A 7-Day Stress Prescription (The Science of Happiness…

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Is there such a thing as good stress? Our guest learns to welcome her stress by understanding how it can actually help her, plus tips and tricks to not feel too much of it.

Episode summary:

Like many of us, our guest Yana Leventon has dealt with a fair amount of stress in her life. But after living through the COVID-19 pandemic and grappling with the ongoing war in Ukraine (with relatives on both sides of the border) Yana’s stress levels reached a new high. This week’s episode is all about how we can reframe our relationship with stress. Yana spent one week trying a new practice each day. All 7 of the practices were aimed at managing different aspects of stress, from physically metabolizing her stress through exercise to visualization and breathing techniques. These exercises helped her regain a sense of clarity about what is truly not in her control, and agency over what is. She began to see stress as a normal and necessary part of life that can actually be beneficial in the right amount. Later, we hear from the psychologist who developed this stress management tool, Elissa Epel. She discusses the importance of developing a positive relationship with stress, and how we can use stress to feel a sense of empowerment.


Day 1. Embrace Uncertainty: Releasing Embodied Stress

Day 2. Let Go of What You Can’t Control: Stress Inventory

Day 3. Find Excitement in Challenges: Stress Shield

Day 4. Metabolize Body Stress: Hormetic Stress

Day 5. Immerse Yourself in Nature: Sensory Absorption

Day 6. Experience Deep Rest: Breath for Restoration

Day 7. Create Bliss Bookends: Start and End Full of Joy

For more information on each of the daily practices, check out Elissa Epel’s book, The Stress Prescription.
Today’s guests:

Yana Leventon was a refugee in Austria and Italy before migrating to the United States from the former USSR when she was 10 years old.
Elissa Epel is a psychologist who specializes in stress, aging and well-being. She has developed self-care practices rooted in scientific research to improve how we cope with stress.

Learn more about Elisa and her work: https://www.elissaepel.com/

Read Elissa’s book, The Stress Prescription: https://tinyurl.com/yt66t3b3

Follow Elissa on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Dr_Epel

Follow Elissa on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TelomereEffect
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:

How to Transform Stress into Courage and Connection: https://tinyurl.com/n49fzhf7

Seven Ways to Have a Healthier Relationship With Stress: https://tinyurl.com/mr3yy6b5

Is Stress Making You Withdraw from People? https://tinyurl.com/4kkesr7s

Could Stress Help You Find Your Purpose in Life? https://tinyurl.com/2ssz7mck

The Surprising Benefits of Stress: https://tinyurl.com/3uynfkf2
More Resources on Managing Stress:

National Institute for Mental Health – I’m So Stressed Out! Fact Sheet: https://tinyurl.com/4hr3eawc

TED – How to make stress your friend: https://tinyurl.com/y5bsj3ks

Harvard Business Review – Turning Stress into an Asset: https://tinyurl.com/3fdzfx3v

Johns Hopkins – Sleepless Nights? Try Stress Relief Techniques: https://tinyurl.com/mw6jxbvz
Do you struggle with managing your stress levels? What’s your go-to stress management tool? Email us at happinesspod@berkeley.edu or use the hashtag #happinesspod.

Help us share The Science of Happiness!

Leave us a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts and share this link with someone who might like the show: https://tinyurl.com/2p9h5aap


Yana Leventon: I think from early on, um, I was anxious of how my family’s going to make it or survive. I was almost 10 when we left Ukraine. It took a year to get to the United States. We had to go through Austria and Italy and live there as refugees. And then watching my parents struggle. I think this heavy sense of responsibility just made for a very anxious life.

I’ve had a series of events happen back to back.

Our house burned down in Sonoma in the wildfires. My son went off to college. You know, when COVID started. It felt like everything was literally being taken away from me. And that was very scary. Coming out of COVID and going into the war was an absolutely shocking experience.

The Ukrainians and the Russians were, you know, allies. They were on the same side, fighting the same enemy. And here we are fighting each other, and I have relatives on both sides of the border. And that created a lot of stress.

Not being able to sleep through the night, waking up very early with just spiraling thoughts going down the rabbit hole. The stresses that came where your back is against the wall. I used to think of myself as a resilient person. And, um, something happened.

