Positive emotions are one of the most enjoyable parts of being alive. But what exactly are positive emotions? What effect do they have on our lives? And how can we experience more of them? In this article, we'll dive into positive emotions to learn more about them.

What Are Positive Emotions?

Positive emotions can be defined as pleasant multicomponent response tendencies. They are multicomponent because they involve more than just our internal feelings; they also include changes in our nervous system, hormones, facial expressions, thoughts, and more (Fredrickson & Cohn, 2008). Positive emotion is different than sensory pleasure (which is more about sexual pleasure, satisfying hunger and thirst, or remedying pain). Positive emotion is also different from positive mood (although they overlap). Compared to moods, positive emotions generally arise as a result of some experience, they are short-lived, and they are closer to the forefront of our consciousness (Fredrickson & Cohn, 2008).

Positive emotions exist on a continuum with negative emotions on one end and positive emotions on the other (Fredrickson & Cohn, 2008). However, the words we use to describe positive emotions generally lead us to think that positive emotions are discrete entities, separate from negative emotions. For example, “happy” and “sad” might be on the two ends of one continuum but we think of them as different things. Positive emotions can also be either high-energy (e.g., excitement, joy) or low-energy (e.g., calm, content).

The Benefits of Positive Emotions

Positive emotions have been shown in research to contribute to all sorts of positive outcomes including longevity, improved immune function, less pain, and of course, improved well-being (Fredrickson & Cohn, 2008). Positive emotions may even be considered synonymous with happiness (but happiness may also include things like meaning or purpose).

Being able to identify a variety of emotions—also known as emotional granularity—can also be good for our well-being. So here are some examples of positive emotions according to the emotion circumplex theory (Russell, 1980).

More on Positive Emotions

Up until recently, research in psychology has mostly focused on negative emotions. That has made our understanding of positive emotions rather shallow or incomplete. For example, we think of negative emotions as discrete--sadness is different from anger and anger is different from anxiety. But when it comes to positive emotions, we kind of lump them all together—joy, and contentment, and happiness are all kind of the same in our minds. Recently, however, psychology researchers have helped provide better clarity about the difference between positive emotions.

Barbara Fredrickson, a leader of psychology research on positive emotion, offers us some insight into the differences between the key positive emotions of joy, interest, contentment, and love (Fredrickson, 1998).

Joy (~ happiness, amusement, exhilaration)

Joy arises in situations that are safe, familiar, and low effort. Experiencing joy is thought to result in a state referred to as 'free-activation'—or basically a readiness to engage in whatever comes—and it leads to a desire to play. As adults, playing may mean reading, using our imagination, or doing other creative activities. Joyful play can also help us build our social and emotional skills (Fredrickson, 1998).

Interest (~ curiosity, excitement, wonder, flow)

Interest arises in situations that offer novelty, change, and a sense of possibility. Interest also involves a sense that something is important and that we ought to pay attention and exert effort. Interest is thought to lead to exploration and the development of knowledge and personal growth (Fredrickson, 1998).

Contentment (~ tranquility, serenity, relief)

Contentment arises in safe situations with a high degree of certainty and a low degree of effort. Some people suggest that contentment leads us to savor our circumstances and experience a sense of 'oneness with the world. In other words, it results in a mindful broadening of a person's self-views and world views (Fredrickson, 1998).

Love (~romantic love, companionate love, caregiver love)

Barbara Fredrickson (1998) argues that love merges joy, interest, and contentment. More specifically, our loved ones stimulate experiences that lead to these other positive emotions. That means that love can lead us to be playful, grow personally, and broaden our worldview.

Based on Dr. Fredrickson's understanding of joy, interest, contentment, and love, she then proposed that positive emotions have something in common: They broaden our thoughts and actions and build personal, social, and intellectual resources. Over time, this may lead to an upward spiral of positive emotion. This theory is now known as the broaden and build theory of positive emotions (Fredrickson, 1998). This theory suggests increasing positive emotions is not only good for mental health, but also just about everything we might want including health, success, and satisfying relationships.

Emotions are also a key ingredient in well-being. It's hard to imagine well-being without happiness. And emotions like sadness and anxiety can make well-being more difficult to achieve. So let's learn more about emotions and how they work.

Emotions versus mood

Emotions differ from moods in that emotions typically last minutes to seconds whereas moods can last hours or days. So if we said, "I'm feeling down", that's referring to a mood. But if we say, "I'm sad that Mark didn't show up to dinner," we're referring to an emotion. Of course, emotions can contribute to moods and moods can contribute to emotions so they generally overlap.

