Positive Emotion in the Midst of Stress

Simple things you can do to feel better even when life is stressful

The recently released “Stress in America” annual survey, shows that 59% of Americans believe this is the lowest point in U.S. history in memory. The number of Americans who report significant stress stemming from worries about the “future of our nation” was up from 52% in 2016 to 63% in the current survey. Life is stressful and the current political climate in the U.S. appears to be worsening Americans’ stress.

Along with stress comes a host of negative emotions – fear, frustration, worry, sadness. These feelings are natural, and often adaptive, responses to stressful events in our lives. For the past two decades in my research as a social psychologist I have studied the emotional responses of people experiencing a wide variety of life’s challenges, and have found that positive emotions – happiness, contentment, excitement, and joy — also occur alongside negative in the midst of difficult circumstances. And, perhaps most surprisingly, the positive feelings have unique beneficial effects on psychological and physical well-being.

I first saw this when I studied stress in men providing home care for their partners with AIDS. This was the early 1990s and the more effective
treatments for HIV were not yet widely available; AIDS usually meant rapid progression to a painful death in people in the prime of their lives. Not surprisingly, given the extreme difficulty of providing care for a loved one who is suffering from a terminal illness, the caregivers were highly distressed and depressed.

However, caregivers also told us about positive experiences and good things that were happening in their lives; a beautiful sunset, a pleasant interaction with a stranger, a successful project at work. Some positive events were caregiving-related, a momentary upswing in their partner’s health, success in changing a dressing – but other times these momentary positive experiences stemmed from other aspects of the caregivers lives outside of the caregiving context. Furthermore, caregivers were not simply passive recipients of these experiences. In many cases they were intentionally engaging in activities to bring more joy into their lives and these positive moments helped them cope better with the ordeals they faced.

Positive emotion alongside negative in the midst of stress was not an anomaly. It has been found in people experiencing a range of significant life stress as well as people experiencing day-to-day stress or “hassles” such as traffic, misplacing keys, or unpleasant interactions with other people.

There are simple things that can be done to experience more positive emotion on a daily basis and thus cope better with stress. My colleagues and I have
developed a program that teaches some of these positive emotion skills including noticing and savoring positive events, positive reappraisal, mindful awareness, non-judgment, and acts of kindness, among others. We test the effects of the positive emotion skills program by assigning participants to either learn the positive skills or to engage in control activities that aren’t expected to significantly improve positive affect.

In one study we found that people newly diagnosed with HIV who learned and practiced these positive skills had more positive emotion compared to a control condition that did no include the skills. Those in the intervention were also less likely to report taking antidepressants 15 months after their HIV diagnosis and were more likely to have suppressed viral load, a primary goal in HIV care. In another recent study, we found that dementia caregivers who learned the positive emotion skills had more positive feelings, less depression, and saw more benefits in caregiving compared to the control group. Although much of my research is in people experiencing major health-related stress like diabetes, cancer, HIV, or dementia caregiving, these positive skills are not specific to a particular kind of stress. Instead the skills and the associated benefits can be generalized to whatever type of stress you are experiencing, whether it comes from caring for a loved one with a chronic illness or living in a country you feel is at the lowest point you can remember.

To be sure, a focus on positive emotions may seem to minimize the very real, significant, negative consequences of the stress experienced by many people on a daily basis. Over reliance on the positive could lead to complacency, counteracting the motivating functions of negative emotion, or seem Pollyanna and naïve, leading us to be blissfully ignorant of the looming potentially catastrophic consequences of current events. Indeed, research has borne out a dark side to positive affective states– they can reduce perseverance, impair cognition and memory performance,
reduce skepticism, and increase stereotyping. And mania is a vivid example of the dangers of too much positive emotion. I am not arguing that negative circumstances be ignored or denied, that negative emotions be suppressed, or that our focus should be solely on increasing positive emotion at all costs. Instead I contend that it is possible to experience positive emotion alongside the negative even when life is very stressful and that these positive moments can help you cope better, thus buffering the very real negative psychological and physical health consequences of stress.

As the stress in the U.S. continues to climb, many Americans are left feeling helpless and hopeless in the face of circumstances that may seem largely out of our control. The ability to manage stress through increasing positive emotional experiences is one small step toward feeling more empowered to move forward and enact real change. Consider one or two things you could do to increase positive emotions in your daily life – notice the small positive events that happen all around you, do something nice for someone else – fortifying you to continue to manage the inevitable stressors that come your way. It may not change the political climate, reverse global warming, or instantly spur the passage of commonsense gun laws, but it can help better prepare us all for the challenges ahead.

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