Social support is the most important thing when it comes to responding to stress in a way that is productive and not harmful. Employees need to feel like there are people there for them who have their back emotionally, who can provide them with resources objectively, and the information they need.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sarah Pressman, an award-winning Associate Professor of Psychological Science in the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Pressman’s work seeks to understand how positive emotions are beneficial for objective physical health and longevity. Dr. Pressman is especially interested in the role of positive psychosocial factors in protecting us from the harmful effects of stress and whether specific types of positive emotions can confer resilience and success in the face of adversity.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Igrew up in a really argumentative and stressful environment with parents destined for a divorce at a very young age. I didn’t recognize the connection when I was little, but the stress really impacted my health, and as a result, I was sick all of the time. While I didn’t understand the mechanisms or whether the whole thing was in my head or not, I believed there was some kind of connection. As a result, as an undergraduate student I started doing my own research on examination stress and illness, then went on to work with the world’s expert on stress and infectious illness (Sheldon Cohen) for my PhD at Carnegie Mellon. While my early work as a graduate student focused on stress, social isolation and how they damage our immune systems, I quickly became interested in the opposite question. That is, how can we protect ourselves against the very real harms that stress delivers to our bodies? This led me to my current path which is studying different positive emotions and behaviors that can undo the negative effects of stress and lead us to healthier and longer lives.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
There is an old adage “grin and bear it,” that I got interested in as I pursued my research on happiness, stress, and health. That is, why is it the case that so many people naturally smile in awkward, painful, and stressful situations? Is it helpful in some way? There is an interesting line of research in affective science called the “Facial Feedback Hypothesis,” which hypothesizes that faking facial expressions can lead to real changes in emotion. We wondered whether the same could be true under stress. That is, do people fake a smile when feeling overwhelmed because it objectively makes them feel better? We tested this by having individuals go through two awful stressors: a painful cold task where they submerge their hand in an ice bucket and a challenging dexterity task where they were berated by an experimenter. They did these tasks while holding chopsticks in their mouths in a way that made them smile without their awareness. Low and behold, it worked! Individuals who were smiling during stress, even though they didn’t know it, had faster heart recovery after the two stressors than those who weren’t smiling, and even reported feeling a bit better about the whole task.
Beyond the great result of discovering the answer to the question “why do we smile in awful situations?”, I had a lifelong dream achieved when Stephen Colbert shared my research as a feature on the Colbert Report (http://www.cc.com/video-clips/s9aj13/the-colbert-report-healthy-fake-smiles).
The more personal interesting anecdote that goes with this story: When I was 12 and my parents were going through their divorce and I was feeling awful, unhappy, and depressed, I noticed that another girl in my class, whose parents also divorced, was always smiling and seemed to be doing great. So, I made the decision that I should smile as much as possible and that somehow, that would help. That summer, I won the “Smiling Camper” award at my sleepaway camp — that’s how much I embraced this idea. Now, decades later, I have empirical evidence that my smiling approach might have actually been a smart way to help me cope with the stress of my family falling apart.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
I think too many leaders rely on the mass application of trendy ideas as opposed to the unique requirements of their workplace and the characteristics of their employees. What positive psychology tells us repeatedly, is that there is no “one size fits all” answer to well-being — culture, sex, age, and circumstance always matter.
That said, the closest thing to a universal cure that can help with workplace well-being and culture is social support. Social support is the most important thing when it comes to responding to stress in a way that is productive and not harmful. Employees need to feel like there are people there for them who have their back emotionally, who can provide them with resources objectively, and the information they need. Somehow employers have gotten the idea that competition breeds success and sometimes pit teams or employees against each other to speed up a product launch or motivate fast productivity. This is the worst idea ever. While this might have a short-term benefit, the cost to employee morale is devastating. Research shows that a happy employee is a successful and productive employee. On the other hand, an employee who has just made an enemy at work and eroded a possible source of support is not happy. An employee who feels devastated at losing a competition and having wasted countless hours of their time and effort is not happy. These are not people who feel supported. These are people who will be less productive and are more likely to leave for a workplace that values and rewards their efforts. Research has shown that even just having one good friend at work can help workplace wellbeing, but I think true leaders can do a lot better than that by creating supportive environments where all can thrive, work together, feel cared for, and trust one another.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
One book that pops into my head now because of the importance of the topic in our COVID-world is “Making Hope Happen” by Shane Lopez. Shane was one of my mentors and one of the leading scholars in the world on the science of hope. He was someone who truly believed that every single person has the capability to achieve their dreams and hopes for the future — they just had to learn how to get there and harness their strengths to do so. I think too many people believe that hope is the same phenomenon as optimism, but they are distinct. This book makes this important point clear: while it’s great to be optimistic and want the best to happen for you, people who are hopeful lay the groundwork to make it happen.
Shane tragically died far too young and before the current COVID crisis happened. For too long, I had the message in my head that “hope is dead,” when this happened. Now, his words and his book make me want to share hope with the world and ensure that all of us know that there is a better future for us. We will get here. We can make it happen.
