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Music is present in every part of our lives. Our spiritual rituals are framed with songs, children learn the alphabet through song and the malls and cafes we visit during our leisure time are rarely silent.
But just how much can this ever-present thing impact us – and the way we act and feel? Research suggests music can influence us a lot. It can impact illness, depression, spending, productivity and our perception of the world.
Some research has suggested it can increase aggressive thoughts, or encourage crime.
Recently, a UK study explored how “drill” music – a genre of rap characterized by threatening lyrics – might be linked to attention-seeking crime. That’s not new, but the emergence of social media allows more recording and sharing.
The content of these songs is about gang rivalry, and unlike other genres, the audience might judge the performer based on whether he will follow through with what he claims in his lyrics, writes the study’s author, Craig Pinkney, a criminologist and lecturer at the University College Birmingham, in the UK.
Beside music, the paper looks at social media’s role in fueling violence. The online platforms readily used by many, have given gang rivalries the chance to move online and encourage comments from supporters and opposing groups, which only adds to the pressure to react.
However, there are multiple reasons for the rise in crime, according to Pinkney. He explains that poverty, deprivation, racism, poor leadership, lack of corporate investments, lack of opportunities and resources also contribute.
Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology and music at McGill University in Canada, points out that it is difficult to analyze whether music can create violence.
Studies have very mixed evidence, and mostly use observational data instead of controlled experiments that can take into account people’s personality. People who are already prone to violence might be drawn to violent music, Levitin explained. But that doesn’t mean everybody who enjoys hat music is violent.
“When you’ve got violent behaviors that mimic something that’s out there in the music or art world it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the art caused the person to become violent,” he added. “But just because it’s easy to conclude it doesn’t mean that it’s true.”
Another paper, published in 2003 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reported that music can incite aggressive thoughts and feelings. During five experiments with 75 female and 70 male college students, those who heard a violent song were shown to feel more hostile than those who heard a nonviolent song, from the same artist and style.
The study showed that violent songs led to more aggressive thoughts in three different measures: More aggressive interpretations when looking at ambiguous words, an increased speed with which people read aggressive compared to non-aggressive words and a greater proportion of people completing aggressive words when filling in blanks on forms given to them during the study.
One way to put these findings, say the authors, is that participants who listened to violent rock songs then interpret the meaning of ambiguous words such as “rock” and “stick” in an aggressive way.
The study adds that the outcomes of hostile thoughts could be short-lived. If the next song’s lyrics are nonviolent or if some other nonviolent event occurs, the effects of violent lyrics will dissipate, states the paper.
Meanwhile, other types of music been been used in attempts to prevent crime, according to musicologist Lily E. Hirsch’s book “Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment.”
Hirsch wrote about how classical music was used to deter loitering in her hometown of Santa Rosa, California. In 1996, she wrote, city leaders decided to play classical music to clear young people from the city’s Old Courthouse Square. Many teens didn’t enjoy the music, according to Hirsch, and left the area, which encouraged the city to keep the background music playing.
The effectiveness of music as a crime prevention measure has to do with sound’s construction of who we are but also with who we are not, wrote Hirsch, a visiting scholar at California State University, Bakersfield. We often identify with music based on who we think we are, Hirsch told CNN in an email.
“If you see classical music as music of the fancy, white elite, you might think, ‘I am not any of those things,’ and then disassociate yourself from the music,” leading to, for example, leaving this area, she said. In this situation, people identify themselves in the negative – namely, who they are not – through certain music, Hirsch explained. People are still surprised by this usage of music, she added. But music has “always been used in a variety of ways, positive and negative,” Hirsch said.
Music can make us feel all sorts of emotions, some of which are negative, added Laurel Trainor, professor of psychology, neuroscience and behavior and director of the McMaster Institute for music and the mind.
It can “bring people together and fuel these social bonds,” this can be positive as well as negative, according to her. For example, as far back as we have records, music has been used in war, explained Trainor, because it brought people together socially.
