The holidays tend to be a difficult time for those who have lost a loved one. This is especially true for family and friends who have died by suicide. Within the last year, I have been able to come alongside friends and family who have lost loved ones by suicide. As we celebrate the holiday season, suicide survivors are reminded of the “empty chair” at the table. The Saturday before Thanksgiving has been designated as International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. It is a day where family and friends of those who have died by suicide can come together for support and healing.
Adverse childhood experiences, in particular, are linked to chronic health conditions.
A rocky childhood. A violent assault. A car accident. If these are in your past, they could be affecting your present health.
These are all examples of traumatic events — which, in psychological terms, are incidents that make you believe you are in danger of being seriously injured or losing your life, says Andrea Roberts, a research scientist with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Research shows that these events can trigger emotional and even physical reactions that can make you more prone to a number of different health conditions, including heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer.
Traumatic events encompass anything from a sexual assault or childhood abuse to a cancer diagnosis. Child abuse is particularly likely to affect your adult life because it occurs at a time when your brain is vulnerable — and it often occurs at the hands of people who are supposed to be your protectors, says Roberts. “By abuse, we often mean things that are a lot milder than things people typically think of as abuse. It might include being hit with a hard object, like a whip, a belt, or a paddle,” says Roberts. “The behavior doesn’t necessarily need to be illegal to induce a traumatic response.”
A child’s perception of events is as important as what actually occurred. “While a child’s life may not have actually been in danger, the child may have seen it as life-threatening,” says Dr. Kerry Ressler, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School.
People who experience traumatic events sometimes develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychiatric condition that affects 5% to 10% of the general population, says Dr. Ressler. It’s more common in women, affecting twice as many women as men. And it also occurs more frequently in people who have certain risk factors, including those living in poverty, soldiers in active combat, and first responders, he says. PTSD can develop after a person experiences violence or the threat of violence, including sexual violence. It may affect people who have a close relative who experienced those things as well, says Dr. Ressler. These traumatic events are generally incidents that are considered outside the ordinary and are exceptional in their intensity.
Exposure and risk
Your risk for mental and physical health problems from a past trauma goes up with the number of these events you’ve experienced. For example, your risk for problems is much higher if you’ve had three or more negative experiences, called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), says Roberts.
- physical abuse
- sexual abuse
- emotional abuse
- physical neglect
- emotional neglect
- witnessing domestic violence
- substance misuse within the household
- mental illness within the household
- parental separation or divorce
- incarceration of a household member.
Another kind of trauma
While severely traumatic events are believed to have the greatest effect on long-term health, other stressful events that don’t necessarily meet the psychological definition of trauma can still cause problems. This might include a sudden death in the family, a stressful divorce, or caring for someone with a chronic or debilitating illness, says Roberts. These milder events might lead to a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression. “Trauma pushes your ability to cope, so if you have a predisposition toward anxiety, for example, it may push you over the edge,” says Roberts.
In addition, incidents like these can also produce PTSD-like symptoms in certain people. “When people go through traumatic or complicated grief, they can experience pretty similar symptoms to those they might experience with trauma, such as intrusive thoughts,” says Dr. Ressler.
Medical conditions resulting from trauma
Most of the research related to trauma and chronic disease risk has focused on childhood trauma, says Dr. Ressler. Early childhood trauma is a risk factor for almost everything, from adult depression to PTSD and most psychiatric disorders, as well as a host of medical problems, including cardiovascular problems such as heart attack and stroke, cancer, and obesity.
These effects likely reflect two factors:
Behavioral changes resulting from trauma. People who are suffering from traumatic memories may try to escape them by participating in risky behaviors such as drinking, smoking, drug use, or even overeating for comfort. “Those can all be used as a coping mechanism, a way of dealing with emotional dysregulation that occurs when someone has been traumatized,” says Roberts. These habits, in turn, lead to health problems.
Physical effects related to trauma. The problem goes beyond unhealthy habits. Experts believe that there is actually a direct biological effect that occurs when your body undergoes extreme stress. When you experience something anxiety-provoking, your stress response activates. Your body produces more adrenaline, your heart races, and your body primes itself to react, says Roberts. Someone who has experienced trauma may have stronger surges of adrenaline and experience them more often than someone who has not had the same history. This causes wear and tear on the body — just as it would in a car where the engine was constantly revving and racing, she says. Stress responses have also been demonstrated in people who have experienced discrimination throughout their lives. “It ages your system faster,” says Roberts.
Chronic stress can increase inflammation in the body, and inflammation has been associated with a broad range of illness, including cardiovascular disease and autoimmune diseases, says Roberts. Early trauma disrupts the inflammatory system. This can lead to long-term aberrations in this system and chronic health problems triggered by constant inflammation. Typically, the more trauma you’ve experienced, the worse your health is.
Barriers to getting help
People who have experienced trauma may also struggle with getting help. “One of the most common outcomes of trauma is avoidance,” says Dr. Ressler. “It makes sense. If you experience something traumatic, you want to avoid thinking about it and going to places that remind you of it.” Unfortunately, health settings — with their doctors, therapists, and counselors — are triggers for many people because when someone experiences a traumatic event, he or she often ends up in the health care system.
In addition, if you’ve experienced trauma, you may believe that health care providers will want you to talk about it and dredge up feelings from the past. For these reasons, people who have experienced trauma may avoid medical care.
