Browsing the archives for the moods tag.
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Heading off a Bad Day

Handling negative emotions

Here’s part of a novel opening I’ve admired since I first read it, the fifth paragraph of Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash:

The Deliverator’s car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt. Unlike a bimbo box or a Burb beater, the Deliverator’s car unloads that power through gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters. When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, shit happens. You want to talk contact patches? Your car’s tires have tiny contact patches, talk to the asphalt in four places the size of your tongue. The Deliverator’s car has big sticky tires with contact patches the size of a fat lady’s thighs. The Deliverator is in touch with the road, starts like a bad day, stops on a peseta.

One of the things that always resonated with me in that confident, attitude-laden bit of writing was the phrase “starts like a bad day.” Maybe you know the experience, the feeling that just waking up in the morning, things are already stacked against you, that the day has chosen to be a mess without ever asking you what you thought of the idea. If so, you may have begun immediately reacting to that sense that things were going wrong, giving in to irritability or anxiety or depression out of a sense that a bad day was unavoidable.

I’ve certainly had that experience, but in the past year or so, with the topics from this site so often on my mind, I’ve realized the opportunity that those first moments of the day offer me. If I can use one of the many tools at my disposal to turn the day around right from the beginning, then the world seems to transform to a much kinder place. I may wake up feel harassed sometimes, but by the time I eat breakfast I usually feel serene or enthusiastic or cheerful. Here are some of the ways I’ve been able to take control of my mood first thing in the morning.

  • Meditation. If we’re am uselessly dwelling on bad experiences or concerns we can’t affect, some types of meditation can help us relax, let go, and find some peace of mind.
  • Emotional antidotes. Negative emotions can often be washed away by deliberately conjuring up memories or ideas that make us feel love, hope, joy, etc.
  • Mindfulness. Moods like anxiety and irritability often feel like they’re coming from nowhere when they’re really reactions to some specific situation or worry. Reflecting on what our biggest worries of the moment can often bring those worries right into focus. Simply acknowledging those concerns can be a relief: the bad mood no longer seems to be coming from nowhere, and in being understood has done its job of bringing our attention to the problem. If more effort is needed to make headway against the reaction to a particular thought, idea repair can be very helpful.
  • Journaling. Writing out thoughts, feelings and hopes for the day can help improve awareness of what’s going on with us while providing direction and helping make emotional reactions more understandable and manageable.

For more on turning difficult times around, see “How to Stop Having a Bad Day“. You may also be interested in reading my article “How emotions work“.

Photo by tombothetominator.

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Using Body Language to Change Our Moods

The human mind

While most people know that facial expressions and body language can tell others something about what we’re thinking and feeling, there’s a less well-known use for body language: changing our own attitudes and moods.

Follow the smile
Take smiling, for instance. According to research, a person who is unhappy but who tries smiling will tend to become happier. Strangely, while our brains send signals to our bodies to broadcast the mental state we’re in, our bodies also send signals back that our brain tends to obey. While a forced smile will feel awkward (and often look fake) at first, our brains can soon begin to catch up, transforming the smile into a genuine one–as long as our intention is actually to be happy rather than to try to fool someone else into thinking we are.

Opening up
Another good use for changing our body language is to become more open and confident. Typically when we feel threatened, defensive, or resistant, our bodies reflect this by closing off and turning away: we’ll find ourselves pointing a foot toward the door instead of the person who’s talking, or cross our arms in front of our chests, or turn our bodies away, or clasp our hands. If we want to feel more open and receptive–and to broadcast that to the person we’re talking to, even if they have no conscious knowledge of body language–then we can turn our bodies and feet to face the speaker, spread our hands, and even turn our palms up. This conveys to the speaker that we’re listening and keeping an open mind, which may help that person relax–at the same time that it helps us relax, be open, and pay attention.

Reading our own body language
Mindfulness of our own body language also has a lot to offer us. Just noticing that you’ve crossed your arms or clasped your hands, for instance, can help make hidden discomfort conscious so that something can be done about it. Or you might say something and then notice that you’ve touched your nose–a classic signal that a person may not be telling the whole truth, that something’s being held back. Realizing what we’re broadcasting with our bodies offers the chance of noticing the undercurrents of our own moods and thoughts and of trying to change them if we want to.

