The natural lifespan for an emotion is 90 seconds. From the time the emotion is triggered until it passes through our nervous system, 90 seconds pass. Something special happens to turn those 90 seconds of emotion into a mood or a type of day- our thoughts. Most of us aren’t sad or angry or irritated or frustrated or anxious for 90 seconds until we feel better. No, we think some thoughts, feel unpleasant feelings, think some more thoughts, feel a few more unpleasant feelings. We’ll get our behavior involved and maybe yell at the car in front of us or brush hurriedly past someone. Then, we’ll think some more thoughts and feel some more feelings. This can last so much longer than 90 seconds.
You know how it goes. You wake up and realize you over slept. First thought of the day, “No!! Why?!!” As you grab your phone to shut off your alarm, you notice that people have already texted and emailed with questions and concerns about pressing issues. You walk the dog, but he takes his sweet time making any progress on his business. You start taking an inventory of all the things you have to do today, all the things that will need your attention until you can finally relax at home again. Your stomach tenses. A neighbor, retired, stops to say good morning and casually chat. You feel kind of bad for pulling your dog away from her and toward home. You take your dog back home and grab everything you’ll need for the day- almost. You forget your lunch. You run to the train stop relieved to see that it hasn’t come yet. You notice that there is an inordinate amount of people waiting at the stop. You can see on train stop display that the wait time is longer than usual. You’re pissed again. Eventually, your train comes, and it’s crowded beyond measure, but you manage to climb in and hang on. You’re glad that you’re moving in the right direction and allow yourself to think, “Maybe because it’s so crowded, the driver won’t make the usual stops, and I won’t actually be that late.” Thanks to the fact that neurons that fire together wire together, your brain is used to feeling anxious about getting to the next thing so, it fires off more thoughts about how much you have to do, how stressful it all is, and how infuriating it is that you are wedged in between what feels like the entire population of the city. You arrive to work, find that people are impatiently waiting for you. As you start to think, “At least I have my delicious lunch waiting for me at lunchtime,” until you remember that you left it sitting on the table in your haste to make the train.
Yikes. This morning sounds stressful. We’ve all had them. Sometimes we’re able to regroup and make the next half of the day better, other times we just don’t think we have it in us. We’ve all definitely blamed a bad mood, bad day, even a bad week on a morning like this. Together, the frustrating events and our thoughts created a perfect storm for continued feelings of unpleasantness. (And we all know that it doesn’t even necessarily take an event in tandem with thought to cause more uncomfortable feelings. We can do it all by ourselves armed with only our thoughts.)
The thing is, it’s pretty much always our thoughts that create the unpleasantness. Traffic jam got you upset? Thoughts. Colleague irritating you? Thoughts. Afraid you won’t get what you want at work? Thoughts. Resentful that your spouse hasn’t once thought to clean the baseboards? Thoughts. Tired and cranky and stressed and busy? Thoughts.
Don’t get me wrong, thinking is totally a part of the human experience, and there is no way to avoid it (unless we experience major cognitive decline). And I’m not saying thoughts are bad; they’re not. They can be really useful to us. It’s the meaning we make of them and the rumination that challenges us. We decide that an event means a certain thing so we think thoughts associated with that thing and they gain momentum. Ultimately, the fear is that we are not ok/will not be ok as a result of it.
When we experience and unpleasant feeling, think thoughts associated with it, fear is often at the heart of it; we are usually attuning to some kind of vulnerability of life.
We can’t and don’t need to avoid or thoughts, but we could learn how to guide them. We could learn how to use our thoughts instead of being used by our thoughts.
Some people are fine with this and don’t experience that much suffering with their thoughts, or they do, but they find purpose in their suffering. To those, people I say, great! Looks like you’ve figured out what works for you and you don’t need me to tell you anything. To everyone else, I feel you.
And some of you might say, “Whatever, dude, stuff is stressful!! I can’t just not be stressed. I’m not flakey enough. What, am I suddenly just not going to care about being on time, what my boss thinks of me, or if I’m doing life right?!” And the answer is… kind of. You can be less stressed though it certainly won’t happen suddenly. (And you will also see that you are doing life just fine, but we won’t get to that yet.)
When we care about how we feel, we are more deliberate with our thoughts. If we don’t care about how we feel, then we allow ourselves to fall down the rabbit hole of rumination or put our happiness in the hands of other people, places, and things. The trick is to remind ourselves that we care about how we feel. The other trick is to ask ourselves these questions:
1)Do I care about how I’m feeling?
2)What am I observing about my experience right now?
3)It’s hard to feel __________.
4)What can I do about the situation I’m in?
5)What can I do to make myself happier/more at peace/neutral (whatever feels doable for you) in this moment?
It’s natural to think about what we have next on the agenda, what we have yet to accomplish, the miles to go before we sleep. And feeling time-poor and responsibility-rich is challenging. I’m not saying that you have to get to a place of rapturous joy on that crowded train with your whole day in front of you, but maybe you can feel a little less dread and discomfort. You can feel a little more grounded.
Because we have nervous systems, we won’t always be able to respond like this. And that’s ok. It’s ok to be humans having human experiences.
Love and Be Loved,