Some people may be in denial about the role past trauma is playing in their life. “I would say that a lot of people are unaware of how trauma is affecting them,” says Roberts. One of the hallmarks of trauma is the fact that people often use defense mechanisms to protect themselves from stress. Denial is one of those, as is trying to normalize past problems. “People may say things like, ‘oh, everybody I know got hit as a child,'” says Roberts.
Seek out resources
To get more information about trauma and PTSD or to find treatment resources, here are three very good, well-vetted websites from leading professional organizations:
If you suspect that past trauma is affecting your life, there is help. This is a treatable problem. “You don’t have to be stuck,” says Dr. Ressler. “There is a good chance that you can move past this.”
Taking steps to address the problem may also help others in your life. Very often people who have experienced trauma pass problems on to others in their family through a process called observational learning, he says. So, helping yourself may help those around you. Consider these steps.
Work with a therapist. A trained therapist can help you reframe what happened to you and help you move past it. “One of the most successful treatments is exposure therapy, where the idea is to expose yourself in small doses to the thing that was most traumatizing, with someone there to support you,” says Roberts. Treatment may also include medication to address any mental health disorders you are experiencing.
Take care of yourself. There are numerous lifestyle measures that can help you reduce stress and anxiety. These include yoga, tai chi, and meditation. Regular exercise can also help you manage stress and other symptoms.
Reach out to others. Research has shown that maintaining strong social ties with friends and family members is crucial to good mental health.
“Unfortunately, all of these things are hard to do when in depressive states,” says Roberts.
That’s why many people may need to start with therapy, and then add other strategies later on.
Like many who have social media accounts, I regularly check my timelines and feeds for intriguing articles, updates and happenings. Two years ago, I was mindlessly scrolling through one of my accounts before going to bed and one post immediately stood out among the rest: It was a suicide note.
Frantically, I read my friend Mark’s post. It detailed his internal suffering over the years, which he no longer wanted to endure. The comment section grew at an alarming rate. People asked questions, both directly to Mark and to each other. Some people were pleading with him to reconsider. Others offered comments of hope.
Over the next few days, I saw something I did not expect. Hundreds of comments on Mark’s post evolved into a community of people coming together to help find Mark, who had gone missing. People used his previous posts on other social media platforms to piece together his possible location. Some contacted the authorities—and thankfully, those authorities located him before he took his life.
Social Media On The Rise
We live in a world driven by technology. We see the media regularly report on new apps for our smartphones and the latest trending celebrity tweets. Whether we’re commuting to work, studying in a coffee shop or spending time with our family and friends, being connected digitally is part of our lives. An entire generation of young people is growing up with devices in their hands, regularly engaging in social media.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2005 only 5% of American adults used at least one social media platform. That number has since grown significantly: Today, 70% of the public uses social media, with many people using more than one platform.
Some researchers are beginning to identify connections between online social networking and mental health concerns. Among these concerns are varying levels of self-esteem and addiction to social media, as well as the internet. However, it is uncertain whether signs and symptoms of mental health conditions are the causes or effects of using social media. Since each platform is different and new platforms continue to be introduced, future research is needed to assess the true effect of social media on mental health.
Identifying Mental Health Concerns Online
When used responsibly, social media can be used in positive ways. It can be used to promote mental health to a large audience. I’ve seen individuals share their personal stories of recovery, like those on NAMI.org at You Are Not Alone and OK2Talk. I’ve seen mental health writers connect with one another on Twitter. And as with my friend Mark, during times of crisis, social media can even save lives.
On platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, users now have options for getting a friend help. If a user thinks a friend is in danger of self-harm or suicide, they can report their concerns by going to the social media websites’ Help Centers. These online Help Centers have dedicated content about suicide and self-harm prevention, which include online resources and phone numbers for suicide hotlines around the world.
The most helpful feature I’ve seen instituted recently is on Instagram. Users can anonymously flag posts by other users that have content about self-harm and suicide. That user then receives a message encouraging them to speak with a friend, contact a helpline or seek professional help. The same message appears for people who are regularly searching self-harm- or suicide-related content on Instagram.
Recent research by the Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Office notes that personal social media accounts “can provide an important window into a person’s state of mind.” At the Secretary of the Army Symposium on Suicide Prevention in mid-January 2017, military leaders, mental health professionals and companies like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn came together to see how social media can be used to connect those in need to care and resources.
How Can I Help?
With social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat dominating our screen time, it’s wise to assume that social media will continue to be a primary method of communication. Therefore, it’s up to us to look out for mental health warning signs while on social media so we are better prepared to assist a friend in need.
If you see any of the following behavior online, it may be time to step in and contact your friend directly to see how you can help:
- Cyberbullying, which includes:
a. harassing messages or comments
b. fake accounts made to impersonate someone else
c. someone posting unwanted pictures or images of another person
- Negative statements about themselves, even if it sounds like they are joking, such as
a. “I’m a waste of space.”
b. “No one cares about me.”
c. “I seriously hate myself.”
- Negative leading statements with little to no context that prompt others to respond, such as:
a. “You wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through.”
b. “Today was the worst day ever.”
c. “It’s like everyone is against me.”
If someone you know is in immediate danger—for example, they talk about a specific plan for harming themselves—contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. This lifeline can support the individual and their family members, and has the ability to connect with local law enforcement, if necessary. If a person has attempted self-harm or is injured, call 911 immediately.