Music has power over our feelings. No other species has evolved in such a way to ascribe meaning and create emotional responses to music as humans, she added.
Power over feelings
Everyone can relate to the experience of listening to a melancholic playlist and then not being able to escape the mood. But, according to research, even how we perceive the world around us can be influenced by music.
Researchers at the University of Groningen showed in an experiment that listening to sad or happy music can not only put people in a different mood, but also change what people notice.
In a 2011 study, 43 students listened to happy or sad music in the background as they were tasked with identifying happy and sad faces. When happy music was played participants spotted more happy faces and the opposite was true for sad music.
The researchers argue that this could be because the perceptual decision on our sensory stimuli, in the experiment’s case the face expressions, are directly influenced by our state of mind.
But if music can change our mood and perception, the question remains if that is a good thing.
Another recent study says it depends. People with clinical depression tendencies were found to feel worse after listening to sad music. On the other hand, those who didn’t have these tendencies reported feeling better after listening to sad music. It helps work through emotions and fosters connections between people, previous research said.
The study included people with and without depression and found that both groups felt better after listening to happy music.
Levitin believes that “the weight of evidence is that music can help depression” because it offers people a distraction. During clinical depression, however – which is a different thing, Levitin added – the person is disengaged and might not want to engage with music.
Influencing daily tasks
People who dance and actively engage with music were found to be happier than others, who didn’t engage with music in that way, according to a 2017 study from Australia. The researchers interviewed 1,000 participants over the phone and looked at their subjective wellbeing scores – their individual evaluations of life satisfaction. The people who danced and attended music events had significantly higher subjective wellbeing scores than those who didn’t engage with music in these ways. People actively engaging with music in a group also had higher scores than others who enjoyed music in these ways while alone.
“At the most fundamental level,” Levitin explained that happy music tends to have an up-beat tempo “and we know neutrons fire in synchrony to the beat of the music and so happy music can actually energize you.”
But the task needs to be considered. During repetitive or boring tasks you can get drowsy and music can work as a stimuli “which allows you to do a better job.” If the task is more complex, “music is harmful” because it acts like a distraction to our concentration.
Music triggers the hormones oxytocin and serotonin, responsible for bonding, trust and intimacy, explained Levitin.
Trainor thinks that it is “part of our biological heritage” that music has not just a positive side to social bonding but also a negative one. “We need to recognize that if we want to use music in positive ways.”
Read part 2 on healing and part 3 on torture.
Turns Out Your Music Playlist
Really Does Affect Your Workout
Whether you prefer pop, rock or hip-hop, the kind of music on your workout playlist can make a difference.
According to a new study, high-tempo music can reduce the amount of perceived effort of a workout and help boost cardiovascular benefits more than slower tempos. The tempo of the music needs to equate to about 170 heartbeats per minute, researchers say.
The new study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, and researchers discovered that music can boost your mood before exercise and inspire bursts of effort, performance and endurance, all while minimizing perceptions of pain and fatigue.
“We found that listening to high-tempo music while exercising resulted in the highest heart rate and lowest perceived exertion compared with not listening to music,” study author Luca Ardigo, a professor at the University of Verona in Italy, said in a statement. “This means that the exercise seemed like less effort, but it was more beneficial in terms of enhancing physical fitness.”
The study examined 19 active women of various ages during endurance workouts under four conditions: without music, with music at 90-110 beats per minute (bpm), with music at 130-150 bpm and with music at 170-190 bpm. The study found the effects were greatest for endurance exercise, such as brisk walking, running, biking and swimming, than for high-intensity exercises such as weightlifting, jump roping, speed walking and high intensity interval training, according to CNN.
Knowing you have them is the first step.
I’ve signed up to get emotionally attacked by my phone every day. Along with hundreds of thousands of people, I get a daily notification from the astrology app Co-Star. It sends an A.I.-generated nugget of wisdom based on what my horoscope and the message is usually ruthless.
