ELissa Epel, Ph.D. is a psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. She is a bestselling author and international expert on stress, well-being and optimal aging. Her new book, Prescription against stress: Seven days to greater joy and well-being (Amazon, Bookstore), right on the counters.
I couldn’t wait to talk with Elissa about happiness, habits, and stress management.
Gretchen: Why did you write? Anti-stress prescription?
Elissa: After 30 years of researching stress and health, I felt the need to draw some important conclusions to show what is useful for people in everyday life. It’s getting ridiculous how stressed we all are as a society. A recent American Psychological Survey found that 27% of all adults feel so stressed that they cannot function. 62% of young women feel completely overwhelmed by stress. This is a toxic level of stress. Chronic stress causes health problems, and we need to take stress as seriously as health problems. So “prescription for stress”. We don’t have to live like that. We can lift the dark veil of daily stress and see the small miracles of the day before us. That’s why I wrote this book.
My book agent gave me a crazy challenge – share 7 tips in 7 days and I took the challenge. Applying scientific knowledge to our daily lives can be clumsy and wordy. As a researcher, we learn from specific experiments under specific conditions and are extremely precise in describing and qualifying our findings. So writing science for the public was excruciating at first. But in the end, the book seems to have helped the people who read it.
I’m no stranger to chronic stress, I’ve spent years of my life in this state and I’ve made a lot of changes since then. But managing stress, even for mental health professionals, is a constant job. The book also helped me because part of the practice is memorization and for me understanding the science behind each practice is motivating (Yes, I’m a questioner!).
One more thing – The good news in this survey is that only 4% of people over the age of 65 experienced this extreme level of stress. But we don’t want to wait to benefit from the wisdom of aging. Older people have a lot of strategies that come with age. One of them is a shortened sense of time. We can all take a step back and realize how short life really is. And that in itself helps us focus on what’s really important. So Chapter 2 guides us to better align our values with how we spend our time. And not trying to control things we don’t really have control over.
What simple activity or habit consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Immersion in nature! Being by the water makes me feel better, that is, when I’m not trapped in my thoughts. Anti-stress prescription it guides us in the steps to experience nature with all the senses. It is difficult to simultaneously feel awe and wonder and also neurotic stress. Being in nature or a beautiful place changes my thought processes to be more creative, to see more connections. I love working with perspective or outside – my writing flows and poetic words emerge that I rarely use. I am writing this from my office desk in San Francisco. Sorry.
Have you ever been hit by a lightningwhere have you made a major change very suddenly, as a result of reading a book, talking to a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
It wasn’t exactly lightning – it was smoke from a forest fire. It was not a charming sight on the top of the mountain. I thought about what I could do to help mitigate climate change. And then the wildfires and smoke and heat waves of 2020 came to California, into my own lungs, and I transitioned. I turned from a climate mayor to a warrior. I knew that the crisis was crossing certain tipping points and indeed we are now witnessing disasters around the world and even at home. I promised that during that one day we would wake up on Mars, when the smoke obscured the sun and the sky turned orange, that I would dedicate some of my work to climate and we would make this transition. Balancing the time is always difficult, it’s not my day job. But when I work on climate projects, I feel alive, resonate with my Polaris and give more meaning to my life.
Would you describe yourself as Holder, Questioner, Rebel or Obliger?
You can guess by my career choice, research, I am an interviewer! And I’m a magnet for interviewers because I’m a science nerd. I also value silence as much as science and have become a contemplative health psychologist in my work. My ideal vacation is a quiet retreat or… a spa!
Is there a particular motto that has helped you a lot? (eg, I remind myself, “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quote that struck you as particularly insightful?
I’m a bit obsessed with stress, not just out of scientific curiosity, but also for personal reasons. There are metaphors that I love that get me out of the stressful trying state of trying to solve problem situations that aren’t very fluid. Here are some:
Lower the rope (the rope is attached to the wall).
Put away your luggage (luggage contains the remains of stress, whether you carry it unnecessarily or unconsciously).
Fall down (Ahh…let your mind drop, into your body, breathe fully)
And here’s Pema Chodron’s favorite quote from When Things Fall Apart:
“Things aren’t really working out.” They come together and fall apart. Then they come back together and fall apart again. It’s just the way it is. Healing comes from making room for it all to happen: room for sadness, for relief, for misery, for joy.”