04 Jun 2018

Taking control of your mood with priming

author Ashley Owen
Priming is the idea of exposing yourself to an idea that influences your behaviour later on, without you even knowing! It is used widely in meditation, and carries tremendous mental benefits.

A hot cup of coffee

You step into an elevator, giving a quick nod and a smile to the other person waiting inside. As you ascend through the different floors, waiting politely until the door pings and lets you out, your companion turns to you. 'Would you mind holding my coffee for a second?'

It might sound like a simple, everyday interaction, but this scenario was actually the setup for an experiment into priming, conducted at Yale University.(1)

This scene was played out multiple times, with one subtle difference. Half the participants were given a hot cup of coffee to hold, while the other half were given a cold cup.

Now, you might not think that the temperature of a stranger's coffee would change the course of your day. But, astoundingly, it does.

After their interaction in the elevator, the participants were all read the same description of an unknown, third person.

Incredibly, the people who had held a hot coffee in the elevator later considered the described person to have much more positive characteristics than their cold coffee companions. Those who had held the hot drink thought that the person in the description was kind, generous and happy.

Meanwhile, those who had held the cold drink thought that the very same person, from the same description, was jealous and unhappy.

The participants had been primed to feel either negatively or positively, just because of a simple interaction in the elevator.

Now, think how many interactions like this you have a day, and how they might be affecting your mood.

Take control of priming

It's quite scary to think of all those tiny events in your day that are causing subconscious changes to your mood. Did you fluff that presentation because of a bad breakfast pastry? Or perhaps you aced an exam thanks to a compliment someone gave you on the way into the exam hall?

We all have so much going on in our lives that following the thread of one interaction to another rapidly becomes an exhausting task. You can't control the random events you experience throughout a normal day, so how can you possibly mitigate or even harness the effects of priming?

The good news is that priming doesn't just mean involve how you react to other people. You can also prime yourself.

Priming is used extensively in practices such as yoga and meditation, and it's very easy to do. It's simply about setting aside the time to put yourself in a positive mindset. Priming yourself in the morning helps set the tone for the whole day, clarify your intentions and goals, and even dodge any negative energy coming from others.

So, how do you do it?

Step one: Breathe deeply.

Taking a deep breath is a common remedy for moments when we feel stressed out. However, there's more to taking deep breaths than many of us realise.

It encourages full oxygen exchange (i.e. the maximum amount of oxygen that your lungs can trade for carbon dioxide in one breath). But it also exerts an influence on other areas of the body, too. Blood pressure decreases when we breathe slowly and deeply.(2)

Our nervous system is made up of two 'arms'; the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our 'fight or flight' response in the face of danger, while our parasympathetic system helps to counteract it. Deep breathing effectively lets the body know that all is well. There is no danger to face, so the parasympathetic nervous system can take the reins, and you can enter a state of relaxation.(3)

Its benefits aren't just physical, though. Deep breathing also allows you to temporarily become more internal, allowing you to become more mindful of your body and your senses.

To practice your deep breathing, create a space where you'll feel comfortable and safe, and try to minimise distractions. You might find that lowering the lights and adding a pleasant fragrance, like a scented candle or essential oil, will help relax you.

Get into a comfortable seated position, raise your arms above your head, and inhale deeply through your nose.

Once you have breathed in, begin to lower your arms - relatively sharply - and breathe out.

Repeat for as long as you need. If you're new to the practice, aim for around thirty deep breaths (counting them is also a mindful activity which will help you focus). If you get distracted, don't worry, and don't beat yourself up. Simply return gently to the cycle of your breath, and continue.