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Getting Stuck in Negative Emotions and Relationship Patterns

You can escape how your brain confirms the worst in other people and situations.

Key points

  • Our current moods set up “emotional filters” that only let in thoughts, memories, and emotions that are congruent with those moods through.
  • Competing (maybe positive) thoughts, memories, and emotions get filtered out by your attention when you are feeling down.
  • Developing emotional intelligence and learning to direct your attention and thoughts away from negative cues can let you shift your experience.

You are having a bad day. Like most days lately, you feel anxious and worried — maybe even a bit hopeless and depressed. Nothing seems to be going right. You might think, “My life just sucks.”

Now ask yourself: Why do I have to wake up tomorrow feeling the same way I do today? The truth is that you don’t.

Changing Your Negative Experience and Thoughts

The main reason for the continuation of negative experience lies in how your brain’s attention and memory systems work. But each day you wake up, you don’t have to tell yourself the same painful story.

What if you lost your memory overnight and forgot the painful experiences and tortured thoughts you were having today? Would you still feel sad and anxious? I think not. You would literally wake up with a new outlook on life—one that is fresh and clean.

At this point, you might wonder if I am suggesting staying in negative circumstances. That is not at all the case. If you woke up in a negative environment and experienced pain, you would probably get out of there and change your environment. Why don’t you? If you say it is not that simple, then you probably need to consider whether the problem is with the situation or with the story you are telling yourself about it.

For example: Let’s say that this afternoon I have a disagreement with my wife about how to handle a behavior problem with one of our children. I then have a difficult conversation with that child in front of my wife. The result might be that the child has a strong negative emotional experience, I feel bad and dysregulated, and my wife feels bothered that she had to witness the exchange and see her child have a negative experience.

You might know people who would bounce back from this and 30 minutes later it is like nothing happened. You also might know people for whom the negative experience lasts all day or beyond. If I or my partner are in depressive mood states, we might perceive more negative emotions in each other and respond to each other assuming disapproval or bad feelings where they need not (or may not) really exist.

Our current moods set up “emotional filters” that only let thoughts, memories, and emotions that are congruent with those moods through. Competing (maybe positive) thoughts, memories, and emotions get filtered out.

In a recent paper on happiness at Widener University, clinical psychology doctoral students David Albert, Amanda Blazkiewicz, Ariful Karim, and Ariana Swenson, uncovered the following:

Research has demonstrated that when we are socially anxious or otherwise in a negative mood state, we are more likely to perceive that others are in negative mood states even when they are actually feeling neutral or happy (Garcia & Calvo, 2014). Obviously, if we think that others are looking at us with negative expressions, we are likely to tell ourselves a negative story that will further increase our own bad feelings.

Another study by Beevers et al. (2009) showed that, when people are in more negative moods, they are likely to perceive more negative moods in others. The authors of this study suggested that partners of those who are depressive might need to regularly focus on exaggerating their positive expressions in order to compensate for this effect. Over time, this might cause undue stress on the relationship and lead to more negative feelings. So, you can see that over time being in a negative mood could actually increase the chance that you will get even more depressed and less likely that you will be able to shift your focus to positive experiences.

In a study using an “inattentional blindness task,” Becker and Leinenger (2011) found that people are more likely to perceive another person’s unexpected facial expression when it matches their present mood. So, when we are in negative moods, we are more likely to pay attention to sad or angry faces and to ignore more happy faces. Again, paying more attention to new negative information will make it more likely that we keep telling ourselves negative stories about our lives and more likely that we keep our negative experiences going.

How to Break a Negative Emotional Cycle

  1. Practice being aware of your present real-time mood states (your emotions). If you don’t know what you are feeling, then you won’t know what to be on the lookout for.
  2. Once you recognize them, work on viewing your emotions as a physical experience in your body. This will help separate your emotions from your thoughts. In turn, this will give you more freedom and make it easier to change the way you are thinking.
  3. While holding and observing your emotions in your physical body, realize that your thoughts do not have to be in line with them. Work on gently letting go of your negative/hurtful thoughts and shift them in a positive direction.
  4. Decide what you want to spend your time dwelling on and practice doing just that. If you can’t slow your thoughts down or stop ruminating, then ruminate and dwell on your plans for tomorrow, not your misgivings about yesterday or today.
  5. Bring yourself into the present moment. Look around yourself. Is there something wrong with what you see? Or, are you sitting on the sofa with a loving pet looking out of the window?
  6. Find pleasurable things to do that keep you present in the moment and that are incongruent with feeling down and out. Distracting yourself is OK, as long as you don’t get in the habit of doing it to avoid your emotions (see numbers 1 and 2 above).
  7. Choose experiences that will naturally put you in the mood state that you desire — although not with drugs or alcohol, which will set up a negative situation/environment that you will have negative thoughts about later.

If you look at your present experience and find yourself in an abusive, dangerous, or otherwise harmful environment, you should take immediate steps to eliminate the threat or remove yourself from the negative situation. You can consult a mental health professional, access needed medical or drug/alcohol treatment, or call your county or local domestic abuse/crisis center. (In the United States, call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), text "LOVEIS" to 22522, or go to thehotline.org.)

References

Becker, M. W., & Leinenger, M. (2011). Attentional selection is biased toward mood-congruent stimuli. Emotion, 11(5), 1248–1254. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023524

Beevers, C. G., Wells, T. T., Ellis, A. J., & Fischer, K. (2009). Identification of emotionally ambiguous interpersonal stimuli among dysphoric and nondysphoric individuals. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 33(3), 283–290. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-008-9198-6

Garcia, S. E., Francis, S. M. S., Tone, E. B., Tully, E. C., & Francis, S. M. S. (2019). Understanding associations between negatively biased attention and depression and social anxiety: Positively biased attention is key. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 32(6), 611–625.

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