negative emotion? snap out of it



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ONE THING ALMOST ALWAYS goes with a negative emotion: A narrow focus of attention. Sometimes the narrow focus causes the dysphoria (negative emotion, opposite of euphoria), for example, if you focus on something that makes you angry or worried or sad. And sometimes the dysphoria causes the narrow focus. That is not to say a narrow focus always causes dysphoria. It does not. When you focus your attention on a worthy purpose, the focus can create good feelings. But if you feel bad, your attention is probably narrow. Almost every time. Dysphoria is a form of self-hypnosis. Or at least it is useful to think of it that way.

A hypnotic trance is a tight focus of attention. And when you focus your attention, you are in a kind of trance. You've probably seen something like this: You speak to someone when he is watching TV and he doesn't hear you at all. You were standing close to him and you spoke loudly. But he didn't hear you. Have you ever seen that? If you have, you have seen hypnosis. He couldn't hear you because he was focused on the television — focused completely. His attention was so captivated by the images and sounds on the TV, all his attention had narrowed to only that. He was literally hypnotized by the TV. That's a form of hypnosis. We've all experienced it.

A good hypnotist focuses your mind carefully. She directs your mind. And she makes suggestions to help you narrow your focus: "Listen to the sound of my voice and my voice only, etc." The hypnotist encourages you to get comfortable first so you are not distracted by physical discomfort — that would interfere with the narrowing of your attention and might bring you out of your trance.

But this article isn't about hypnosis. It is about how the focus of your attention becomes narrow when you experience negative emotions (dysphoria). And even more specifically, it is about what you can do about it when it happens. But the subject of hypnosis is important to talk about because when you get upset or depressed or angry, it is very much like being in a trance, and if something happens that interrupts you, it feels like you "snap out of it."

For example, my wife was visiting one of our nieces at her house. She is 7 years old (my niece, not my wife). Her mom was punishing her and sent her to her room. Klassy (my wife) went in there with her and our niece was fuming. "I was only petting the cat," she said, indignantly.

Klassy said, "No, you knew you were misbehaving." Our niece refused to acknowledge it: "It isn't fair; I was only playing with the cat." This could be called a righteous indignation trance. She was creating her state of mind. She was focusing her mind on one aspect (she was playing with the cat) and ignoring the other aspects (she knew her mom didn't want her under the table, etc.)

Klassy kept insisting, "I know, honey, but you knew you shouldn't have been under the table." All at once, she snapped out of it. Klassy said it was like she "came to." Suddenly, her anger disappeared and she said, "I guess I should apologize." Boom! Just like that.

You can snap other people out of their dysphoria sometimes by expanding the focus of their minds, by putting their attention on other aspects. A depressed friend might say, "I'm ruined. I lost my job today. I can't believe it. I just can't keep a job."

Your friend has narrowed her focus down to one single event and to her, that's all there is: loss and failure and misery. The loss of the job has focused her attention. Like a hypnotist who says, "Look into my eyes," the job-loss has arrested her attention and mesmerized her.

You are not mesmerized, so you can see there is more to pay attention to. So you say, "Wait a minute. They were just laying people off and you don't have much seniority. They had to lay you off no matter how good a job you did. You'll find another job. You're going to make it. This is just one setback. Ten years from now if you even remember this, you'll look back and think it was no big deal." This kind of talk can sometimes snap someone out of the narrow focus. You are putting your friend's attention on a bigger field than the little dot she's been looking at.

But what can you do to yourself? What can you do when you feel dysphoric?

I'll tell you, this is going to sound like nothing, but you try it and then pass judgment, okay? When you feel dysphoric, if you only have the thought, "My focus must be very narrow right now," you are on your way out of it. It is like someone in a trance saying, "I think I am in a trance right now." A person who says that is less hypnotized just by being aware they are hypnotized.

When you can simply realize your focus is narrow, it is automatically less narrow at that point, isn't it? Do you see what I mean? As soon as you know you are focusing your attention too narrowly, that realization itself is an expansion. It will loosen your focus and lead you to wonder what you are focusing on and what you are ignoring. At this point, you are on your way out of it. Try it. It's a simple thing. But so are paper clips. Something simple can be very useful.

When you feel bad, say to yourself,
My focus must be very narrow right now.

Author: Adam Khan
author of the books, Self-Help Stuff That Works and Antivirus For Your Mind
and creator of the blog:
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