If the threat of physical danger is not immediate, here are some things you can do to help:
- Report the content on the social media website’s Help Center;
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255; or
- Reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting the word “NAMI” to 741741 (standard data rates may apply).
As you scroll through your social media feeds, be mindful of what others post. Being educated about available resources is important for those of us who promote mental health, but knowing when to reach out to a friend who may be experiencing a mental health crisis is even more important: You just might save a life.
Ryann Tanap is manager of social media and digital assets at NAMI.
Living with mental illness is not easy. It’s a consistent problem without a clear solution. While treatments like medication and psychotherapy are incredibly helpful, sometimes people experiencing mental health conditions need to do more day-in and day-out to feel good or even just okay.
Some common self-help suggestions people receive are to exercise, meditate and be more present, which are helpful and work for many people. However, other proven methods aren’t mentioned as often. Many of them are quick and simple techniques that can easily be added to daily routines.
Finding the right coping mechanism takes time and patience, but it can enormously impact how you feel. If you haven’t had success with techniques you’ve tried, or you’re looking to add a few more to your toolkit, here are seven coping mechanisms recommended by mental health professionals worth trying out.
Radical acceptance is “completely and totally accepting something from the depths of your soul, with your heart and your mind,” according to Marsha Linehan (creator of dialectal behavior therapy). Included in this definition is the idea that no matter what, you cannot change a situation. For example, imagine a tornado is coming your way. Obviously, you can’t do anything to stop the tornado; that’s not possible. But if you accept the fact that it’s coming, then you can act, prepare and keep yourself safe. If you sit around trying to will the tornado to stop or pretend that there is no tornado, you’re going to be in real trouble when it comes.
The same applies to mental illness. You cannot change the fact that you have a mental illness, so any time you spend trying to “get rid of it” or pretend it doesn’t exist is only draining you of valuable energy. Accept yourself. Accept your condition. Then take the necessary steps to take care of yourself.
Breathing is an annoying cliché at this point, but that’s because the best way to calm anxiety really is to breathe deeply. When battling my own anxiety, I turned to the concept of “5 3 7” breathing:
- Breathe in for 5 seconds
- Hold the breath for 3 seconds
- Breathe out for 7 seconds
This gentle repetition sends a message to the brain that everything is okay (or it will be soon). Before long, your heart will slow its pace and you will begin to relax—sometimes without even realizing it.
Opposite-to-emotion thinking is how it sounds: You act in the opposite way your emotions tell you to act. Say you’re feeling upset and you have the urge to isolate. Opposite-to-emotion tells you to go out and be around people—the opposite action of isolation. When you feel anxious, combat that with something calming like meditation. When you feel manic, turn to something that stabilizes you. This technique is probably one of the hardest to put into play, but if you can manage it, the results are incredible.
The 5 Senses
Another effective way to use your physical space to ground you through a crisis is by employing a technique called “The 5 Senses.” Instead of focusing on a specific object, with “The 5 Senses” you run through what each of your senses is experiencing in that moment. As an example, imagine a PTSD flashback comes on in the middle of class. Stop! Look around you. See the movement of a clock’s hands. Feel the chair beneath you. Listen to your teacher’s voice. Smell the faint aroma of the chalkboard. Chew a piece of gum.
Running through your senses will take only a few seconds and will help keep you present and focused on what is real, on what is happening right now.
Mental reframing involves taking an emotion or stressor and thinking of it in a different way. Take, for example, getting stuck in traffic. Sure, you could think to yourself, “Wow, my life is horrible. I’m going to be late because of this traffic. Why does this always happen to me?”
Or you can reframe that thought, which might look something like, “This traffic is bad, but I’ll still get to where I’m going. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ll just listen to music or an audiobook to pass the time.” Perfecting this technique can literally change your perspective in tough situations. But as you might imagine, this skill takes time and practice.
If you live in denial of your emotions, it will take far longer to take care of them, because once we recognize what we’re feeling, we can tackle it or whatever is causing it. So, if you’re feeling anxious, let yourself be anxious for a couple of minutes—then meditate. If you’re feeling angry, let yourself be angry—then listen to some calming music. Be in touch with your emotions. Accept that you are feeling a certain way, let yourself feel that way and then take action to diminish unhealthy feelings.
You can’t control that you have mental illness, but you can control how you respond to your symptoms. This is not simple or easy (like everything else with mental illness), but learning, practicing and perfecting coping techniques can help you feel better emotionally, spiritually and physically. I’ve tried all the above techniques, and they have transformed the way I cope with my mental health struggles.
It takes strength and persistence to recover from mental illness—to keep fighting symptoms in the hopes of feeling better. Even if you feel weak or powerless against the battles you face every day, you are incredibly strong for living through them. Practical and simple methods can help you in your fight. Take these techniques into consideration, and there will be a clear change in the way you feel and live your life.
Emmie Pombo is a student striving to crush mental illness and addiction stigma. She also advocates for the people who haven’t yet spoken honestly about their struggles. Rooted in Florida, Emmie hopes to eventually diminish any lies surrounding the treatable mental disorders that are becoming more and more prevalent throughout the world.
When many of us think of childhood, we imagine happy, carefree times. Tender feelings of safe, loving relationships with parents and grandparents are often remembered. Those of us who are parents ourselves know there is nothing more precious than the birth of a child and the dreams associated with watching that child grow and thrive into adulthood.