Emotions versus thoughts

We know that thoughts and emotions are different things but they actually overlap quite a bit. For example, we can't experience an emotion like regret without evaluating something that we've done (i.e., thinking about it) and making a judgment about our actions. Many emotions work this way in that they would not exist if not for the thoughts that created them.

In addition, many of the words we use to describe our experiences are a mixture of thoughts and emotions. For example, words like brooding, resentful, or disturbed represent a combination of thoughts and emotions.

Emotions versus feelings

We also tend to use the word 'feeling' interchangeably with emotion, but feelings include both emotional experiences and physical sensations. For example, we might say we're feeling hungry, feeling tired, or feeling itchy even though these are not emotions. But we can also feel emotions—for example, we may feel upset, angry, or sad.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a type of intelligence that is defined as the ability to monitor and regulate one’s own and others’ emotions and to use emotions to facilitate one’s thoughts and actions (Brackett, Rivers, & Salovey, 2011). It's generally broken up into the following four parts:

Emotion perception. This involves the ability to correctly perceive emotions including facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.

Emotion facilitation of thought. This involves the ability to use one‘s emotions to aid problem-solving.

Emotion understanding. This involves understanding emotions, including the way that emotions change over time, the causes and consequences of emotions, and how emotions may blend together.

Emotion regulation. This involves the management of one‘s own and other‘s emotions and usually involves the up-regulation of positive emotions and down-regulation of negative emotions (Elfenbein & MacCann, 2017).

Each of these aspects of emotional intelligence helps us navigate the world more effectively. So let's dive into each of them a bit more.

What About Positive & Negative Emotions?

When we think about emotion, we often focus mostly on negative emotions. Negative emotions are unpleasant or undesirable states. Even though we may not like negative emotions, they help us do important things in our lives. For example, fear can help us escape from a predator, anger can help us right injustices, and sadness can help us rest or seek social support. This just shows that we need negative emotions.

Positive emotions are pleasant or desirable states. These are just as important as negative emotions. If we understand what increases our positive emotions, we have a better chance of increasing our well-being.

Emotion Contagion

Okay, so we know a bit about our own emotions. But can we catch other people's emotions? The research suggests that yes, we can. Emotional contagion—or the transfer of emotion between people—appears to occur easily, even in online situations (Fan, Xu, & Zhao, 2018). We tend to feel bad when others feel bad and good when others feel good.

Some researchers suggest we might reduce emotional contagion by alternating between moments of self-awareness and moments of other awareness (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1993). For example, if we're starting to feel anxious but can't identify any clear cause, we might try to turn on our emotion perception to see if we're 'catching' anxiety from someone we're interacting with. Then we might aim to become more present in our body and help the other person regulate their emotions to reduce our negative emotions.

Emotional Health

Ultimately, emotional health arises from positive thoughts and behaviors—things like emotion regulation, a healthy diet, and effective communication. Good sleep, a good diet, and regular exercise all make it easier for us to regulate our emotions. Emotional health and physical health really do go hand-in-hand and work together.

Although we can sometimes get caught in our sad feelings, we don't have to. We can undo sadness and start growing our happiness and well-being. Here are some ways to deal with sad feelings.

1. Beat rumination

Rumination is when you get stuck in your head, thinking about all the negative stuff that has gone wrong or could go wrong. Rumination is a key feature of depression and contributes to so much unnecessary sad feelings. That's why beating rumination is an important first step to getting through sadness.

To stop the rumination, try engaging your body in some activity that is intense enough that you can't think for a few minutes. For example, you could do sprints or take an ice-cold shower. This shock can stop your brain from cycling and force it to focus on the present moment.

2. Imagine a bright future, not a gloomy future

If something has happened to us to make us sad, we might become sadness-prone—only thinking about the worst things that could happen. It's common because we feel like if we think through these bad outcomes, we can better prepare. But it just makes us feel worse in the long run. Our sadness can snowball into feeling all sorts of other negative emotions.

So try to imagine a brighter future, even if only in an exercise to help your brain break through sad feelings. Here's an exercise to imagine future happiness.

3. Cultivate mindfulness skills

Mindfulness involves self-reflection to gain awareness and acceptance of thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness can undo negative thinking styles that generate excess sadness.

