Feeling Stressed Out? Find a “Comfort Food” for Your Mind.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

One question for anyone doing a happiness project is: What do I do when I’m facing a big happiness challenge? When I’ve lost my job, or I’m worried about my child, or I’m scared about a medical diagnosis?

When I’ve been extremely anxious about something, I’ve found that it helps to give myself a short break from my worries, at least occasionally. By finding a “comfort food” activity for my mind, I re-charge my battery, find it easier to stay calm and cheerful, find it easier to take action — and I sleep better. But this is easier said than done.

For example, when my older daughter was born, she was in the intensive-care unit for a week. I spent all my time there and was worn to a frazzle, and finally, my husband pulled me away to see some silly movie in the middle of the day. I was amazed by how refreshed I was after that break — and how much better I dealt with the strain of the situation.

We all suffer from negativity bias, that is, we react to the bad more strongly and persistently than to the comparable good. Research shows one consequence of negativity bias is that when people’s thoughts wander, they tend to begin to brood. Anxious or angry thoughts capture our attention more effectively than happier thoughts.

So look for ways to pull your mind away from your worries onto positive topics. One great way is to watch a movie – preferably something funny! — or watch a favorite TV show. Don’t muddy the experience by trying to multi-task; you’re not going to get the benefit of taking a break from your own thoughts if you’re watching Shrek while you pay bills or fold laundry. Give yourself a proper vacation: sit down and enjoy what you’re doing.

My favorite activity is reading, and when I really need “comfort food” for my mind, I read Victorian novels or children’s literature (the more stressed out I am, the younger I go; Oz books are a danger sign). I always re-read, too; when I’m upset, I want the comfort of knowing that I’ll love the book and that I won’t be upset by some unexpected plot twist.

I do find that some activities that are usually happiness-inducing don’t work very well when I’m preoccupied with bad thoughts. Listening to music, for example, is an extremely effective way to boost mood, but I find it too easy to start thinking about my worries when I’m listening – others might not have this problem. Similarly, although going for a walk usually cheers me up, it also gives me an excellent opportunity to brood if I’m inclined that way.

Cooking, cleaning, playing with your kids, playing video games, playing basketball – different people find different solutions. If you can find an activity that gives you exercise, gets you outside, or brings you in contact with other people, that’s especially effective.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, schedule a breather for yourself. By cheering yourself up, you’ll make yourself feel better, and you’ll also equip yourself to deal more effectively with tough situations.

Have you found a good way to give yourself a mental vacation — or an activity that acts as a comfort food for your mind?

* People debate whether technology is adding to, or subtracting from, our happiness. A study suggests that access to communication technology does boost happiness. I just remind myself technology is a good servant, but a bad master.

* Want to get my free monthly newsletter? It highlights the best of the month’s material from the blog and the Facebook Page. Email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com. Just write “newsletter” in the subject line. About 50,000 people get it.

  • If I’m ruminating over something that’s bothering me, vigorous exercise, especially running (which works best for me), seems to have a tranquilizing effect. Yes, I can ruminate while I exercise, but the aftereffect is that my mind calms down and my thoughts stop going around in circles. It’s almost magical the way it works.

  • Lisa

    This topic was exactly what I needed today! I need some happy thoughts and a way to get my mind off the stressful work environment. I’m a big reader too and I may just go for a nice romance novel or a nice disney movie- something simple and with a nice happy ending.

  • Mistiklady40

    I lost my job in 2007 and was depressed until I discovered twitter which lead me to facebook. I was able to meet new people, talk, share and play games. I am working part time, but really need full time. I no longer worry, I just take it one day at a time.

  • jraby3

    Articles like this are the reason I subscribe to this blog! Great idea to think about! I love working out (P90X or Insanity) or getting a massage then dinner with my fiancee (soon to be wife, this Wednesday!)

    • gretchenrubin


      Speaking of massage, a study just came out that showed that an hour’s
      massage does affect people’s brain chemistry to boost happiness.

  • Karen

    Sitting outside breathing fresh air and watching my mini dachshund, Izzy. guard the house always works for me. Dogs are great stress relievers. Especially, goofy dogs like Izzy.

  • Lisa Coughlin

    Art helps me, connecting with others through art and other sorts of collaboration. I started a project that helps me to focus on the “good” in my life more. Here’s something I created this summer, partially inspired by your Happiness Project, Gretchen.


    My Doughnut Dreams Project is evolving–and even though I haven’t posted any new images in awhile (I made one recently, but wanted to keep it to myself for now.), I do reflect and think about looking on the bright side more, with this art project in mind.

    Connecting with others with similar interests, through the blog world, is also a source of comfort.