One shark does not make a feeding frenzy
One final note that’s worth considering whenever we talk about body language: a single gesture is not a reliable indicator of a person’s mood. If you want to read body language, including your own, it’s important to take in the whole person. For example, sometimes a person’s nose genuinely itches while they’re talking–no matter how open and truthful they’re being–and crossing arms can mean that a person feels cold instead of threatened. Reading body language can provide terrific hints toward what’s going on as long as we avoid taking a single gesture as ironclad proof of anything.

The book I recommend on this subject, if you’re interested in learning about it in more depth, is The Definitive Book of Body Language.

Photo by Marco40134


A Simple Way to Start Dealing With Worries

Handling negative emotions

I don’t know about you, sometimes I find myself in a mood where I feel out of sorts but can’t point to any one thing as being the cause. That kind of state rarely does me any good: usually it means I won’t get a lot done, won’t enjoy the day as much, and am no help to the moods of people around me–unless I get out of it. To accomplish that, I have a very simple process I use, which is to list out worries in writing.

The idea here is just emptying my head. It’s related to David Allen‘s recommended practice of getting all of your thoughts and concerns on paper so that you can organize them, although in this case organization isn’t the point. It’s also related to decision logging, the practice of writing down notes about your own situation and choices as things happen in order to increase mindfulness, but it isn’t about mindfulness per se. In fact, the thing it’s most like that I’ve mentioned is swatting deer flies by letting them settle on you before you hit them (although I promise it’s much less nerve-wracking): that is, it’s about paying simple, direct attention to worries individually, one after the other.

This tactic doesn’t take any preparation: just grab paper and pen or fire up a computer, then start writing a list of whatever comes to mind that’s bugging you. It might look something like this:

– I’m still annoyed about that guy at the store who wouldn’t stop talking to me
– I can’t believe I forgot to pay my cell phone bill on time
– How in the world am I going to find time to take that refresher course?
– Do I need to go shopping? I don’t think there’s anything for dinner
– My car’s making that noise again

It’s not necessary to do anything about these issues as they come up, but when you’re done listing, you might want to start writing out your thoughts about each one, and to look for broken ideas. Sometimes all that’s needed to completely solve an issue is to reframe it in a healthy and accurate way.

You might think that writing these things down would cause more anxiety instead of less, but it really tends to produce relief. Instead of being plagued with multiple, unnamed anxieties, instead we’ve now got a list of clear, specific issues–issues we might even be able to do something about, although just getting them down in writing itself makes a real difference. My favorite moment in this process is when I ask myself “OK, what else?” and I just can’t think of anything. In that moment I’m reminded that the things I worry about have a limit, and that I might be able to make some progress in fixing them them … or even, until I can do something about them, just accept them … just for now.

Photo by Phoney Nickle


Everything Sucks. Reboot? Y/N

Handling negative emotions

Every once in a while, I have a day where enough seems to have gone wrong that I’m lodged deep in a lousy mood. Sometimes I’m not clever enough to be aware of this right away, so it persists until mindfulness finally kicks in with something to the effect of “You’re in a bad mood, and there is no reason for it unless it’s somehow helping you. Is it helping?”

It generally isn not helping. So I try to find my way out of that lousy mood using one of the techniques in this post.

The human brain is not very much like a computer. It changes its own structure constantly, stores information in locations scattered throughout the brain, and even runs two different systems (one neural and mostly cognitive, the other chemical and mostly emotional) at the same time. There’s more on this in my article about science fiction and the human brain at Clarkesworld.

But even though the brain doesn’t work the way computers do in many respects, it is capable of reboots: shutting down everything that’s currently running–including bad moods–and starting from scratch. However, reboots are not always easy. There are at least two things that get in the way.

The first is called “mood congruity”: this is the tendency of human beings to have trouble really imagining any emotional situation other than the one they’re already in. If you’re in a bad mood and you picture enjoying a nice walk outside, chances are it will be difficult for you to believe in your gut that the walk will be enjoyable–even if you have every reason to think it will be, and even if it generally has been under similar circumstances in the past. Whatever mood we’re in, we tend to imagine the future fitting the same mood. This is one reason the advice “Cheer up! Things will get better” often sounds so hollow. Mood congruity can be overcome, but it’s helpful to realize that the way our brians work, they’re a little limited at imagining an emotion while experiencing a contrary emotion.

