When stress levels are high, small frustrations are more likely to trigger all-day anger, anxiety, irritability,[and cravings]” says Emma Seppala, Ph.D., associate director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. But asking yourself a strategic question in the moment can stop this slide into a rotten day. “Bringing yourself back to the present allows you to relax and respond in a calmer, healthier way.” Read on for the questions that will take your mood from stressed to serene—
*When boredom makes you restless: ask, HOW CAN I BE OF SERVICE?
Feelings of boredom (like during a slow meeting or dull dinner party) have a sneaky way of settling into hard-to-shake resentment. The fix: Ask yourself, How can I be of service here? Then pass a coworker a tissue or top off your fellow diner’s empty glass. “When you shift from thinking inwardly—about yourself—to thinking outwardly—about others— your mind-set shifts as well, to one of engaged compassion,” notes Seppala. While engagement zaps boredom, the good deeds trigger positive interaction that keeps grudging negativity from taking hold.
*When rudeness aggravates you: ask, IS THIS FUNNY YET?
We are hardwired to intuitively pick up on and internalize the emotions of others’. But that means someone else’s insensitivity—a friend standing you up for lunch or a salesperson giving you a snarky response—can put you in a bad mood all day. The secret to keeping yourself from ruminating on what you did to deserve poor treatment is asking yourself, Is this funny yet? Then imagine how you can spin the anecdote to your friends later to make them laugh.
Why it works: According to recent Canadian research, negative emotions and experiences cause people to develop tunnel vision and fixate on a problem. But thinking creatively breaks down that filter, encouraging one to put the frustration in perspective and instantly boosting mood.
*When an intrusion makes you angry: ask, HOW MUCH OF MY DAY IS THIS AFFECTING?
There’s a reason a telemarketer calling during dinner or a barrage of chain emails from Aunt Sally can leave you fuming long after you’ve hung up or pressed delete: These unwanted intrusions threaten personal boundaries and your sense of security. But asking yourself, How much of my day is this affecting? can quickly diffuse your anger. Thinking about the annoyance in quantifiable terms forces the brain to use the areas that govern logic and rational thinking, which distracts from the emotional reaction. By looking at the big picture you’re able to put the frustration into perspective and refocus on enjoying what you were doing before the disruption.
*When a nervous habit irritates you: ask, HAVE I BEEN GOOD TO MYSELF TODAY?
Nail biting, gum snapping, pen clicking...these bad habits are grating because others’ expressions of anxiety trigger our own feelings of unease that are lying just under the surface of awareness. An easy way to inoculate yourself against the edginess: Ask, Have I been good to myself today? “One of the best remedies in stressful moments is to take a self-compassion break,” says psychologist Kristin Neff, Ph.D. She suggests giving yourself the same comforting pep talk you would to a stressed-out friend or visualizing hugging a loved one or beloved pet to help buffer negative emotions. When you give yourself a kindness, it actually reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol and releases the soothing hormone oxytocin. This provides a sense of security and calms your whole system down, asserts Neff and voilà—you’ll be armored against even the most determined finger drummer!
*When a delay makes you anxious/angry: ask, WHAT’S INTERESTING AROUND ME?
When you’re trying to fit a week’s worth of to-do’s into a few hours, a traffic jam or long line can feel like a disaster. To transform your mind-set and dial down tension, ask, What’s interesting around me? In our hurry- up society, we often don’t take the time to stop and experience what’s around us! We rarely live in the moment. This question helps transform aggravations into opportunities to find peace and joy in your surroundings.
If you’re stuck in traffic in a familiar area, try spotting new-to-you details, like a tucked-away bakery that your mom would love or a small stand of young oak trees that reminds you of summers as a child. If you’re in a line, observe the people around you—maybe the man in front of you is wearing the kind of loafers your husband always chuckles over, or a nearby teen has the same magenta hair that your niece has been coveting. Before you know it, you’ll be chuckling at your own inside jokes and feeling closer to the ones you love.
Liberally Edited from Psychology Today, author unknown