Help! I Need a Distraction – Getting unstuck from negative emotions

 In Negative emotions, Relationships

When we’re immersed in a strong negative emotion, our bodies actually undergo a chemical change that affects our ability to think rationally.  One of the changes is that the stress hormone, cortisol, floods our system.  Although cortisol is important to prepare us for emergency mode (fight or flight), it also causes us to lose perspective and makes us more sensitive to other minor stressors, which can result in a downward spiral.  Sound familiar?  This effect is very helpful to understand because this means we shouldn’t make important decisions when we are really frustrated or upset.  It also means that it may not be easy to reason with someone else who is struggling with their own negative emotions.

I had the opportunity to experience this first-hand recently when I was playing Monopoly against my 9 year old daughter.  Luck was on my side and I couldn’t do anything wrong.  Everything I touched turned to money.  My daughter, on the other hand, was having the worst luck ever.  She was trying to hold it together, but it was obvious she was struggling.  When she finally lost, she could no longer control her frustration as she cried and said she wanted to throw and break things.  I knew her body was swimming in cortisol and she could only focus on her frustration.  There was no chance of reasoning with her that it was just a game.  I tried to listen and validate her feelings – reminding her that it’s OK to feel upset but she still had to control her behavior and not break things.

These kinds of negative emotions are not fun (I sure wasn’t having fun winning!), yet I reminded myself that this was good practice  for her to learn how to deal with them.  I was also having my own lessons in resisting being triggered by her emotions.   I knew she needed a distraction so her body could chemically reset, so eventually I suggested she watch a video.  Ta da!  In 15 minutes she was back to her normal self.  Phew!!

In past tips, I’ve talked about how negative emotions can be important  (Can Negative Emotions Be a Good Thing?), but the trick is to not get stuck and let them spiral out of control.  Here is where finding a distraction can be very helpful to take our minds off our problems and let the cortisol purge from our systems.   Distractions such as watching a video, reading a book, listening to an upbeat song or exercise can be just the ticket.  What types of distractions help you when you are feeling upset or stressed?


Tina Hallis, Ph.D., is a professional speaker and consultant for The Positive Edge, a company dedicated to helping people and organizations fulfill their true potential using strategies from the science of Positive Psychology.

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Frustration, anxiety, overwhelm