I feel like crud today. I'm beyond exhausted, I have an allergy headache, and I'm in a crabby mood. You ever have one of those days? For me, today, it's mostly physical challenges I'm facing. But oftentimes, when I feel bad physically, it starts to also pull my mood down, or vice versa.
Maybe you've experienced this vicious cycle too? You feel sick, and then your mood takes a dive, and then you start wallowing in how sick you feel, and you start feeling worse, and then your mood plummets even more, until you're cursing the Universe and feeling like no good will ever come of this and you're doomed to misery forever! Or maybe it starts the other way around: you're in a bad mood (feeling anxious or depressed), which drains your energy, and you start to get down on yourself for "causing" your own misery, and the downward spiral continues from there...
The Benefits of Gratitude
A lot of recent research on gratitude and positive psychology says that I might feel better if I focused on what I'm grateful for, rather than on what isn't going so well right now. The research has borne out all sorts of positive benefits of having a gratitude practice, both physical benefits and psychological benefits.
Physical Benefits of Gratitude:
A stronger/healthier immune system
People who practice gratitude are less bothered by aches and pains
They have lower blood pressure
They are more likely to take care of their health and exercise regularly
They sleep better and longer
Psychological Benefits of Gratitude:
People who practice gratitude have higher self-esteem
They have increased rates of happiness and reduced rates of depression
They have lower stress levels and increased resilience, which affects our ability to process/overcome trauma
And they have increased empathy and less aggression
Our Negativity Bias
I've talked about this before, but it bears repeating. Evolution has gifted us something called a negativity bias. And nature has done so for a very good reason...because it keeps us alive. What is a negativity bias, you ask? It means that our brains have a special way of noticing, storing, and retrieving negative information more quickly and with easier access than positive information. Why? Because knowing what a lion smells like and being able to recognize it quickly so that we can avoid it and not get eaten is much more useful to our survival than knowing what a rose smells like. So our brain tracks and stores away negative information much more easily than positive information. And it pulls it up from our memory much more quickly as well.
This would be all well and good if we were still at risk of being eaten by lions, tigers or bears. But I'm guessing that if you're reading this blog...then you are most likely not living with that threat as part of your daily life. However, your negativity bias is still very much in tact, quickly noticing what's not right with everything around you (or with yourself) and focusing on storing away every little detail for future use and survival. And this probably has a negative effect on your mood.
What to do when you're not in the mood
I know what you're thinking... Yeah yeah, all that research about the benefits of gratitude sounds lovely if you're already in a decent mood and can find something you feel genuinely grateful for. But what do you do when you're in a crabby mood and just can't seem to muster the energy for gratitude? Maybe you're feeling depressed and haven't left your bed all day. Or you're so stressed or anxious about something that you're paralyzed with fear and can't leave the house.
I know those days, the ones when you just hate the world and feel like nothing will ever get any better. Those days and I are old friends. And I've found that I can do one of two things when I realize I'm caught in the grip of one of those crappy days. I can either continue to let my mind dive for the depths at the center of the earth with a speed that would rival most nuclear missiles. OR... I can gently acknowledge without judgement that I've been caught up in my evolutionary negativity bias again, and try to shift my perspective a little. So here's what I do on those crappy days...
Start with What Doesn't Suck
Yes, you heard me correctly. On days when I can't muster the energy for gratitude and I want to punch anyone who cheerfully asks me "What are you grateful for?", this is what I do. I start by asking myself, "What doesn't completely suck right now?"
Let me be clear, this is not a gratitude exercise in disguise. I don't want you to spout a bunch of platitudes about what you think you should be grateful for because other people might not have them (like fingers and toes, a pet chicken who loves you, or any of that). These have to be things that feel true and genuine for you in that moment, otherwise you'll feel more resentful that you're trying to force yourself to be cheerful and grateful when you're just not.
So, as an example, here's my list for today of things that don't totally suck:
Air conditioning - because it's hot as balls outside and the cool air feels really nice blowing directly up my pant legs right now.
My reading glasses - because I don't need this stupid headache to be any worse!
The Costco-sized box of Kleenexes sitting by my desk that prevents me from looking like some kind of snot monster out of a children's story
The genius who invented the Culottes I'm wearing right now (which, for those of you not in the know, are like flowy, stretchy pajama pants that look like a professional skirt - Yay for adulting while still being comfortable!)
And viola! Just like that, my mood sucks just a little bit less than it did 3 minutes ago.
Sometimes my list of things that doesn't suck will snowball into a list of things I'm genuinely grateful for. And sometimes it only nudges the needle a little bit. But that's okay. Either way, it stops the downward spiral.
If the Downward Spiral Doesn't Stop
If you find yourself stuck in a downward spiral that you can't seem to pull out of, be gentle with yourself. It isn't your fault. We don't all learn how to manage these things when we're growing up, so how could anyone expect us to do it as adults. If this sounds like you, and you're struggling to pull up the nose of your plane from a dive, click the button below to set up a free consult call. I'd be happy to talk with you about it and come up with a plan together for how to help things suck a little less.
For more information on how gratitude, and other mindfulness practices, can help improve your mood, check out the Mindfulness page.