To practice this skill, pause, pay attention to your negative emotions and attempt to approach them with curiosity instead of judgment.

4. Try cognitive reappraisal

Reappraisal is an emotion regulation strategy that we can use to reinterpret a sad situation in a more positive (or less negative) way. Reappraisal is hard for many of us, and if we have a hard time seeing the silver linings, this can contribute to higher levels of sadness and depression.

Luckily, we can get better at reappraisal. We just have to practice thinking about what’s good in the situation. What are you grateful for, how could it have gone worse, or what small things are actually good? By using reappraisal, you can stop sad feelings.

5. Read some books on overcoming sadness

There are so many science-based strategies you can use to undo sadness. By reading self-help books, you can begin to learn and implement these strategies into your life.

So grab some high-quality self-help books or take an online program to boost happiness and learn the skills you need to decrease your sad feelings.

6. Boost your serotonin

Low serotonin is linked to depression. So how might you increase serotonin?

One quick way is to eat carbohydrates. Yeah, it turns out that the warm fuzzy feeling we get when we eat carbs is in part due to the serotonin boost we get from them. Another way to boost serotonin is to (carefully) take 5-HTP supplements, which help increase serotonin in the body. And aerobic exercise, in particular, may contribute to higher levels of serotonin.

7. Eat less sugar

I was super surprised to discover greater sugar intake is linked to higher levels of depression. We already knew sugar we bad for our physical health, but it turns out to be bad for our mental health, too. So try not to consume so much sugar if you're struggling with sad feelings.

8. Don't obsess about your sad feelings

Feeling sad sucks. But we can't allow ourselves to obsess about it. If we focus too much on our lack of happiness and worry about being stuck in sadness, we just make things worse. So try to focus on actions you can take and things you can do to feel better, rather than focusing specifically on your sad feelings.

9. Get a positive emotion boost

Positive emotions broaden our thought processes and build on themselves, creating a lifeline to us when we're stuck in sadness. That’s why doing things to create more positive emotions is so important for reducing our sadness.

There are so many ways to create positive emotions. In many ways, this may be easier than decreasing the negative emotions directly. For example, you can improve your ability to think positively or practice gratitude. You can also do things you enjoy, like spending time with friends, going outside, or reading. Whatever makes you happy, do these things.

10. Outsmart your smartphone

We’re on our phones 24-7. But spending too much time on our phones or the internet is associated with higher levels of depression and loneliness. So you need to learn how to "outsmart your smartphone" and use our phones in ways that increase happiness instead of sadness.

11. Be kind to yourself

Challenging self-critical thoughts and being self-compassionate can help reduce negative emotions like sadness. So if you’re being really hard on yourself, try thinking about your good qualities and strengths.

12. Make a plan

​There are many actions you can take to beat sadness, making a "happiness plan" can be helpful. For example, you could do one new sadness-busting strategy each day. Whatever works for you to ensure you'll do the things that make you feel better is what matters most.

Effective emotion regulation can make you feel better in the short term and in the longer term. When we do not have emotion regulation skills, we often rely on unhealthy emotion regulation strategies like drinking alcohol, doing drugs, or overeating. These may make us feel good in the short-term but worse in the longer term. By building our emotion regulation skills, we can more effectively manage our emotions with healthier strategies and avoid using these unhealthy strategies.

Emotion regulation skills include a variety of strategies that help us feel better and generate a lasting sense of well-being.

Here are some emotion regulation skills to start learning:

1. Self-awareness

Self-awareness is sometimes considered an emotion regulation skill. If we are not self aware, we are going to have a hard time being aware of our emotions. How can we regulate emotions we are not aware of? By increasing self-awareness, we build a better foundation for future effective emotion regulation.

2. Emotional acceptance

Emotional acceptance is a skill that involves experiencing negative emotions without judging them or yourself. Emotional acceptance is a key emotion regulation skill because judgment of our negative emotions just amplifies them making them stronger, last longer, and become harder to regulate. To accept your emotions, practice mindfulness and non-judgment.

3. Emotional cognition

There are all sorts of processes in our brains that aid emotion regulation. These "emotional  cognitions" can be altered with various types of training. More specifically, activating regions of the brain associated with positive concepts may be beneficial. One way to do this is to recite and memorize positive words. Bringing these words to mind can strengthen emotion regulation processes.

