For the month of February, we are celebrating random acts of kindness (RAK) at Cooper. Scientific evidence shows us the positive effects of doing kind acts for others as well as receiving or even witnessing kindness.
The same article cites Erika Weisz, an empathy researcher and postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Harvard University, who shared that this feeling closely resembles positive empathy — the ability to experience someone else’s positive emotions. A small 2021 study examined positive empathy’s role in daily life and found that it propelled kind acts, like helping others. Sharing in someone else’s joy can also foster resilience, improve life satisfaction and help people cooperate during a conflict.
Saleem Reshamwala hosts “More Than a Feeling”, a podcast on emotions from the meditation and mindfulness platform Ten Percent Happier. Recently she published a piece on NPR sharing five practices for managing that nagging feeling of impending doom. She encourages us to recognize that the list of things we dread is almost endless, from the Sunday scaries and climate change to deadlines, the holidays, simple errands, and more. So what do we do about this? You can read the full article at https://www.npr.org/2022/11/22/1138759124/transform-the-way-you-deal-with-dread but a quick summary is offered below:
Rewrite your dread – We often struggle to talk about dread because it can feel so heavy. Poet and clinical psychologist Hala Alyan has a suggestion: Write down the things you’re concerned about. She shares a journal prompt to help you emotionally distance from your dread.
Draw your dread – What happens when we express our dread without words? Art therapist Naomi Cohen-Thompson and meditation teacher and writer Jeff Warren explain why reframing our attitudes toward dread nonverbally can help us accept what scares us.
Find the joy in dreading – Fear of death may be the ultimate type of dread we face, but clinical psychologist Rachel Menzies and death doula Alua Arthur say that facing death can be a joyful exercise. They make a compelling case for why remembering we will die – instead of trying to forget – can help us accept the inevitable.
Schedule your dread – This is how my dread works: I dread something. I try to avoid thinking about it. I fail. Before I know it, I’ve spent an entire day stuck in an endless loop of worry. Mattu shares some tips around this conundrum, including the benefits of carving out “worry time” to keep dread from becoming too overwhelming.
Notice your surroundings – After speaking with More Than a Feeling listeners, it became clear that one of the biggest issues they’re worried about right now is the state of our planet. I spoke with therapist Patty Adams, who helped me understand howconnecting to the environment can help us build emotional resilience— so that even if we feel paralyzed by “eco-dread,” as it’s called, we don’t stay there for too long.
What if instead of seeing aging as something to defeat and conquer, we were to embrace what gets better with age, and work to amplify these joys while mitigating the losses of youth? Ingrid Fetell Lee, designer and the founder of the blog The Aesthetics of Joy, recently asked herself this question. Ms. Lee outlined her thoughts on this in her article “Aging is inevitable, so why not do it joyfully? Here’s how” which can be read at TED.com. Briefly, though, she outlines the following 8 areas of emphasis. Those interested should read the full article at TED.com.
Seek out awe – In a study of older adults, researchers found that taking an “awe walk,” a walk specifically focused on attending to vast or inspiring things in the environment, increased joy and prosocial emotions (feelings like generosity and kindness) more than simply taking a stroll in nature. Interestingly, they also found that “smile intensity,” a measure of how much the participants smiled, increased over the eight-week duration of the study. These walks were only 15 minutes long, once a week, and are low impact, so this is an easy way to create more joy in daily life as we age.
Get a culture fix – A 1996 study of more than 12,000 people Sweden found that attending cultural events correlated with increased survival, while people who rarely attended cultural events had a higher risk of mortality. Since then, a raft of studies (a good summary of them here) has affirmed that people who participate in social activities such as attending church, going to the movies, playing cards or bingo, or going to restaurants or sporting events is linked with decreased mortality among older adults. One reason may be that these activities increase social connection, deepen relationships, and reinforce feelings of belonging, which are positively associated with well-being. Cultural activities also help keep the mind sharp. While the pandemic has made this one challenging, as things start to open up again, getting a culture fix can be an easy way to age joyfully.
Stimulate your senses – The acuity of our senses declines with age. The lenses of our eyes thicken and tinge more yellow, allowing less light into the eye. Our sense of smell, taste and hearing also become less sharp. So, while you don’t have to recreate setup camp in your local Yankee Candle Shop, enriching your environment with color, art, plants and other sensorially stimulating elements may be a worthwhile investment not just for protecting your mind as you age, but also your joy.