Dacher Keltner: I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome to the Science of Happiness. Stress is something we’ve all experienced, and we’ll never be totally free of it. But sometimes, it can get to be too much.

This week we’re going to explore a new way to look at stress, and seven things we can do to help us reduce and manage it.

Yana Leventon has had her own series of stressors throughout her life. We asked Yana to try seven stress-reducing practices for our show over a period of seven days.

Later we’ll get into the science behind these seven stress-reducing tips from the stress expert who put together these practices, psychologist. Elissa Epel.

Elissa Epel: Since we know we can’t eradicate the slings and arrows of life, they will come. The question is how can we ride the wave smoothly? How can we not fight the riptide?

Dacher Keltner: More, after this break.

Welcome back to the Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner.

Some estimates show that more than 30 percent of people are living with really profound stress, and the pandemic has only heightened that.

Yana Leventon is among those people. She tried a seven-day approach to stress that was put together by one of the leading scientists on stress, my dear friend, psychologist Elissa Epel.

Each day you focus on a different activity to reduce and reframe your own stress. Like getting out in nature, or writing a list of things you can’t control.

Here’s part of our conversation.

Yana, you immigrated to the United States from the former USSR as a child. And I’m curious, you know, as you think about your life now. How did that influence you?

Yana Leventon: I think from early on, I was anxious. It took a year to get to the United States. And my father was already diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, so that’s something that was always this underlying stress in the family. I think I just had to learn how to hustle very early on. I always felt responsible. And it’s carried. I hear you into my adulthood.

Dacher Keltner: How do you sense that in your body?

Yana Leventon: Probably the most obvious is not being able to sleep through the night. Waking up very early with just spiraling thoughts going down the rabbit hole. And it’s something that literally started just a few years ago.

Dacher Keltner: Well you’re not alone. I know. Literally the pandemic brought about a 30 percent rise in generalized anxiety around the world. So it’s something we’re all living with.

So Yana I’d like to zero in on one of the first things this 7-day practice asks you to do. Make a list of what you can, and can not control. Sort of like a stress inventory, to get a sense of what’s really worrying you. How’d it go?

Yana Leventon: Yes. The idea of having two buckets.

Yana Leventon: So one bucket of things I can control, and the other one of things I cannot control and I have to let go.

Yana Leventon: So things about the war. Went into my second bucket.

In fact, my overall list of stressors just shrunk because there were things I cannot control. I can’t control inflation. The rising interest rates is going to happen with real estate. What my son’s gonna do after college. You know, what’s gonna happen with my father who has MS. So that went into that bucket. So I, in the morning when I would wake up – those early morning hours at five and six, when my thoughts are flying, those things, I separated out. I was not thinking about them anymore. I was dealing more with my immediate to-do list and what I can do about the things on that list.

Things that I actually do have control over. You know, do I schedule an appointment? Do I respond to an email? That I can do. And that’s what I’m gonna wake up doing. And that was my mindset. Waking up in the morning is – do what I can do and let go of everything else. That worked very well.

Yana Leventon: I created a visual image of me literally carrying these two buckets the way I used to carry water when I was little, you know, back home from the well. So I can relate to that image of carrying my two buckets of things I can and cannot control. So I think just letting go of the control, made a big shift for me because I literally, I felt like I, my health was being affected by the way I was reacting to it and I think this was key for me.

Dacher Keltner: I think in the West, you know, and there are studies of this, we overestimate our influence on things and how much agency we have. So that’s fascinating.

Dacher Keltner: Day six, is to experience deep rest. You know, when I think about just how prevalent sleep issues and rest issues and how hard we work – People in the United States work – I’ve read one estimate is 140 hours more a year than a generation ago. What did you do to find rest?

Yana Leventon: I really started focusing on breathing. I do slow – light, slow deep breaths. So, four counts in hold for four, let out for four. And I do that four times.

Yana Leventon: And I was shocked as to the results it produced. So I started doing that when, you know, I can’t sleep through the night and I feel like I can’t get that deep rest.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah. You know, we know physiologically it activates the vagus nerve, slows heart rate, affects the flow of blood. Julian Thayer down at UC Irvine has done a lot of tests on that counting approach. It could be 4-8-6 or 4-4-4, whatever works for you. It’s incredible.

Yana Leventon: It really is.