Adults also know that growing up can be painful. The wounds of childhood can persist throughout life, embodied in every muscle and organ of our bodies. Children experience trauma in similar ways as adults, including from abuse, poverty, war, injury, or other adverse events. But there is more to trauma than meets the eye.
There are subtle, often invisible, ways children suffer from trauma, the most common being the loss of human connection. Relational trauma can be experienced by children who feel misunderstood, inferior, unaccepted, emotionally neglected, or socially disconnected. These feelings damage children’s emotional health.
Today, college freshmen rate their emotional health compared to others their age at 50.7%, the lowest level ever (Eagan, et al, 2014). Numerous studies have highlighted the declining emotional health of U.S. students, including a steady rise in anxiety, depression, and mental illness (Pryor, et al., 2010; Douce & Keeling, 2014). While these statistics are a cause for concern, the good news is that researchers are beginning to better understand the links between poor mental health, relational trauma, and the brain. As a result, therapies are improving.
In recent years, neuroscientists and psychologists have studied various types of trauma and its effects on children. We know, for example, that when children experience trauma, their growth and development is disrupted. To heal and move forward, research shows that the brain must be stimulated in fresh, creative ways. More than ever, a child needs support from adults who can authentically and respectfully interact with them.
In a groundbreaking new book, Relational and Body-Centered Practices for Healing Trauma: Lifting the Burdens of the Past,psychologist Sharon Stanley, PhD, demonstrates the importance of sharing traumatic experiences in the presence of those who can see, hear, and feel the many ways our bodies communicate truth. Written primarily for helping professionals, this book also reminds us of the significant role parents, teachers, and mentors play in helping children heal from adverse events or relational trauma. In fact, the neuroscienceresearch and practices that Stanley shares should be at the heart of every healthy adult-child relationship. Gleaned from her book are three important ways all adults can become healers for the children in their lives.
3 Ways to Help Children Heal from Traumatic Life Experiences
- Promote Embodied AwarenessBe willing to listen and respect the embodied and subjective experience that each child holds to be true. What does this mean? Neuroscience research shows that every traumatic experience is felt in the human body. When children become aware of their bodies, that awareness communicates important information to their brain. The brain, in turn, makes corrective changes and restores healthy functioning.
A simple shift in conversation can help children become more aware of their bodies. For example, instead of simply asking, “How do you feel?” you might ask, “How and where do you feel that (fear, anger, sadness) in your body?” When children become accustomed to connecting their feelings with bodily sensations, they achieve embodied awareness. “Aided by embodied awareness,” says Stanley, “we can look more closely, hear more accurately, and feel more actively in the moment, a mindfulness that can shift habitual autonomic fixed patterns from trauma.”
- Create Meaningful RitualsThroughout history, humans have recovered from trauma by coming together to honor struggle and the power of transformation. Unfortunately, ritual and ceremony have all but disappeared in many of today’s Western cultures. Based on years of research with indigenous peoples, Stanley points out the powerful brain-body connections that are made through ritual and how those connections are essential to healing trauma.
We can help children recover from painful events and hurtful relationships by working with them to create meaningful rituals. Again, body-based activities should be front and center, engaging the right hemisphere of the brain to connect to a child’s subjective way of knowing. Integration of the arts, music, contemplative practices, and dance, says Stanley, can transform the chaos of trauma into relational resources for growth.
The goal of rituals is to create human connections. When parents and teachers create safe spaces for children to express themselves, explore their feelings, and become aware of the sensations in their bodies, children feel what it means to be human. Stanley suggests that ceremony changes the brain in ways that convert fear to love, facilitating growth and development.
- Connect through Somatic EmpathyMuch has been written about the power of empathy. What Stanley does exceedingly well in her book is to differentiate what we often understand as “cognitive empathy,” an attempt to understand what others think, from “somatic empathy,” an ability to feel what others feel. The former is a left-brain activity; the latter is right-brained.
According to Stanley, “Somatic empathy communicates to people suffering from trauma that they are seen, felt, and understood just as they are, allowing them to feel felt.” Parents, teachers, and all caring adults have the ability to help children heal through our interactions with them and through our mindful attention to their body-based cues.
For example, when a child aches in his stomach, feels tension in her jaw, or experiences tight sensations in his chest, we can help that child more consciously connect these sensations to a deeper self-knowing. We do this through authentic listening and a sense of respect for how a child feels and experiences those feelings in his or her body. We are consciously present, helping children reflect and gain embodied self-awareness.
Through compassionate relationships based in somatic empathy, a child’s brain changes in ways that repair the effects of trauma.
Seeking Help when Youth Experience Trauma
The three practices listed above are everyday ways all adults can nurture deep connections with children and teenagers and help them heal from trauma. But often, children need the help of experienced psychological professionals to overcome adverse events and relational trauma in their lives. The good news is that neurobiological research with somatic, embodied healing practices is breaking new ground each year.
Stanley has trained hundreds of practitioners for over a decade in what she calls “somatic transformation.” For helping professionals who want to understand the neurobiological underpinnings of trauma and new ways to work with those affected by trauma, I highly recommend Stanley’s book, based on the most recent research and transformative practices available.
As parents and teachers, we must all become more aware of the subtle cues of relational trauma in our children and in ourselves. Through numerous case studies, Stanley demonstrates that it is never too late to heal the wounds of our own childhoods through body-based somatic healing. When we heal ourselves, we have greater capacity to be in authentic empathy-based relationships with our children.