Buy yourself flowers – As if you needed an excuse for this one, but just in case, here you go. A study of older adults found that memory and mood improved when people were given a gift of flowers, which wasn’t the case when they were given another kind of gift. Why would flowers have this effect? One reason may link to research on the attention restoration effect, which shows that the passive stimulation we find in looking at greenery helps to restore our ability to concentrate. Perhaps improved attention also results in improved memory. Another possibility, which is pure speculation at this point, relates to the evolutionary rationale for our interest in flowers. Because flowers eventually become fruit, it would have made sense for our ancestors to take an interest in them and remember their location. Monitoring the locations of flowers would allow them to save time and energy when it came to finding fruiting plants later, and potentially reach the fruit before other hungry animals.
Try a time warp – There’s something joyful about a mini time warp. Maybe it’s revisiting a vacation spot you once loved, and steeping yourself in memories from an earlier time. Maybe it’s a getaway with friends where you banish all talk of present-day concerns. Maybe it’s finding a book or a stack of old magazines from back then and reading them while listening to throwback tunes.
Maximize mobility – Exercise is often touted as a way to stay healthy and vibrant at any age, but one finding that makes it particularly relevant as we get older is that movement has been shown in studies to increase the size of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a vital role in learning and memory. This is important because the hippocampus shrinks as we age, which can lead to memory deficits and increased risk of dementia. In one study of older adults, exercise increased hippocampus size by 2 percent, which is equivalent to reversing one to two years of age-related decline.
Refeather your nest – Once you start looking at negative tropes around aging, you start seeing more and more of them. Take the phrase “empty nest,” which carries strong connotations of loss and deprivation. One Lee-Anne Ragan offers up as a joyful process in the wake of children going off to start their own independent lives. She points out that the idea of an empty nest suggests that there’s nothing left, while refeathering takes a more ecological lens, imagining a kind of regeneration that happens as the home, and the family, transforms into something new. A refeathered nest is a place of possibility, creativity and delight.
Stay up on tech – While technology is often blamed for feelings of isolation, some studies show that for older adults, being technologically facile can offer a boost to well-being. One reason is that internet use may serve a predictor of social connection more broadly, and social connection is one of the most important contributors toward mental health and well-being throughout life, but especially in old age. Other studies suggest that when older adults lack the skills to be able to use technology effectively, it leads to a greater sense of disconnection and disempowerment and that offering training to older adults on technology can promote cognitive function, interpersonal connection and a sense of control and independence.
In a recent NPR interview, psychologist and friendship expert Marisa Franco details going through a rough breakup in 2015 and her attempts to learn on her friends for support. They did yoga, cooked and read together. As she and her friends grew closer, she realized they were a deep well of love, community and healing. And she began to understand the importance of non-romantic, non-family relationships.
Franco’s professional work now focuses on helping others experience that same profound level of friendship. Her latest publication offers tips on how to improve the quality of our platonic relationships. Some of these tips are below, but you can read the full article at
Say it – Tell them how much they mean to you. Tell them when you think of them in passing. Remind them you are grateful to know them. These simple acts provide a layer of security in the relationship. It shows your friends that you genuinely care for them and lets them know it’s safe to invest in your friendship.
Show them – “Think about what your skills and talents are and find a way to turn that into a generous act,” she says. For example, when she found out that her friends wanted to learn more about how to set up investment accounts, she used her research and analysis skills as a psychologist to put together a presentation on the topic for them. You can share acts of generosity like this with your friends, too. If you’re great with kids, you might offer to babysit for your friends who are parents. If you’re a gym rat, you could help your friend train for a race they have coming up. Or if you got a raise at work, treat your friends to a fancy dinner to celebrate.
Be Honest – We feel a deeper connection to our friends when our vulnerability is met with validation and support, says Franco. It means they accept us for who we really are, the good and the bad. So don’t be afraid to share your struggles with your friends, whether it’s an ex you’re having trouble getting over or a new job you’re having second thoughts about. They’re not going to judge you — and it may bring you closer. If you’re looking for a way to let your guard down without divulging your darkest secrets, Franco suggests sharing something positive, like a personal achievement — maybe you just finished sewing your first quilt, or you broke your own time record on a run.
Fight – But being able to deal with conflict with friends in a healthy, constructive way can strengthen your friendships, she says. It might be painful at first, but it shows you want to be authentic with them — and that you want to make your relationship better. Start by telling your friend how much you value them, says Franco. It signals that the reason you’re bringing up the issue is because you’re invested in the friendship. Use “I” statements when explaining your concerns so your friend doesn’t feel like you’re blaming them. For example, if you’ve noticed they’ve been canceling plans at the last minute since they started a new job, you might say: “I feel hurt when you bail on our plans without giving me any notice.” Ask your friend for a different behavior you want to see in the future. For example, “It would be great if you gave me a heads up a few hours in advance if you know you’re not going to be able to make it.”