“Who do you trust with your most intense feelings?” Co-Star asked me recently. The question stunned me so much that I had to sit down to think about it. When I could think of no one, I ended up booking my first therapist appointment in months.
“Taking the time to correct a friend’s behaviour is an act of love,” the app quipped. I realized that I was holding back from talking to an acquaintance about a hurtful remark they made because of how much I hate confrontation.
I’m no masochist and would be mortified if anyone talked to me like Co-Star does. But I won’t be deleting the app anytime soon. These regular roasts serve an important function in my life that little else can: they force me to self-reflect on my emotional blind spots that erode my relationships.
What is a blind spot?
Emotional blind spots cause life obstacles that aren’t visible to us, but are obvious to others. Maybe you never apologize authentically because accepting blame makes you feel bad. Or you could be a habitual people-pleaser, to the detriment of your stress levels. This hard-wired obliviousness is often due to our cognitive biases. Our brains are constantly filtering endless amounts of information, making them prone to decision-making shortcuts that are based on memories and emotions rather than rational thinking.
When it comes to uncomfortable situations or interactions, our cognitive biases are likely to kick in and lead to reactions that are unhealthy for us or the people we care about. But like rear-view mirrors, there are tools that can help us spot what obstructs our judgement.
Find a blind spot
Listen to how others describe you. Counsellor Kevin Beauchamp advises keeping an ear out for “the just factor:” it’s when your social circles use the word “just” before referring to you as an excuse for your behaviour.
“That’s just Paul, he gets angry … She doesn’t take feedback well, that’s just the way she is,” he gives as examples.
Mindfulness exercises can also unearth uncomfortable truths. Oprah Magazine recommends looking at patterns in bad relationships and listing what makes you unhappy in your current ones. If it seems like all your exes have the same negative quality, it might be time to question the common denominator. For example, if you blame former lovers for never knowing how you feel, it could be that you’re prone to shutting loved ones out.
Mood-tracking can also be revealing. Should certain encounters frequently make you feel unhappy or if certain statements about your life (from friends or astrology apps alike) cause you to double-take, you might be able to trace your mood to a warped line of thinking you regularly fall into.
OK, I know my personality flaw. How do I change it?
Counsellor and mental health journalist Kathleen Smith writes we should question some personal adages. These might look like:
- I must be loved at all times.
- I must avoid all conflict.
- I must have control over everything.
If you find yourself agreeing with statements that support an “I must” mentality, it’s worth asking yourself why and work towards proving that statement wrong.
This can be easier said than done. But our personalities are a lot more flexible than we think.
University of Cambridge psychologist Brian R. Little studied the “personal projects” people undertake in the pursuit of changing themselves, such as getting over social anxiety by volunteering. Little found they could eventually change their personality traits permanently, as long as their project was something they really cared about.
You can do this by setting attainable goals related to your shortcomings. A 14-week long study suggests that participants who kept challenging themselves to change were more successful than those who just expressed a desire to be different.
For those who want to be less neurotic, study author and psychologist Nathan Hudson said activities like saying positive affirmations can directly intervene in one’s neurotic thought process.
Personal project ideas for common blind spots
You don’t need to step completely out of your comfort zone to change your personality. Starting small and being consistent are key steps to making progress:
Trying to be less avoidant? Send a difficult message over text, instead of saying it in-person.
Want to be less self-critical? Say three compliments every time you have a negative thought about yourself.
Quick to anger in an argument? Before replying, slow down your breathing and consider the other person’s perspective.
Trying to listen more? Pay attention to how much others speak and ask questions about what they bring up.
2 Mindfulness Steps To Silence Your Inner Critic
Self-Care For Leaders: 2 Mindfulness Steps To Silence Your Inner Critic
- Begin by calling to mind an example of an inner critic statement. As you do so, notice if other thoughts start to pop up to enhance the statement, or if you start feeling any sensations of discomfort in your body. Are they familiar? When else do you notice those thoughts or feelings?
