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  • Writer's picturejamesbriankerr

Feeling Down? Change Your Focus, Change Your Chemistry

I've been feeling a bit down over the past couple weeks. Nothing too bad, but I can tell because when I get down, my threshold for everyday annoyances goes down.

Everything annoys me: interruptions while I’m working, Cassie barking at the delivery guy, the toilet needing cleaning, stupid movies, the dog pestering me to go out (did I mention the dog already?).

As is my practice when I’m feeling down, I retreated to a quiet place where I could be alone, opened the lid of my inner vat and took a look inside to see what was bothering me. There were a few things (aren’t there always?).

The weather, first of all. As much as I love the stark, simple beauties of winter, it can get old after a while, especially after such a bitterly cold January that we’ve had here in eastern Pennsylvania. The temperatures haven’t been above freezing over the past few weeks and I think I’m ready for a trip to Florida. (Happily, Rachael and I will be going down there for a week in March.)

Then there is my arthritic left hip, which has been getting worse over the past year and now aches pretty much every gosh-darn day. I finally bit the bullet yesterday and made the appointment with the orthopedic doctor that I’ve been avoiding because I know what he’s going to say (time to be thinking about a replacement, young man!).

Also annoying me: all the noise and chaos in the house right now because of the remodeling work being done in the kitchen. My sensitive nervous system doesn’t do well amidst chaos, but I remind myself it’s temporary and for a good cause.

That’s it, really. Just a few things bothering me, all temporary and certainly nothing that would come close to qualifying as a major life stressor.

What was really going on, I realized as I reflected on it, was that I had fallen back into my old habit of looking for reasons to be annoyed, rather than for reasons to feel blessed. No wonder I was feeling crappy.

So right there and then, I made the internal mental shift, as I’ve done so many times in the past, to look for what was right in my day, not what was wrong.

It didn’t take me long to see them:

· I have a roof over my head, and heat to keep me warm on this cold day.

· I have food in the refrigerator and a hot cup of coffee to warm my belly.

· I have a loving partner and an awesome, supportive family and network of friends.

· I have the financial resources to go see a doctor and get my hip looked at.

· I have a car (fully paid off!) to take me to the doctor.

· Cassie loves me, even if she wears me out.

The list of blessings went on and on. Before I knew it, I was feeling a whole lot better.

What had changed? Was it the world around me? Had the ledger of good and bad things in my life shifted in some fundamental way?

No, it was my perception. We can’t always choose the hard, nuts-and-bolts facts of the world around us. But we can always choose the way we perceive things, and those perceptions have a direct effect on how we’re feeling each day.

We are all chemists tending our own internal vat of chemicals. Every day, we get to choose what chemicals go into that vat, and we choose them with our thinking. Negative, fearful thoughts produce injections of stress chemicals that make us feel bad—cortisol, adrenaline and other toxins. Positive thoughts of gratitude and hopefulness toss off chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins that give us those wonderful feelings of well-being.

Which mix do we want? How do we want to feel?

It’s largely up to us.

In my forthcoming book, The Long Walk Home, I describe a time in my life fifteen years ago when I was going through a grueling divorce and deep in depression. I was living on my own in a tiny townhouse, my family in rubbles, reduced to seeing my kids every other weekend. It had been years since I’d felt pleasure and I thought I had lost the ability to ever feel good again.

But then one morning as I was making a pot of oatmeal, smelling the cinnamon and apples wafting up from the pot, I was flooded with a happy memory of sitting at the kitchen table as a kid eating the oatmeal my mother used to make for us on cold winter days. I felt a tiny flicker of pleasure light in my inner darkness and it struck me where that I was witnessing a chemical reaction within. The happy memory of my childhood and the warm smells of the oatmeal were signaling to my brain to release happy chemicals into my system.

If I could do that with breakfast, why couldn’t I do it consistently throughout the day by actively noticing and giving thanks for all the little blessings in my life—and in doing so, gradually shift my internal chemistry back into balance?

That started my road back to peace, and I’ve been there ever since.

Yes, there are down days, down moments, and there always will be. That is part of being human. But we have more control over how we feel than we think.

All the world's a chemistry lab, and we are but chemists. What's in your vat?

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