It is normal to have strong reactions following a distressing or frightening event. Such stress reactions are normal and not weakness. Most people recover in time.
People can experience a range of physical, mental, emotional and behavioral reactions.
There are many things you can do to cope with and recover from trauma.
Seek professional help if you don’t begin to return to normal after three or four weeks.
Reactions to Trauma
All kinds of trauma create stress reactions. People often say that their first feeling is relief to be alive after a traumatic event. This may be followed by stress, fear and anger. Trauma may also lead people to find they are unable to stop thinking about what happened. Traumatic events can create a high level of arousal—or feeling alert or “on guard”—as well, which causes people to react strongly to sounds and sights around them.
The way a person reacts to trauma depends on the type and severity of the traumatic event, whether the person has any previous relevant experience or training, if they are active or helpless, the amount of available support following the incident, other current stressors in the person’s life, their personality, natural levels of resilience, and any previous traumatic experiences.
Common reactions can include:
Losing hope for the future
Feeling distant (detached) or losing a sense of concern about others
Being unable to concentrate or make decisions
Feeling jumpy and getting startled easily at sudden noises
Feeling on guard and alert all the time
Having dreams and memories that upset you
Having problems at work or school
Avoiding people, places and things related to the event
You may also experience more physical reactions such as:
Stomach upset and trouble eating
Trouble sleeping and feeling very tired
Pounding heart, rapid breathing, feeling shaky
Severe headache if thinking of the event
Not keeping up with exercise, diet, safe sex or regular health care
Smoking more, using alcohol or drugs more, or eating too much
Having your ongoing medical problems get worse
You may have more emotional troubles such as:
Feeling nervous, helpless, fearful, sad
Feeling shocked, numb, or not able to feel love or joy
Being irritable or having angry outbursts
Getting easily upset or agitated
Blaming yourself or having negative views of oneself or the world
Being unable to trust others, getting into fights, or being trying to control everything
Being withdrawn, feeling rejected, or abandoned
Feeling detached, not wanting intimacy
Making sense of the traumatic event
Once the distressing event is over, you may find yourself trying to make sense of the event. This can include thinking about how and why it happened, how and why you were involved, why you feel the way you do, whether feelings you are having indicate what kind of person you are, whether the experience has changed your view on life, and how.
Helping resolve traumatic reactions to trauma
There are a number of strategies that can help a person resolve traumatic reactions.
Recognize that you have been through a distressing or frightening experience and that you will have a reaction to it.
Accept that you will likely not feel your normal self for a period of time
Remind yourself daily that you are managing – try not to get angry or frustrated with yourself if you are not able to do things as well or efficiently as normal.
Don’t overuse alcohol or drugs to help you cope.
Avoid making major decisions or big life changes until you feel better.
Gradually confront what has happened – don’t try to block it out.
Express your feelings as they arise – talk to someone about your feelings or write them down.
Try to keep to your normal routine and stay busy.
When you feel exhausted, make sure you set aside time to rest.
Help your family and friends to help you by telling them what you need, such as time out or someone to talk to.
Relax – use relaxation techniques such as yoga, breathing or meditation, or do things you enjoy, such as listening to music or gardening.
Healing and recovery process after trauma
Any event that places a person’s own life or the lives of others at risk results in the human body going into a state of heightened arousal. This is like an ‘emergency mode’ that involves a series of internal alarms being turned on. Emergency mode gives people a lot of energy in a short period of time to maximize the chance of survival.
Most people only stay in emergency mode for a short period of time or until the immediate threat has passed, but sometimes people keep going into it afterwards when unexpected things happen. Being in emergency mode uses up vital energy supplies and this is why people often feel tired afterwards.
The normal healing and recovery process involves the body coming down out of heightened arousal. The internal alarms can turn off, the high levels of energy subside, and the body can re-set itself to a normal state of balance and equilibrium. Typically, this should occur within approximately one month of the event.
Seeking help from a health professional after a traumatic event
Traumatic stress can cause very strong reactions in some people and may become chronic (ongoing). You should seek professional help if you:
are feeling very distressed after the event
are unable to handle the intense feelings or physical sensations
don’t have normal feelings, but continue to feel numb and empty
feel that you are not beginning to return to normal after three or four weeks
continue to have physical stress symptoms
continue to have disturbed sleep or nightmares
deliberately try to avoid anything that reminds you of the traumatic experience
have no one you can share your feelings with
find that relationships with family and friends are suffering
are becoming accident-prone and using more alcohol or drugs
cannot return to work or manage responsibilities
keep reliving the traumatic experience
feel very much on edge and can be easily startled.
