It was the tail end of a long day of small, stupid things that in normal times would have been tiny grains of sand to knock out of my shoe. But on that day, another pandemic day in a long string of pandemic days, those small, gritty things — the dog wanted too much attention, work was causing stress, the neighbor’s kid was outside, screaming, again — became boulders.
But I set those things aside, I thought, and got ready to do a tele-seminar for a few hundred strangers.
And then my recycling blew down the street.
“I can’t take it anymore!” I shouted from the middle of the road while chasing boxes and newspapers.
It’s not uncommon for the small to become the insurmountable right now. “There’s a lot more coming at us and fewer ways to discharge it than ever,” said Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life.” “A lot of us are taking on more than we can really process in real time and more than our nervous systems can digest.”
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Your nervous system is in overload, so it’s no wonder you don’t know what you’re feeling anymore. This is called “experiential blindness,” said Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of “How Emotions are Made.”
Essentially, our brain takes cues from what our body is doing at any moment. If our heart rate goes up, the brain parses info about whether we’re running from a lion or merely walking up the stairs. From there, the brain reacts — often in the form of emotions. However, we rely on our memories to tell us that indeed, this is the drab flight of stairs to our walk-up. Most of us, however, have never been through a global pandemic. There are no previous memories for our brain to draw on.
Hence, my shouting in the middle of the street about a crushed beer can blowing in the wind.
Remember, however, that you don’t have to stay in that awful place for good. You can rebound. Here’s how.
As clichéd as it sounds, stopping to take a breath can snap you out of your mood. When you are feeling your worst, stop and take two minutes to inhale and exhale deeply, said Alexandra Elle, a wellness consultant and author of “Today I Affirm: A Journal that Nurtures Self Care.” Doing this kind of breathing helps her “remember to be in the moment and to be present with whatever is in front of me, behind me and what’s to come,” she said.
Dr. Barrett says she tries to either consciously reason out exactly what she might be feeling and why, “or I take a more Buddhist approach and think, OK, I’m feeling something, I’m just going to sit with it and let it wash over me,” she said.
You don’t have to retreat to a special place to do this, whether you need this breath now or later. “We’re not all ‘sit on a pillow and mediate’ type folks,” said Mrs. Elle. Wherever you are works just fine. (Though maybe, for your own safety, get out of the middle of the street first.)
It’s fine just to take some time to think about what is happening and how you feel. Just be aware that constant rumination or getting stuck in negative thoughts may be a sign that it’s time to reach out to a mental health professional.
If your blowup involved another person, simply apologize.
And after apologizing, try to tell the other person what happened, “not to justify it, but to explain it,” said Philip Levy, Ph.D., family therapist and co-author of “The Resilient Couple: Navigating Together Through Life.” Then discuss with the other person “what did we learn from it, and what can we do differently moving forward.”
Talk about what you need from the other person, especially if they did something well-intentioned (like interrupted your work to tell you that a delivery had arrived, or spent way more than you had budgeted for groceries). “It’s important for you to be able to try to listen and not get into whether you’re right or wrong or debate it, to demonstrate that you hear the other person and that you care about how they felt,” said Dr. Levy.
Laughing about it doesn’t hurt either. I turned my follies into a Twitter thread, which made other people laugh, which in turn made me feel better, too.
Yes, it takes effort to get your workout clothes on when you already feel lousy, but quite a bit of research, including a 2015 review of studies published in Frontiers in Psychology, shows a single bout of exercise can boost positive feelings for a few hours afterward. (However, that same review found data on reducing negative emotions was somewhat inconclusive.)
Tackle a challenge
Sometimes you just need a distraction. A hard puzzle or game can be the perfect antidote, says Dr. Barrett. When completed, the sense of accomplishment will further boost your spirits.
Find a way to connect
“Humans need to be around other people, we’re social creatures,” said Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, an urban anthropologist and an adjunct professor at Drexel University. Ms. Johnston-Zimmerman studies behavior in public spaces and says that even micro-interactions — like watching a rat pull a piece of pizza down the street with two strangers — enrich our lives. Most of us feel starved for that contact right now. Call a friend, do a video chat, or even just sit on your fire escape and wave at the person in the next building over.
But skip the punching bag or scream session
Venting your anger may actually make you feel worse, said Lennis Echterling, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at James Madison University. “Merely venting negative emotions by screaming or yelling does not have any health benefits,” he said, and the research on the topic seems to point away from venting diminishing our rage in any tangible way.
Find what you’re thankful for
A lot of things in the world are bad right now, but figuring out what you’re thankful for can help you bounce back.
Expressing gratitude for the people or things in our lives “can help us feel more connected and inspired to help others,” said Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., professor and vice chair of psychology at the University of California, Riverside and author of “The How of Happiness.” It can also lift you out of whatever sent you into a spiral. It “takes attention off you and directs it onto someone or something else,” she said.
The gratitude could be for small things, like getting a bag of coffee beans from your favorite roaster, or big things, like being safe and secure in your home.
You can express this gratitude by telling another person what you’re thankful for (about them or not) or by writing it down privately. However, gratitude needs to come from you. Don’t ask for it from someone else; just like telling someone to calm down inspires the reverse, telling someone why they should be thankful is most likely to inspire ire, not thanks.
For example, if you’re mad at your kids and someone tells you that you should be thankful for them, “in that moment, I’m thinking, I know that I’m grateful for my kids, don’t tell me what to be grateful for,” said Dr. Lyubomirsky. And if this is the thing that sets you off, well, take a breath and start over again.
A.C. Shilton contributed to reporting.