It’s Not as Bad as You Think

Becoming mindful of your emotions in the moment can help you feel better about your life.

By Eve Ekman

What’s on your mind as you leave work? For many of us, the end of the day arrives like a much-anticipated avalanche—the unfinished tasks, the interactions that we relive or re-imagine—and even after we’ve left, we find ourselves sliding down towards a physical and emotional stress gorge.

What’s next? We pull ourselves out of our lingering ruminations with various forms of distraction: Netflix, red wine, Facebook, and so on. If we have energy, maybe we hang with friends and family. If your friend asks about your day, you sigh heavily and use one of the following words “overwhelmed,” “stressed,” or “busy.” If pressed, you will most likely remember the most emotionally intense, and likely unpleasant, part of the day.

We have an inherent bias for remembering hard stuff because our ancestors would have been extinct if we’d didn’t prioritize the hard, life-threatening lessons. In our modern environment, we easily recall our daily frustrations in traffic, anxieties with colleagues, and the like, while we easily forget our many moments of being ok and the multitude of small successes that infinitesimally allow us to move forward. Maybe in our ancestors’ environment we simply had more time to stop and enjoy the berry picking, star watching, and mutton-chewing—but most of us spend our most treasured daily opportunity for gastronomical pleasure eating over a keyboard.

The growing number of us working in high stress settings in health care, education, law, and business remember our days as a blur of stress. We push through and count down to the weekend—that is, if we are not working through the weekend—or long for a vacation. But even on the weekend or vacation our multi-tasking mind can be easily kidnapped by thoughts that give way to anxiety. This cycle of stress and thinking about stress can feel like an imprisonment, one that is hard to break out of unless we are totally numbing out with television or high intensity activity—neither of which really promotes the integrated rest and recovery our mind and body need.

My recent research suggests that even the busiest, most stressed professionals have more emotional flexibility than they would expect. The highest functioning burnout professionals I know of are resident doctors in training at a top medical school. I work closely with this population, studying their sources of burnout and designing trainings to support their emotional well-being.

As part of this work, I developed an app to capture information with a group of 100 residents about their daily emotions for two weeks. This group had tremendous scores on burnout and depression, which was not surprising. Sadly, this goes along with their stage of profession, which entails sleep deprivation and intense work with sick and struggling people. The surprising part of the study was that across this group they reported feeling happy more than half of the time. Despite their high burnout, stress, and fatigue, 50% of all of their reported emotions that were entered twice a day were enjoyment. It wasn’t just some ecstatic outliers, the 50% reported happiness was distributed evenly across the doctors. The doctors were also surprised at being okay more often than they expected.

The findings that, in the midst of our stressful day, we are actually feeling okay at least half of the time is not new. There has been a lot of emotion research suggesting that we are happy 50 to 75 percent of the time, but most of us are unaware of it by the end of the day. We get lost in the memory bias, forgetting the moments and seeing our days as one large block of impenetrable stress.

How can you become aware of the positive feelings you are experiencing today? Start by looking at the Atlas of Emotions online, a tool to improve the vocabulary of your emotions and enhance your emotion fluency. The Atlas was a project funded by the Dalai Lama who believes that, in order for us to transcend our stress and difficult emotions, we need a map that can help us understand our emotion territory.

The Atlas provides depth to understand the range and type of emotions we feel, from irritation to rage, disappointment to despair, and it helps us connect our felt experience to an action or reaction. Amazingly, simply noticing and paying attention to our emotions can start to help us see our patterns of behavior, get some needed perspective, and give some ease to our frantic mind. You can examine your own daily emotions by simply logging your daily events through small notes in your phone, or recorded voice memos, at least twice a day for 10 days.

Try to remember with great detail what emotions you had, what triggered them, how it felt to be emotional, and what your response was. Really reflect on as many emotions as you can and try to follow some of the emotions to their root. For example, if you got mad at not finding parking, was it really about also being late? Or was it because earlier you had received a rude email from a friend? Or was it because you also have been feeling some low level pain in your back and couldn’t sleep well?

In addition to putting this microscope on your feelings, you can also apply the practice of really noticing the good, the okay, and the basically peaceful moments in your day. We have to work extra hard to store this enjoyable content in our memory banks, but it really pays off. The more we savor our good emotions and even feel grateful for them, the more we feel happy and the less we feel stressed. We can simply short circuit our negative biases. When you do this, you will find that you are not just a pinball machine, triggered by negative emotions.

Eve Ekman is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, where she has been developing, delivering, and evaluating an intervention for health care professionals called SPRUCE, Supporting Provider Resilience by Upping Compassion and Empathy. With her father Paul Ekman, she has spent the last three years creating an emotion awareness training tool at the request of the Dalai Lama, the Atlas of Emotions.

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