4. Emotional attention

Another way to regulate our emotions is to re-direct our attention towards the positive. Focusing on the negative things makes us feel worse; shifting attention to the positive helps us feel better. One study trained participants to focus on neutral instead of threatening faces in a computerized task, and this training resulted in reductions in social anxiety. Build this skill by focusing your attention on the positive.

5. Reappraisal

Reappraisal is an emotion regulation skill that involves cognitively reframing an experience as more positive or less negative. Building this skill can both increase positive emotion and decrease negative emotion simultaneously.

6. Temporal distancing

Temporal distancing involves shifting the way you think about your present situation by thinking about it from a time in the future. This technique helps regulate our emotions if we can see that these emotions won't be so bad after some time. Basically, we remind ourselves that "this too shall pass."

7. Self-distancing

Self distancing is an emotion regulation skill that involves looking at your situation as “a fly on the wall." Emotionally distancing yourself from your experience and looking at it from an outsider’s perspective helps you disconnect from your negative emotions and see them in a new way.

8. Savoring

Savoring is an emotion regulation skill that involves holding on to positive experiences and the emotions they produce. When we savor our good moments and experiences, we generate more positive emotions and create longer-lasting positive experiences.

9. Gratitude

​Gratitude is an emotion regulation skill that involves thankfulness. It helps us feel good and makes others feel good too. Gratitude has been shown to increase positive emotions while also improving the quality of our personal relationships. We can practice gratitude with gratitude lists, gratitude notes, and gratitude letters.

Negativity involves feeling sad, skeptical, and pessimistic. When our thoughts are shrouded in negativity, we can easily find the worst in any situation, even situations that objectively are not that bad. Because negativity makes us feel bad, it tends to be bad for our well-being.

If you find that you struggle with negativity, you're not alone. In fact, humans actually have a negativity bias. A negativity bias just means that we notice and feel negative things more intensely than positive things—and negative things have a bigger impact on our mental health. So that means we could experience a bunch of positive things but the one negative thing could ruin our entire day. If our thoughts are plagued by negativity, this can be especially true for us.

How do we stop feeling so negative?

Firstly, go easy on yourself. Remember, we are all negative sometimes and that's okay. Remember to have self-compassion as you're working to shift your negative thoughts. But it's also helpful to know that our brains like to do things the way they have always done them. If we've been negative for a long time, regulating our emotions and shifting to more positive thoughts may be a little harder and take a little longer. Just keep at the strategies below to see improvement over time.

1. Make positive concepts more accessible in your brain

Our brains prefer to just go to whatever is familiar—it's easier, quicker, and requires less energy. So undoing negativity involves making positive concepts more familiar and accessible in the brain. One way to do this is to just have a "positive word of the day". Or, memorize a series of positive words each morning and ask yourself to recall them each night.

Although the research hasn't shown that there are positive regions of the brain, per se, strengthening the connections between positive concepts and strengthening your ability to generate positive thoughts, words, and emotions can likely make it easier to do this again in the future.

2. Deconstruct your negativity

When we feel negative, it can be easy to see the external causes of our negative emotions but not the internal causes. The truth is our thoughts have just as much (or maybe more) to do with our negativity than the situations we're in. We really do create our own reality.

To deconstruct how your thoughts lead to your negativity, engage in self-reflection by asking yourself if you do any of the things below:

  1. Do you often expect that everything will turn out horrible?
  2. Do you only see the bad without seeing the good?
  3. Do you ignore or devalue the positive things?

If you do any of these things, you can shift your thoughts in ways that decrease negativity and increase positivity. Use these questions when you're feeling negative to shift your thinking away from the negative and onto the positive:

  1. How could this situation turn out better than expected?
  2. What are the positive parts of this situation?
  3. Why are the positive things in this situation really important or valuable?

Forcing your mind in a new direction can help shift your emotions too.

3. Check your attribution style

Do you feel like nothing you do matters and the world is responsible for all your woes? Of course, this may be true sometimes, but this "external attribution" means we have given up control of our lives and this can end up making us feel worse. To shift this thinking, try to think of the things you do have control over. We all have control over some aspects of our lives.

Or, do you feel like you are to blame for all of your woes? This "internal attribution" style where we blame ourselves for the bad things can hurt our self-esteem and emotional health. To shift this thinking, recognize that not everything is in your control. We all have done bad things, but we can move past them when we see that we did the best we could given the situations we were in.

Either of these attribution styles can be problematic when they go unchecked. So keep an eye out for them.