- Now see if you can meet those words and thoughts with this sentence: “This may or may not be true.” Once again pay attention to sensations and feelings that arise.
These research-backed habits will make your life so much better.
There’s a quote from author Jaeda DeWalt that looks at joy from a different perspective: “Happiness is created and not found, it’s a state of mind and in its best form, it stands independent of life circumstances.”
Regardless of whether you buy into the idea, the maxim can assure you that acquiring at least some happiness is within your power. This means every day you can choose to do something to make yourself more joyful. And in a world where you’re dealing with devastating news, work woes, money stress, relationship struggles and more uncomfortable obstacles that are out of your control, isn’t it kind of nice to know you have a little autonomy over how you feel?
With an arsenal of simple and free techniques to lighten any situation, you’ll be better prepared to handle anything. Here are just a few ways you can make yourself happier this year (and beyond):
1. Check in with someone you love
With so many ways to connect these days, this one is simple to do ― we just often forget. Shoot a text, initiate a FaceTime or go old-fashioned and write a letter to someone who makes you smile. Research shows those who foster connections tend to lead healthier, happier lives. You might not always have time for a long catch-up over the phone, but even a simple heart emoji could do both of you some good.
2. Write down one thing you’re grateful for
Gratitude and happiness are intrinsically linked, so you might consider making gratitude journaling a habit. If journaling isn’t your thing, you can still benefit from a lower-commitment version of the practice. Try scribbling one or two things you’re grateful for on a notepad or even just jotting down a good thing that happened to you during your day. (Did you catch the train at just the right time? Did you answer the final “Jeopardy” question correctly? Did you eat a delicious meal?) This exercise will help remind you that no matter how dark you may be feeling, points of brightness exist in your life.
3. Make yourself a quick, healthy breakfast
“What we do first thing in the morning typically sets the tone for the rest of the day,” psychologist Tim Sharp previously told HuffPost. Starting the day with a nutritious, filling breakfast may very well be the thing your routine has been missing. Research suggests that eating more fruits and veggies may boost your happiness, and getting some calories in your system before you take on the world can set up your body and your brain for success.
Daunting as it may sound, prepping a morning meal for yourself is an easy task. If you haven’t yet mastered your preferred recipes, here’s a suggestion: Put some oats into a jar. Pour milk onto said oats. Refrigerate overnight. Come morning, top it with frozen or fresh fruit, peanut butter, nuts, honey or whatever you like. This fibrous number will keep you full and satisfied.
4. Forgive someone
This is a tough one, but it’d serve you well to wake up every morning with fewer grudges than you had yesterday. If you’re really struggling to let go, consider forgiveness a gift to yourself, not the person or event you’re attempting to forgive. Research has underscored the benefits of releasing resentments: The practice can improve your well-being, lower your anxiety and even strengthen your immune system.
5. Allow yourself to feel sad or angry when you need to
It sounds counterintuitive, but it works. While it’s important to let go, it’s equally important to let yourself feel what you’re feeling when the time comes. There are actually constructive ways to complain and deal with annoyances; keeping it all in may sometimes do more harm than good. One 2015 study examined the effects of letting one’s irritations fester, finding that doing so often resulted in feelings of regret. Research also shows that crying can be therapeutic.
6. Toss your negative thoughts in the garbage
If your brain continues to replay a thought that’s negative and getting in the way of your happiness, literally throw it away. Write any toxic thoughts about yourself on a piece of paper, crumple it up, then toss the paper into a garbage can. This practice has been shown to improve your feelings. It might sound a little ridiculous but give it a try — you’ve got nothing to lose but your negativity.
7. Make a point to get some fresh air
Your happiness prescription is in the clouds — you just have to go out and get it. That familiar scent of pine trees has been shown to decrease stress and help you feel relaxed, while fresh oxygen can lead to feeling energized. Ditch that stale office air, if only for a few minutes, to dose yourself with some nature.
