting a response. “If you are under stress yourself,” Moskowitz says, “this gives you the message that you actually do have something to contribute to the world and you can make life a little easier for someone else.”
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.