4. Generate positive emotions with your imagination

When we struggle with negativity, we get really good at imagining negative things. This is why forcing yourself to imagine the positive things can help change these patterns. So give it a go and try imagining positive things. Imagine eating your favorite food, seeing your favorite person, or going to a favorite place.

5. Halt ruminative cycles

Do you dwell on the bad stuff, working yourself up until you've got steam coming out of your ears? We all do this from time to time, but it's rarely helpful and not actually good for our well-being. Still, stopping rumination can be hard. In fact, telling our minds to just "Stop!" thinking of something can often make us think of it even more. Instead, activate your body to stop the negativity fast. For example, you could go for a run or take a cold shower. These physical jolts to the body can force your energy resources to go elsewhere and really help stop a negative racing mind.

6. Practice gratitude​

Practicing gratitude makes it easier to focus on the good things and accept the bad things. We realize that things are not as bad as they may seem and it helps us stop the negativity. To practice gratitude, you can try writing gratitude notes, gratitude lists, or a gratitude journal.

When we notice these good things, it can also be helpful to savor them. Maybe your mom calls to check in on you. Instead of focusing on the things that annoy you, you remind yourself that she's calling because she cares and you savor that feeling of being cared for (easier said than done,  I know). Just keep trying until you find what works for you.

7. Do positive things

One of the easiest ways to feel less negative is to do things that make you feel less negative. Engage in activities that make you feel good—spend time with friends, go hiking, do crafts, or dance—whatever helps you feel less stuck.

On the flip side, try to stay away from activities that make you feel negative. For example, watch how much time you spend on your phone or social media. These activities can feel good in the moment but can increase negativity if we're not careful.

Another way to understand happiness is with the concept of eudaimonia, which combines eu (good) and daimon (spirit). Eudaimonia has been defined as a life well-lived, or human flourishing. A systematic review on eudaimonia found that most definitions include the following four elements (Huta & Waterman, 2014):

Ways to Increase Eudaimonic Well-Being

We’ve talked a lot about eudaimonia, but perhaps you still need more help to create it. Here are a few actionable steps that you can take to promote eudaimonia:

1. Express your values and stick to them

We all have different values. If something is truly important to you, try your best to stand by it, even when others don’t agree. This will also help you feel true to yourself (see #6).

2. Write down your biggest goals

I know this sounds like a daunting task, but hear me out. This isn’t your usual career goal or where you want to see yourself in 20 years. These are goals that reflect your core values. Sure, they can be related to your career, but think about it at a broader level. For example, some of my big goals are ‘to help people who are struggling’ and ‘to stand up for marginalized groups’.

3. Develop and refine your skills and capabilities

No matter who you are, you are good at something (or many things). You have traits that can help you achieve your goals (re: #2). Maybe you’re good at giving advice, or you're detail-oriented, or you have an ear for music. Whatever it is, focus your efforts on developing the skills that bring you joy.

4. Focus on the quality, not quantity, of your relationships

This might seem obvious, but social connections play a major role in well-being. Of course, you’ll form new relationships as you start different chapters of your life, but remember not to neglect the people you cherish and truly care about. This can be as simple as expressing gratitude or calling them now and then to check-in. Also, sometimes relationships are no longer serving us, which may mean it’s time for those to end.

5. Do the things you genuinely want to do

As you read earlier, you might engage in something because it’s personally rewarding (i.e., intrinsic motivation) or externally rewarding (i.e., extrinsic motivation). Find things you love to do, and not only have to do. Yes, life is full of responsibilities and activities that are extrinsically motivated, but even a few side hobbies that bring you joy can be helpful in the long run.

6. Be authentic and true to yourself

Have you ever felt not quite like ‘yourself’ after saying or doing something? Me too. We all have those moments. It’s not a comfortable feeling because it feels like you’re lying to yourself. It’s no wonder that authenticity is such a big part of eudaimonia.

7. Do Positive Activities

What are some things you can do in daily life to promote eudaimonia? A study by Steger and colleagues (2008) outlined the following eudaimonic activities:

Boosting emotional wellbeing is not about stopping or avoiding emotions. Emotions are a normal and necessary part of life. Emotional wellbeing comes from enhancing emotional awareness, emotion regulation, and emotional recovery. That means increasing emotional wellbeing is entirely possible—we just have to build some key skills. Here are some ways to do it:

1. Practice emotional awareness

Emotional awareness often emerges from engaging in self-reflection—What are we feeling? Why are we feeling these things? And, what might help us stop feeling these things? When we're not aware of our emotions, we may engage in behaviors that hurt our emotional wellbeing. But, when we pay more attention to our emotions, we'll begin to learn which situations, people, or thoughts affect our emotions and as a result, we can take actions that help us have more enjoyable emotions.