8. Commit to some kind of social media detox
It’s no secret that social media can harbor toxicity. Taking a break from these platforms can be your secret weapon for fighting off the digital blues. You don’t have to fully delete your Facebook account to feel better (though if you’d like to, by all means). But if you can spend a little less time looking at random couples’ wedding photos and reading sick political burns, your brain might be able to make more room for the good stuff.
You could start by deleting certain social apps off your phone, giving yourself access only when you’re on a desktop with some time to spare. Doing so could make incessantly checking your social feeds less of a habit and more of a deliberate choice, which will give you control over these technologies, rather than the other way around. You can also try unfollowing accounts that feel a little soul-sucking and incorporating more positive ones into your feed instead.
9. Listen to a good bop
Even babies like to rock out to their favorite tunes, and studies show there’s a link between listening to music and feeling happy. Listening to music you love increases your levels of dopamine, so put on your favorite playlist and enjoy.
10. Get moving — even when it’s the last thing you feel like doing
By now it’s well-established that exercise has some undeniable, mood-boosting powers. Knowing this doesn’t mean you feel any more motivated to work out. The key here is to find an activity you don’t completely dread: maybe it’s taking a neighbor’s dog for a jog, walking a few blocks while catching up with a friend or doing YouTube workouts in your underwear. Give yourself some time to try different techniques so you can figure out kinds of movement that you love. The rest is easy.
Even if you’re the kind of person who looks forward to a spin class, you might experience some off days where you just can’t bring yourself to go. Stretching is another great way to release some endorphins and get the blood flowing. Here’s permission to reap these benefits from the pillow: Check out these yoga poses you can do from the comfort of your own bed.
12. Don’t be afraid to make it known that you value your time
If you’re a people-pleaser who takes on way too much, this one’s especially for you. Give yourself the gift of turning things down more often — whether it’s a last-minute happy hour that interferes with your “you time” or a project that doesn’t fit in with the rest of your to-do list.
Experts advise that saying no more often is one of the best resolutions you can make this year. You can figure out what’s worth going to and what isn’t just by your initial, gut reaction. “If you are worrying about what is being asked of you, or you feel angry, stressed or anxious, chances are this is going to be some kind of imposition on you, or something you don’t want to do,” Rachel Tomlinson, a registered psychologist in Perth, Australia, recently told HuffPost.
Your time is just as valuable as anyone else’s, and you deserve to reclaim it.
13. Define what “self-care” means to you — then practice it
Face mask, afternoon nap, getting your nails done, watching a football game, spending time surrounded by books and quiet: Whatever it is that makes you feel good, keep it in your back pocket as a stress-busting resource.
If you’re confused about what exactly self-care means for you, know that you’re not alone. In a recent post on Instagram, Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked for some self-care tips from her followers, admitting she wasn’t quite sure how to go about the practice. Later, in a tweet, Ocasio-Cortez recognized that the importance of self-care is stressed differently, often depending on things like class.
The concept can be tough to unpack “for working people, immigrants, & the poor, self-care is political,” she wrote. “Not because we want it to be, but bc of the inevitable shaming of someone doing a face mask while financially stressed.” Still, Ocasio-Cortez stressed that self-care is a necessary survival tactic for all types of people, for without it, burnout is inevitable.
“I went from doing yoga and making wild rice and salmon dinners to eating fast food for dinner and falling asleep in my jeans and makeup,” she wrote. “We live in a culture where that kind of lifestyle is subtly celebrated as ‘working hard,’ but I will be the first to tell you it’s NOT CUTE and makes your life harder on the other end.”
14. Be nice to someone
Smile at a stranger, hold the door for someone a few extra feet behind you, let the grocery shopper with just a couple of items go ahead of you in line. Kindness doesn’t cost a thing, and studies show that little acts of goodness do contribute to your own well-being. And if you’re looking for some inspiration, check out these feel-good (and sometimes life-changing) stories about strangers being nice to others.
