Illustration: Matija Medved

One Day at a Time

One Simple Strategy to Get Off the Emotional Roller Coaster

Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer

Elemental
Published in
6 min readApr 16, 2020

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Have you been on an emotional roller coaster lately — irritable one minute and full of worry the next? Getting angry at the news but still addicted to knowing the latest and perhaps still panic buying more than you need?

In today’s column, I’ll discuss a common denominator that can help you work through whatever emotions are coming up.

In previous columns, I’ve discussed how to let go of anxiety so you can sleep, why scarcity mentality leads to panic buying, how to work with the fire of anger when it flares up, how worry and trying to feel in control are related, and how to differentiate fear-based denial from anticipatory grief.

What if I suggested that no matter what emotions or habitual behaviors you’re struggling with, there is one simple ingredient you can add to help? I’m not suggesting there is a panacea for whatever ails you. But I am suggesting that something simple, research-based, free, and universally available makes an enormous difference. What is it?

Awareness.

Most people approach negative emotions or habits by trying to use their willpower or thinking brain. They’ll use self-talk or even guilt to try to feel better or stop a bad habit. The problem here is that willpower is the weakest of our mental capacities. There is an acronym my addiction patients use to remind themselves when their willpower is depleted and they are most vulnerable to relapse. It is called HALT: hungry, angry, lonely, tired. I would add another A to the mix: anxious. Whenever they are hungry, angry, anxious, lonely, or tired, they are most vulnerable — so they have to prevent themselves from getting into situations that evoke these feelings so as to halt the temptation to relapse. Notice how this creates a prevention conversation rather than a willpower battle.

You can’t think your way out of a habit any more than you can think yourself into being thinner or more fit. The same is true for emotions. If you’re frustrated, angry, or anxious, you can’t…

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Jud Brewer MD PhD
Elemental

Addiction Psychiatrist. Neuroscientist. Habit Change Expert. Brown U. professor. Founder of MindSciences. Author: Unwinding Anxiety. www.drjud.com. @judbrewer