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Taking control of your mood with priming

Taking control of your mood with priming

Team ErbologyErbology

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.

November 20, 2020 10:51 am

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.

Taking control of your mood with priming
Taking control of your mood with priming
Taking control of your mood with priming
Taking control of your mood with priming

'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.'

Step two: Express gratitude.

First, take a few moments to feel your heart beating, and continue to breathe deeply. Focus on your senses: what can you hear, smell, and feel with your fingertips?

While you’re in a state of relaxation, prime yourself for a positive day ahead by remembering and honouring times you felt really grateful. It could be a moment when you felt love and gratitude for someone in your life, or a moment you took for yourself, when you felt at peace. Perhaps it’s the memory of your best man giving a speech at your wedding, or having the whole family together during the holidays.

It’ll be unique to you, and there’s no right or wrong answer.

Try and think of three events where you felt enormous gratitude. Focus in on them, and see if you can recall the exact emotions you felt at the time. Can you connect with them in the present moment?

Some practices, such as yoga and mindfulness meditation, encourage you to extend your love and gratitude out into the world. A simple way to do this is to hold the following thought in your mind, as you relive those happy moments. ‘I send my love and gratitude to all beings, everywhere.’ Really inhabit and enjoy this moment of kindness, compassion and positivity.

Step three: Set goals.

The final part revolves around future plans. How will you take this feeling of positivity and gratitude out into the world with you?

If you need some help coming up with your goals, why not start with three: a goal for today, one for this month, and one long-term goal? Focus on each individually and think about what it will take to achieve them. What steps are needed, and how will you complete each one? Visualise the moment you attain each of your goals. How do you feel? Can you capture those emotions and use them to guide and support you throughout the day?

When you have completed your goal visualisations, it’s time to gently come out of your meditation. Softly wiggle your fingers and toes to help break the sense of relaxed stillness and bring you back to full alertness, ready to start the day.

Why is goal visualisation and gratitude important?

There are lots of ways you can prime yourself for the day ahead.  However, imagining yourself achieving your goals and being grateful for the most important things in your life are two very accessible ways to tap into positive feelings, for most of us. Inhabiting this space helps us decide what mood we’ll take forward into the day. The idea is that spending these few moments with yourself in the morning will help you carry that ‘can do’ attitude with you all day, and encourage you to act with kindness and compassion in your interactions with others.

Many people also believe in a phenomenon called the ‘law of attraction’, which is based on the idea that if you think positively, then positive things will happen in your life. In essence, it’s a way to translate all the positive energy you’ve created during your priming session into real life, turning your hopes and dreams into reality.

After all, we are the masters of our own fate. So, instead of waiting for good things to happen, take a leaf out of the priming handbook and make them happen. One thing we know for sure is that positivity breeds positivity, so whatever happens, you’ll be bringing a little extra sunshine into someone’s day.

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