Apotheosis episode 27: Undoing negative with positive. Negative emotions constrict our minds. Positive emotions expand our minds — and our view of what's possible.

Episode 27: Undoing negative with positive

Ryan D Thompson Calm, Modern, Psychology, Skills

Key ideas

Negative emotions constrict our minds. Positive emotions expand our view of what’s possible. Intentionally cultivating positive emotions can increase our capacity for calm, composed action – while undoing some harmful effects of negative emotions.

  • Reality dictates that we will face difficulties ahead. As the pandemic showed us, it’s easy to succumb to panic, anxiety, and any number of largely unproductive coping mechanisms like hoarding toilet paper. Calmly facing down difficulty requires intentional effort.
  • Barbara Frederickson’s Broaden-and-Build theory offers one helpful perspective for cultivating calm and clarity. Negative emotions like fear or anger narrow our view. In contrast, positive emotions broaden our sense of possibilities and build valuable mental resources that serve us now and in the future.
  • According to Frederickson, positive emotions also have an added benefit she calls the “undoing effect.” When our body and mind get riled up in fight or flight mode, positive emotions cool the fires, bringing us back to a normal resting state.
  • Grounding techniques can also help to cut through the mental noise of anxiety by connecting us to the present moment. Paying attention to sensory perceptions like sounds, colors, textures, and physical sensations can calm the mind and help us to think clearly.


Let’s go where no one on Earth wants to go: back to the early days of the pandemic. Bring to mind that sense of unease, the uncertainty, the anxiety… and, of course, the panicked toilet paper hoarding. Nothing quite captures the confusion of the time better than the inexplicably empty shelves in the toilet paper aisle. During those weeks (or was it months or years?), we saw countless examples of the wrong ways to respond to a public health emergency. It was almost comical if it hadn’t been so nerve-racking at the time. We were faced with intense pressures from a novel and unseen threat, and let’s be honest, we didn’t exactly handle that pressure all that well. True, there were some bright spots, like entire towns singing together from their balconies; and plenty of innovation, like virtual concerts and virtual fitness classes and virtual… well, everything.

But from the panic buying to the rampant misinformation to the mask-induced airport meltdowns, we started to collapse under the weight of prolonged lockdowns and mass anxiety with no end in sight.

In some ways, we have started to, in air quotes, get back to normal, whatever that might mean these days. We’re moving around again; we’re mostly maskless. But then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Along with the slow-motion dismantling of democracy in America and elsewhere.

And then we have to face the reality that this won’t be the last pandemic. 

We live in mind-bendingly complex times with a relentless series of social, political, economic, and environmental dilemmas. It’s hard to keep it all together, to keep calm, and avoid the hoarding impulse – or other unhelpful actions.

So what can we do to shield ourselves from the waves of panic and anxiety? We might not have any control over the toilet paper supply chain, but we do have some control over how we respond to challenges — and our state of mind.

This episode is part of a series on cultivating calm under fire. I’ll explore some ideas from psychology that can hopefully shine some light on ways to reduce our anxieties and increase our capacity for calm, composed action.

Calm is often best demonstrated against a backdrop of disorder or difficulty. When most people are agitated, anxious, angry, or completely panicking, one calm person in the room really stands out. The others might even be suspicious of their tranquility, like, “why aren’t you upset? Why aren’t you freaking out? You should be freaking out!”

Panic, like misery, seems to love company. Panic wants others to panic as well. Like when we see the empty shelves at the grocery store, we start to feel the same fear. 

According to recent research, a storm of factors can drive people towards irrational behavior like panic buying. First, we perceive an impending crisis, which can lead to a perception of resource scarcity – as we saw in the case of the pandemic. Fear of the unknown triggers us to engage in coping mechanisms to relieve this fear and uncertainty. We seek something – anything – to give us a sense of security. Even if it’s something utterly irrational like stockpiling toilet paper.

Fear can drive us to lose the plot, making us do some crazy stuff.

How can you and I be the ones in the room to stay calm? What can we do to resist the wave of panic?

As one obvious solution, the more training we have to face complex or life-threatening situations, the more likely we are to respond calmly. Doctors and nurses don’t faint at the sight of blood or trauma. Firefighters rush into dangers that would make most of us freeze or freak out. 