Another barrier is that generally speaking, any mental control we have over our emotions happens by thinking (cognition), but cognition can change much more quickly than emotion, because so much of emotion has to do with chemicals like dopamine, cortisol, oxytocin, adrenaline, and others. The chemical states that influence our brains aren’t capable of changing nearly as quickly as our thoughts. We can go from thinking about a horrible tragedy to thinking about a really funny joke and back all within seconds, but our emotional state would not be able to keep up. This means that any mental effort to change mood needs to be kept up for a minute or two at least to allow emotions to catch up with cognition. It also means that idea repair doesn’t have its full effect right away, a subject I’ll be tackling in another article soon.

Knowing the obstacles, what are the techniques we can use to reboot our brains? Well, computers can go through a “warm boot” (rebooting through software only) or a “cold boot” (physically restarting the computer), and the same is true of our brains. A mental cold boot can be accomplished with techniques that completely clear out what’s going on in our minds. Two excellent approaches for this are meditation (which narrows focus to a very specific subject while letting everything else kind of float away) and exercise (which creates a physiological state that tends to help us cut back to a minimum of thinking).

Techniques for warm boots change attention, immediate experience, and/or thinking. Idea repair is one very useful means to do a warm boot. Other methods include emotional antidotes; visualization; and getting into a flow state (or at least distracted by something interesting for a bit).

Regardless of which method you use, rebooting takes attention, effort, and a little time. However, it often doesn’t take any more than that, and while not every bad mood can be banished in minutes, many of them can.

Photo by rofreg

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Want to Be More Mindful of Your Moods? Try on an Idiot Hat!

States of mind

My yurt-dwelling, goat-raising, kid-celebrating, writer friend Maya has a daughter named Sophie, and Sophie has developed a new mindfulness tool that I expect may be showing up and getting some use in our house soon, and I don’t mean for my son. It’s called an “Idiot Hat.”

I’ll leave it to Maya to fully explain the origin and use of the Idiot Hat in her post, “the idiot hat, or, sophie has had enough“: the short version is that when someone is being grumpy, they put on the Idiot Hat and wear it until they do something nice. (“But what if I want to be grumpy sometimes?” you may ask. “Are you telling me I can’t be grumpy?” This is an excellent point, and if grumpiness isn’t something that you personally feel no need to work on, I say grump away. Still, there might be other uses for the hat in your house.)

As playful as the Idiot Hat idea is, I have to say that it exemplifies what I consider extremely practical thinking about mindfulness. After all, if I want to change a habit (like grumpiness, which is the specific vice the Idiot Hat is designed to cure, although I think the hat’s potential uses are legion), I’m going to need to 1) catch myself in the act whenever the habit comes up and 2) change my behavior. And I’ll need to do that consistently until it becomes a habit. The Idiot Hat catches the behavior when it occurs and leaves a visible reminder until change occurs. For extra points, it also offers an immediate change of perspective, distancing both grumper and grumpee(s) from the negative emotion, and provides an emotional antidote through humor–as long as the grumper is in the mood to take a little ribbing.

The basic idea behind this–using something physical as an aid to mindfulness in changing habits or behaviors–is a pretty impressive one. By definition, the tricky thing about mindfulness is paying attention to the right thing at the right time. Having a physical reminder of that thing makes keeping attention on it strongly enough and for long enough to make a difference more likely. Having a physical reminder that doesn’t go away until you’ve taken some compensating action gives you something to actually accomplish and a constant reminder to accomplish it.

Examples: an ugly statue you set on your desk whenever you miss a deadline you’ve set for yourself, a little meditation waterfall you turn on whenever you’re feeling stressed until you feel better, or something you carry with you to a restaurant to remind yourself that you plan to eat mindfully when you’re there.

A note: I don’t mean to be posting two articles close together with the word “Idiot” in their title, since just last week I posted “How to Form a Habit: It’s Like Training a Friendly Idiot.” It just happened that there was this idiot hat thing that came up and needed to be blogged about. I promise to underuse the word for the next little while.

Illustration by Ethan Reid, age 13. Ethan also did a cartoon on the subject.

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