by Jodi Cohen
One of my goals for the New Year is to increase the amount of love, joy and happiness I allow myself to receive every day. Joy helps turn on the parasympathetic nervous system which helps your body receive the benefits of all your other healing practices.
I often talk about releasing negative emotions. The powerful flip side of that coin is allowing yourself to experience more positive emotions, like happiness, joy and love.
These positive emotions not only make you feel good, they also trigger the release of hormones that help your body heal. For example, when you feel anxious or afraid, your “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to help your body fight or flee.
When you feel positive emotions, like joy, happiness, excitement, enthusiasm, or contentment, your body shifts into the parasympathetic branch of your nervous system, releasing happy neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine into your bloodstream to help your body rest and repair. Dopamine and serotonin are heavily associated with feelings of joy and happiness (in fact, people with clinical depression often have lower levels of serotonin).
Positive emotions also trigger the release of “feel-good” chemicals and hormones like Oxytocin (the love hormone) and Endorphins (a pain reliever and happiness booster) which bind to cell receptors and block pain signals. Both of these chemicals are heavily associated with happiness (in fact, people with clinical depression often have lower levels of serotonin).
These hormonal cascades are mutually exclusive- with either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system dominating at any given time. Actively choosing to experience positive emotions help shifts your body and its resulting chemical cascade into a more parasympathetic dominant and healing state.
How Do Positive Emotions Support Healing?
Happy people live longer. That statement is supported by Dr. Kelly Turner in her book Radical Remission, which identifies nine characteristics that those who survived cancer had in common, including increasing positive emotions.
Turner sites research that joy has been shown to significantly improve the immune system’s ability to remove cancer cells. “Laughter has been shown to increase the number of immune cells of people undergoing chemotherapy.”
There has actually been considerable research correlating a positive attitude with better health and a longer life. For example, a 2005 paper found that happiness predicts lower heart rate and blood pressure. In the study, participants rated their happiness over 30 times in one day and then again three years later. The initially happiest participants had a lower heart rate on follow-up (about six beats slower per minute), and the happiest participants during the follow-up had better blood pressure and 23 percent lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than the least happy.
Another study observed and rated participants on a scale of one to five for the extent to which they expressed positive emotions like joy, happiness, excitement, enthusiasm, and contentment found that over the span of ten years, the happier participants were less likely to have developed coronary heart disease. In fact, for each one-point increase in positive emotions they had expressed, their heart disease risk was 22 percent lower.
Happiness also seems to lower stress and boost immunity. Research associated the tendency to experience positive emotions, such as feeling energetic, pleased, and calm, with greater resistance to colds and fewer unfounded symptoms. Additional research “suggests that dispositional positive affect may be associated with decreased vulnerability to (and protection against) upper respiratory infections.”
In other words, happier people are less susceptible to sickness. Participants who were high in positive emotion were nearly twice as likely to have a high antibody response—a sign of a robust immune system.
Happiness has also been shown to mitigate aches and pains, disease and lifespan.
What are Positive Emotions?
Positive emotions are really anything that lift your mood and make you feel better. They can include joy, happiness, excitement, enthusiasm, inspiration, interest, contentment or hope. Love is a strong positive emotion that includes both the feeling of self-love and nurturing and love shared with and received from others (so long as you allow yourself to receive it).
Here’s the best part. You don’t need to be happy all day, every day. Dr. Turner found that scheduling 5 minutes of happiness a day was significant enough to shift your health.
You just need 5 minutes to let yourself laugh, sing, dance, smile, send a kind note or share a warm embrace to help boost your immunity and your health. You can even set a reminder and a timer to add happiness to your daily routine.
10 Easy Ways to Boost Positivity
I remember during the height of my adrenal fatigue when people would advise that I just reduce my stress load. At the time, I wasn’t yet aware of how to shift my internal environment to reduce stress and the idea of reframing the external demands as a single working mom of two very active children felt impossible and frankly more stressful.
I do not want to send you into that tailspin. Quite the opposite. My goal is to help you identify one of the following strategies that you can do for just 5 minutes a day. In a gift bonus chapter of my new book Essential Oils to Boost the Brain & Heal the Body, I share 25 strategies to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is my best strategy to shift my internal environment to reduce stress. You can grab it HERE!
