1. Use attention training to build mental flexibility
If you’ve ever got stuck in a worry spiral, you know how hard it is to re-direct your thoughts and attention away from worry and back to reality. The same is true of rumination spirals — endlessly criticizing yourself for past mistakes and your own perceived failings as a person.
When your attention gets stuck in a pattern of negativity, your emotions and moods follow:
- Obsessing about how awful your upcoming speech is going to go? Prepare to be racked by anxiety.
- Replaying that gaff in front of your in-laws over and over again in your head? Prepare to be swamped by shame.
- Constantly telling and re-telling the story of how your spouse wronged you after dinner last night? Prepare to be stuck in anger and resentment.
How we habitually think determines how we habitually feel.
Negative thinking patterns exert a powerful gravitation pull on our attention, which is why it’s so easy to slip into them and get stuck in them. In order to resist the pull of negative thinking patterns, you must strengthen your ability to shift, focus, and control your attention.
Thoughts come and go in our minds, and there’s little we can do to change that. What we can control, though, is our attention.
If you can become stronger and more skilled at managing your attention — focusing on helpful, productive things and avoiding unhelpful, distressing ones — you’re mood will improve dramatically.
There are many forms of attention training, put the simplest and most powerful is mindfulness meditation. To begin, carve out five minutes each day and dedicate them to strengthening your attention muscle:
- Sit somewhere comfortable and close your eyes.
- Focus your attention on the sensation of breathing. Try to keep your focus there — on how it feels to breathe.
- Inevitably, thoughts, emotions, memories, images, external noises, or other physical sensations will intrude on your awareness. Simply acknowledge that your attention has been temporarily distracted and gently return your attention to your breath.
- That’s it!
If you want to be more balanced in your moods and emotions, you must build your attention muscle.
You can’t separate your mental and emotional self from your physical self. Your mind and everything in it — thoughts, emotions, memories, etc. — lives in and depends on your body.
If your body isn’t functioning well, neither with your mind.
People who regularly exercise and take care of their bodies are much better able to regulate and manage difficult emotions, moods, and thought patterns than those who don’t.
Of course, people who exercise still fall into bad moods, worry, and get depressed. But regular exercise exerts a powerful protective effect on our mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Find whatever form of exercise you enjoy and make a plan to do it regularly.
3. Talk to yourself. A lot.
Yes, you heard that right: Talking to yourself is a good sign when it comes to emotional wellbeing.
As we discussed above, bouts of negative emotion and low mood are the result of subtle but powerful patterns of habitual thinking. And what makes thought habits like worry and rumination so powerful is that they often run on autopilot, just outside our conscious awareness.
This means you can have a worry spiral, for example, running through your mind for long stretches of time without noticing it, building up more and more negative emotion with each thought.
The longer your negative thoughts persist unnoticed, the more negative emotion you will generate.
On the other hand, the faster you become aware of your negative thought patterns, the quicker you can defuse them and the less negative emotion they’ll generate.
And that’s where talking to yourself comes in…
Talking to yourself helps you become more aware of your own thoughts. It allows you to put distance between your thoughts and your self.
This distance helps give you a fresh perspective on the mental habits driving your emotions. And the better your perspective on your thoughts, the easier it is to disengage from them or change them.
Here’s another big perk of talking to yourself: You can’t speak nearly as fast as you can think.
If you constrain the speed of your thinking to the speed of speech, your mind will only generate a fraction of the negative emotion in the same amount of time.
Few things will keep you saner than cultivating a habit of talking to yourself when things are tough.
Like exercise, adequate sleep and rest are essential for both physical and mental health.
Here’s an example: If you had to guess, when are couples more likely to get into a fight: 11:00 AM or 11:00 PM?
If you’ve ever been in a relationship, I think the answer is pretty clear: fights and arguments are far more likely in the evening.
Why? Because, by the time evening rolls around, we’re exhausted.
We simply don’t function well when we’re exhausted—physically, mentally or emotionally.
Everything from impulse control and emotion regulation to communication becomes significantly more challenging when we’re tired.
To protect yourself against the mood-deflating effects of fatigue, commit to consistently good habits of sleep and rest:
- Wake up at the same time every day.
- Don’t get in to bed until you’re truly sleepy.
- Create a sleep runway in the evenings.
- Exercise regularly.
- Take frequent breaks, especially during strenuous work.
- Make time to be outside and in nature.
- Build more whitespace into your life.
5. Clarify and cultivate your values
Consider the following two people, both of whom find themselves stuck in a cycle of negative self-talk, beating themselves up over a mistake they made earlier in the day:
- Jasper is a high-powered criminal defense attorney. He lives for his work. It’s his life. And he’s amazing at it. Nothing makes him feel better than winning a big trial. But because he’s dedicated his life almost entirely to his job, he has very few interests and passions outside of his work as an attorney. No real hobbies, no long-term romantic relationships — even his friends he’s not especially close to. On his way home late at night after a rare defeat in court, Jasper is skewering himself because of a crucial (perceived) mistake he made in his closing argument. Unsurprisingly, he feels depressed, angry, and ashamed.
- Jenny is a preschool teacher. She loves her job, but she also loves that she never has to take work home with her and gets the summers off. She’s been happily married for 10 years, volunteers every other weekend at the animal humane society (she LOVES pit bulls!), and has a baking blog where she chronicles her adventures with experimental pie recipes and gluten free treats of all kinds. Jenny is on her way home after a parent teacher conference in which one of her student’s parents berated her for her daughter’s continued poor reading ability. Like Jasper, Jenny finds herself ruminating on what she may have done wrong with her student and how she could have been better. She’s feeling down and discouraged.
All other things being equal, who do you imagine is going to be more successful extracting themselves from their negative thoughts and emerging bad mood?
My bet’s on Jenny.
- Jenny has a diverse and well-cultivated set of values and interests. Even if she can’t extract herself from her negative thoughts on her commute home, she’s coming home to a supportive partner, an adoring pitbull named Brad, and a flurry of encouraging comments on her most recent blog post about gluten-free brownies.
- Jasper doesn’t have much to come home to in terms of things that could help him emotionally. Sure, his 65th-floor apartment is dope, his 80-inch plasma TV is stunning, and the bar in the lobby of his apartment building serves killer sliders. But how well will those things really serve to help Jasper disengage from his negative thoughts and bolster his mood?
The point is this:
A diverse set of well-clarified values makes it much easier to let go of negative mental and emotional patterns.
Like a well-balanced financial portfolio, diversified values and interests are a powerful buffer and shield against stress and emotional downturns.
So carve out some time to really ask yourself: What truly matters to me? What are my values? What do I feel passionate about? And then most importantly, how could I begin to work toward those values? What would it take to make those values and interests a reality?