Wouldn’t it be great if every day was a happy day? Sometimes there’s lots of positive energy out there, and other times, not so much. How you handle the grumpy people and your own moods is entirely up to you. Remember, you can’t control anyone else, but you can control how you react and respond. Having a bad day, or a good one, is up to you.
You know how you can be having a good day, and then one offhand remark sends you into a tailspin? All of a sudden it’s the worst day ever. If you’re human, it’s happened to you. For teens, it’s even worse. There is hope and there is a way out. First, let’s figure out why it’s too easy to stay in the negative space.
It doesn’t matter how well your day is going, all it takes is one little comment to ruin it. That’s because the brain is hardwired to remember the negative, rather than the positive. It’s called the ‘negativity bias’ and it’s a survival mechanism. This emphasis on the negative evolved to help us anticipate and respond to danger, and is in the deepest layers of the brain and emotional memory.
Unless you’re an eternal optimist, odds are you experience it from time to time. One unpleasant comment or interaction clouds the rest of your relatively good day. You may feel helpless to do anything about it. Given the way the brain works, it’s a normal response. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson said, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” We experience conflict, fear, and aggravation more easily than joy and happiness.
I’ve been there, too. My pattern used to be (okay, sometimes I still go there) that I’d be upset about something, shut down, and focus on my frustration, anger or sadness. I was miserable, and being with me was no fun. Just ask my husband. He used to call me a turtle, retreating into my gloomy shell.
The good news is that you can do something about it. Recent discoveries suggest that we can overcome the brain’s tendency to embrace the negative. It’s in your control to determine how the bad experiences affect you. In other words, unless you’re clinically depressed, having a positive attitude (or at least not being miserable) is up to you.
You are not doomed to be unhappy. The solution is what Dr. Hanson calls “intention and attention” – sustained intention to make the change, and giving positive events our full attention.
Here’s a process you can use, and teach your teen, to make the shift; however, there are a few important steps before you go for the change:
1) Become aware that you’re doing ‘it’ — sinking into a negative attitude.
2) Feel whatever you’re feeling, without criticizing or judging it, or you. This is what I call “accept and acknowledge”.
3) Decide ahead of time how long you’re allowed to wallow in it, and stick to that limit.
4) Process it. What’s really going on?
You’ve acknowledged what’s making you unhappy. Now it’s time to shift to “intention and attention” so your brain can notice positive experiences and remember them in its deepest parts.
5) Allow yourself to feel pleasure about the good things in your life. Gently move the negative thoughts into the background. (Tell that pesky voice, “Thanks for sharing. For now, I’m going to focus on something else, and I’ll come back to you later.)
6) Take a multi-sensory approach. Do more than think about the pleasurable event. Touch it, smell it, see it, hear it. Feel the warm fuzzies. Let the event become a physical experience.
7) Visualize the experience being absorbed into your brain and heart, and into the parts of your body where the stress usually manifests (i.e. throat, chest, stomach, spine). It takes the brain as much as 20 seconds to register the feeling, so be sure to relax into it for at least 20 seconds.
8) Verbalize the experience. Which words describe it?
You’ve now made this a physical, mental, and emotional experience, a powerful experience to be absorbed by your brain and body.
You may be thinking, “I can see doing this myself… but what about my teen?” Your point is taken. I recognize that intense emotion and drama are normal states of being for teens. You may not get past step 4. You might have trouble just helping her understand she has a choice. But you have to start somewhere. Pick one step and go for it. You know your child best, and what she might be willing to hear and try. Remember that the younger brain is also more elastic, so now’s the time to start this retraining. She’s also watching how you handle negativity in your life. You’re her most important teacher and role model.
You can reprogram some aspects of your brain. That doesn’t mean the negative thoughts and tendencies will disappear. There’s a reason for them, and they will always be there. But… your brain is elastic and teachable and you can train it to refocus. When you are intentional and consistent, you and your brain learn new ways of coping and experiencing more satisfaction and joy in your life, and with all the people in it.