Douce, L.A, & Keeling, R.P. (2014) A strategic primer on college student mental health. (Washington DC: American Council on Education).
K. Eagan, et al., (2014) The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014(Los Angeles: CA: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2014)
J.H. Pryor, et al., (2010) The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010(Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2010).
S. Stanley, (2016) Relational and Body-Centered Practices for Healing Trauma: Lifting the Burdens of the Past (New York: Routledge).
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is the author of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. A developmental psychologist and researcher, she works at the intersection of positive youth development and education.
from Psychology Today
We’ve all been there: We’re freaking out about something that just happened to us — what someone did to us, said to us, or didn’t do for us. And we’re pissed or terrified, or defeated — our emotions have become overpowering. What do we do now to get our emotions under control when they’ve already gotten completely out of control?
There are tons of ways to better manage our emotions in the long run — for example, we can develop positive thinking skills, reappraisal skills, and resiliency, but these skills require effortful practice over long periods of time. Sure, learning these skills is a great idea, but maybe you’re just not sure what to do (take this well-being quiz to figure out what skills to focus on), or you just haven’t gotten to it yet. So what do we do right now to control our already out-of-control emotions? Here are some science-based tips:
1. Cut off the negative thought spirals.
When bad things happen, sometimes we get stuck ruminating about these events, thinking about what happened — or could have happened — over and over. Often it’s these ruminative thought cycles that drive our emotions up, and not the actual event itself. So to control these emotions, we usually just need to stop having the thoughts that are creating them. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
One strategy is to play “I Spy.” It might seem silly, but naming different objects you see around the room can help you redirect your thoughts to other more mundane things, so that your emotions can get a rest and start to calm down. Another strategy to redirect your thoughts is to get up, do something, or change your surroundings — for example, you could excuse yourself to go to the restroom, or if the situation allows, go for a short walk. This approach helps give you a moment to reset and take your thoughts in a new direction.
2. Take deep breaths.
“Take a deep breath” might seem like a simple platitude, but it actually activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps calm high-arousal negative emotions, like anxiety or anger. So breathing deeply is key when it comes to managing our more challenging emotions.
Because the brain has a harder time making good, rational decisions when emotions are in the driver’s seat, we are also likely to make better decisions if we take a few deep breaths first. So when emotions start to feel overwhelming, pause. Take a couple of deep breaths, and bring those intense emotions down a bit so you can carefully choose what to do next.
3. Generate some positive emotions.
Once you’ve calmed down somewhat, and you’re thinking clearly again, it’s helpful to try to infuse some positive emotions into the situation to help beat back those negative feelings. One way to do this is to look for the silver linings in whatever it is that’s bothering you. For example, did your boss tell you that you must redo the work you just did? A silver lining might be that this experience will help you become better at your job in the future. Or, are you upset about something your romantic partner did? This might be an opportunity to improve your communication skills and advocate for your needs in your relationship. It’s not always easy to find a silver lining, but if you can, it’s a good way to generate positive emotions.
Another way to infuse some positive emotions into the moment is with a funny video or inspiring photo. These little, positive things can help deflate even the most intense negative emotions. So if you’re feeling really down, do something that generates a little happiness, so you can start getting back to your normal self.
4. Practice acceptance.
It can seem counterintuitive to accept the things that are bothering us, but indeed, it is good advice to “accept the things you cannot change” when you want to control your emotions. No matter how upset we get, our emotions can’t change things that are unchangeable. So ask yourself: What part of this situation is unchangeable? Remind yourself to accept those things and focus your effort on the things you can change for the better.
5. Quit the coffees and soft drinks.
Caffeine gives us energy. Of course, energy is good, but caffeine can end up producing nervous energy — energy that feels very similar to feelings of anxiety or panic. So if you’re feeling extra anxious, and you can’t figure out what’s causing it, it might just be the caffeine.
If you’re already feeling stressed about something, caffeine can exacerbate these emotions, in part because caffeine can negatively affect your sleep. When we don’t sleep well, we don’t manage our emotions as well, so our feelings can get out of control more easily. So limiting caffeine is another good way to keep those emotions in check.
6. Get your heart rate up with exercise.
If you’re still feeling all riled up and can’t seem to get a handle on your negative emotions, try exercise, because it turns out that exercise is an effective way to boost your mood. Do a few sprints, lift some heavy weights, or do some other activity that gets your heart rate up, because the higher the intensity of the workout, the greater the impact on your mood. The physiological changes that happen in your body make exercise a great solution for intense emotions that you’re having a hard time handling with other strategies.
People often ask me: “What can I do to boost my happiness?”
I tell them that there are tons of things you can do, but then I can only recall a handful of practices in the moment. So I decided to create this complete guide for how to be happy, according to science. If you use these 23 practices consistently, you are very likely to increase your personal happiness:
1. Find out what to do first.
How are you supposed to build the right happiness skills if you don’t know which ones you are struggling with in the first place? This is why it’s helpful to take a quiz to explore your happiness strengths and weaknesses. Get a better understanding of what these skills are all about, and learn how to improve upon your weaknesses and build your “happiness strengths.”
2. Give yourself a confidence boost.
Why would you bother increasing your happiness if you didn’t think you could be successful at it? You wouldn’t. That’s why it’s so important to build your self-efficacy — to prove to yourself that you can increase your happiness. The best way to do this is by starting with easier skills — skills like gratitude or prioritizing spending time doing fun things. Get a quick win, and you’ll be more confident that you really can change your life.