2. Practice mindful acceptance

Mindfulness involves emotional awareness but it also includes emotional acceptance. Emotional acceptance is when we experience emotions without judging. This helps prevent the development of secondary negative emotions. For example, if you feel guilty about feeling angry then guilt is a secondary emotion. Acceptance of our negative emotions helps prevent these extra negative emotions from emerging. To practice acceptance, try to let your emotions come and go without labeling them as good or bad. Just let them be. This skill can be cultivated using mindfulness meditation.

3. Refocus your attention

Another emotional wellbeing strategy involves re-directing your attention away from the bad things and towards the good things. For example, if we're focusing on the worst things in our lives or a situation, we might shift our attention to focus on the good parts. It's easier said than done, I know, but research shows that training ourselves to focus on neutral stuff instead of threatening stuff can reduce anxiety (Amir et al., 2009).

4. Practice reappraisal

Reappraisal is an emotion regulation strategy that involves reinterpreting a stressful situation in a more positive light. As a result, we feel better, and over time, can see boosts in emotional wellbeing. You can practice reappraising situations by listing things that are good in different situations—for example, how is this an opportunity to grow, what did you learn, and what are the good parts? Reappraisal is a skill, so the more you practice it, the easier it can become.

5. Try emotional distancing

Emotional distancing involves imagining yourself as “a fly on the wall” when you are going through a hard time. Or, you could imagine you’re from the future looking back on your current self. For example, after a fight with your partner, think about how you'll feel about this fight in a week, month, or year. By using emotional distancing, we usually don’t feel quite as bad and can recover from negative experiences more easily (Bruehlman-Senecal & Ayduk, 2015).

6. Use your imagination

When we imagine positive things, our brains produce similar signals as if we were experiencing those things in real life. That’s why positive imagination can be such a powerful tool for wellbeing. When times are tough, we might not have a lot of positive things to focus on or think about, but by using our imagination, we help our brains experience positive emotions nonetheless. So when you’re feeling bad, try to imagine yourself in a good place to generate more positive emotions.

7. Share your positive moments

By sharing our positive moments, we help these moments to grow, expand, and last longer. So when something good happens to you, show, tell, or share your experience with someone you care about. For example, you could send a text to a friend or call them on the phone. Just be careful not to ‘humble brag’. For example, if you got a promotion, you could say, I'm feeling so great today about my career. I'd love to celebrate by taking you out to dinner.

You may already be familiar with the fight or flight response—a simplified term for how humans and many other animals respond to threat. However, you may be less familiar with how this natural response becomes less helpful when activated too regularly. Below, we will discuss how the fight or flight response is an evolutionary adaptation that helps us deal with immediate threats, but that is not as well-suited to present-day chronic stressors.

What Is The Fight or Flight Response?

The fight or flight response is a “response to an acute threat to survival that is marked by physical changes, including nervous and endocrine changes, that prepare a human or an animal to react or to retreat” (Britannica, 2019). In other words, it is what our body does when encountering a threat.

Evolutionarily, it makes sense that we would have a fight or flight response. If you think back to early humans who lived outdoors in largely untouched nature, they were much more likely to encounter threats from predators. Our fight or flight response is a great adaptation for these types of threats: if a lion is going to attack you, you want your breathing and heart rate to increase so that your limbs have more oxygen and can either fight or run away as quickly and effectively as possible.

How Do We Experience Fight or Flight in The Modern World?

Many of the perceived threats we encounter these days are not physical but rather cognitive - there are plenty of things we worry or stress out about that do not require a physical escape or fight. However, our bodies have still evolved to react to stress in this very physical way, leading to heightened sympathetic nervous system activity and many symptoms of anxiety. For example, if you are about to give a speech in front of a room full of people, you may feel nervous. Your heart rate and breathing are likely increasing, and you are unlikely to want food (as your digestive system has slowed down). Your body is ready to fight or run if needed—even though this is not really appropriate in this situation.

6 Ways to Calm Your Fight or Flight Response

1. Deep breathing. Methods for counteracting the fight or flight response generally involve actively doing the opposite of what your sympathetic nervous system automatically triggers. For example, while the sympathetic nervous system increases respiratory rate and breathing becomes shallow in times of stress, researchers have found that we can actively counteract the fight or flight response by taking slow, deep abdominal breaths (Perciavalle et al., 2017).