Dacher Keltner: I mean, it changes your brain patterns, it changes your ability to handle stress. What did it give you?

Yana Leventon: When I do wake up that early morning and having my catastrophic thoughts is what I call ‘em, when I do the breathing exercises, I’m actually able to fall back asleep.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah.

Yana Leventon: So the last few days I tried it. I even tried it this morning and it worked. Or at least it gets you closer to beginning to feel calm. But I felt the clarity because sometimes I think the stress response we’re having is your mind gets cloudy, it gets confused. Too much information is coming at you. You don’t have time to really, you know, put it into its little compartments and breathing kind of introduces that clarity. Where for the moment you can be just crystal clear about exactly what your next move should be.

Dacher Keltner: You know, Elissa Epel’s program is really just a beginning, you know – like, get these habits going in seven days to reduce your stress. I’m curious, as a final question, what will you take forward?

Yana Leventon: What I realized is that once you embrace the fact that stress is actually here to stay and it’s the way that you perceive it and what you do with it and actually can work in your favor as well. That, you know, kind of shifted my whole. It actually kind of freed me. Because before I almost felt guilty. Like, oh my God, I haven’t given up stress. I’m still stressing. I have this, I have that, but why am I still stressed? You know?

Dacher Keltner: Yeah.

Yana Leventon: I think I’ve learned to use anxiety as something that pushes me forward. As uncomfortable as it is, when it happens, I just understand that there’s a massive amount of stress coming my way and that I have to use stress in a positive way to achieve something.

Dacher Keltner: Well, Yana Leventon, you know, I know you have so much going on in your life, thank you for taking time to be on The Science of Happiness.

Yana Leventon: Thank you for having me.

Dacher Keltner: Up next, the psychologist who created these seven steps, Elisa Epel, explains why they work, and shares her tips for how to do them.

Elissa Epel: There are the slings and arrows that life has in store for us that we don’t have control over. And then there’s our stress response and that’s the part that we control.

Dacher Keltner: More, after this break.

Welcome back The Science of Happiness. I’m Dacher Keltner. We’ve been talking about stress today, and ways to help manage it.

We’re not trying to eradicate stress, for much if it is justified, and all stress isn’t bad.

In fact, it’s wise to be worried about climate crises, social injustices, economic issues, the health of our loved ones. Stress can motivate action. But too much stress is harmful.

Elissa Epel: Since we know we can’t eradicate the slings and arrows of life, they will come. The question is how can we ride the wave smoothly? How can we not fight the riptide? How can we feel ease when we’re between the waves?

Dacher Keltner: Elissa Epel is a psychology professor at University of California San Francisco. And she’s the author of The Stress Prescription: 7 Days to More Joy and Ease.

Our executive producer of the podcast Shuka Kalantari spoke with Elissa about each of the seven steps in the book, and some of the research that led her to recommend them.

Shuka Kalantari: Day one of the stress prescription is, there is uncertainty in the world, but instead of pushing against it to embrace it. What are some of the practices that we can do to help us embrace uncertainty?

Elissa Epel: We can just simply ask ourselves, what are we holding onto at this moment? What are we worrying about? What might we name that’s actually just an unformed feeling of stress, threat, and uncertainty? And so once we name the different feelings we have realize, oh, that’s not a solvable problem, and I can actually let go of that. The worry will come back to me, but right now I can put down the baggage and feel this certainty of this moment. When we actually have time to live in the present. When we’re embodied, we are not tensing up and waiting for the next wave.

Shuka Kalantari: Day two, let go of what you can’t control. Tell us a little bit about this idea of letting go if we can’t control and some tools to do that.

Elissa Epel: So the first step is to list everything that bothers us. Making a stress inventory. Just make an uncensored long list. And at the simplest level, we can try to make two piles. What here can I control? Once we say that, we can in a sense, let ourselves release that burden. The heaviness of that situation from our body and our mind at least temporarily.

Shuka Kalantari: And now we’re on day three, which is to find excitement and challenges by having a positive stress mindset. What do you mean by positive stress mindset?

Elissa Epel: How are we viewing our body’s stress response? Because it’s so easy to be stressed out by our body’s heart rate going up, heart beating, feeling sweaty. All of those symptoms that we’re stressed can make us more stressed. So we can also view that as empowering. Focusing on the positive aspects. How it helps us perform, how it can help us grow and thrive and problem solve.

