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Learn & Practice

Managing Your Emotions in This Moment

By Cortland Dahl

September Guest Blog, Dr. Cortland Dahl.

I turned on my favorite podcast this morning and it only took a few minutes before my mind was churning with thoughts. COVID outbreaks, catastrophic natural disasters, protests and social unrest, and more and more economic doom and gloom. It’s completely overwhelming. And on top of all that, now we’ve got the election around the corner and we have to put up with the endless barrage of attack ads and political scandals.

A year ago all of this would have seemed too far-fetched to be true. Yet here we are.

Photo by Francisco Moreno on Unsplash

Negativity Bias

In moments like this, our biology can get us overly focused on the negative. The simple fact is that we didn’t evolve to be happy. We evolved to survive. And for most of human history, the ability to detect threats was key to our survival. Evolution has made us really, really good at noticing what’s going wrong. So if you ever wonder why your mind replays stressful events over and over again, or gets caught in loops of negativity, you can blame evolution.

We are no longer foraging in the forest and facing the same threats that our ancestors once did, but it’s important to recognize that there are times when there is an actual physical threat and the stress response that gets triggered in the body is necessary, even essential. The murder of George Floyd and so many other tragedies have shown our society that for black men, women, and children, walking down the street or driving around town can actually be a matter of life or death.

The crux of the problem is that although the brain is really good at detecting threats, it does a pretty terrible job of telling when these threats are life-threatening and when they are not. So when we hear the morning news and start getting angry, anxious, or depressed, that’s our body getting ready to deal with an impending threat. It doesn’t matter that we’re just making coffee and there’s no real danger. Our body can’t tell the difference, so it gets ready to fight, to run away, or to freeze.

Step 1: Pause for a moment of mindful awareness

So how do we deal with this negativity bias? Well, the first step – and the hardest one to do – is to notice what’s happening. Notice that your breathing is getting shorter and more labored. Your muscles might be getting tense. Maybe your shoulders tense up or your jaw starts to clench. You’ll probably have a loop of thoughts moving through your mind and they’ll be fixated on something negative. Maybe you start feeling angry and critical, or your mind starts spinning out worst-case scenarios or self-critical thoughts.

The first step is to notice this. And here’s the most essential point: Drop the judgment. It’s the most natural thing in the world that we do this. It’s not a personal failing…it’s biology. So cut yourself some slack and simply notice that it’s happening. Get curious about what your mind and body are doing.

Step 2: Refocus on the positive

Once you have a little awareness, you have choices. You’re back in the driver’s seat of your own mind and can steer yourself in a new direction. So why not bring a little more balance into your mind by focusing on the positive things in your life?

It actually doesn’t really matter what you focus on. All you have to do is orient your mind to something positive. When you interact with someone, notice something you like about them. Better yet, tell them. Express your appreciation. You can do the same for yourself, for places, and situations. Notice one positive thing. Treat it like a skill and practice it. Like anything, it will get easier with practice.

Step 3: Rinse, Wash, Repeat

It doesn’t take long to pause for a moment of awareness and refocus on the positive. The key is consistency and repetition. Challenge yourself to notice one nice thing in every new situation. Use transitions between activities as opportunities to take a few mindful breaths and reboot your mind before you throw yourself into whatever comes next. These moments of mindfulness and appreciation may feel inconsequential, but they add up. Over time, these simple skills can lead to important changes in the way your body responds to stress and your brain deals with challenging situations.

Ready to meditate?

Try this short meditation to get a taste of mindfulness and appreciation.

Where to go from here

Interested in learning more? We’ve created a step-by-step program to teach you these skills and how to apply them in daily life. You can download the Healthy Minds Program from your app store. You’ll get access to hundreds of practices, podcast-style lessons, and tips for applying meditation in daily life. And best of all, it’s free! No subscriptions or hidden fees.

If you’re really motivated, you can join us for our next Heathy Minds MasterClass. You’ll get a front row seat to the science of well-being and learn how to be more resilient in the face of challenges and at the top of your game when things are going well.

Dr. Cortland Dahl Healthy Minds Program App Tuesday Tips Well-Being Tips