That voice inside your head can be a massive jerk, but you don’t have to let it. Research shows self-acceptance is the key to a happier life but it’s a habit we rarely practice. Squashing negative self-talk, which can be done by trying cognitive techniques on your own or with help from a professional, might be one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Simply looking at a photo of someone you love can help relieve pain.
Scientists usually omit left-handed people from tests because their brain works differently.
Pretending you don’t have feelings of anger, sadness, or loneliness can literally destroy you mentally.
Chocolate milk was invented in Jamaica.
Your gut feelings are usually accurate and correct. If you truly feel there’s something, chances are there is.
Alcohol kills 2.5M people per year.
Eating chocolate while studying can help you remember the information.
Kissing is good for teeth. The anticipation of a kiss increases the flow of saliva to the mouth, giving the teeth a plaque-dispersing bath.
Depressed people are likely to get colds more often while happy and energetic individuals get sick less often.
Listening to music for at least 5-10 minutes a day strengthens the mind, making it easier to deal with emotional stress.
Smiling, even in a bad mood, can immediately improve your mood because these muscles are enough to trigger happy chemicals in the brain.
When people talk to themselves in the third person, they are able to better control their thoughts, feelings, and behavior, a study found.
- Lonely people take longer, hotter showers or baths to replace the warmth they’re lacking socially or emotionally.
- Marilyn Monroe’s IQ(168) was higher than Einstein’s (160)
- Singing when tensed helps you avoid anxiety and depression.
- Too much stress and high blood pressure can lead to a condition called “hematidrosis” – where a person sweats blood.
- 80% of people keep their feelings to themselves because they believe it’s hard for others to understand their pain.
- North American school buses are yellow because humans see yellow faster than any other color, which is important for avoiding accidents.
- Hugging and or holding hands with the person you love has been proven to reduce stress almost instantly.
Imagine getting into a political discussion with someone who is highly passionate about their beliefs. If the conversation is a good one, those beliefs will likely, at some point, come under question. If their emotional PH is high enough, they’ll interpret that as not only their ideas being threatened, but their identities too. Soon, you’re not having a conversation anymore, but a back-and-forth defense match. It’s not about listening, it’s about being right. You reach for over-generalizations, they argue with singular, personal anecdotes, you make sweeping assumptions, cite studies you read once-upon-a-time, their faces widen with bewilderment at how you cannot possibly see what’s so logical and self-evident to them.
This is a really common example of what happens when people allow their emotions to color their thoughts.
Being passionate is fine. Feeling a lot is fine. But when you lose your ability to differentiate what you feel from what you think, you debilitate yourself. Your arguments lose their edge. You can no longer think clearly. You panic. Irrational fears take hold, because you have corresponding emotions which make them seem true.
Twist your wrist really hard with your opposite hand. Enough so that it hurts a bit. Enough so that the sensation is comparable to what you feel in your chest when you have anxiety. Are you panicking as you twist your wrist? No, because you haven’t assigned meaning to that sensation. In other words, your emotions are not coloring your thoughts right now, because you know better – and that is the key.
Your emotional child cannot run the show. Your mental parent must do that, which is something you develop over time.
It’s rare to see an intelligent person become overly-emotional about one fixed, definitive idea. They’re often passionate about concepts, topics, or subjects, but never singular “truths.” This is because well-read, studied, informed people are aware of complexity, possibility, valid, opposing arguments. They know they don’t know everything, and they also know that almost nothing is black-or-white.
You must learn to apply the same logic to your emotional life.
Most things people become extremely emotional about lack depth. They get stuck on one idea, and convince themselves it is unfailingly, unquestionably true. They assume they know everything. They leave no room for growth or learning or possibility.
Your feelings can inform your thoughts, but they cannot color them. Your feelings should be utilized as a mechanism to guide you – show you what makes you comfortable and uncomfortable. From there, your mind must discern. Is this discomfort healthy, or indicative of a problem? Is this pain coming from true hurt, or making meaning of a situation where there is none? From there, you can choose a course of action. You are no longer flailing around, being thrown by temporary, subjective, illogical, inapplicable emotions. You are using your feelings to guide you, not govern you.
