helping a neighbor

a neighbor bringing a care package to elderly neighbor

Stress has the ability to bring out the best and the worst in people. Certainly, COVID-19 has created a new and unprecedented kind of stress through which we as a global community are trying to navigate.

While it is easy to let stress and fear get the better of us, did you know that kindness is actually a coping mechanism?

“You know the old saying that if you smile more, you’ll be happier? There is truth in that,” said Justin Hacking, Clinical Supervisor at Idaho Youth Ranch. “When you smile, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the calming part of your brain. This is basically the opposite of a stress hormone.”

In other words, by smiling, you can trick your brain into calming down.

Here’s the science.

Our bodies use stress to tell us what we need to do to survive. Hunger is a stress response. Tiredness is a stress response. Stress responses are our bodies’ way of telling us what it needs to stay alive. The type of stress associated with situations like COVID-19 are emotional stresses. As a result, our fight-or-fight response releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These two hormones limit your ability to think clearly and make long-term decisions. This is why toxic-stress is so damaging to children.

“When you are being kind, you are going to find your perception of the stress goes down,” Hacking said. “From a neurochemical perspective, you will start to release all those ‘happy hormones’ like dopamine, which make you feel good and help you relax. From an emotional perspective, you are putting the focus on others rather than yourself, which will give you perspective. There is no downside.”

By intentionally being kind and generous during times of high levels of stress, kindness can actually become a natural coping mechanism for the stress you feel. Moreover, your act of kindness might literally save a life.

Mental health scientists interviewed a number of people who attempted suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. These are people who jumped off the bridge, but who ultimately survived. Many of the people who had attempted suicide said that if one person had smiled at them as they walked toward the bridge, they would not have jumped. That was their “final test” to see if life was worth living.

During times of economic stress and uncertainty, there is always a corresponding increase in suicides; and for every one suicide, there are 20 more people who attempt it, according to a study posted on The Lancet.

“When you are in the store and smile at someone, or let them go ahead of you in line, or just maintain good social distancing, you are not only helping maintain your own well-being, you might also be literally saving their life. There is no downside.”

Here is how you can implement kindness as a coping strategy during times of stress.

According to Hacking, “Kindness is great because it works right now. You can see your return on your actions and they are always a good return. When you are standing in line and staying six feet apart, you look to the people around you and you see them noticing that you are being respectful of their health and their needs. Your brain will immediately give you those anti-stress hormones. You will get that sense of well-being which supports good mental health and good physical health.”

Model kindness.

When you are out in the world with your kids, the best way to teach them to be kind is to be kind yourself. Make a point to be polite or maintain social distancing. Then, later, talk to your kids about what they saw and how they can also do acts of kindness.

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Asking your kids for ideas about kind things you can do has lots of benefits. First, you will get them thinking about the needs of other people, which is always a good habit to build. You will also reinforce the importance of empathy, because they will still be thinking about what is stressful for them and then have a chance to build upon that for other people. You will also help them become more aware of the people in our community who are more vulnerable. All of these things will help them create the “muscle memory” for kindness, which releases all those positive hormones for your kids as well.

Follow up.

Ask your kids what they did today that was kind or that helped someone else. If you have teenagers, it could be offering to pick up your elderly neighbor’s groceries. If you have younger children, it could be something as simple as helping their sibling. The goal is to create accountability for you and your kids.

By showing more kindness during times of stress, you will create better coping strategies for yourself and bring out the best in others. COVID-19 is certainly a time of unprecedented stress, but you can choose if it is going to bring out the best or the worst in you. By choosing to be kind, in spite of fear and stress, you will give yourself the gift of mental peace and inspire others to spread kindness onward.

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