There’s all sorts of research showing that when we view the positive stress response in our body as an asset, we actually perform better.

Shuka Kalantari: And now we’re on day four, which is get into the body and exercise. You gave some examples, you know, you could take a HITT class or you could walk briskly, you know, anything to get into your body.

Elissa Epel: When we are exposed to repeated, manageable stressors then we then we’re building strength. We’re building nervous system fitness or stress fitness. So when we expose our body to physiological stressors, we have a quick peak and then a quick recovery, and that is like fitness training. It can actually be strengthening both emotionally building skills but also really physiologically in the cells.

Shuka Kalantari: Now we’re on the fifth day of the stress prescription, and this is something we talk about a lot on The Science of Happiness, which is just the healing aspects of nature and immersing ourselves in nature. In your book you even talk about how in New Zealand doctors will write green prescriptions, essentially recommending people to go outdoors for a couple hours a week.

Elissa Epel: I was so delighted to find such a rich literature about the green effect. About the various ways that nature affects our body, our stress response, our blood pressure, but as well as reducing anxiety, feelings of stress. If you ask people about a time in their life when they felt the most safe or the most deeply relaxed, you often find stories of nature, and in fact, you find “aha” stories. People often feel great insights during nature. So these green prescriptions are brilliant. I don’t know when, or if ever, we’ll adopt them in our American healthcare system, but we don’t need to because when people understand there’s nature just doesn’t feel good, but it actually has these really well documented benefits to mind – body health, I think that we can write our own green prescription.

Shuka Kalantari: Day six is something that I think especially here in Western culture, is the hardest to allow oneself to do, which is to experience real and deep rest.

So, how do we kind of settle in our busy mind on that sixth stage or like truly experience rest?

Elissa Epel: One of the antidotes, is actually saying, actually, this is my body break time. And slow breathing is just a beautiful direct way to slow down. Many people have a very fast rate of breathing, like 16 breaths per minute or above, and that’s common. And that is leading us toward potentially a subtle state of hyperventilation. So we can do wonders just by slowing our breath. Slow breathing, especially long exhalations help with our nervous system balance, creating more of a parasympathetic or a vagal tone dominant state. And that right there is golden. That’s restorative.

Shuka Kalantari: So the final day is my favorite, which is to create bliss bookends. This idea of intentionally starting your day and ending your day with moments of mindful joy. Can you share a bit more about that and what that means and what kind of led you to see these bookends of our days is so transformational?

Elissa Epel: Much of this came from our studies and other people’s studies using these daily diaries, and so we get a peek into people’s mood when they wake up and when they go to bed. And what we’ve learned from those is that when people wake up with more joy they have lower cortisol and higher levels of the anti-aging enzyme telomeres. And, this waking up with joy is not something that’s automatic for many of us, but there are so many ways that we can take a few minutes out to promote feelings of eudaimonia. There are questions we can ask ourselves. It’s very helpful to use that morning time to set an intention. To have a vow. To say something that brings you hope. I have a friend that says, “May I lead with love.” So it can be very simple. And the way that we fall asleep is very important. The level of positivity that we feel at night or the level of negative emotions predicts long-term health in so many ways. So it predicts less heart disease, 10 years later, less depression and even lower mortality. So we think of this as recovery from stress. Can we still feel some joy, some ease, some content, some satisfaction even after a stressful day? And if we don’t feel that naturally, we can promote that. And that’s what the bookends are about.

Elissa Epel: It really is about, Not feeling like we can control the waves, because we can’t. We so believe that we control the future and we try to, all the time. We’re constantly thinking about planning, worrying, controlling, and feeling that uncertainty of the future that’s inherent and that can be a load on us. But we can also realize that all right, I can actually lean back and wait for a wave to come, and then receive it as it comes and surf the best way.

Dacher Keltner: I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. What helps you cope with stress? Share with us by emailing happiness pod-AT-Berkeley dot E-D-U, or use the hashtag happinesspod.

To learn more about The Stress Prescription and Dr. Elissa Epel’s research on stress, visit our show notes wherever you’re listening right now.

Our Executive Producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Sound designer Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. And our associate producers for this episode are Bria Suggs, Maarya Zafar, and Ruth Desseault. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.

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