Negative feelings have a way of creeping up on us, particularly if we find ourselves in an especially emotionally charged situation. If you find that these moments of negativity can worm their way into your mind and leave you drowning in an ocean of feelings, then you’re not alone. However, cognitive neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., and author of Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, says that the key to getting out of this dark space is to use decompression activities that can help you find your way back to a relaxed state of mind.
“By utilizing decompression activities, we can enter a space that allows us to bring whatever emotions we have down to a more manageable state,” Leaf says.
Here are four of Leaf’s favorite decompression activities that have the power to disrupt your pattern of negative thinking and can help you get yourself back on the sunny side of the street.
Connect to the body
If you feel your negative thoughts taking over, then use your body to make yourself feel grounded. “When we feel stressed out of overwhelmed, we may find ourselves too mentally exhausted to process our emotions, or we may be too overwhelmed by the intensity of our feelings,” explains Leaf. “In moments like these, it can be incredibly beneficial to connect with our ability to touch and feel.” By doing this, you will encourage your mind to stop racing and connect with what’s real and tangible.
One way to ground yourself is to do a body scan. Pay attention to your body, moving from the tips of your toes to the top of your head. Consider how each part of your body feels, taking note of any warmth, coolness, tension, or looseness. Think about relaxing individual muscles, and what you can feel on your skin. Paying attention to these sensations “can help calm our sympathetic nervous system and bring our bodies out of fight-or-flight mode.”
“Another tool that helps us decompress is to harness our creativity and imagination,” Leaf adds. If you’re feeling tense, then throw on your favorite song and host a personal dance party, break out your paints, or simply doodle in the corner of a notebook for a few minutes.
Creative outlets aren’t just good for in-the-moment fixes but can be beneficial in terms of long-term emotional maintenance. “Creativity can teach us a lot about ourselves. It is a great way to embrace our own sense of self-discovery and get to the root of what is making us stressed out, and where we want to go in life. Engaging creatively can also promote gamma waves in the brain. Gamma waves are the fastest brain wave associated with learning and integrative thinking.
If you don’t have any access to music or creative tools, you can also practice creativity through visualization exercises. Imagine a happy and comforting scene for yourself. For instance, you can imagine that you are protected by a bubble of light, that you’re rooted like a tree into the Earth, that you’re floating easily down a lazy stream, or any other imagery that will make you feel happy, confident, and grounded.
At The Optimist Daily, we are huge fans of laughter, which not only lightens the mood but can make positive physiological impacts. “Laughing reduces the level of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline),” says Leaf. “It also increases the level of health-enhancing hormones in our brain and body, such as endorphins.”
So, if you’re feeling down in the dumps, take the opportunity to scroll through your favorite memes, revisit a video that always cracks you up, or reminisce about a particularly funny incident that’s happened in the past. If you want to be prepared, consider compiling a few laugh-inducing resources in a certain drawer at your desk so that you can have them on hand whenever you might need them.