But getting specialized medical, emergency, or defense training like police or military typically requires joining that profession – which isn’t exactly a practical solution for those in other careers. And while I don’t have any data to support this, I would hypothesize that emergency training isn’t a universal solution for calm. Training that prepares someone to respond calmly in one context, like a medical emergency, might not transfer into a different context, such as a major financial or political crisis. The moment we enter the unknown, we are likely prone to the same risk of irrational behavior. We never know what complex mess lies right around the corner. And we can’t prepare for what we don’t know or understand.

Ideally, we can rely on practices that transcend particular situations or contexts.

One promising approach comes from Barbara Frederickson’s Broaden-and-Build theory. Her theory pertains to the differences between what we’d typically call positive versus negative emotions.

We often get mired in negative emotions. They can be really sticky, with one negative thought leading to another. Whether it’s fear, anger, resentment, anxiety, or some other emotion that makes us feel like crap, our perspective narrows with each progressive negative thought. We focus only on those negative thoughts – and the stories we tell ourselves. The more we follow those storylines, the deeper we get into the negativity. In many ways, it is like digging a hole, as these layers of negative thoughts prevent us from seeing beyond the walls surrounding us. Negative emotions narrow our range of responses.

In contrast, positive emotions – including gratitude, awe, joy, love, serenity, and several others – can have the opposite effect. When we experience an emotion like gratitude or hope, our perspective expands. We take a broader view of our possibilities – thus, the “broaden” in Broaden-and-Build. Positive emotions can also help us build a set of internal resources, like an increased capacity to weather uncertainty, that help us not only now but also in the future. 

With negativity, our minds constrict. With positivity, our minds expand.

And there’s more: beyond the benefits of opening our minds and generally just feeling nice, positive emotions have the added benefit of regulating negative emotions. Frederickson describes this as the “undoing effect” of positive emotions, which, as she explains, serve as “antidotes for the lingering effects of negative emotions.” This regulation occurs not just in the mind but also in the body. Negative emotions prepare us for fight or flight, effects that can be seen in the cardiovascular system. Experiencing positive emotions afterward returns the body to a normal state.

Now I imagine that some of you might think, “well, duh, positive emotions make me feel good. I don’t really need a scientific study to tell me that.” I hear you. But while it’s clear that we all like to be happy, we don’t always have a clear path to what that actually looks like. However, Frederickson’s research identifies 10 distinct positive emotions, each arising in different situations or contexts. And that can be practiced.

We can actively cultivate positive emotions in the same way we build our muscles – through intentional effort. Short, regular periods focused on fostering a particular positive emotion can help expand our sense of what’s possible. For example, since reading her work, I’ve actively sought opportunities to cultivate awe and wonder. I spend time in nature as much as possible, sitting quietly by a river or on a hill, soaking up the beauty of the natural world. Activities like keeping a daily gratitude journal or even just making sure to laugh out loud with a group of friends regularly can foster gratitude, amusement, and joy.

By creating moments of intentional practice of these emotions, we strengthen our capacity to respond to life’s challenges with greater calm and clarity.

Another approach for reducing anxiety and increasing calm involves connecting with the present moment through what are called “grounding techniques.” There is a wide range of these techniques. In general, the idea is to anchor your attention on specific aspects of your environment. For example, you could look at the color of the sky or listen to the sound of birds singing outside. You might examine the texture of the floor or feel the cold surface of a glass of water. While these mundane observations might not seem all that revolutionary, don’t underestimate their effectiveness. Gently placing our attention on our senses can cut through a stream of negative thinking. Repeating these activities throughout the day can strengthen your capacity to live in the moment, rather than in your head

Well, that’s all for now. I hope that hearing about these practices makes you even a little bit calmer today. Check out the episode notes for a link to more resources on these ideas and techniques. For more perspectives on cultivating calm or other skills, check out the Project Indra website. I recently did some major revamping of the site to make it easier to find information related to specific skills for impact leaders. You can subscribe there for irregular newsletter updates, and feel free to subscribe to Apotheosis on your favorite podcast platform. And if you have a moment to leave a review or a quick rating, that’s always very helpful. Until the next time, be well!

References and further reading

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License