2. Notice your patterns. It can be helpful to pay attention to when your fight or flight response is more active. For example, maybe you notice that you are more likely to be on edge and jittery if you have consumed too much coffee. Noticing this pattern can help you change your behaviors in ways that calm your fight or flight response.

3. Acceptance. Worrying about your fight or flight response while it is happening might send more signals to the brain that you are in danger, with the result of increasing or prolonging the response. This can be seen in the case of panic attacks, where people think that their panic attack will harm them and as a result, the attack continues. Perhaps counterintuitively, accepting the sensations of the fight or flight response as normal can go a long way towards reducing them (Levitt et al., 2004).

4. Exercise. Researchers have found links between exercise and reduced anxiety (Salmon, 2001). While the reasons for this association are still being explored, one idea is that the mild stress of exercise improves resilience to stress more generally. Other theories focus on the ability of exercise to decrease sympathetic nervous system hyperactivity (Curtis &O'Keefe, 2002).

5. Cognitive-behavioral approaches. Recognizing when your fight or flight response kicks in and reflecting on whether or not it is helpful could help reduce this response in instances where it is not helpful. For example, if you feel yourself getting extremely anxious before a date and are considering canceling, notice this fight or flight response—are you trying to “escape” a perceived “threat”? In reality, you are not in physical danger, even though this is what your body is preparing you for. Reframing how you see the situation and your bodily responses can help calm the sympathetic nervous system.

6. Speak with a professional. In addition to potential mental health issues that a professional might be able to help you with, medical issues could also be playing a role in an overactive fight or flight response. For example, a heart arrhythmia can create a sense of panic. Additionally, beta-agonist medication, often prescribed for asthma, can activate the HPA axis and incite a sense of panic.

In Sum

Our fight or flight response is a natural reaction that has evolved to keep us safe from potential danger. Despite the clear benefits of having such a response, many of us struggle with an overactive fight or flight response that can contribute to mental and physical health problems. By understanding why you have this response and how to manage it, you can move towards greater mental and physical well-being.

Life isn’t always easy. Sometimes bad things happen that put us in a bad mood. Other times we make decisions that get us down. And still other times we feel bad for no obvious reason. All we know is that we want to feel better...but we're just not sure how. Luckily, psychological research has shown us some ways we can boost our mood. Here are a few to check out:

1. Practice gratitude

​One of the best ways to start feeling better fast is to practice gratitude. You can write a gratitude journal or a gratitude list. These activities can result in a quick and fast boost of positivity.

2. Cultivate self-compassion

Self-compassion can often help us feel better about ourselves. We're not as judgmental of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and we treat ourselves better. You can boost self-compassion by writing yourself a self-compassionate letter that reminds you of all the good things about you and treats you kindly.

3. Boost self-confidence

When we are confident, we are more likely to take the necessary actions we need to take to improve our lives. As a result, it can be easier to be in a better mood. We may be able to boost self-confidence by reminding ourselves of our strengths and positive qualities. So go ahead and think about your strengths. It doesn’t have to be anything big—maybe you’re a good cook, good at playing video games, or have a good imagination.

4. Write yourself a 'feel better soon' letter

Research shows that looking at our current situation from another point in time can decrease our current negative emotions and make us feel better (Bruehlman-Senecal & Ayduk, 2015). So if you've experienced a breakup or other difficult event that has put you in a bad mood, it may be helpful to write a letter to yourself from some time in the future. Tell yourself to "feel better soon" and talk about all the great stuff your future self is doing once this challenging time has passed.

5. Try to notice the positive things

Numerous studies show that training our attention away from the negative and onto the positive improves our well-being (MacLeod, et al., 2002; Wadlinger & Isaacowitz, 2008). For example, if we lose a job, we might say to ourselves: "I am so happy to have my family and friends".

6. Look at positive images

All the science is great for helping us learn strategies to feel better. But hey, sometimes we just want to look at funny or cute things, am I right? (There's actually science that suggests positive images do boost our mood.) Sometimes, when we’re feeling down, it can be helpful to let our brains rest, look at cute cat videos online and just let our mood improve that way.

​In Sum

If you're in a bad mood there are some things you can do to feel better. You can try the tips presented here. Just be sure to be gentle with yourself, and take your time.