By Lisa Newman
You are no doubt familiar with the downward spiral. It’s what happens when you hit the snooze alarm one too many times, then rush out the door only to get stuck in traffic. That’s when the automatic thoughts of it’s already heading toward a bad day start coming.
And then, guess what? You’re often proven right as one thing after another piles on the evidence and you start feeling anxious, angry, or other uncomfortable emotions. Is it any wonder if at the end of the day you’re in no mood for exercise, then dive into the snacks with gusto, overeat at dinner, or drown it all with a few too many wines?
Sometimes it’s not this conscious. You just find yourself overwhelmed and unable to work, or in a heap in front of the refrigerator binging. But when you think back you can identify a similar downward spiral, starting with a challenging event, a disappointment, or even “that look” from a boss or loved one.
It’s easy to spiral down. It happens to everyone at some point and it’s a big drain on energy, productivity, and happiness. But, did you know that there’s another option? You also have the availability of an upward spiral that can reverse or even prevent the downward spin (Fredrickson & Joiner 2002).
When you’re at the bottom it can feel like you’ve been hit by a truck, out of the blue and outside of your control. The spiral downward feels automatic and inevitable, but it’s not. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Each downward step is preceded by a previous step in which negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors made you vulnerable to continuing the downward momentum.
This happens because we are wired with a bias for negativity. It’s what keeps us alive in the short run. A lion scanning the horizon for danger is more likely to live another day than the one not focused on the negative. This is why negativity can overwhelm us. But there’s more to the story.
Positive focus is equally important. It’s positive focus that keeps us alive in the long run as we build our connections with others and seek creative solutions to on-going challenges. Positivity is thus the basis for resilience, and the basis for the upward spiral. Positive emotions broaden our mind. They help us build toward a better future and fuel our resilience. This is known as the “broaden and build” theory of positive emotion.
And it isn’t only mental health that is affected. Positive emotions take us out of the physiologic stress of fight or flight and allow our bodies to relax, digest, and build up reserves. Positivity can even change our heartbeat, adding more variability and thus greater physical resilience (Geisler, Vennewald, Kubiak & Weber, 2010; Kok et al., 2013; Kok & Fredrickson 2016).
The goal isn’t to eliminate the negative, which is a valid part of the reality of life, but to pro-actively balance it with the positive. By bringing awareness to our automatic negative thoughts and emotions we can begin to counter them with more true and realistic ones. For instance, a rushed morning does not mean it’s going to be a bad day. A frustrated customer doesn’t mean that we did a bad job. A two year old in melt down doesn’t mean we are a bad parent.
When we recognize this automatic pattern of negativity we can then bring in more balanced and positive thoughts together with positive emotions like interest, gratitude, inspiration, hope, and love. We can then think, this sucks but isn’t she cute? Or tomorrow I’ll remember this feeling and be motivated to get on out of bed. Or hmmm…I wonder why he is finding this situation so upsetting?
Notice that it’s not necessary to become Pollyanna. In fact that works against the upward spiral. Positivity needs to be heartfelt in order to work its magic.
Controversial research points to a tipping point of positive to negative emotions that makes us resilient (Fredrickson 2013). There’s debate over this concept and the mathematics behind it (Friedman & Brown, 2018), but the general concepts behind positivity hold true.
Awareness and positivity take some conscious effort in the beginning. Think about how a path in the snow becomes more compact and easier to glide as you slide down it over and over. With practice your brain creates a similar groove which will make taking the positive track more automatic.
A final step is to arm yourself as much as possible with adequate rest, sleep, and play. Research shows that physical replenishment aids resilience, and thus “therapeutic leisure” is essential (Anderson & Heyne, 2016). Remember this when you feel guilty about lying around indulging in some mindless pleasurable activity.
Bad days happen. Unwanted thoughts, emotions, and behaviors happen. The downward spiral is hardwired, but so is the capacity for an upward spiral. By building yourself a ladder out you can minimize the collateral damage and recover faster.
Remember it took only a small event to start the downward spiral. A single small changed thought, emotion, or action can start the upward process as well. For those inevitable times where life seems to fall apart and you start spiraling downward remember you’ve got tools in your tool box to reverse the direction and save the day.
For more detail refer to Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life by Barbara Frederickson (per author’s note ignore the mathematics presented in Chapter 7).
You can also learn more and check your own positivity ratio at PositivityRatio.com
Anderson, L. S. & Heyne, L.A. (2016). Flourishing through leisure and the upward spiral theory of lifestyle change. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 50(2), 118-137.
Fredrickson, Barbara (2013). Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
Fredrickson, B.L. & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13(2), 172-175.
Friedman, H. L., & L., N. J. (2018). Implications of Debunking the “Critical Positivity Ratio” for Humanistic Psychology: Introduction to Special Issue. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 58(3), 239–261.
Geisler, F. C. M., Vennewald, N., Kubiak, T., & Weber, H. (2010). The impact of heart rate variability on subjective well-being is mediated by emotion regulation. Personality and Individual Differences, 49(7), 723-728.
Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., … Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1123–1132.
Kok, B. E., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2010). Upward spirals of the heart: Autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness. Biological Psychology, 84(3), 432-436.