3. Fuel your progress by learning how to feel better about yourself.
You wouldn’t practice math to get better at cooking. And you wouldn’t learn another language to lose weight. To be happier, you’ll likely make more progress by focusing on the skills that are most closely linked to happiness. In my research, the skill that usually turns out to be most closely linked to happiness is: positive self-views. Learning how to feel better about yourself — for example, by imagining your best possible self, noting your positive qualities, or identifying your strengths — can go a long way to increasing your happiness.
4. Create balance and overcome burnout.
How are you supposed to have the energy to be happier if you’re exhausted and miserable from work? It will be really hard. Building new skills, skills that will help you be happier, will take time and energy. So it’s helpful first to create better work-life balance.
5. Build a growth mindset for happiness.
A growth mindset refers to the belief that we can change ourselves. When we build a growth mindset for happiness, we believe we can change our happiness. This is super important, because if we don’t believe we canincrease our happiness, we won’t even bother to try.
6. Make positive memories.
Every region in our brains can be strengthened through practice. If our brains are really good at remembering negative things that happen, it can be useful to strengthen the regions of the brain responsible for remembering positive things.
7. Find those silver linings.
Everything we experience can be a bummer if we choose to see it that way. But when you search for the benefits or silver linings in your life, you may be surprised to discover a lot of good. Keep practicing to increase the positive and decrease the negative to cultivate happiness. Also, this skill has been linked to a better ability to cope with stressand be more resilient.
8. Take breaks from social media.
Facebook tends to have a negative effect on our happiness. By choosing to take breaks from Facebook — or changing the way we use social media — we can boost our happiness.
9. Spend smarter for more happiness.
How we choose to spend our money impacts what we can do and how we live in ways that impact how happy we are. When we choose a less fancy house or car — things that don’t bring us much happiness — we have more money to spend on adventures or on gifts for friends: things that actually do make us happier.
10. Communicate kindly.
When we are kind to others, we feel better about ourselves. We can do nice things for others, be empathetic, or we can just treat each other with respect, communicating kindly rather than assuming the worst.
11. End your negative patterns of thinking.
Let’s face it: Sometimes we are what’s making us miserable. We just can’t stop thinking about how so-and-so wronged us, or how our life didn’t turn out as we hoped. Negative thought processes — like worrying, ruminating, self-judgment, and fearing rejection — just keep us miserable and unable to move forward. When you find yourself thinking negatively, pause and refocus your thoughts. In time, your brain will be able to do this more easily on its own.
12. Find clarity.
How are you supposed to move your life forward when you don’t even know what you feel or why you feel it? To become happier, try to gain clarity on your emotions; find out what you’re feeling and what caused those feelings.
13. Live your values.
When you start to explore yourself and your values, you may discover that you’ve known all along what would make you happy, but you’re just not doing it. To be happier, get clear on your values, so that you can live your life autonomously, according to your own principles and values.
14. Pay attention to the good.
Sure, sometimes life is hard. But by paying attention to the good, you can rise above it and be more resilient. When you find the good, savor the moment, and bring it with you to maintain happiness even during hard times. Or try thinking about a time in the future when you’ll feel better.
15. Use your imagination to create the life you seek.
Did you know that your brain has a difficult time differentiating between things that happen in your imagination and things that happen in real life? So when you imagine something — even happiness — your brain acts as if it’s real. We can use imagination to help create happiness out of thin air and enjoy our experiences more.
16. Stay mindful.
Sometimes we want to escape. The world seems dark and scary, but by practicing mindfulness we experience more fully both the positive and the negative — we are more fully engaged in our lives.
17. Explore what happiness means to you.
We all define happiness in different ways. When you know what happiness means to you, you’ll have an easier time finding it. So explore happiness — what it means, what it looks like, and what it feels like — to more easily create it.
18. Go after life.
How are you supposed to change your life by doing the same things you’ve always done? It’s pretty tough. Instead, push yourself to overcome fearand approach life with enthusiasm. Try “doing the opposite” to see how it feels and to make your brain more flexible.
19. Speak up and be yourself.
When we let people walk all over us, we’re unhappy. But when we advocate for our own needs assertively and express ourselves, we feel more in control of our lives. Learning how to express yourself can help you overcome interpersonal challenges, which can make you unhappy.
20. Find your purpose.
We all want to feel like we made some sort of positive impact in this world, but sometimes we are uncertain of the type of impact we want to make. Explore exactly what gives you a sense of purpose and how you want to pursue this purpose to give your life a greater sense of meaning.
21. Build meaningful connections.
Did you know we enjoy just about everything more when we do it with others? This is why one of the best things you can do for your happiness is to build meaningful relationships and social connections. To strengthen these relationships, practice kindness and gratitude towards the people you care about.
22. Get off the hedonic treadmill.
The “hedonic treadmill” refers to the tendency for us to return to our original happiness level over time. To boost your baseline-level happiness, you can try changing your physiology through nutrition and exercise. To maintain your happiness, you have to get out of your comfort zone and keep adding variety to your happiness plan.
23. Hold yourself accountable.
We are more likely to do the things we say we’re going to do if we schedule time in our calendars to do them. We can also more easily stay on track if we get accountability from others. So if you really want to be happier, don’t let yourself get away with being unhappy.