If you purposefully make time every day to do something that brings you joy, it will become a routine. The more you practice daily joy, the quicker and easier it will be to access the feeling of joy and the longer the pleasant effects will last. This doesn’t mean that you won’t still feel stress, fear, grief and anger, but building the joy muscle helps to crowd out these negative feelings with more positive feelings.
I wanted to share my 10 favorite strategies to boost positivity. When in doubt, I find it easiest to try to boost joy by engaging my five senses of taste, touch, smell, sight and sound.
1. Move Your Body (Engage all of your senses)
Any kind of physical movement, including walking, running, yoga, help can boost positive emotions by releasing feel good endorphins and other natural brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that enhance your sense of well-being. Exercise can also take your mind off worries and negative thoughts that may feed negative emotions like depression or anxiety.
Smiling can immediately shift your mood. So much so that when I have to respond to challenging situations or emails, I always smile while crafting my response as it calms my nervous system and allows for my best self and best response to shine through. Polyvagal theory author Dr. Stephen Porges details how the myelinated branch of your vagus nerve literally connects to your facial muscles associated with expression, vocal communication and social behavior through its activation of the muscles of the face and neck including those that influence facial expression, like smiling, and vocal resonance.
This is one reason that smiling is an effective strategy to trick your brain into boosting positive emotions. Smiling has been shown to elevate your mood, lower your heart rate, and reduce your stress levels. Your smile does not even need to be based on real emotion. Forcing yourself to smile even when you don’t feel like smiling works as well. Your body does not know the difference between feeling good with a smile that’s genuine or intending one by forcing a smile.
Smell is my favorite way to engage joy. I love the smell of my coffee brewing in the morning and the smell of the air after it rains. Smell, and essential oils like Rose and Parasympathetic, always bring me immediately into the moment and into joy.
Your sense of smell connects directly to the part of your brain that regulates the release of several major hormones. These hormones directly impacting how you feel and how you function.
Smell travels through your olfactory system to your hypothalamus a region of your brain that acts as your hormonal control center, by way of your amygdala in your limbic system. When you smell an essential oil for the hypothalamus, it stimulates your hypothalamus to release hormones that trigger a rapid emotional response. (More HERE).
There has been a lot of research on forest bathing, or the practice of walking around in a natural environment and consciously connecting with what’s around you, and health benefits. For example, a study done by Japanese researchers suggested that breathing in plant-derived essential oils and phytoncides (a beneficial chemical emitted by plants and trees), help lower blood pressure, reduces cortisol and improve your immunity. The study showed that subjects exposed to forest environments for more than a few hours demonstrated increased immune activity as measured by an increase (by more than 50%!) in the number and activity of immune supporting natural killer cells. The beneficial results lasted for over 7 days!
4. Tune into your Favorite Sound
Listening to my favorite song and singing along always boosts my mood. You can also tune in to the soothing sounds of nature, including the wind, animals, running water from waterfalls and streams and even the sound of silence. Researchers at Stockholm University in Sweden found that subjects exposed to sounds of nature showed quicker recovery from psychological stress as compared to those exposed to urban noises. You might also enjoy the sound of silence and choose to relish the quiet time to calm your mind
5. Engage your Sense of Sight
Try looking at a view or photos of something that makes you happy or brings you joy. Beautiful sights, like mountains, water colorful plants, trees and flowers can inspire joy and awe. A UC Berkeley study found that feelings of awe, such as those generated during time in nature like looking at a mountain peak or a beautiful waterfall, calms over-thinking and anxiety and allows for the expression of other positive emotions.
Sight and the eye movement associated with forward motion and movement (when you are walking through nature) also help calm you amygdala and activate your prefrontal cortex (commonly known as the “control panel” of the brain) monitors your emotional state and helps calm feelings of anxiety and depression.
What’s more, research conducted in Korea found that people who merely looked at natural scenes/images for a few minutes showed a marked reduction in Amygdala activity compared to those who looked at urban images. Your amygdala plays a major role in processing intense emotions, like fear and anxiety. An overactive amygdala, also known as amygdala hijack, triggers a heightened emotional response. Nature calms the amygdala response which calms the intensity of your emotional responses.