Summing It All Up
Right after a trauma, almost every survivor will find it hard to stop thinking about what happened. Stress reactions—such as fear, anxiety, jumpiness, upsetting memories, and efforts to avoid reminders—will gradually decrease over time for most people.
Use your personal support systems, family and friends, when you are ready to talk. Or, be a support for someone you care about who has been through a trauma. Recovery is an ongoing gradual process that takes time. Don’t look for a quick “cure” or assume that you will forget what happened. Most people will recover from trauma on their own. If your emotional reactions are getting in the way of your relationships, work or other important activities, you may want to talk to a counselor or your doctor. Good treatments are available.
Canadian writer David Sax has written for the New York Times about virtual kindergarten, Zoom Thanksgiving, and other failures of digital technology. Most recently, he penned an article discussing why strangers are good for us. He contrasts the not-too-distance past in which it was impossible to go through life without speaking, in some way, to a variety of strangers in your life to present day wherein one can spend a week in place as crowded as New York, shopping, traveling, eating and working, and never utter a sound to another human being, or even take your headphones off. He argues that strangers are actually one of the richest and most important resources we have because they connect us to the community, teach us empathy, build civility and are full of surprise and potentially wonder. In particular he cites a study published last fall that showed that despite our fears of awkwardness, deep, meaningful conversations with strangers are not only easier than expected but also left participants feeling better about themselves. Mr. Sax highlights his points by observing that connection still possible as evidenced by his son’s propensity for going to the playground, being near other children, and walking away a short time later calling them friend, without ever knowing their name.
Read Mr. Sax’s full piece, Why Strangers Are Good for Us, at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/12/opinion/strangers-talking-benefits.html?referringSource=articleShare
Read the study he cites, Overly Shallow?: Miscalibrated Expectations Create a Barrier to Deeper Conversation, at https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-pspa0000281.pdf
Or just head to the caf, sit down next to someone you don’t know, and make a new friend!
The concept of Intersectionality is key in understanding wellness for all, especially members of the LGBTQIA+. Briefly, this is the concept that the many, interrelated systems that exist in our world and that often influence power and autonomy impact those who are most marginalized in society. To promote wellness, it is important to look beyond a person’s individual identities and focusing on the points of intersection that their multiple identities create to try to better appreciate their lived experience. To be a health care provider, or simply a good friend, family, or ally, an intersectional lens is needed.
You can learn more about Intersectionality, how it manifests, and how we can use what we learn from taking this perspective to promote wellness at http://www.lgbtiqintersect.org.au/learning-modules/intersectionality/. Some key take-aways are reflection questions are below.
Part of taking an intersectional approach is recognizing people’s lives are multi-dimensional and complex; we expect multiple stories
Human lives cannot be explained by single categories, such as gender, race, sexual orientation etc. Lived experience is an interactive process that goes beyond individual labels
Lived experience is shaped by the interaction of identities, contexts and social dynamics
People can experience privilege and oppression simultaneously
Structural inequity interacts with contextual factors and social dynamics, increasing marginalization, inequity, and health disparity
To understand someone’s experience, we must also understand structures and systems
Relationships involve power dynamics and power imbalances are inevitable. The question is how we acknowledge and negotiate power, particularly in institutions
Reflexivity can support service providers to increase their awareness of their positions of power
Urges transformation and collective work towards social justice
How do your own race, gender, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other identities intersect to form your experiences? Do you experience any forms of inequity or discrimination due to your identities? Are some more privileged? Are some less so?
What power dynamics do you experience in your occupation, family life, and other social contexts? Are there times in which you hold more power due to the nature of the relationship (e.g. between a doctor and their patient) or vice versa? In what ways do these power dynamics affect your interactions with other people and services?
What are some ways in which you can support people to share the complexity of their lives?
Coping strategies can buffer the impact of identity-related stigma and decreased psychological well-being. As such, there has been increased interest in the ongoing coping strategies used by LGBTQIA+ people to promote their wellness, especially over the last several years as threats to their identity and emotional and physical wellbeing have increased. Accordingly, some guidance is offered below from psychologists Kirsten A. Gonzalez, a Latinx, heterosexual, cisgender woman; Roberto L. Abreu, who identifies as a first-generation Latinx gay cisgender man; and Lex Pulice-Farrow, a counseling psychology doctoral student who identifies as a White queer nonbinary person. Their recommendations are summary of what was shared by 335 LGBTQIA+ individuals who have been negatively impacted by a variety of discriminatory and threatening events in recent years. Complete details are offered in their article “In the Voices of People Like Me” at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/00110000211057199