“Hope matters. Hope is a choice. Hope can be learned. Hope can be shared with others.”
Shane J. Lopez
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
The state of mindfulness is a momentary feeling of being truly in the moment and not focused on the future or the past. It’s also a state of non-judgment such that we can accept ourselves and others as they are. There’s no right or wrong way to be, think, act, or feel.
While some individuals are lucky enough to naturally be this way (those with high levels of trait mindfulness), others have to practice the skills to achieve this healthy state of mind. This can involve a lot of different types of activities, such as paying attention to breathing, attending to physical sensations in the body, learning to process emotions and thoughts differently, and even positive thought process activities like trying to feel more love and compassion for others and the self.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
There are almost too many to mention. From my perspective as a stress researcher and a health expert, the most important benefits in my mind are that mindfulness can increase positive emotions while reducing stress and depression. This seems to be true across a wide range of ages and individuals with a huge variety of health conditions (e.g., pregnant women, cancer patients). And these effects are not just in our heads — many studies have mapped the neurological changes that occur with regular mindfulness practice and found that regular mindfulness practice is correlated with important immune outcomes, such as better antibody responses to influenza vaccinations. Given how important our health is, especially as the coronavirus pandemic continues, anything that can better prepare our immune systems against a virus attack is a good idea.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
Mindfulness is a wonderful approach to stress, but it is far from the only one, and there are many research studies showing that it is not the end-all cure that people seem to believe that it is.
Every stressor is unique and calls for different actions to reduce its negative effect on the body. Mindfulness may be one approach, but it is FAR from the only approach. We don’t have to be mindful or act mindfully to reduce our stress, loneliness, and anxiety.
When I give advice, I like to use a traffic light analogy approach to what we should do to handle stress and anxiety. Red light approaches are for times when we just have to STOP — nothing is working, we are overwhelmed and feel out of control. Green light strategies are for the days when we are feeling pretty good but should still work on factors that confer resilience to future stress (e.g., things more focused on our happiness). Yellow light activities are somewhere in the middle.
One important red-light activity is to simply breathe. What many people don’t know is the importance of our physiology on our mindset. We think that our emotions are self-generated by our brains or come from external factors. In truth, much of our emotion arises from what our bodies are doing. Case and point: by breathing at a set rate, we can activate our parasympathetic nervous system (i.e., the rest and digest part of our body) and trick our minds into being more relaxed. These types of paced breathing activities (e.g., “resonant breathing”) are easy to find online for free and work great when mindfulness is not working for you (i.e., those times when the racing thoughts just can’t be quashed). Another red-light activity might be trying to drum up some perceptions of control. Stress is at its worst when it is unpredictable and uncontrollable. If we could control it, we’d see it as a challenge! The important thing to realize is that a lot of feelings around control are in our mind, and even imagined control can help. I often recommend to people to spend a few minutes writing down all of the things that they have control over. And it’s a ton, right? Even when we are socially isolated, we can control what clothes we wear, our attitude, what we eat, how we spend our day, what we watch on TV, how much time we spend on certain things, who we talk to, if we go outside, how long we go outside for, and so on. We have control over many things even during times of stress. Some of my favorite research studies on control show that even imagined (placebo) control over seemingly unimportant things (e.g., the ability to take care of a plant) in environments with low control are not only tied to better immune health, but to a longer life as well!
On the flip side, a green-light activity might be focusing on gratitude. In positive psychology, we recognize that negative emotions hold our attention so much more than positive ones. As a result, we must train ourselves to focus on the positive and try to lengthen out the effects of positive events. We can do that via savoring activities like “chocolate meditations,” where you take the time to appreciate and extend the duration of simple pleasures like a bite of chocolate. How long does it normally take to consume a Hershey’s Kiss? Maybe a couple of seconds? What if you truly felt the chocolate in your hand, smelled it, and admired it first? What if you let it melt and roll around your mouth for 30 seconds? How would this change the experience? We can do that with every positive activity in our day-to-day life. Don’t have time for the 2-minute chocolate break? Try the “three good things” exercise where you simply write down three things you are grateful for before bed. This practice has shown to help us sleep better, reduce stress, and improve pain. Why do you think that this is? This simple gratitude practice, which is very similar to how people say prayers before bed, allows our final moments before slumber to be filled with happy thoughts, instead of ruminating about all of the bad things that happened that day. This helps us sleep better which enhances our mood and our immune function for the next day.