To this point, a 2015 study found that brains, and specifically the prefrontal cortex, of people who spent an hour walking in nature were calmer as compared to those who spent an hour walking in an urban setting. Activating the prefrontal cortex helps calm an overactive amygdala and reduce the intensity of emotional responses.
Laughter is said to be the best medicine. Research backs this up, showing that laughter can help relieve pain, bring greater happiness, and even increase immunity.
Laughter has been shown to reduce the level of stress hormones like cortisol, and adrenaline and increases the level of health-enhancing hormones, like endorphins. Endorphins help heal damaged cells by both decreasing inflammation and increasing the immune cell activity around damaged cells. Laughter was also found to increase the number of antibody-producing immune cells.
You can support your laughter habit by subscribing to a joke of the day or making an appointment to laugh daily.
7. Share the Love
Love can be both given and received. Giving love, either through connecting in person, a phone call, a kind note or a warm hug, reverberates not just with the recipient, but also back to you. Practicing gratitude, writing thank you notes or just sending a kind text or email always boosts my mood.
The physical sense of touch, like hugs, have demonstrated a measurable impact on your mood, according to recent research. Hugs were found to increase positive feelings and reduce negative ones. Petting an animal can invoke similar positive health benefits. Try to give or receive physical touch either to another person or an animal on a daily basis.
8. Connect with People who Bring you Joy
Relationships can either energize me or drain you. This is where healthy relationship boundaries come into play, allowing you to limit the amount of time you spend with people that drain you, and increase the amount of time you spend with people that energize you.
Relationships can be complicated, especially if, like me, you are someone who likes to please others and struggles to prioritize your own needs. If you allow others to project their negative emotions, like blame, shame, guilt upon you or otherwise manipulate you, you will carry that negative energy for them. This can feel very draining and limiting your exposure to this kind of relationship can help to boost positive emotions.
9. Practice Self-Love
Put yourself first on your to do list by allowing yourself to do something that feels luxurious that you actually want to do. Soak in a hot bath, read a magazine or a book just for fun, enjoy a hot cup of tea in your favorite comfortable chair, take a mid-day nap, call a friend who makes you laugh, take a walk outside in nature or just engage in a hobby that brings you joy.
Self-love, self-appreciation, self-compassion and self-recognition allow us to value ourselves, prioritize our health and well-being and help the body reduce stress and support healing. Essential oils are powerful tools to help you let go of negative emotions that can interfere with your ability to practice self-love, including criticism, negative self-beliefs, shame or any undermining behavior.
For example, Rose blend is known to alleviate symptoms of depression, calm the nervous system, promote feelings of happiness and boost your mood. It is one of the best essential oils to use in your self-love practice. It has the highest frequency of any essential oil and immediately helps to wash away negative emotions or thought patterns. Rose oil is also considered an aphrodisiac and can help stimulate the libido of both men and women. Rose can be added to a bath, massaged into the skin or applied directly over the heart.
10. Just Breathe
Slow and deep breathing helps to calm stress and allow you receive more positive emotions.
Breath is one of the easiest and fastest ways to influence your physical and emotional health. Deep breathing activates both the lungs and the diaphragm, especially when you breathe deeply from your diaphragm. This means when you breathe in, your belly should expand or go outward. When you breathe out your belly should cave in. The more your belly expands and the more it caves in, the deeper you’re breathing.
Here is my favorite breathing technique:
- Inhale for a count of four.
- Hold for a count of four.
- Exhale for a count of six to eight.
- Wait for a count of four.
- Repeat until your hands are back on the controls.
Slower, deep breathing improves oxygen saturation, lowers blood pressure, and will put your body into parasympathetic mode. The slow expansion of your lungs signals to your heart to slow down, which sends a feeling of calm throughout your entire nervous system. Your vagus nerve connects all of this signaling and releases acetylcholine, a calming chemical you can give yourself a shot of any time by doing relaxation techniques.
In one study, slow breathing exercises improved autonomic functions in healthy participants. Fast breathing didn’t. That’s because fast breathing makes your body think you’re running from predators. That sets off your body’s alarm bells and activates a stress response.
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