You've looked forward to your senior year for the last three years — maybe longer. Dreamed of what you'd wear to prom. Imagined walking across the stage to grab your diploma.
But as your last year in high school comes to a close, you're missing out on a lot. Your whole life has been turned upside down. And you don't have to pretend that it's okay.
1. Breathe deeply
Yes, deep breathing can feel a little cliched, but that's because it actually works.
In a 2017 study, people participated in an eight-week program to determine the impact of controlled deep breathing. They joined in guided breathing exercises where they took approximately four deep breaths a minute. At the end of the program, participants' cortisol (the hormone in your body that's responsible for all those anxious feelings) levels were significantly lower.
2. Connect with friends
Hearing the suggestion to connect with other people can feel almost cruel when you're confined to your home. But research consistently shows that social interaction remains one of the best ways to get happy. People report being happier when they are having conversations, especially with people they like and feel close to, perhaps because these interactions create a sense of belonging and reinforce our own self-worth. Thankfully, there are many ways to connect even without in-person interactions — and not just through texts or social media.
Schedule video calls with your friends so you can see their faces (or if you're burned out on video calls, just have a good old fashioned phone call). Connect with the people in your house. Have real conversations about how you're feeling.
Laughter relaxes your muscles and reduces stress hormones in your body. Plus, it just feels good.
Put on your favorite funny movie, call up the friend that always makes you laugh, or play a silly game with your family — especially if you really don't feel like laughing. Getting a real smile going will release endorphins that can improve your mood for the rest of the day.
4. Go outside
Not everyone has access to natural spaces right now, but if you're able to go on a hike or just walk around and look at trees, your mood may benefit from it. According to research, spending time in wilderness increases satisfaction, happiness, and mindfulness. Researchers don't know exactly why nature has this effect, but people going for a walk in a natural setting (as opposed to an urban one) had less activity in the part of their brain that is responsible for negative looping thoughts.
And the sounds of nature have been shown to lower both blood pressure and levels of cortisol, a stress hormone in the body.
5. Express gratitude
You may not feel like there's much to be grateful for right now, but focusing on the people you have gratitude for can actually help you feel happier. In a 2015 study, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley gave college students seeking mental health services the task of either writing letters of gratitude or writing about their feelings about a stressful experience.
Those who wrote the gratitude letters reported more happiness after the four weeks of the program — and even 12 weeks later.
6. Help someone
Studies abound showing that volunteering your time in support of someone else relieves stress and boosts happiness. Looking at a big global problem can make you feel numb and helpless, but taking an active step to help even one person can turn that around.
Of course, you're probably not able to head out to a soup kitchen right now, but there are lots of ways to get creative with helping, such as:
- Making masks.
- Putting uplifting messages for neighbors in your windows or your yard.
- Sending a letter or making a phone call to someone you know who might be feeling lonely.
- Offering free online tutoring to younger kids in your community who are struggling with homeschooling.
- Making dinner for your parents.
The studies above showed that even small amounts of volunteering — an hour or two a week — made a big difference.
7. Look at the stars
When was the last time you felt really in awe of something? In a recent study, people who experienced awe — for instance, by looking up at a sky full of stars, at a grove of trees, or across a wide field — and reported that experience had a lower amount of a certain stress-linked chemical in their saliva than those who reported not having experienced awe. The substance interleukin-6 has been linked with inflammation, which can be sign of chronic stress.
Two additional benefits: People who experience awe are more likely to volunteer and to report feeling like they have more time. Scientists believe the reason for these changes is a sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves.
If you can't leave your house to find an awe-inducing experience, there are ways to get that feeling inside as well. The key is to slow down. Walk through your house as if it's a museum. When something beautiful or interesting catches your eye, stop and give it your full attention for the span of one deep inhale and one long exhale.
8. Listen to sad music
How can listening to a sad song make you feel better?
Well, research has shown that people in countries across the world listen to sad music as a way to regulate negative emotions and offer themselves consolation. So turn on the weepy tunes and let yourself cry.
9. Move your body
Exercise can boost your mood, but you don't have to be run a marathon or become a body builder to see the benefits.
Research shows that 15 minutes of strenuous activity (like running) or an hour of mild activity (like walking or doing housework) can increase your mood and decrease the possibility of developing depression.
10. Have a routine
You may have looked forward to unstructured weekend days back when you were hauling yourself out of bed every morning for school. But the lack of a routine over a longer period of time can really mess with your stress levels. The constant need to make a decision — what should I do next? — wears down your emotional reserves.
On the flip side, research has shown that predictable routines create calm and lessen anxiety. You won't be able to create as much structure as you had before the pandemic, but you could develop a basic routine for when you'll wake up in the morning, do schoolwork, break for lunch, go for a walk, FaceTime with friends.
This, too, shall pass
None of these will bring back your senior year, but they can bring you some peace — and maybe even happiness — while you adjust to the change.
If you're thinking about college in the fall, see our best predictions and tips for how to navigate college and COVID-19.