You can read about some of my other ideas here: https://www.axa-research.org/en/news/5-tips-for-our-mental-health
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
The most important thing to remember about social relationships and stress is that it’s the perception of support that matters, not the actual support that you give. For people who feel overwhelmed and isolated, letting them know that you are there for them is the most important thing — even if you can’t with them in person. Support doesn’t always require physical contact. Giving someone a person to talk to about their emotions and worry is a form of social support, as is giving someone important advice and information on how to manage a problem. You might also be able to tangibly help someone in need. Have an elderly neighbor who doesn’t know how to use an online food service? Offer to order for them! Going on a grocery run? Offer to pick something up for someone in need (just be sure to wipe it off with an alcohol wipe before you give it to them). Keep in mind that social support works best when it matches the need. If someone needs tangible help (like a loan to pay their rent), offering them emotional support might not solve their problems, but it is better than nothing. Try to match your support to the need they have.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
Again, mindfulness isn’t the only answer, nor is serenity. I think the big thing that many people are missing right now is the imbalance between how our bodies are reacting to the stress and lack of control around us and the constant advice to “stay calm”. When stressed, our body’s natural and evolved response is “fight or flight”. What this means biologically is that our body is ramping up energy production and sending fast quantities of blood and oxygen to our muscles. Unfortunately, our stressor currently during the coronavirus pandemic is imaginary, and we are all cooped up inside our houses and apartments. This means that while our adrenaline is up and flowing and our hearts are racing, we are just sitting on the couch. This is NOT a great time to try to feel calm, since our body is amped up at ready to go. When you are feeling this way, the best thing to do is to physically match that energy and get rid of it — do some jumping jacks, go for a run (if your current city laws allow that), download a workout routine. This will result in multiple benefits as you get rid of that excess energy, plus you get the added calm and positive emotional benefits that arise from physical exercise.
For those times that you are feeling calm or only slightly stressed and not jammed full of adrenaline, a mindfulness practice is a great idea. Many stressors are all in our heads, so teaching our bodies to not respond to those perceptions as though it is a tiger jumping out at us, can lead to psychological and physical benefits.
Another neglected topic for serenity is the importance of nature and leisure. Nature is one of the most effective anti-stress and well-being ingredients out there, and fortunately, it’s one thing many of us are still able to enjoy.
Not a nature fan or living in a place with poor weather or poor access? Leisure activities can help too. Hobbies, spiritual practice, and connecting with friends are all wonderful ways of downgrading stress and enhancing positive emotions like feelings of calm and happiness. Research has shown that keeping busy with a flow-driving activity (i.e., an activity that you enjoy and are also good at) is especially helpful for maintaining well-being during lock down.
As far as go-to resources for help, it will depend on what the individual needs. If they are feeling full of nervous energy, I would recommend buying some exercise equipment to burn that off. I personally swear by my Peloton bike and the app, which is getting me outside and running every few days. For those feeling like they need some calm and want to stop self-hate and/or want some help falling asleep at night, I really love the Headspace app for nighttime meditations and a moment of mindfulness. Both Peloton and Headspace have free resources and trials right now. For general positive mood perk ups, UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine has wonderful tips and tools, as does the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I am addicted to quotes and mantras, and the quotes I like vary depending on what is going on in my life and what I need at that moment. My house is covered in Post-it notes with quotes on them and my favorite jewelry has quotes or mantras all over them to inspire me moment to moment. When I was interviewing for professor positions, I had a “fearlessness” necklace from Me & Ro that I did not take off for the entire year, to remind myself that I could take on this daunting task. Right now, I have about 10 different mantra bands that I wear to remind me to “breathe”, “stay strong”, and “be the light” while we go through this pandemic. I have a Post-it next to my car keys that says, “every day is a fresh beginning”. When I was younger, I used to make journals full of quotes as gifts for other people.
Just like positive psychology and stress interventions, I think a quote or a mantra has to match the moment to give you the support that you need for life’s challenge in front of you. One that I just read recently in the Hillary and Chelsea Clinton book on “Gutsy Women” really resonated with what we are all going through right now:
“Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”
– Harriet Tubman
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 😊
My mission is to help people understand the importance of the mind over the body and that we truly can make ourselves sick with stress and healthy with happiness. Many doctors are not taught this — I took immunology courses in medical school when I was a Ph.D. student and the word “stress” came up once. There are entire research fields and journals devoted to the topic of psychoneuroendocrinology, psychoneuroimmunology, behavioral medicine, psychosomatic medicine, etc., yet the public does not know the mental and physical impact of stress.
During my experience as a graduate student helping out with the famous Pittsburgh Cold Studies, I learned early on that even when you put a cold virus into someone’s nose, about ⅓ of the people will not get it. That’s because of factors like having low stress, social support, and high positive emotion. Research even shows that being socially isolated is as bad for your longevity as being a smoker who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day. But do doctors prescribe you happiness interventions, to spend time with your friends, or to support groups or social skills training classes? No! Because these teachings are not usually a part of their medical training and there is no easy pill to prescribe for these things.
The movement I’d like to start is to have the world change how we think about health and to take a more holistic approach to health. The general population should be taught that taking care of mental health isn’t a luxury, but a necessity for our objective personal and public health. Medical practitioners should be trained to understand this, and resources need to be made available so that medical professionals can truly help people in a multi-faceted manner.
I talk about this a little bit in my TEDx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqiGL4e_c30
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Follow me on Twitter at @sarahpressman.
I’m also starting a YouTube channel with simple stress-busting activities called the “stress less press” (more to come).
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!