I am scared for angry people—especially angry people who are stressed about COVID-19 and fearful of getting sick, because the more stressed you are and the angrier you are, the higher your chances of getting sick. Not just heart attacks, strokes and ulcers—chronic stress directly affects production of lymphocytes, the cells that fight viruses such as COVID-19.
This is just one reason that I’ve been working on a big happiness project to help people understand and find happiness in a whole new way. One day in the near future, I will explain it all to you. But for the moment, I want to focus on how stress and anger are undercutting your happiness from a biochemical perspective. As long as you’re drowning yourself with cortisol with every spike of frustration, you are simultaneously increasing your risk for illness and suppressing your ability to be happy…seriously.
Not only does cortisol—the hormone released when our emotions flare—create sickness that causes inflammation, it also reduces the levels of our feel-good hormones, including dopamine and serotonin. It’s like weeds smothering the healthy grass and preventing it from growing—literally suppressing it. The more stressed you are, the less able your body is to physically feel joy. You can’t be happy when you are lacking in these brain chemicals.
It’s a vicious cycle—you want to feel and be happy, but you get stressed. Then you become stressed and frustrated that your life is so unhappy. So today I want to help you break the cycle with an exercise (not a sweaty exercise…a do-something exercise), which will also appear in the book that I am writing.
Step one is awareness—literally slowing down and observing the connection between your thoughts and your body.
We are so busy living our lives and jumping from task to task that we have disassociated our bodies from our brains and our feelings. Our bodies function as vessels to get us from here to there, but we don’t connect what’s going on in our thoughts and feelings with how well our bodies function. The fascinating thing is that if you start observing what you think and how your body reacts to it, you will see that there is a direct line.
Let me give you a feel-good example. Think about watching your child graduate from school…in your mind hear the processional music and see all the excited graduates in their ceremonial gowns. You probably get goosebumps all over your body.
Or think about that rush of excitement when you saw your music idol step on a concert stage. When your emotions are high, your body reacts with warmth, goosebumps and more.
Now, on the flip side, is the tension that arises when we are stressed or angry—tightness in your chest or across the crown of your head…fogginess in your brain because you can’t think straight…churning in your stomach…raised shoulders. What happened? What caused it? A frustrating phone call or a long line at the grocery store or an upsetting item on the news—any of a million things. The sad part is that this reaction happens dozens—possibly even hundreds—of times during the day, and with each episode, your body releases cortisol, which suppresses your immune system as well as your joy.
Here is the exercise that I suggest you try. Use a journal or any notepad—paper or digital—to help you become an observer of your own body and jot down every time you feel a negative response occur. In your journal, put the following four headings…
What happened right before…
And then fill in the entries throughout the day. Here are some thoughts to help you…
I Felt: Pretend that you’re a hypochondriac who is very alert to your body’s every change. Did your stomach churn? Jaw clench? Head get thick? Shoulders tighten? Heart rate pick up? Chest tighten? Watch for every reaction—big or small—that your body has to the negative stimulus.
What happened right before? What did you see? What did someone say? What did someone do? What did you hear? What did you think?
At the simplest level, watch for small irritations throughout the day—the slow line at the store, poor cell-phone service, your children leaving messes around the house, your spouse doing that annoying thing that drives you crazy and, yes, even how you react to the news or social-media posts…you know the ones. Observe the chatter in your mind and the tension in your body.
The goal is to become aware of the connection between your mind and your body. Once you do that, you can change your reactions and preserve your health.
No one is judging you, so don’t be defensive. The point is to catch ourselves during these moments and see how our bodies are connected to them and respond to protect us.
Do this for a few days just to become aware of the experience. Write down your experiences and review so you can see the patterns.
By identifying the thoughts and situations that cause your body to revolt, you can adjust your mind-set and disrupt the physical responses to rein in your cortisol spikes and allow your happy hormones to do their job.
After a few days of observation, start to take action to stop that cortisol rush. How? With distraction—similar to the distraction techniques used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). As soon as you see/feel yourself sliding down the cortisol path, distract yourself with anything that redirects you. The goal is to stop your negative reaction and the biochemical cascade that comes with it.
Start building an arsenal of strategies that you can rely on to distract yourself from upsetting situations. When you realize that you’re about to fall into a quicksand of negativity, do something to redirect your thoughts. It can be as simple as thinking about your adorable dog, your favorite beach vacation, the sex you had with your partner last night or simply adding up the numbers on the street signs or license plates you’re passing on the road—anything that stops the negative cascade.
The key is to disrupt the mental and emotional patterns—and that will, in turn, stop the release of hormones. A burst of cortisol takes hours to clear from your body, so if you have one negative reaction an hour—though likely there are far more—that means you will never be free of the cortisol that is ravaging your body.
Here are some other examples of distractors…
- Create a mantra for yourself, such as I know what is happening, and I have a choice to stay calm.
- Find a favorite tune that you can start humming.
- Notice a color—look around wherever you are for a specific color.
- Flick a rubber band that you wear on your wrist for just this purpose.
- Repeat a tongue twister.
- Create a simple movement, such as touching each of your fingers, one by one, to your thumb—your signal to put the brakes on negative reactions.
Health and happiness are all that anyone really wants. Yet, we steal it from ourselves with each agitation. Try my little game above. Watch yourself. Track yourself. And see if you can switch yourself from a land of sad to a land of glad.
Sarah Hiner, president and CEO of Bottom Line Inc., is passionate about giving people the tools and knowledge they need to be in control of their lives in areas such as living a healthier life, the challenges of the health-care system, commonsense financial advice and creating great relationships. She appears often on national radio and hosts the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast, where she interviews leading experts to help people be their own best advocates in all areas of life.