1. Give up dwelling on “If only…”
Most of us have goals, both big (go back to school and get a master’s degree) and small (pare down that pile of junk mail). What keeps us from meeting our goals? Why are some goals successfully achieved, while others remain on our to-do list, nagging us for months or even years at a time?
I’ve written before about how to set goals that are more likely to be met. And though a few tweaks to your goal-setting method can have an immense impact on your likelihood of meeting those goals, for many of us the problem lies not so much in the goals we set, but the ways we prevent ourselves from meeting them. You might have the most functional, realistic goals in the world, but if you engage in self-sabotage, then guess what? Your chance to meet a goal is gone before you even begin.
With my clients, I consistently see the same behaviors keeping them from taking action. These methods of self-sabotage can prevent them from getting where they want to be, fixing what they need to fix, and becoming the person they would love to be. You may know what you want and be pretty sure of the path you need to take to get it, but it’s not uncommon to be stuck in a rut of self-sabotage.
Do you recognize any of the following behaviors in yourself?
1. Dwelling on “If only….”
We all have regrets, whether they’re about something we did (if only I hadn’t dropped out of college), or something we didn’t do (if only I’d stood up for myself more in that relationship). Sometimes we play the “if only” game about things that we can’t control, but that we wish were different: If we had grown up with different parents, if we were more talented, if our partner could fundamentally change in some way.
These thoughts can follow us around for decades, and the problem with them is that they don’t lead to action. Repeatedly revisiting “if only” fantasies when they involve things we can’t do anything about keeps us idling in neutral. Given our lack of a time machine and the inability to overhaul people other than ourselves, continuing to indulge in these thoughts brings nothing but further frustration. These thoughts don’t spur action, inspiration, or problem-solving. And worst of all, dwelling on them keeps the same patterns going (ruminating on how you wasted your 20s socially may make you less likely to go out and seek good friendships in your 40s; dwelling on imperfect aspects of your partner builds resentment that makes your relationship worse).
Try turning “if only” into a different mindset altogether by accepting what’s done, but using this fact to influence your future actions. Such as, “X is this way, but Y can be that way” or “I can’t undo my past, but I can influence my future” or “I have learned something from X, which is Y—and here’s how I plan to use it to improve things.” Each of these is a new, more functional spin on the “if only” mindset.
2. Being afraid of your thoughts.
One of the easiest ways to ensure that a thought will have power over you is to try your hardest to suppress it. Sometimes we do this because our thoughts terrify us: “This is the third argument my fiancee and I have gotten in this week. What if it was the wrong choice to get engaged?” Or because we feel guilty about having them: “My coworker is just not pulling her weight on this project. But she’s a sweet person and a good friend so I shouldn’t rock the boat.”
When you suppress a thought, though, you have no chance to process it—to understand it, feel it, and perhaps eventually decide that it doesn’t make sense. Ironically, walking around afraid of what your brain has to say gives your thoughts far too much importance. This is a hallmark of people who struggle with obsessional thinking. These people are locked in a battle of trying desperately to get a sticky thought to go away, mainly because they’re so overly distressed by having it in the first place. But getting trapped in this battle doesn’t move you forward. Try not to think of a rhinoceros in a bikini, and bam—there she is, and she’s wearing quite a hot number!
The more you battle your thoughts, the more you deny yourself the opportunity to work through them, and the more you keep yourself locked in a negative pattern. Try acknowledging your thoughts and facing them, emphasizing that they are just thoughts, and labeling them as such. For example: “I’m having the thought that it was a mistake to get engaged. That’s probably because I’ve been stressed out. I don’t have to be afraid of this thought; it is human. I will get a bit more sleep, get over this bad week at work, and see if I feel differently. If I don’t, I’ll think things through further.”
