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 an international expert on stress, well-being, and optimal aging. Her new book, The Stress Prescription: Seven Days to More Joy and Ease (Amazon, Bookshop), just hit shelves.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Elissa about happiness, habits, and managing stress.
Gretchen: Why did you write The Stress Prescription?
Elissa: After 30 years of being a stress and health researcher, I felt the need to download some important conclusions, to show what is useful to people in daily life. It’s getting ridiculous how stressed we all are, as a society. A recent American Psychological survey found 27% of all adults feel so stressed they can’t function. 62% of young women feel completely overwhelmed by stress. That’s a toxic level of stress. Chronic stress creates health problems and we need to take stress as seriously as medical issues. Thus, “The Stress Prescription.” We don’t have to live that way. We can lift the dark veil of daily stress and see the small miracles of the day in front of 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 life can be clumsy and wordy. As a researcher, we learn from specific experiments in certain conditions, and we 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 appears to have helped the people who have read it.
I am no stranger to chronic stress, I have lived years of my life in that state and have made lots of changes since then. But managing stress, even for mental health experts, is ongoing work. The book helped me too because part of the practice is remembering, and for me, understanding the science behind each practice is motivating (Yes, I am a questioner!).
One more thing –In that survey, the good news is only 4% of people over 65 felt that extreme level of stress. But we don’t want to wait to benefit from the wisdom of aging. Older people have lots of strategies that come with age. One of them is a shortened sense of time. We can all step back and realize how short life really is. And that alone helps us focus on what really matters. Thus, Chapter 2 leads us to better align how our values to how we spend our time. And not try to control the things we don’t really have control over.
What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Nature immersion! Being near the water elevates my mood that is, when I am not stuck in my thoughts. The Stress Prescription leads us through steps to experience nature with all of our senses. It’s hard to feel wonder and awe, and also neurotic stress, at the same time. Being in nature or in a beautiful place changes shapes my thought processes to be more creative, to see more interconnections. I love working with a view or outside – my writing flows and poetic words I rarely use emerge. I am writing this from my San Francisco office desk. Sorry.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
It wasn’t exactly a lightning bolt – it was wildfire smoke. This was not a glamorous insight on top of a mountain. I had been thinking about what I could do to help mitigate climate change. And then the wildfires, smoke, and heatwaves of 2020 came to California, to my own lungs, and I crossed over. I transformed from a climate worrier to warrior. I knew the crisis was crossing certain tipping points, and indeed we are now seeing the disasters all over the world, and even at home. I vowed during that one day we woke up on Mars, when the smoke blocked the sun and the sky turned orange, to devote part of my work to the climate area and have been making that transition. Balancing time is always hard, it’s not my day job. But when I am working on climate projects, I feel alive, I am resonating with my North Star, adding a greater purpose to my life.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
You can guess by my career choice, research, I am a Questioner! And I am a magnet for questioners, being 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 silent retreat, or… a spa!
Is there a particular motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
I am a bit obsessed with stress, not just out of scientific curiosity but for personal reasons as well. There are metaphors that I love, that get me out of a stressful striving state, when I am trying to problem solve situations that are not very changeable. Here are some:
Drop the rope (the rope is attached to a brick wall).
Drop the baggage (the baggage contains stress leftovers, whatever you are carrying around needlessly, even unconsciously).
Drop down (Ahh…let your mind drop down, into your body, let yourself breath fully)
And here is a favorite quote, by Pema Chodron, from When Things Fall Apart:
“Things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”