Not Another “One of Those Days”: 3 Ways to Interrupt the Downward Spiral

Downward Spiral Staircase Photo

No such thing as a bad day, only a bad moment that lingers

I once heard that there’s no such thing as a bad day, but only a bad moment that lingers. And we’ve all experienced it.

You get up, ready for a great day ahead… and then something happens that totally derails your good intentions.

Maybe there’s no hot water. Maybe you’re out of coffee. Maybe you spill juice on your favorite shirt. (Maybe you fumble the first snap of the Super Bowl.)

Anyway, something happens, and what do you say to yourself?

Oh crap, here we go again.

It’s gonna be one of those days.

Then you get to work, and sure enough, it is one of those days: How could he say that? Why did she look at me that way? That customer is so unreasonable. The boss thinks I have time for another project today? (And that’s just within the first 15 minutes.)

It all started when something “triggered” you, bringing up feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, or fear, and then — as long as you keep dwelling on it — things keep spiraling downward as the day unfolds.

I found myself tip-toeing on the edge of a bad day a couple of times recently, both triggered by the same thing: trying to get an almost-4-year-old out the door and in the car for school (mother’s day out).

If you are or have been the parent of one of these little beings, then no further explanation is necessary. If you haven’t, well… children are amazing! (Let’s just go with that.)

In all seriousness, the problem is mine, because it’s rather foolish to expect a 3-year-old to care about adhering to a schedule like a mature, reasonable adult would.

But here I am on back-to-back mornings, hoping for a nice, calm, easy departure for school — because wouldn’t that would be more fun for everybody?!

No. Running around, chasing the dog, jumping off the couch… that is more fun for one of us. Leaving the other (me) to feel frustration and anger welling up in his body.

What a great way to start the day? I think to myself. This is exactly how I want to go to work. (Sarcasm.)

And this is where “one of those days” can begin. But it doesn’t have to.

Did you know that from the time you’re emotionally triggered, it takes 90 seconds for a physiological response to flood through your body, and then flush out of your body?

In other words, that sensation you feel after you’re triggered (caused by your body’s chemical response) will be gone within 90 seconds… unless you continue to focus on it and hold on to it. And of course that’s what we often do.

Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained brain scientist, calls this “the 90-second rule.”

She wrote about it in her book, My Stroke of Insight, which chronicles her personal journey of eight years of recovery following a stroke:

“Whether it is my fear circuitry or my anger circuitry or even my joy circuitry — it is really hard to hold a good belly laugh for more than 90 seconds naturally. The 90-second rule is totally empowering. That means for 90 seconds, I can watch this happen, I can feel this happen and I can watch it go away. After that, if I continue to feel that fear or feel that anger, I need to look at the thoughts I am thinking that are re-stimulating that circuitry that is resulting in me having this physiology over and over again.”

I first learned about this while going through a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course led by Elmo Shade a few years ago, and it has paid great dividends since.

Going back to these two recent mornings, I can’t say that I let my negative feelings pass after 90 seconds… but I was able to interrupt the thought pattern within 15-30 minutes. Compared to the alternative — letting that bad moment turn into a bad day — that’s a significant victory. And you can do the same thing.

The next time you get “triggered,” try just one or a combination of these three techniques and see what happens:

  1. Label what you’re feeling. In other words, I feel angry. I feel sad. I feel frustrated. (Whatever you feel.) Just acknowledge it and don’t try to fight it. “When you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses,” says Matthew Lieberman, an associate professor at UCLA.
  2. Take some deep breaths. Breathe in and out slowly three to six times, and with each out-breath, feel the tension draining down through your legs, through your feet, into the floor. Deep breathing is the body’s built-in stress reducer. Dr. Travis Stork, a former ER doctor here in Nashville who now hosts The Doctors, said, “After reviewing a Japanese study on the value of six deep breaths, I do this whenever I’m stressed. It makes me feel calm almost immediately.” He’s referring to a study of 21,000 people, which found that taking six deep breaths over a period of 30 seconds reduced blood pressure rates — a key metric for stress — by 6.4 to 9.6 points.
  3. Stimulate your senses. What we’re really doing here is redirecting your attention, but it’s not always easy to “redirect your attention” when it’s locked on to thoughts of what just happened. Stimulating your senses, though, will redirect your attention, which will interrupt whatever has a grip on you. In my case, on one morning I tuned the car radio to a classical music station and found the beautiful “Arabeske in C Major” by Schumann playing. This brought almost instant peace and calm. (And now I have it set as a favorite on Spotify so I can call it up on-demand.) On the other morning, it was the cold, brisk air as we walked into school that grabbed my attention. The air was so painfully cold that I couldn’t think about anything else! While I was frustrated when I got out of the car, before the 30-second walk was over my son and I were smiling and laughing. Those are a couple of examples. I’ve also heard of people pinching themselves to interrupt a negative thought pattern, or the aroma of incense or coffee beans might do it for you.

This week, I encourage you to simply be aware of negative thoughts and feelings as they arise, and if you’d like, try to interrupt the downward spiral with one of these techniques.

A bad moment does not have to become a bad day. That moment is over and done with. There are still plenty of opportunities for good today. Will you be open to them?

Have a great week, and please leave a comment if you found this to be helpful. Or, do you have some other techniques for interrupting the downward spiral? Please share in the comments below!

photo credit: procsilas via photopin cc

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