Winter 2017

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Northwestern is the quarterly alumni magazine for Northwestern University.
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Judith Moskowitz is a professor of medical social sciences and director of research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University.

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There are simple, effective ways to cope with the tensions, worries and anxieties in our lives.

by Judith Moskowitz

Life is hard and full of stress: You misplace your keys, get a bad grade in school or some negative feedback at work; traffic is making you late; your paycheck barely covers the rent; your child is struggling in school; your dog is making this weird wheezing noise, and there’s no time to take her to the vet; it is raining, and you forgot your umbrella; natural disasters are affecting people you care about; you are diagnosed with a serious illness; loved ones die.

I’m not pointing this out to add to your already stressful life. Rather, my point is that stressful experiences are the norm. And along with these feelings of stress come negative emotions like fear, sadness, frustration, anger and guilt.

Stress and the negative emotions that go along with it are part of the human experience. And in many ways, these emotions are adaptive. They help us focus on things that are threatening to us — physically or psychologically.

However, if experienced repeatedly over a long period of time, stress can have an effect not just on your psychological well-being but on your physical health as well. In fact, there is a large body of research demonstrating that the long-term experience of stress is related to higher risk of mortality.

All is not lost, however. Research in the past 20 years has demonstrated that the experience of positive emotion, even alongside negative emotion, helps people cope with all types of life stress. By positive emotion I mean positive feelings like being happy, content, excited, joyful, proud, in awe and in love. Positive emotions aren’t simply the flip side of negative emotions — it isn’t that you are either feeling happiness or sadness, fear or contentment. You can feel a little bit of both.

In the context of stressful life events, it is possible to experience moments of positive emotion, and these moments can buffer the negative effects of stress. And positive emotion is associated with better psychological and physical health, independent of the deleterious effects of negative emotion and stress.

In the past 10 years my work has focused on testing a set of eight skills that specifically aim to increase the daily experience of positive emotion. My colleagues and I hypothesize that these more frequent experiences of positive emotion increase individuals’ ability to cope with their life stresses and result in better psychological and physical health by providing a breather or break from stress and by replenishing psychological resources to help individuals sustain coping efforts.

We have tested these eight positive emotion skills in people experiencing health-related and other serious life stress: noticing positive events; savoring positive events; gratitude; mindfulness; positive reappraisal or reframing; noting personal strengths; setting and working toward attainable goals; and acts of kindness.

In a recently completed randomized trial, we taught these positive emotion skills to family caregivers of dementia patients and compared the caregivers to a group who simply reported their emotions in a daily diary format. The results demonstrated that the participants who were taught the positive emotion skills had significantly greater decreases in depression and anxiety and increases in positive emotion and positive views of caregiving.

“Doing this study helped me look at my life not as a big neon sign that says ‘DEMENTIA’ in front of me,” one caregiver said. “Yeah, dementia is out there, but I’ve kind of unplugged the neon sign and scaled down the size of the letters.”

It is important to keep a couple points in mind when thinking about positive emotions in the context of stress and how practicing these skills may help you cope with your own stress. First, this is not a magical package of eight skills that must be practiced together to have an impact. Rather, we think of these skills as options for people to select from, because different skills appeal to different people. Second, although I have done much of my work with people coping with significant health-related stress, these skills are not specific to those particular situations.

Instead, the evidence suggests that practicing these skills can help you cope with whatever type of stress you are experiencing. Finally, it is important to know that we are not advocating a simplistic “don’t worry, be happy” approach to stress and are not asking you to deny the stress in your life or suppress the associated negative emotions.

Instead, with these skills we are offering an opportunity to experience more positive emotion alongside the negative, which will ultimately help you better cope with whatever stress you experience.