How to re-establish your inner happiness

By Anastasia Bekker

Elm Staff Writer

At Washington College, this semester’s midterms have finished, but students may still be feeling the stress from the exams. The mental strain of midterms can be overwhelming, but there are plenty of ways to balance your mental health after a hectic week of exams. Both psychologists and experts on the art of happiness, including researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Cambridge, offer several ways to cope with the pressure of daily life, including both during and after midterms.

Negative thought patterns are an easy habit to fall into despite hurting your mental well-being. Part of the reason why we get swept up in focusing on our problems is because it is built into our DNA.

“It’s an evolutionary adaptation,” The New York Times reporter Tara Parker Pope said. “Over-learning from the dangerous or hurtful situations we encounter through life [such as] bullying, trauma, and betrayal, helps us avoid them in the future and react quickly in a crisis.”

While stress has evolutionary benefits, it can also pile up quickly. Assignments from classes, tasks at work, and responsibilities from all parts of our lives each add a bit of stress to our mental load. To help with this issue, behavioral scientists and psychologists have several methods to alleviate it, some of which only require you to be more conscientious of the way you think.

Socratic questioning, in which a person analyzes and challenges their own thoughts and assumptions, may be familiar as an academic term, but it can also be applied to your mental health. 

To use this method, write down a thought that’s bothering you. Maybe, “I think I failed my midterm” or “I don’t think I can keep up in class,” or any other worry from life or school. Then, start asking questions about it.

Ask yourself why this thought occurred to you and if there’s any real reasoning behind it. Is there any proof that you did poorly on the test, or that you’ll fail the class? Ask if you’ve misread the situation, and what other conclusions you could draw if you view it from another perspective. 

“When you are feeling negative about yourself, ask yourself what advice you would give a friend who was down on herself,” Pope said. “Now try to apply that advice to you.”

While Socratic questioning, as well as showing compassion to yourself, can help you realize you’ve fallen into negative thinking, it’s important to remember not to try to ignore these negative thoughts once you’ve identified them.

Trying too hard not to think about something will likely only multiply those types of thoughts. Actively trying to suppress worrying ideas simply adds another source of stress. Instead, acknowledging it as a harmful thought will lessen its impact on your mental state. 

“The problem is that it’s hard to unlearn habits of a lifetime,” Kristin Neff, a psychologist at the University of Texas, said in Pope’s The New York Times article. “People have to actively and consciously develop the habit of self-compassion.” 

Changing thinking patterns can be a long process, and there are simpler methods of de-stressing for a more immediate boost of happiness — one of these is being active.

Being active doesn’t always mean exercising. A study done by researchers at the University of Cambridge in England showed that any kind of movement, even standing or walking from one room to another, can be beneficial to mental health.

“People who are generally more active are generally happier and, in the moments when people are more active, they are happier,” Gillian Sandstrom, one of the study’s co-authors, said in the 2017 report.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge study used an app to track participants’ activity level and asked for descriptions of their moods. The results showed that participants were happier when they were walking or moving around, even without strenuous exercise, as opposed to when they were sitting or lying down.

Beyond your own thoughts and behaviors, your environment can have an impact on your mental health. Spending time outside in a green space, like taking a hike or sitting in a park, can significantly improve your mood.

A study from Heriot-Watt University found that walking through parks or nature can have the same effect on the brain as meditation. Participants walking through these natural areas were recorded having lower stress levels and higher meditation levels, according to data collected from mobile electroencephalography devices, which track brain activity.

“This [study] has implications for promoting urban green space as a mood-enhancing environment for walking or for other forms of physical or reflective activity,” the study’s report, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2012, said.

Some people can’t plan a trip to the park or can’t always get up and move whenever they feel stressed — and that’s okay. There are multitudes of de-stressing methods that have been proved effective by research, and you can find ones that suit you and your lifestyle, such as meditating or practicing controlled breathing.

Controlled breathing is a stress-reducing technique that anyone can use at any time, and all it requires is that you focus your attention on your breath. 

“Breathing is massively practical,” Belisa Vranich, a psychologist and author, said The New York Times in 2016. “It’s meditation for people who can’t meditate.”

Other simple methods of reducing stress include de-cluttering your house, watching something funny, and even chewing gum. 

“A first-ever study from Swinburne University of Technology has found that chewing sugar free gum effectively reduces anxiety by more than 17 per cent during stressful situations,” an August 2015 report from Swinburne University said.

From chewing gum to restructuring the way you think, there’s a broad range of strategies to reduce mental strain. This variety ensures that, no matter your lifestyle or the cause of your stress, you can find something that works for you.

Midterms can be demanding of students, and the pressure of doing well can be a source of tension. Now that midterm exams have ended, it’s a perfect time to de-stress, recharge, and take care of your mental wellbeing.

Featured Photo caption: As the end of the semester draws near — and while still amid a widespread pandemic — students are looking for ways to find what makes them happy. Photo Courtesy of Stan B.

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