  • Nadine

    I cook while listening to a book on dvd, usually a children’s book (Harry Potter read by Jim Dale is my favourite). I choose one that I used to listen to with my son when he was younger and we were going for long car trips. It transports me to those fun times and the cooking relaxes me. I find I feel calmer after and can re-enter the “grown up” world feeling refreshed and recharged. Otherwise I too will read children’s books. There is something so comforting about them.

    • gretchenrubin

      I LOVE Jim Dale reading Harry Potter. You must listen to Cherry Jones
      reading Laura Ingalls Wilder. Unbelievably wonderful.

      • Maryl

        I am so excited to hear about the Wilder audiobooks! I spend so much time commuting that it is my best opportunity to “read.” My daughter is a freshman in college, taking a course titled “Writing from Nature” which includes some Wilder books in the reading assignment. I have sweet memories of reading them as a child, reading them to her at bedtime, and would love to listen to them!

        As for “comfort food,” I find that looking at interior design and gardening books and magazines (heavy on images, not words) is inspiring and liberating. I am a mid-career physician, and I feel a deficit in my aesthetic education. This shift of perspective fascinates and comforts me.

        I recall seeing a patient in the ER years ago who shared, incidentally, that he addressed exacerbations of his anxiety disorder by watching old sit-coms: the Dick van Dyke Show, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island. Better than any prescription!

  • Anne

    Gretchen, your timing couldn’t be better. My dad was diagnosed with cancer this week. I was a total wreck; my happiness project seeming like a dim memory. And then I started making a quilt for a baby shower. I am a crafter and artist by nature. Immersing myself in this mental comfort “food” is keeping me sane this week.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so sorry to hear about your father. What a difficult time. Sounds like
      the making of the quilt is helping you deal with it as best you can.

  • Hi Gretchen!

    I was HORRIFIED upon first glance of this post I thought you were telling us to eat when stressed. lol! But yes comfort food for the mind is a must. I call it vegging out. I usually watch some comedy or reality tv. I know its my guilty pleasure. I have to work on allowing myself to fully enjoy my veg time and stop multi-tasking.

  • BerniceWood

    I love this- Technology is a good servant but a bad master! With that being said, I am going to turn off and go to sleep now!

  • Carrie

    I love this. I think a comfort activity is important. But it’s not really something I’ve ever thought about. Although now that I think about it my comfort has probably been food. But knowledge is power.

    I love the idea of re-reading favorites from childhood. Maybe some Judy Blume. Thanks for getting me thinking about this.

  • Heather Whistler

    Thank you for this. When my husband was hospitalized due to a psychotic breakdown, I was anxious nearly all the time. I couldn’t sleep, and I lost seven pounds in one week.

    I found that the only way I could distract myself from the anxiety was by watching TV and playing Tetris on my laptop at the same time.

    I appreciate knowing that these kinds of “comfort activities” are actually healthy, and not just a way to check out.

    If you’re interested in reading more about the impact of my husband’s illness on our marriage, please feel free to stop by my blog: http://heatherwhistler.wordpress.com/2010/09/29/one-marriage-two-mental-illnesses/

    I’d love to hear what you think!

    • Kathryn

      I haven’t read your blog Heather so I don’t know if we dealt with the same thing but my husband also had a psychotic break (bipolar) and it was fascinating to me that I turned to Danielle Steel novels (and I really like to read. Good books.) but her storylines and simple characters were such a comfort during such a scary time of unknowns.

      I wish you all the best.

      • Heather Whistler

        Thanks, Kathryn. His break was induced by bipolar which is now under control. Hope you and your husband are doing well.

  • Exercise always gives me an awesome injection of endorphins. Don’t just walk – run! Really push yourself so that your body is exerting so much effort there isn’t enough blood in your brain to brood over bad thoughts! (that was a pretty good alliteration, right?)

  • LivewithFlair

    My brain “comfort food,” is Psalm 16. Anyone else? I try to meditate on the good promises of God. Today, I wrote about the concept that the “boundary lines for me have fallen in pleasant places.” In other words, the fence around my life that I rage against–whatever circumstance–just might be the thing that sets me free. http://livewithflair.blogspot.com/2010/10/fence-around-your-life.html

  • Alas, I fear my mental ‘comfort food’ is a bit like scarfing potato chips. The more stressed I am, the more time I spend noodling about the Internet. Where the Oz books are your danger sign, TVTropes.org is mine.

    Perhaps I should look into some healthier substitutes.

    • gretchenrubin

      TVTropes.org is BRILLIANT! that seems like a great comfort food to me!

      • Oh, lordy, don’t encourage me! I can lose HOURS to that site if I’m not careful!

