This post is about how you can work on increasing positive emotions to feel less anxious. We often focus on what we can do to decrease unwanted feelings directly. Surprisingly, tackling anxiety and sadness by working on positive feelings can also be effective!
Why work on increasing positive emotions?
It’s important to have realistic beliefs about feeling positive. No one feels positive or happy all the time. However, despite stress and negative events, you still have the capacity for feeling positive feelings. Making the most out of these experiences is important.
How are positive emotions related to feeling less anxious?
While anxiety and depression cause our attention to narrow, positive emotions cause our attention to become wider so we can take in more information.
When we feel anxious, we become overly focused on things that are scary, overwhelming, or upsetting. This can lead us to feel worse and, as a result, to do less (canceling plans, staying home, watching videos rather than something active, etc.), which in turn keeps our negative feelings going.
When we feel more positive, we have a broader range of attention. We can consider multiple perspectives and think more flexibly. Positive feelings are also linked with openness to new experiences and energy to explore and engage in activities, which leads to more positive feelings.
There are specific activities you can do that will increase your positive emotions, social connections, and overall feelings of well-being. Below, I’ll outline three of them. Pick one and commit to practicing every day for a week.
Remember that these activities aren’t “one and done” strategies. This practice is about building a skill or a habit to increase positive feelings. Just like exercise, it takes repeated and consistent practice before you’ll see any results.
Skill #1: Noting positive events to feel less anxious
Because feeling anxious or low can narrow our attention, we often only remember the negative things that happen to us. This contributes to our sense that our lives are full of hard, stressful, demoralizing experiences and that we are not enough.
This skill is about making time to deliberately reflect on what’s going right in our lives. It’s a way to practice zooming out and broadening our attention to feel less anxious.
Every day for the next week, spend 5 minutes writing about positive events. Answer the following questions:
- What happened today that made me feel good? Who was there? Describe it in detail.
- What feelings did I feel? (Use an emotion wheel to expand your vocabulary for positive experiences).
- Why did this matter to me?
Skill #2: Complete acts of kindness to feel less anxious
The next skill is to increase our acts of kindness to feel less anxious. This can be helpful in a few ways.
We’ve already talked about how anxiety can narrow our focus. Sometimes when you feel anxious, you get so stuck in your own thoughts and experiences that you lose sight of other people. Focusing on how helping others can give you a break from yourself and broaden your perspective on the world.
Acts of kindness can also improve how you see yourself. It’s a way for you to connect with your inner compassion and warm feelings towards others. It allows you to see yourself for the caring, helpful, generous person you are.
Research also shows that helping others and volunteering helps people see their own strengths and resources and gives a greater feeling of control over life.
Every day over the next week, choose one random act of kindness to complete.
Here are some lists with ideas to get you started:
It’s important to keep track of how you’re feeling about these acts of kindness. For each one, write down what you did and how you felt before, during, and after each act of kindness.
Skill #3: Increase pleasant activities to feel less anxious
When we feel anxious or down we tend to do less of everything. This skill is designed to help you practice doing more.
Anxiety tends to lead to avoidance. And because avoidance decreases anxiety in the short term, it’s reinforced and we’re likely to do it again. Doing behaviors that are inconsistent with anxiety (in other words, approaching rather than avoiding) decreases anxiety.
One way to increase positive feelings is to do more of the things that give you positive feelings! There are added benefits when you do pleasant things with other people, because you’re also improving social connections. When we feel isolated and alone, we’re also more likely to feel anxious and sad.
- First, brainstorm 10 pleasant activities you enjoy doing alone. This could be reading a book, eating a grilled cheese sandwich, planning a trip, shopping on Etsy, going for a walk, baking cookies, etc.
- Next, come up with 5 activities you enjoy doing with someone else. This could be working on crafts, going out for coffee, thrifting, hiking, etc.
- Finally, make a plan to do these things. Literally put them in your online calendar or paper planner. Set reminders if you need to. Text the person you have in mind right now to get plans started.
- After you complete the activity, journal about it. Write about what you did, how you felt during it, and how you felt afterward.
Now you have three concrete strategies for increasing your positive emotions to feel less anxious. Remember that these strategies have to be repeated in order for you to see benefits, just like any skill. When you’ve made these strategies a consistent habit, you’ll start to see real differences in your mood.
If you found these strategies helpful and are thinking about working with one of our therapists, feel free to schedule a 15 minute consultation by completing our contact form here.