My last depressive episode left me completely isolated. I didn’t respond to messages for months. Since I didn’t know how long I would be depressed, answering the question “how are you?” became emotionally draining. Actually, that one question was why I stopped talking to people entirely.
“How are you?” is such a knee-jerk opening line to a conversation; most of us don’t even realize we’re saying it, or pay much attention to the typical response of, “I’m good.” But I wasn’t good, or even okay, and saying it just to get past that question felt like a lie I didn’t want to explain.
I never would’ve guessed that I could go such a long period of time without talking to anyone. I know now how painful it was for those who cared about me not to hear anything despite their repeated attempts to reach out.
Peer support—“peer” defined both as friends and as those who identify as having mental illness—can be profoundly helpful to the recovery process and to help keep symptoms at bay. I could’ve really benefited from this kind of support during my depression, but my lack of communication with my friends and family led me to struggle in silence.
Feeling Empathy For Those Who Are Trying
When that dark cloud finally lifted, I was intrigued by how difficult it was for me to communicate with the people I cared about during my episode. I didn’t want to go through that again. I wanted to learn how to be better at communicating, especially in the thick of a depressive episode.
So I read the book, “There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love.” It includes many wonderful examples of how and when to say or do something, and when it’s best to say nothing at all and just listen. It’s a relatively short, easy read considering the depth of knowledge it contains about difficult conversations. Some of the scenarios included made me cringe as I reflected on things I’ve said that were less than ideal.
This book was immensely helpful in learning empathy for those trying to make a connection with me during my episode. I learned that my negative reaction to my friends asking me how I was doing was because depression had changed my perception. The book helped me understand that people might say uncomfortable or insensitive things—“how are you doing?”—when they are genuinely trying to connect but don’t know what to say or what may negatively impact someone.
Learning Essential Communication Skills
I also learned how I could be a better support system for my friends facing adversities, because we all end up being the supportive friend at one time or another. Conversations are a two-way street, even if one person is doing most of the talking. How you listen and respond can change the tone and outcome of a conversation. In “There is No Good Card for This,” you can find out what type of listener you are and what you can do to improve or change the way you respond. This can help build confidence during a difficult conversation.
Here are a few tips from the book to start working on:
- Don’t judge or assume. People deal with life’s hurts in various ways. It’s easy to say how we would behave in a friend’s situation, but trust that your friend is doing what’s best for him/her, even if you don’t agree with it.
- Listening speaks volume about how much you care. It can be much easier to listen than to find the perfect thing to say. Try to avoid asking clarifying questions or offering suggestions and anecdotal stories in an attempt to connect unless you know this is what your friend wants. If unsure, ask if he or she would prefer for you to listen for support or brainstorm helpful next steps.
- Small gestures make a big difference: Some people are better at showing they care than expressing it in words. Clipping coupons for everyday essentials, preparing and delivering their favorite meal, or gifting a massage are just a few examples.
Realizing Mistakes Are Just Learning Opportunities
At the end of the day, just knowing my friends cared enough to reach out meant the world to me. I isolated myself because I felt emotionally fragile and didn’t want to be asked how I was doing. I still wanted to cheer and root for them, and to tell them how proud I was of them despite my depression; I just didn’t want them to ask how I was because I was still trying to figure that out. I now know that I could have expressed that sentiment, and my friends would have understood. It sounds so easy in hindsight, but I couldn’t even get past “how are you?” to tell them.
Please know that you are not alone if you’ve ever felt like this, and if you would like to talk to someone without fear of judgment, please call the NAMI HelpLine for references to mental health resources—including support groups—in your area or online. If you’d like to speak with a trained peer support specialist, the NAMI HelpLine can also give you a local number that you can call 24/7.
Traditional classrooms do not include courses with the sole purpose of teaching emotional intelligence, sensitivity and empathy, so those lessons tend to come from life experience. It’s important to remember to be kind to yourself and others as you navigate through difficult situations. Look back on mistakes as learning opportunities.
I have learned through this experience that if someone is reaching out to you, their heart is probably in the right place, even if they can’t find the “right” words.
Keiko Purnell is a NAMI HelpLine Volunteer.
Few opportunities in life allow one to feel as if you’ve made a meaningful difference in another’s life. For me, serving as a NAMI HelpLine volunteer is one of them—and this is why I do it.
With an eye to return to school for clinical social work, last year I sought out volunteer opportunities that would allow me to work with people in the mental health community. I learned of NAMI by sheer coincidence, when a friend introduced me to a fellow volunteer. I had never heard of NAMI, and although she spoke enthusiastically of her experience, the idea of manning a phone line to provide “information and resource referral” seemed less than the intimate, learning experience I was seeking.
I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Not a shift ends that I don’t sit back, reflect and thank my lucky stars for having had the chance to help someone that day; to share their frustrations and fears; to ease their pain; to point them toward hope, even if it’s just a little. As a NAMI HelpLine volunteer, I will often be the only voice of hope in the mental health resource chain who treats a caller with kindness, patience and respect.
On the NAMI HelpLine, we act as a compass to begin navigating a complex system of mental health resources—a process that moments before most likely seemed unnavigable and hopeless for the caller. And the calls are endless. You think an hour will go by and the phone lines might be slow, but they never are. There is always a need somewhere. And the needs are as personal as each human. Each call requires intense empathy, compassion, focus, patience and creative problem-solving, within a moment’s grasp. What we do is personal, and I love it.
