How to cultivate JOY amongst our stress

It’s no mystery that life can be stressful. From an early age we are programmed to feel stress.  From being called on to speak in front of our classmates, to taking tests that determine our grade, competing in sports, wondering if anyone will ask us to dance at school functions, and then applying for colleges at the ripe age of 18, while being told our majors will determine our future! As time goes on, the stress doesn’t just dissipate, in fact it gets louder and more aggressive. In fact, most of us live in a constant state of fight or flight mode.  Stress can be triggered from the sound of our bosses voice, to a bad driver, fear of not being able to pay our bills next month, or even when we drink that extra cup of coffee. Unfortunately, we aren’t taught at a young age on how to deal with our stress and many of us instead look to food or other substances for comfort. Although grabbing a cupcake or a second glass of wine may give us a sense of joy momentarily, this feeling is often fleeting and leads to unhealthy habits and negative consequences in the long run.

Another thing we aren’t taught about stress is how it affects our body on a physical level. When we feel stressed we are activating our Sympathetic Nervous System – this is your fight or flight response. Your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS for short), which activates your stress hormones, creates adrenaline in the body and prepares it for some sort of intense physical activity, even if you’re just sitting at your desk in the office. In the process of your body preparing for “battle,” your heart rate starts to increase, pupils dilate, blood pressure raises, and essentially functions that create a healthy system in your body, such as your digestive system and your pancreas, slow down. 

The long-term effects of too much stress in our lives can be detrimental and potentially leads to a handful of diseases such as hyperglycemia, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Though awareness is key and the good thing about these long-term effects is that they can be prevented with the right lifestyle choices and healthy habits. 

So how do we calm the Sympathetic Nervous System and reduce stress in our lives? We do this by activating our Parasympathetic Nervous System or our Rest and Digest mode. 

Here are five healthy habits or strategies you can adopt today in order to cope with your everyday stresses, big or small. 

  1. Sit with the present moment and breathe:

When we are scared, our natural reaction often is to gasp or inhale sharply in order to prepare for fight or flight mode. When we exhale long and slow, we are telling our body it’s okay to relax and are activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Sit in a comfortable position either in a chair, in your car, or cross-legged on the floor, and take five long deep breathes. Throughout this breathing practice, allow your exhales to be a couple seconds longer than your inhales. When you are sitting in the present moment, you aren’t thinking about what happened in the past or what could potentially happen in the future. You are simply quieting the mind by focusing on your breath. If any emotions come up during this practice, allow yourself to feel them, whether that’s anger, sadness, or fear. Sit with those feelings, breathe through them and allow them to pass. 

2. Keep a gratitude journal.

Write down 5 things you’re grateful everyday and in 3 weeks you’ll notice a significant increase in your level of happiness. There are no side effects to gratitude!

Share your gratitude with a friend. Next time you meet a good friend for a coffee or adult beverage, or you’re talking with them on the phone, tell them why you are grateful for their friendship!

3. Eat whole and colorful foods

Did you know that 80-90% of your serotonin levels are created by what enters your gut? That means what you eat has significant control over your happiness levels. Just like how seeing a rainbow after a rainstorm brings a smile to your face, crafting your meals with a variety of colors (fruits, veggies, whole grains, and healthy proteins) will increase your happiness as well. Here’s one of my favorite nutritious and easy meals to make that encompasses the colors of the rainbow: Fresh Spring Rolls

Try purchasing organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible. I highly suggest being aware of the Dirty Dozen and at least purchasing the produce on this list as organic. 

4. Immerse yourself in nature 

Photo by Dalton Johnson Media

Head outside for at least a 20 minute walk and soak up some sunshine. Most of us are Vitamin D deficient which can affect your mood in a negative way. Hug a tree. Stick your hands in the dirt. Jump in a body of water. Nature is healing. 

If not physically possible, put on a nature show or youtube channel and enjoy the sights and sounds it provides. Check out this video for an instant stress reliever.

5. Find a community going through the same or similar situation as you, sit, listen, and share

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on

It’s no lie that human beings are relational creatures. Having people to talk to and connect  about what you’re going through is therapeutic for both parties. 

Also acting out of love is a healing resource. If hit with a tragedy or traumatic life event, when you feel ready or capable, why not donate your time, energy, or resources to the cause that brought you stress. For an example, my hometown was just recently hit with a major wildfire. Not only did the Caldor wildfire displace thousands of people for almost two weeks, but it destroyed a lot of our local trails and tromping grounds, and many people from neighboring towns in El Dorado county lost their residences. Talk about a deeply distressing situation. From the time that the fire hit, many local residents, businesses, and non-profits took action to help those people affected by the Caldor Fire. Local actions taken include: a collaboration beer called Tahoe Together, brewed by South Lake Brewing Company, Cold Water Brewery and Grill, Sidellis Lake Tahoe Brewery and Restaurant, and South of North Brewing Company, multiple Caldor Fire Relief fundraisers, and future rebuild trail days with our local Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association where you can fill out a volunteer form and find updates HERE.

Understand that joy is your birthright but stress is just a part of life. Discovering more joy does not save us from the inevitability of heartbreak and hardship, in fact we may cry more easily but we laugh more easily too. Perhaps with these emotions, that just means we are more alive.

The ultimate source of happiness is within us! We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy too!

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