Ask Ingrid: How do I find joy when I’m stressed and overwhelmed?

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

Ok, let me start by saying I’m a pusher. Not the kind selling drugs around the schoolyard, but the kind whose natural response to difficulties in life is to put my head down and push my way through. I’ve pushed my way through anxiety and exhaustion, pain and sadness. My freshman year of college, I pushed my way through both studying and partying, so hard that I ended up pulling a muscle in my chest during finals and requiring painkillers. Then I pushed through that too, taking my finals while dosed up on Percoset.

During graduate school, finishing my thesis (on the topic of joy!) took so much effort that I holed up in my apartment for nearly a month, sleeping four hours a night and taking a break only for a couple of hours to see my mom for Thanksgiving. My first year at IDEO, out of my depth on a complicated project, I cried in the bathroom and then returned to my desk and kept working, never asking for help lest anyone think I couldn’t handle it. Once, I got so sick on a research trip that a coworker found me huddled on the floor of a car dealership bathroom. (That was a low.)

I used to think that this was a strength, a form of grit that made me resilient. But after an incident a few years ago, where I experienced a level of anxiety and burnout that surfaced as a persistent tingling sensation that wouldn’t go away, I began to see this in a different light. It was true that pushing through obstacles had helped me survive the difficulties of my childhood — my parents’ divorce and my mother’s illness — and that it had contributed to my career success. But at what cost? If my body was trashed in the process, was this really resilience?

I share this story because it helps to give context to why I feel like this question is so important. When we get stressed and overwhelmed, that’s often when we forget to look for joy. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • “I’ll see friends when I get through this test / presentation / rough patch.”
  • “I wish I had time to go see a movie / take a walk in the park / leave my desk for lunch but I’m just so behind on everything.”
  • “I don’t feel like I deserve to go get a massage / read for fun / take a vacation.”
  • “I feel guilty being joyful when my mom / partner / friend is struggling.”

When we are faced with persistent stress or overwhelming circumstances, many of us respond by postponing joy. Joy becomes something we either have to earn or deserve, through patience, hard work, or self-denial.

But here’s the thing — the science says that this is all backwards! We shouldn’t put off joy until after we’re out of a stressful situation. Instead, we should see joy as a tool for coping with stress. Joy is a form of a resilience.

Let me say that again: Joy is a form of resilience.

Small moments of joy help the cardiovascular system recover from stress. When we feel stressed, our bodies flood with chemicals like cortisol and epinephrine which raise our heart rate and blood pressure, keep us alert and focused, and help us respond to the challenges at hand. This is an adaptive response to stress, and it works well when it’s temporary. If stress becomes chronic, on the other hand, this places strain on the body and can lead to exhaustion and illness. But when we experience joy, such as by watching something funny, taking a little while to become absorbed in play, or spending time in nature, it gives our bodies a break from this stress response, enabling us to recover.

Joy also helps us recover mentally. According to psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, emotions can cause upward or downward spirals. When we feel sad or anxious, this can cause us to withdraw from social support and things we enjoy, which makes us sadder and more anxious, creating a negative feedback loop. Positive emotions like joy break this feedback loop, stopping the downward spiral. And they can also kickstart the opposite — positive spirals — that lead to greater connection, happiness, and wellbeing.

So this helps to explain why we should bother looking for joy when we’re feeling stressed. But how can we go about it?

Start small

In a moment of stress, it’s common for a scarcity mentality to set in. We feel we don’t have enough time, money, or energy to spend it on joy, so we hunker down and wait for better times. Rather than feel like you have to battle this impulse, just start small. Can you afford 5 minutes or $5 worth of joy? Most of us can. You might find that the energy boost you gain from the break will pay dividends, making it easier to allocate more for joy in the future.

Widen the aperture

Stress narrows our focus, causing us to ruminate on our worries and fixate on our challenges. Joy might be right in our midst, but we simply don’t notice it. One way to broaden our attention back out is to get out into open space, preferably at some elevation. Giving our eyes room to focus on the distance not only lets the rest after hours spent staring at things up close (like our devices) but also helps us take in more of our surroundings.

As a child, I used to climb a tree in the backyard or go up on the roof when I was feeling upset or overwhelmed. James Taylor’s well-known song “Up on the Roof” describes this feeling:

When this old world starts a getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I’ll climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space.

Research helps explain this effect. Studies show that moving upward in space, even if only the distance of a flight of stairs, helps broaden what’s called perceptual scope, helping us to zoom out and focus more on the big picture than on the details. When we’re up on the roof, our problems start to feel smaller, giving us more space for joy.

Get a nature fix

The power of nature is that it not only elicits joy; it also reduces stress. Studies show that being out in nature quiets a part of the brain called the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which decreases our tendency to brood over problems, making us literally feel more carefree. Even if you can’t get outside, you can try bringing the outside in by sitting somewhere with a view of trees or greenery, incorporate plants or nature imagery into your decor, or listen to nature sounds like birdsong.

Play a game

Play is, in many ways, the opposite of stress. One of the key characteristics of play is that it is an “apparently purposeless activity.” While it might seem excruciating to do something that seems purposeless while you’re overwhelmed by stuff to do, play does something interesting. It makes us temporarily forget about two of the things that often make us most stressed out: our sense of time and our sense of self-consciousness. Think about what it felt like to play tag as a kid. You became absorbed in the moment, thinking only about running away from the person who was “it,” not worrying about whether you were late for dinner or what your hair looked like. Play gives us a powerful break from stress, restoring our resources so we can handle the other things that life throws our way.

Phone a friend

When we’re in distress, we often have an inclination to isolate ourselves, or commiserate with someone who’s also stressed out. But emotions are contagious, so if we want to find joy amid stress, it benefits us to seek out our most joyful friends in troubled times. Because emotions can be transmitted even just by tone of voice, a brief call with an upbeat amigo can be a joyful break that can have lasting effects. Not to mention that reinforcing our social connections can help remind us that we’re not as alone as we think we might be.

This topic is one that I’ve written a lot about over the years. For more ideas on how to find joy amid stressful circumstances, check out the post: 5 Ways to Find Joy in Tough Times. And for perspective on how to stay joyful when life isn’t going your way, check out this excerpt of my book Joyful, on the power of renewal.

This post is part of the Ask Ingrid series. To read other posts in this series, click here.

March 12th, 2019


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    Discussion (1 Comment)

  1. J. Davis Harte on April 12, 2019

    Hiya Ingrid! Great stuff here – thanks for your amazing work! I have an elective course titled “Play, Curiosity, and Health” via the Design for Human Health Master’s program at the Boston Architectural College. I’m the thesis faculty and curriculum advisor there (quasi-director lol). I’d love to connect to see how we can help lift each other up or create some paradigm shifting work together – or just see how where it leads. xo


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