Surviving & thriving during stressful times

Woman journaling

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Month finds us in the midst of unprecedented change and uncertainty. Millions of Americans are experiencing increased pressures at home and work, while still others are coping with unexpected losses and grief. At the same time, old, familiar outlets for stress are less accessible, and many of us feel increasingly isolated from others and alienated from our former lives. Vacations are being canceled, job offers rescinded, and it seems like there is not much to look forward to these days. The field of positive psychology may offer some suggestions for surviving, and even thriving, in stressful times.

Dubbing it “the science of self-help,” researchers Stephen Schueller and Acacia Parks identified five types of positive psychology interventions shown to increase subjective well-being and decrease symptoms of depression across multiple studies.

Savoring – Spending a few extra minutes mindfully engaged in a pleasurable activity several times per week can buffer against negative emotions, while remembering past positive events in detail can increase overall life satisfaction. So, enjoy that leisurely cup of tea while thinking about your favorite vacation. Make sure to take the time to enjoy it.

Gratitude – Writing down things you are grateful for can increase positive emotions, reduce negative emotions, and even improve your physical health. Going one step further and writing a detailed gratitude letter to someone can improve overall well-being. Speaking with the person face-to-face after writing the letter offers a small but significant increase to this effect.

Kindness – Even small acts of kindness, such as allowing someone ahead of you in line, can momentarily boost happiness and start a “positive feedback loop” that increases your odds of helping again, which in turn increases your happiness. Better yet, performing multiple acts of kindness over several weeks can improve subjective well-being significantly. This seems to work best if you perform multiple acts in the same day instead of spreading them throughout the week.

Promoting Positive Relationship Processes – Some studies suggest that responding enthusiastically to others’ good news and asking follow-up questions can improve the quality of your relationships, which is itself a powerful predictor of happiness. More research is needed to determine whether this tactic alone is enough to improve overall well-being.

Creating Meaning – Thinking about your life and what is important to you is an effective way to promote happiness and well-being. Several studies have shown that writing exercises are one of the best ways to move on from negative past experiences; whereas, people seem to benefit more from talking aloud about positive past experiences.

Interested in learning more about positive psychology? Having trouble coping on your own? Many mental health providers, including Marshall Psychiatry, are continuing to see patients via telehealth while social distancing guidelines are in effect. Your mental health matters.


Jennifer Mills Price, PsyD

Dr. Mills Price is a psychologist at Marshall Health and serves as an assistant professor at the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.