We live in a world where listening is a dying art. Our callers need to be heard, not merely “listened to.” They need to know their situation matters. Often when I ask a caller, “How can I help you today?” I hear, “I don’t know if you can,” because prior attempts for help have been met with a lack of compassion and/or respect. Often, our callers have complex circumstances and the stakes are very high.
As a NAMI HelpLine volunteer, at the very least I need to listen and be kind; to let callers know I’m not going anywhere, and I’m going to do my very best to figure things out with them. I genuinely care to go the extra mile, by making sure the caller is okay and that they feel they’ve been heard before I say goodbye.
Almost every call closes with the caller sharing, “I can’t thank you enough. Before I called you, I didn’t know where to start. You’ve helped me so much.” I cannot fully describe how good it feels to be able to speak with a caller—who at the beginning of a call feels helpless and lost—and help empower them with a sense of dignity, calm and hope by the end of the call.
Each volunteer comes to the NAMI HelpLine with “lived” experience. Either we live with, care for, or have cared for a loved one with a mental health condition. We know personally the challenges, heart ache, devastation, helplessness and hopelessness. We are both compassionate and passionate about helping others who call us and are seeking help, because we’ve been there.
I have lived with clinical depression most of my life, and more recently, with anxiety and panic attacks. I understand all too well the loss of vitality, the desperation, the fear, the self-imposed shame and isolation, the fatigue of living each day bearing the weight of “okay-ness,” the frustration of losing weeks, months and even years to mental illness.
Worse, I know the frustration of working with psychiatrists who seemed to be little more than “dispensaries,” and what it is like to live with the denial that I didn’t need medication (only to finally give in and accept that I couldn’t live well without it). I know the impatience one experiences while waiting for a new medication to kick-in and what it’s like living through the side-effects. I know the desperation when a medication doesn’t work, and the ultimate relief when one finally does work. I know the incredible fortune of having the resources and resilience to find those gifted practitioners who were empathetic, caring healers who worked patiently with me to help me live a fulfilling life in every way. All of this has made me a more empathetic HelpLine volunteer. I field similar concerns every shift. And I am willing to share my story if it helps to alleviate fears.
Prior to my affiliation with NAMI, I had no knowledge of the many resources, both public and private, available to our callers. After almost a year on the NAMI HelpLine, it still amazes me how many resources there are, yet how little is known to most people. I wish I had learned many years ago of some that I now share with callers. It would have made my journey that much more bearable, or at the very least, to know that I wasn’t alone. And that I was heard.
Quinn Anderson is a NAMI Helpline Volunteer.
One of the worst feelings in the world is feeling like you’re all alone. Feeling like nobody could possibly understand what you’re going through or identify with the deep, drowning pain you feel. Throughout my life and journey with mental illness, I’ve felt this way more times than I’d like to admit. With help from my mom, friends, therapy, medication and working in the mental health field, I’ve always managed to come out of those dark moments and even help others who’ve felt the same.
When my father died by suicide last year, I was thrown into a new kind of deep pain. I had helped countless others over the years who had experienced suicidal ideation or lost loved ones to suicide, but actually going through it myself left me feeling confused and unsupported. I’ve heard that mental illness is “not a greeting card illness,” and I think that rings true for suicide survivors as well. There is no card in existence offering condolences to family members who lose someone to suicide.
Fortunately, at the time of my father’s death, I was working for NAMI and my coworkers and supervisors throughout the organization offered empathy and compassion. I imagine others don’t experience such understanding at other organizations that aren’t so well-informed about mental health and suicide. Still, I found myself unsure of who to go to for support. I felt awkward, as if people weren’t sure what to say to me or what kind of condolence to offer. Again, mental illness isn’t seen as a “greeting card” or “casserole” illness; although, a well-meaning neighbor did leave a shrimp platter on my mother’s doorstep.
While I have been immersed in the mental health field—both personally and professionally—for over ten years, my mom had never seen a mental health professional or spoken openly about mental health before my father’s suicide. Almost immediately after he passed, we both began to research support groups and ways to connect with others who had gone through a similar experience. My mom found a support group for survivors of suicide, and through it, met other women who had unexpectedly lost their long-term partners to suicide. At a time when she was feeling most alone, she found peers who could relate to her story and throw her a life vest when she felt like she was drowning in an ocean of isolation.
For me, the most powerful support came from a friend and former NAMI HelpLine volunteer who had also recently lost a parent to suicide. Knowing that there was someone who could relate to my experience, and not judge me for my messy tangle of confusing feelings, made all the difference in the world. That’s the power of peer support. Talking to mental health professionals and receiving various treatments can be an important piece to one’s recovery journey, but there is a special power in talking to others who have been in and through similar situations.
Now I work for an organization that highlights the importance of peer support as a key piece to mental health recovery. At 7 Cups, I work with thousands of volunteers all over the world who both give and receive peer support for their mental health. It shouldn’t be difficult to access and connect with someone who can relate to your struggle. That’s what my friend did for me, and that’s what I hope to be able to do for others who have mental health conditions or lost loved ones to suicide. All it takes is one person to say “I get it” to know that you are not alone.
Kate Mallow works with 7 Cups as their Group Support and Teen Community Manager where she combines her passions for mental health and working with volunteers. She has experience working as a crisis counselor with suicide prevention hotlines and has worked with national mental health organizations such as NAMI.
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