3. Burying your feelings.
A close cousin to avoiding bothersome thoughts is trying to bury or mask feelings deemed unacceptable. Many people think that to fully acknowledge feelings means yelling obscenities in the grocery store, or hysterically wailing at their next staff meeting. But letting yourself feel things is not the same as unleashing emotions onto the world at large. In fact, you’ll be less likely to unleash feelings in inappropriate ways if you’ve actually acknowledged them and worked through them in the first place. Often times we bury feelings out of guilt: “I’m angry at my sister for making that comment about my weight. But she’s a sweet person and does so much for me. I have no right to nitpick.” Or fear: “If I let myself feel sad about my breakup, I’ll get so depressed I won’t even be able to function.”
But feelings, when hidden, grow bigger and bigger. And they are prone to corroding people from the inside out. Emotions don’t tend to go away on their own just because we try to keep them in. It’s similar to repeatedly slamming down a lid onto a pot of water that’s boiling over. You know that if you let the water get a little bit of air—set the lid so that it doesn’t completely cover the pot—you’ll soon get a calm, smooth boil instead of a frothy, rattling mess. Acknowledging your feelings doesn’t make them spin out of control, but putting the lid on them does.
4. Habitually starting tomorrow.
So, you’ve eaten a third sleeve of Girl Scout cookies before noon, or you’re completely frustrated that it’s three o’clock in the afternoon and you’ve gotten little work done. Many times, the natural reaction is to abandon the rest of the day and visualize the beautiful blank slate of tomorrow. But it’s never tomorrow. If you spend so much time saving until tomorrow, the habits you want to pick up and the changes you want to make will always be beyond your reach, because tomorrow is a constantly moving target.
If you are someone who must have a “clean slate” to get motivated, it need not be tomorrow. Why not have that clean slate start in one hour? Or fifteen minutes? This helps stop the surge of all or nothing thinking that can lead you to write off the rest of the day, getting you farther and farther from your goals. Even better, instead of arbitrarily declaring the slate clean because the calendar flipped over, create a true and meaningful clean slate through your behavior. Take a brisk walk. Do a brief meditation. Have a quick chat with a friend. Do some breathing exercises. Allow yourself five minutes of a video that makes you laugh. Each of these things can help reset your mind and your productivity much better than the vague “tomorrow,” which, when you think about it, is never actually here and never really puts you in the driver’s seat.
5. Letting inertia harm you rather than help you.
Inertia is fantastic when it’s on your side. If you pick up a healthy habit and maintain it for several weeks in a row—making coffee rather than buying it, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, sorting your emails as they come in—it becomes much easier to continue it. But too often, inertia applies to habits we don’t want to have, and activities that make us feel unproductive and unhealthy. This is the reason why the psychological clean slate discussed above can be so powerful. We desperately crave the ability to be free from the things we already view as tainted: A busted diet, a soured relationship, or a pattern of motivation-killing habits at work. We don’t want to salvage any of it. We want to start fresh because it’s a much more attractive option.
Here’s the thing: Just like in the physical world, we are prone to staying in motion—or in place—by this force of inertia, and no one can change it but ourselves. The calendar flipping to a new year, feelings of being “fed up,” new workout gear, or public promises can all (briefly) jumpstart new behaviors. But they don’t address the underlying inertia, which is truly needed to change long-term behavior. You must build the right day-to-day structure in order for new habits to take hold. Otherwise the inertia of the old habits never really goes away. Yes, those new workout pants are fabulous, but if your gym is still too far away or too incompatible with your work hours, then you haven’t done anything to address the inertia that prevents you from going to the gym. Focus not on the jumpstart, but on the overhauling of the battery to get inertia working for you, rather than against you.
Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and speaker. She is the author of The Friendship Fix and an upcoming book about the psychology of everyday life (stay tuned!), and serves on the faculty of Georgetown University. Her mental health advice column Baggage Check has appeared in the Washington Post Express for more than eleven years. She speaks to audiences large and small about relationships, work-life balance, and motivation, and is a television commentator about mental health issues. Join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter!