Your word is your wand. The words you speak create your own destiny.
—Florence Scovel Shinn, Writings of Florence Scovel Shinn
I remember realizing just how many acts of willpower it took to get me to work, through work, and home after work. All those acts created the impossible mood I found myself in upon returning home. Once I started treating myself, adding rituals to my routine, and removing things I didn’t want to use willpower on, I found myself able to get through the workweek with twice the amount of energy and half the number of breakdowns.
There was one thing, however, I still hadn’t mastered. One thing that had nothing to do with work at all, but rather the idea of work: Sunday Scaries.
If depletion is what creates the mood after work, Sunday Scaries are what create the mood before it. I was spending Sundays curled up on the couch watching mindless TV to numb the anxious voice in my head. I was sick of being snappy and distant with Jay because I was distracted by all the problems that could go wrong next week. I wanted my Sunday to feel like my Saturday. And why shouldn’t it? I had two days off; why could I only appreciate one of them?
Then, like so many buried memories of the past, I recalled a moment that seemingly had no significance at the time and now illuminated with the present with meaning. It was an especially dark Sunday a few years earlier, and a few months before the demise of my relationship with Roxanne. After three years in the city together, Roxanne and I had gone from living together, to meeting up a few times a week, to only seeing each other on the weekends.
We were still close, but we were changing and evolving into new versions of our adult selves at such a rapid pace that sometimes I barely recognized her. The distance between our apartments had widened over the years and the bridge between my Brooklyn neighborhood and her Manhattan one seemed to symbolize the new distance between us.
When we did get together, we had less in common, less to talk about. Our history and our memories were the thin thread that kept our relationship together and the fragility of it was palpable. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but I wasn’t sure if I even liked Roxanne anymore.
She was still fun and warm and had that energy I loved about her, but with that energy there was a darkness. She was sleeping with men who I didn’t want to be around. And she was staying up all night and sleeping all day and her apartment was littered with vodka bottles and past-due notices and remnants of a life I didn’t want for her or myself anymore.
I yearned for the Sundays we had spent in Central Park together, drinking wine, splurging on cheese, basking in our new life in a new city, too happy and full and distracted to think about Monday.
How many times had I woken up hungover in Roxanne’s bed and just feel . . . depressed? What was I doing here? Why was her apartment so dirty? Who was that guy on her couch? I’d sink back into her bed and pull the covers over my eyes. I couldn’t spend Sunday like this. I needed to feel safe and secure. I needed to be in the light, not in this dark cave. I needed to stop wasting my Saturdays doing things I couldn’t remember on Sunday.
“Jesus Christ, Lauren. Nothing’s wrong. You’re just hungover!” Roxanne would scream at me when I woke her up saying we needed to get our act together, that I was seriously freaking out.
Nothing’s wrong, you’re just hungover. The phrase reverberated in my ears as I walked down the brownstone’s crumbling steps toward the Union Square subway. It was so simple yet so effective. I wasn’t depressed. Nothing was wrong. I was just dehydrated, tired, hungover.
Our friendship didn’t last, but the idea Roxanne planted in my head did. I found myself repeating that phrase to myself whenever I woke up miserable or anxious after a night out. The pain of my hangover was a cue to remind myself that my perception of the world around me was skewed because of my weakened state of mind, not because anything had changed.
During this particularly difficult bout of Sunday Scaries, I wondered if I could apply that same technique—to use the nerves of Sunday to remind myself that nothing was actually wrong, but just butterflies about the week ahead. “Calm down. Nothing’s wrong, it’s just Sunday,” I told myself.
But it didn’t work. The feeling still sat there. My motivation was gone and I resigned myself to another day spent watching reruns of The Real World: Cancun.
As it turned out, I could use a phrase to alter my emotional reaction to Sunday Scaries. I just needed to choose different words. A few weeks later I was lamenting to my therapist about how nervous I was about an upcoming trip I had to take for work. “Are you nervous?” she asked. “Or are you excited.”
“Nervous,” I responded.
“What if you simply told yourself you were excited?
“What if,” she continued, “you tricked your brain into thinking those butterflies in your stomach were good butterflies?”
“Ok,” I said. “I’m not nervous. I’m excited.” Upon saying it I instantly felt better. The knot in my stomach didn’t feel as tight and the idea of traveling didn’t seem as terrible. Anxiety reappraisal, she explained, is a cognitive trick based on the concept that words can trigger emotions. Like songs or smells, words have memories and associations attached to them. The word excited arouses a different emotion than the word anxious. I had anxiety about Sundays because I was calling them scary. In order to change the way I felt, I could start by changing the language I was using to describe how I felt.
So when I was sitting on the couch on Sunday, stewing over the week ahead, worrying about all the emails and that thing my boss said to me at Friday’s happy hour, I was thinking about how anxious I was while simultaneously telling myself to calm down.
What many of us try to do is replace anxiety with the concept of calm. This doesn’t work because calm is not an aroused emotion. Excitement, like anxiety, arouses emotion. It increases heart rate and cortisol, preparing our body and mind for action. But excitement produces a positive emotion, unlike the negative one anxiety produces.
According to Alison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School, it takes a lot more effort for us to go from a negative state of arousal to a state of calm than it does for us to go from a negative state to a positive state of arousal. Moody women understand this. It’s easier to go from happy to sad (or sad to happy) then it is to go from any emotion to “chill.” We’re not “chillers.”
To illustrate this concept, Brooks performed a series of experiments. In one of them, she asked participants to sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” in front of the group. The participants were told to say either “I’m excited,” “I’m anxious,” or nothing at all before they broke into song. According to computerized measurements of volume and pitch, the “excited” group actually sang better. When asked to give two-minute speeches, the same result happened. The “excited” group spoke longer, and were seen as more persuasive, confident, and persistent.
A similar study was done in the realm of ego depletion by marketing professors Juliano Laran and Chris Janiszewski to understand self-control and the effects of depletion on behavior. They found that the way we perceive work-related tasks correlates to how depleted we feel. When we think a task is going to be fun, not only will we spend more time on it, but we will feel less depleted by it
Replace “Calm down” with “I’m excited.”
Replace “I don’t want to” with “I get to.”
Replace “I’m scared” with “I’m pumped.”
Besides just eliminating the number of choices I made throughout the day, I discovered that I could actually shift the way I thought about the choices I couldn’t avoid. I could stop dreading the things I had to do and start reminding myself that I get to do them. Because activities were only depleting if I thought they were and stressful situations were only scary if I thought of them that way. Monday was only scary if I thought about it being scary.
How you go through your life is shaped by how you think about things. The mind is as strong as it is weak, and we can use its susceptibility to our advantage. We can trick ourselves into thinking that increased heart rate, sweaty hands, and the pulse of adrenaline aren’t anxiety but excitement. Like magic, we can also deceive ourselves out of a depleted state with rituals and tricks. The opposite of work is play, and if we can learn to add more play into our lives, to stop taking every email, obstacle, and problem so seriously, we may just be at the cornerstone of chill.