We’ve all had one of those weeks: Your car breaks down, you get in trouble at work, you spill wine on an expensive dress, a family member gets sick. Sometimes those weeks turn into months or even years, and you begin to wonder if the universe is out to get you.
This year has been one of those weeks on a giant scale.
“The sad truth is that the pandemic and all of the upheaval it’s caused is nothing compared to what’s going to be happening in the next decade in terms of weather events,” said Sheldon Solomon, a researcher and social psychologist.
Alongside the psychologists Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, Dr. Solomon studies terror management theory, a concept that claims much of human behavior is ultimately driven by our primal fear over our own mortality. When bad things happen, especially when those things seem random and meaningless, we crave a sense of understanding and, ultimately, control. If a family member has a critical illness, for example, you may want to research treatments online, look for a better doctor or pray. While there are personal and practical reasons to do these things, it’s also about feeling productive — doing something gives you a sense of control over the outcome. Even when control is largely an illusion, it makes you feel better.
“So much of what we think and do is driven by these relatively primal processes,” Dr. Solomon said.
When a series of unfortunate events seems unrelenting, we lose that sense of control and find ourselves stuck in a downward spiral of negativity.
“When bad things happen and we feel negative, and we’re uncertain about how things are going to go, we get stuck and we go in a loop,” said Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. To make matters worse, we tend to remember negative events more than positive ones. And when that happens on a global scale, it becomes a “giant death reminder,” as Dr. Solomon puts it. This degree of uncertainty — and our aversion to it — tends to bring out the worst in our behavior. It makes us xenophobic and materialistic, and more susceptible to manipulation and risky behavior.
However, the way that we process negative experiences can help reset that behavior.
“Our interpretations are incredibly powerful to how we think, feel and behave,” Dr. Kross said. In a series of experiments, he and a colleague asked subjects to remember a past experience that had made them sad or angry. Some of the subjects were told to remember the experience through their own perspective, fully immersing themselves in these negative emotions. Others were told to remember the event objectively, using a technique the researchers refer to as self-distancing: psychologically distancing yourself from a situation that’s happening to you. “Imagine a friend coming to you with a problem they’re spinning over,” Dr. Kross said. “It’s relatively easy for us to weigh in objectively in that situation without getting sucked in emotionally. The problem is, when we’re so immersed in the situation, we’re zoomed in so tightly that it’s hard to have a big-picture perspective.”
In his research, Dr. Kross found that when people used self-distancing techniques, their stress levels and physical health indicators improved, and they were also better able to solve problems and resolve conflicts.
“It helps people make sense of experience and have some closure so that it ceases to be an ongoing source of stress,” Dr. Kross said. In other words, sometimes negativity can have a compounding effect — the worse we feel, the worse we tend to react to the world around us, which can make things, well, worse. Of course, the self-distancing technique is much easier said than done in some cases. As this year has made abundantly clear, sometimes bad things just happen, and there’s only so much we can do about it. Here are some ideas for escaping the downward spiral.
Be an outsider
Like the participants in Dr. Kross’s study, visualization techniques can help you create distance from a negative experience. Try reliving your bad experience as an outsider.
“There’s research that shows the more negative and intense an event is, the more likely we are to replay from a first-person perspective,” Dr. Kross said. However, when the experience is less negative, we tend to adopt the role of an observer. Again, people tend to remember the negative more than the positive.
“But you can manipulate this and replay the scene from a fly-on-the-wall perspective,” Dr. Kross said.
In other words, if you had a particularly bad day at work and blurted out something silly during a meeting, try visualizing the incident from someone else’s perspective rather than from your own. Instead of watching the scene play out through your own eyes, watch yourself in the scene as a fellow co-worker.
Embrace a ritual
Rituals can be an effective way to regain stability after a series of bad luck. Rituals can help reduce anxiety and even alleviate grief, as a 2013 study found. In that study, researchers said that “although the specific rituals in which people engage after losses vary widely by culture and religion,” the results suggested “a common psychological mechanism underlying their effectiveness: regained feelings of control.” Because rituals give us a sense of control, they can also make us more resilient from setbacks.
“Having rituals is a reliable way to come back to something that is comforting, familiar and meaningful — no matter how out-of-control our life feels,” said Nick Hobson, a behavioral scientist. “The outside world may be buzzing with confusion and uncertainty, but a person can take comfort knowing that their ritual is there for them when they need it.”
In a study published in the Journal of Life and Environmental Sciences (PeerJ), Dr. Hobson and his colleagues asked participants to take a test. The researchers measured the participants’ brain activity during the test and found that those who had performed a daily ritual at home did not experience as much anxiety and also did better over all on the test than participants who had not performed a ritual. What’s more, when subjects made errors on the test, performing a ritual helped them refocus and avoid making further mistakes.
“Even when it feels like nothing is going our way, rituals can be grounding as they remind us about the things we value most in our life,” Dr. Hobson said. “They’re unwavering symbols of action that cannot be taken away, regardless of how bad things may be for us.”
Accept your negative feelings
On the other hand, you shouldn’t avoid negative emotions completely — that can backfire.
“If the purpose of a ritual is to push away the negative emotions at all costs, then there’s a chance that the crippling fear of failure will lead to a desperate compulsion to do the ritual more and more, only to realize that the ritual wasn’t done right,” Dr. Hobson said. “This is a disruptive psychological loop that can lead to serious psychopathology.”
The negative feelings serve a purpose, Dr. Kross said, adding that, in general, emotions are functional and help us navigate and engage with our environments.
“You want to have a repertoire of negative emotions, otherwise you’d be in trouble,” he said. “When we touch a hot stove, it motivates us to move away from the hot stove.”
But negativity becomes toxic when it persists. “So the challenge is to understand how to rein that in so that we don’t get stuck,” Dr. Kross added. Part of that challenge is learning to become comfortable with the discomfort of uncertainty.
In Dr. Kross’s research, subjects still reported feeling negative when they practiced self-distancing techniques, but the intensity of their feelings was reduced.
“We’re not making people feel positive about this terrible thing,” he said. “We’re just reducing the temperature.”
When you can’t catch a break, perhaps the key to breaking the cycle of negativity is to detach yourself from the frustrations and pain you feel — being that fly on the wall — without simultaneously pretending it doesn’t exist. Striking that balance starts with a little self-examination, which can be hard to do when you feel as if the world is ending.
“Introspection is a good thing,” Dr. Kross said. “It’s an amazing capacity that people possess. But it requires us to take a step back and deal with our emotions.”