Today let us look at one way to cut negativity in our lives. Considering their weight it makes sense to consider if we are nurturing any unnecessary negative emotions. Remember though that positivity is not about banning unpleasant feelings. If we do this we just end up feeling nothing.
I have a wise friend whose life taught her to pay close attention to her feelings. She found that feelings are like naughty children who holler, tear around and run havoc until we finally give them our full attention. Once we stop ignoring them, and acknowledge and accept them for what they are, she says, they calm right down. This picture of the naughty children helps to take the fear out of some emotions. It encourages listening and paying attention to our feelings.
However. A big however here. One can also pay too much attention to one’s feelings, can get lost in them, and feel paralysed by them. To deal well with feelings we need to know how the mind can influence them, yet also accept the importance of their messages to us. Barbara Frederickson stresses that creating a more positive life experience is not a matter of wishful thinking. We cannot simply will ourselves into a peaceful and happy existence. We must turn the switch in the mind, change our focus, and “think something, do something” to evoke positive emotions.1 A prevalent form of negativity for which many of us should turn the switch, is when negative feelings and thoughts are dancing their boogie. Namely, when we are ruminating.
According to Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco and Lyubomirsky, rumination is a response to distress in which we passively and repetitively focus on the symptoms of our pain, trouble or anxiety, contemplating at length what might have caused it and what it might lead to. Psychologists call it a ‘maladaptive form of self-reflection’. Rumination is strongly linked to depression.2
Lyubomirsky and Tkach found that around one third of us engage in rumination, with women particularly prone to it. Further, among study participants who identified themselves as ruminators, 80% considered ruminating beneficial. And now here comes the kick in the shin: Of those study participants who suffered from major depression, 100% thought that rumination benefitted them! Yet Lyubomirsky and Tkach stress a significant amount of research shows that for anyone in an anxious, dissatisfied, restless or depressed mood, rumination will simply prolong and add misery. Ruminating when feeling low enhances negative thinking, because a strong negativity bias sets the tone. Feeling already pessimistic about life, we view ourselves more negatively, dig out more bad memories, and arrive at extra gloomy predictions for the future.3
Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco and Lyubomirsky explain that even though ruminators strongly believe rumination helps them to understand their problems, it has actually been shown to inhibit their ability to solve them. This is because rumination leads people to feel overwhelmed, and saps both their motivation and their initiative. Additionally, ruminators who are feeling down also pass up on pleasant activities, even when they fully understand that these could help alleviate their mood. Lastly, chronic ruminators tend to behave badly toward other people, leading to reduced social support. Thus rumination can be a crucial element which some of us need to stop believing in, as well as unlearn, to achieve wellbeing.4 Lyubomirsky and Tkach write:
Contemporary Western culture appears to embrace the notion that contemplating one’s feelings in the face of personal problems and negative moods is valuable and adaptive. Our hope is that the force of the accumulating research evidence will eventually erode this belief, so that millions of people can avoid suffering the negative consequences of dysphoric rumination.5 ()
We all have in-built and fairly unconscious preferences for processing negative feelings; and some are better than others. According to Sheppes, people who deal well with bad moods are either inclined to, or can make flexible choices toward, strategies that provide some relief. To deal with very intense negative feelings in the short term, people who do well choose distraction, Sheppes writes.6 When we are boiling with anger and ready to assault someone, distraction is a great strategy. At such moments, we need to do something that completely takes us away from this feeling, and do it fast. Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco and Lyubomirsky advise that distractions can be neutral or positive, and are effective when they divert our attention away from our bad feelings and absorb us in a friendly or pleasant activity or thought. They suggest a bike ride, a run, working on a project or going to the movies with a friend. Naturally, self-destructive or dangerous distractions such as alcohol, drugs or hooning are not effective, as they only add harm in the long run.7
Bignell suggests another approach, namely postponing one’s worrying. This does not mean to suppress one’s troubles, but rather to engage with them at a later time. According to Bignell, in one test, frequent ruminators were asked to allocate a specific half hour in their day for worrying. By taking control of their worries, participants found not only their troubles but also their depression reduced.8
If you are prone to brooding, I strongly suggest that you develop and remember a list of suitable, personalised, and effective distractions that will do the trick. Furthermore, allocate specific times when you are feeling calm to consider what troubles you (and lend those unruly children your ear).
Alas, and you probably guessed this, in the long term distraction or postponement brings no rewards. It does not address our fears and anxieties, which just hang on. According to Sheppes, psychologically healthy people deal with less intense feelings that re-occur over the longer term by processing them until they find meaning in them.9
At a recent 21st Birthday Party, Dad recalled bringing his daughter, Nelly, home from hospital: “Nelly you were just so cute and sweet. We were so proud and excited. There your mother and I were, on our front porch, and our little baby girl was in her brand new pram beside us. We were about to enter our home as a family. I was so chuffed as I turned the key. There was a noise though as the lock clicked. I turned around and saw, too late, that the pram had rolled backwards and was kaplonking down the four front stairs, kaplonk, kaplonk and then kapoom. The pram had tipped over sideways; and there was our little baby girl, our Nelly, rolling full speed down the prickle infested lawn, and just coming to a halt at the kerb.”
Life to me is a bit of a roll on a prickle infested lawn. Let’s consider how to make sense of it next week.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015
Please note all stories are true, and I use other people’s personal stories with their full permission.