  • Wonderful advice! Yup! I’m responsible for my happiness. I’ve set a goal for myself to not be upset, dissatisfied, irritated, etc. for more than 3 minutes at a time. Of course, for the little upsets I’m doing pretty good. With the bigger upsets 3 minutes is proving to be unrealistic, and that’s when I need some “comfort food” for my mental upset. Riding my bike to the beach and working out at the edge of the ocean is now one of my favorite “foods” for my happiness. If I’m already happy, it boosts me even happier, and if I’m troubled, it gets me over my ruminating, and now that I’m writing this, it usually works within 3 minutes of getting on the bike!

    Thanks for your encouraging happiness project! I keep learning that “Happiness is a Skill” and trust me, if I can learn it, anyone can!!!


  • A few of my “comfort foods”:


  • Such great advice! For me my comfort activity was vegging in front of the TV. Now, I find myself running on the treadmill for comfort.

  • I enjoy doing something physical that requires focus. Like personal training. Or dance lessons. Works every time. I danced my way through chemo. It was excellent.

  • Kathryn

    Hopping on Google Reader and catching up on the blogs I like has been my favorite mental comfort food over the past year or so. So much so that I have scheduled this with my husband so that a couple of mornings a week he does the kid/school routine while I go to a coffee shop and read and sip before going to work. I also love going for walks and listening to inspiring or absorbingly interesting podcasts.
    In a really stressful time a lighthearted movie seen in the middle of the day in a theater with only a few other moviegoers works wonders.

  • honestly, Gretchen, when i’m feeling frazzled i read your blog! i love your positive and constructive attitude, and i’ve always found a post to lift my mood. thank you!!!

    • gretchenrubin

      Awwww, thanks! I so appreciate that!

  • Theperrys25

    I ascribe to physical activity, but instead of exercise, I like to clean the house or weed the garden or iron or something that I can look back and realize that I made a difference. So many times I stress about things I can’t control and therefore it is good to effect change in an area I can control. It lets me return to the fray with renewed energy after a good night’s sleep.

  • Kismet Kate

    Last year I started taking mountain dulcimer lessons and this summer I have found so much joy and peace sitting on the porch on a summer evening working out the chords for a new tune. The combination of music and learning really calms my brain after a stressful day.

  • MDP

    It took me a bit of thinking before I figured out my answer – humor! Reading, watching or listening to something smart and funny and really, deeply laughing along works wonders for me. Most recently, I’ve been turning to the Capitol Steps and the “funny” tag at TED.com.

  • Leslie

    Yoga is definitely a “comfort food” for me. If I need to burn off serious negative energy, hard exercise – running, biking, something like that.

    My favorite sedentary comfort activity is watching the Buffy the Vampire Slayer tv series. I’ve seen all 7 seasons at least half a dozen times, and I still get so much joy out of each and every episode.

  • Kerri

    I’ve recently found a new “comfort” activity–listening to recorded fiction on my commute. I have an hour commute to work, and always felt like it was a huge waste of my time. In the past, I had tried listening to non-fiction, but could never pay attention. I’ve always loved reading fiction novels, but don’t have enough time to read as much as I would like. Turns out that I really enjoy listening to fiction as well, and I feel like it gives me a nice mental break while still feeling as though I am doing something besides wasting time.

  • I have a problem with 3 AM panic attacks when there are stressful things going on in my life. I was working with a personal coach on it and she had a brilliant idea. She had me create a collage of quotes and small articles about worrying. I keep it behind my dresser and when I have these panic attacks, I will wake up and read through these articles. Usually that helps me put things into perspective. I also have Stop Worrying and Get on with Your Life by Dale Carnegie that I keep on my bedside table for the really heavy-duty worries.

  • Debra Dylan

    1. Easy reading (adolescent literature, funny stuff, comics, picture books)
    2. Playing with and watching my birds (they always delight)
    3. Exercise
    4. Talking to friends at work
    5. Having something to look forward to – like our weekly adventures
    6. Journaling – thank you opendiary.com
    7. Cooking (and singing) – this can bring great joy – especially if the kitchen is clean before I start
    8. Jigsaw Puzzles? Uh, sometimes
    9. Remembering past good times: Rugby for Halloween & Blanket Mountain on Christmas Eve
    10. Reading positive blogs.
    11. Singing in my car! This is a huge stress-buster for me!
    12. Watching funny TV shows. This is helped tremendously lately. Parks & Rec, Shaun the Sheep, My Name is Earl
    13. Looking at catalogs (especially bird supplies)
    14. Reading about primal health & fitness (keeps my motivated)
    15. Eating lunch out on a weekend afternoon

  • Bevhale1

    Yes going to the state park and ‘getting away’ is my stress reliever. Getting in touch with nature and its simplicity is my way of letting go. Life is simple and nature reminds me. Trees don’t worry how to grow or when the next rain will come. They just do. Animals don’t worry where there next meal will come from they get out and go find it. This is what I work on doing on a daily basis. Being thankful for the simple, roof over my head, food in my cupboard, comfy bed to sleep on, good health.