Control anger, manage stress, and always find that silver lining with psychological methods for regulating your emotions—minus a couch session
Your therapist helps you sort through your issues, clear out the clutter in your mental closet, and equips you with the tools needed to better battle your demons. After all, that's their job. But they also walk the talk: After being shown photos ranging from slightly sad to extremely intense, therapists were better able to calm their own feelings than the average Joe or Jane, a new study published in Psychotherapy found.
So how do they do this positivity thing, exactly? We asked a few experts to give us the lowdown.
Keep yourself level-headed with this technique: "Sit comfortably, close your eyes if you can, and imagine your torso is a big container, which you're going to fill with air from the bottom of your pelvis, right up to the top of your collarbone. Take slow, steady, deep breaths, focusing on filling the container completely and then emptying it completely," says Jodie Voth, a marriage and family therapist in private practice in Manitoba, Canada. Why does it work? Breathing with your belly breaks the stress feedback loop within your body, sending a message to your brain: "Relax, all is well."(Psst...check out Breathing Exercises to Better Any Situation.)
Mindfulness is a method of meditation that focuses on being present, a skill you need when effectively evaluating a situation. When you're fully present, feeling zen, and taking in all facets of a challenging situation—like an argument or an injury—stress is less likely to get the best of you. "I like Jon Kabat-Zinn's writing, particularly Wherever You Go, There You Are," says Voth. "When practiced regularly, meditation and mindfulness help people to approach their day-to-day interactions from a state of calm awareness. This is important when it comes to being positive in negative situations, because you're starting from a point that's further away from maxed-out, frustrated, and overwhelmed."
The ability to integrate your thinking process into your emotional response can help you handle challenging situations positively and effectively, says marriage and family therapist Carin Goldstein. "We have our thoughts and feelings—the trick is, as you evolve, to learn how to balance those two. I tell my patients that I'm not telling them not to feel, but to integrate their thinking into emotional situations." If your best friend cancels dinner on you for the third time in a week, and you immediately act on that sense of frustration by snapping back at her, you might regret that decision later on. Thinking about the outcome—hurt feelings, creating a rift, feeling guilty—when you feel an emotion will help you make more constructive decisions.
Staying perpetually positive is also about staying perpetually thankful. "Gratitude journals are simple and have been found to have a significant effect on study participants' experiences of positive emotions, particularly joy and happiness," Voth says. If you invest your time in experiences of authentic happiness, as opposed to trauma and frustration, that is what you will cultivate. "Try writing down three things you're grateful for every day for three weeks." Voth says keep it simple: It can be a beautiful sunrise, having your spouse's support, or simply having lunch to eat that day. Just. Be. Thankful.
Happiness is a choice—in all situations."The people that I see doing the best with managing their negative emotions are folks who regularly decide they are going to look for the positive," says Voth. "As therapists, we're constantly doing this while working with clients. We're trained to seek out the areas of strength that we can build on and identify hope." For instance, if you're sidelined with a running injury after that marathon, maybe you have time read that book that's been on your shelf. (Taking a day off can sometimes make a world of difference. See: Your Guilt-Free Guide to a Mental Health Day.)
"I use this line a lot to talk about what to do with things we can't attend to in the moment," says Voth. "Negative emotions are a natural and healthy part of life, but sometimes we need to put them aside for later." Let's say you're having an disagreement with your guy, but it's right before dinner with another couple. "Notice what you're feeling, acknowledge it, and make a commitment to come back to it later when you have some time to reflect," Voth says. "Be sure to follow through." The distance may help you cool down too, so you can handle the situation in a more positive mindset.
Goldstein says she often tries to probe her clients about where and when exactly they learned their coping mechanisms, so they can trace their own patterns. "Behavioral patterns and coping mechanisms you learned growing up are really important," she says. "The more you understand what was modeled for you—for instance, 'my father got angry growing up and he raged'—the more you realize, "Okay, this is the tool I've been given, and here's how I'm going to change it." Recognizing negative responses that might be first nature is important so you can replace them with positives, like exercise, calling a friend, or logging more sleep.
You're not going to be able to regulate emotions as well as you normally would in certain situations when you're sleep deprived, under the gun at work, or traveling. But it's different for everyone, which is why Goldstein says you should pay attention to times you personally feel like you're lashing out. And the next time you're in the middle of a big project at the office? Maybe don't invite your difficult sister to stay the weekend. (If you've been feeling abnormally stressed lately, make sure it's not something more serious—here's Why Burnout Should Be Taken Seriously.)
Basketball players don't drain three pointers without constantly practicing their jump shots. "Being mindful and reframing emotions just won't work unless you're doing it every day, or as much as you can. It gets easier, more natural, and more effective the more you do anything that is expected to make a positive change," says Voth.