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Practical Mindfulness Tips To Shift Your Mood

"Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions." – Hafiz

Do you notice how quickly stress can spiral into anxiety? Maybe we notice that we're almost out of bread, and wonder when we'll have time to pick it up, and before we know it we're in a tailspin over how overwhelmed and rushed we feel, how we'll never catch up with all the things we have to do, how we never get our own needs met, how unappreciated we feel.

That can make us feel so bad inside that maybe we lash out at the next person who annoys us, who might be our child. Or maybe we just stay in a pinched and anxious mood all morning, sighing or snapping at our kids, off-loading our tension onto them.

Many of us feel this low level fear response -- otherwise known as anxiety -- so often that the bad moods caused by fear begin to feel normal. They make us irritable and erode our delight in life, in our children. They make it impossible to be emotionally generous, so our children behave worse. They trigger doubt about whether the sacrifices of parenting are worth it. All parents wonder struggle occasionally, but when we're in perpetual stress, we stop enjoying our children, and it undermines their sense of self-worth.

Most of the time, we don't even consciously notice the thoughts that start us off down the slippery slope, or the uncomfortable feelings they give rise to. But when we have a thought that upsets us, our body responds by going into flight, fight or freeze. So we suddenly notice an urgent need to take action. Any action, just to stop those uncomfortable feelings, to make us feel like we're doing something to address the situation. Suddenly, we're awash in stress neurotransmitters signaling us to get ready for an emergency. 

So we yell at our kids, snap at our partner, or begin slamming things around. (That's fight.) Or we suddenly crave a snack (that's freeze). Or we take refuge in a screen (that's flight). 

Life is full of stresses that give us good reasons to worry. But the actions we take from that place of fear or anxiety are never helpful. They're designed to alleviate our anxiety, not to address the situation constructively.

Of course, it's isn't always stress, with its accompanying low-level fear, that drives our bad moods. But sadness and hurt tend to come out in tears, after which we feel better. Fear most often emerges as lashing out, which is a defense against feeling vulnerable. At a lower, more daily, level, fear manifests as low grade irritability, self-criticism, perfectionism, annoyance, resentment, judgment of ourselves and others, and general negativity.

You can't stop your mind from being negative sometimes. The job of the mind is to watch for danger and to make you appear acceptable (as opposed to feeling happy). That gives our minds a negativity bias.

But you can commit to a better way of handling low-level fear when it arises, before it spirals out of control. When you notice that creeping negativity:

1. Use your Pause Button. 

Train yourself to Stop, Drop (your current agenda, just for now), and Breathe. Three deep conscious breaths will switch off your stress response, and give you the power to choose how to react to whatever's in front of you, instead of getting hijacked by the fear.

2. Observe what's happening in your body.

Don't get stuck in the story line; in fact, refuse to "think" about whatever is upsetting. Instead, notice the sensations in your body. Tightness? Heaviness? Be willing to feel that. The secret is that as you welcome those sensations, and breathe into them, they begin to change and the feeling begins to fade.

Still feel upset? That must be a powerful belief system, which you've probably reinforced with your thoughts many times. It's worn a groove in your psyche, and triggers some big feelings. But don't worry, you're already excavating it. Every time you notice those thoughts and the feelings that go with them, and allow yourself to feel them -- BUT -- this is crucial -- you RESIST TAKING ACTION (which is a distraction from the feelings), you break that neural chain. Eventually, you won't even get triggered by those thoughts, and that belief system will no longer feel true.

At this moment, while you're upset, here's a power tool to move this process along faster. Be more present. That means you shift your attention from your mind, back into your body. Breathe deeply. Notice everything your senses are telling you. Notice that as you observe, the part of you that's observing gets bigger than those uncomfortable sensations. Your conscious attention is like a light that melts away tension and fear.

3. Open some space to shift out of feeling victimized.

Fear is the worry that we won't be able to handle something, and it makes us feel powerless and victimized. So one antidote is to claim your power. Once you've spent some time in your body dissolving those stuck patterns, shift the energy.

  • Tap the karate chop point on the side of your hand as you say:  "Even though I'm feeling stressed about that right now, I know that whatever happens, I can handle it!"
  • Shake the tension out of your hands or run them under water, imagining that you're off-loading fear.
  • Put on some music and dance it out, claiming your power. (This is terrific to do with children.)

4. Change your mind.

  • Notice that the upsetting thoughts causing your unhappy feelings may not even be true. Reframe mentally, with a thought that is more positive and just as likely to be true. ("Every baby sleeps through the night sooner or later.")
  • Use a mantra to talk yourself down and reframe your perceptions, so your mind turns off its alarm system.
  • Choose to see things from the other person’s perspective.
  • Remind yourself of all the wonderful things about your child, to put any current “offense” into perspective.
  • Choose a more expansive emotion. The simple act of choosing to feel grateful stills our inner critic, changes our body chemistry, and floods us with love. As Jan Marie Dorr says, “Practice being grateful for what you have, rather than focusing on what's missing. Look at what's working in your life rather than what's not working. Practice being grateful for the small, wonderful things that happen to you every day, and this will automatically shift your attention from problems to joy, from stress to inner peace.” 

5. Change your environment.

Still upset, because something in your world really isn't working for you? Do the first four steps above to empower yourself and shift into a more positive place. (Actions you take from fear won't get you to a better place.) Choose love, for yourself and everyone in the situation. Still feel like something needs to change? Now that you've done this work, you'll have more clarity about how to get where you want to go. Take one step toward a better future. Just one. See what happens.

Hard? Yes. The hardest work we can do. You're bringing the light of your conscious awareness to your fears, so you can spin them into the gold of love. I personally think this is a big part of our life-purpose. But you don't have to believe that to realize the transformative effects! 

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