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Minding Our Mood- Steps to Help Us Manage Our Emotions 

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch February 6, 2023

Every day we experience a myriad of emotions. Our emotional day can be steady or fluctuate between moods, depending upon many internal and external variables. These variables may include the amount we slept, hunger level, stress at home or work, as well as many others. There are times we become stuck emotionally and are unable to break out of an unhealthy cycle. If we are in a “bad” mood or negative frame of mind, we tend to focus our attention inward. It is important to differentiate a bad mood from depression. Depression has clearly defined clinical symptoms that are at least two weeks in duration, while bad moods are short-term.  

When we find ourselves in an intense negative emotional state or negative mood, our thinking becomes primed toward that specific emotion. Research has shown us that humans have a negativity bias around emotions; we tend to pay more attention to difficult emotions and give more weight to these emotions than our more pleasant feelings. For many of us, we deem the difficult emotions as “negative” and therefore often try to escape them through distraction or avoidance. However, when we allow ourselves to feel our emotions, we are more resilient and have better outcomes. Leading psychologist on emotional agility, Susan David, refers to this permission to feel as, “creating a relationship with our emotions”.  

Being able to ride the wave of our emotions is a skill that can be learned. Below are some tips to help us learn to skillfully build a relationship with your emotions. 

Pause   We are often more reactive than proactive when it comes to our emotions; something happens, and we respond instinctually instead of understanding why we are reacting this way. When we mindfully create space between an antecedent and a response, we can pause and give ourselves time to check in internally before triggering an automatic response and ask ourselves “what am I feeling?” 

Body Scan  After the pause, a quick body scan can offer clues as to what you are feeling. Quickly scan the body from head to toe and take note of any sensations. Is our heart racing, are we holding tension in our shoulders, are our hands clenched?  Investigate where the emotion may be sitting in your body and what that feels like. When our heart races, we may be feeling uneasy, anxious or worried. If our hands are clenched it may indicate we are feeling upset, angry, or furious. There is no need to change the sensations, just noticing without judgement is helpful. This can help label your emotions and make it easier in the future to recognize a feeling. 

Label  Labeling our emotions has been proven to reduce the intensity of the emotion. Having a nuanced emotional vocabulary can be helpful to discern exactly what we are feeling. For example, we may think we are angry but what we are really feeling is judged or misunderstood which makes us feel frustrated. It can be helpful to use a feeling wheel to find the gradation of the feeling.  

Accept and Validate Once labeled, observing emotions in a mindful, nonjudgmental manner can lead to acceptance. At this step, validation is important. When we validate our own feelings, we are giving ourselves permission to feel without judgement. One way to validate our feeling is by saying to ourselves “I am feeling sad today. I am going to allow myself some time to sit with this emotion” or “I am feeling angry because I don’t feel valued”. There are times we don’t “want” to feel an emotion and try to talk ourselves out of this feeling, but by accepting and validating how we feel, we are better able to process the information surrounding the emotion. 

Distress Tolerance  Learning to sit with our uncomfortable emotions, sensations, and experiences can be difficult. Once we have completed the above steps, we are ready to be with our emotions without trying to change them or avoid them. An important question to ask ourselves during this step is “what is the function of the emotion? What is the emotion trying to tell me about what is important to me?”. This curiosity allows us to question our needs; for example, if we are feeling sad, is this a time when we could use support from others? If we notice we are anxious, we can ask ourselves if we are feeling threatened in any real way or perceived way.  

The above skills teach us to skillfully ride the waves of our emotions. Below are skills to help us not be overtaken by these emotions. 

Write it down  Journaling about our feelings allows us to express our emotions in a safe way, releasing the emotion from body and mind to paper and/or screen. This release can help minimize brooding, allow greater acceptance of the emotion, aid in emotional regulation and gain new perspectives around the function of the emotion.  

What’s the story We all have “stories” in our head around an event, a feeling, or a thought.  Often, we accept these stories as absolute truth when in fact our inner dialogue has monumental influence. When we ask the following question of our stories, “Is this 100% true?” the answer is often “no”. Practicing cognitive reappraisal or changing the meaning of the emotional event can allow us to gain new perspectives on an emotional situation. For example, we can challenge the shame that follows an insult by saying to ourselves, “there may be some truth to the insult, but that is not the totality of who I am”. With reappraisal we are not giving an disproportionate weight to the emotion or situation.  

Self-soothe  Learning how to self-soothe is a tool that can ease the effects of difficult emotions. The key is to find the self-soothing techniques that work for you. Some examples of self-soothing techniques are deep breathing, self-compassion, self-care habits such as a warm bath, massage, exercise, creating art, listening to music.   

Support  We don’t have to manage our moods in isolation. Seeking support can be a meaningful tool in managing our difficult emotions.  The support can be anything from venting and seeking validation from a friend to utilizing therapeutic services. Getting the support we need is paramount to our wellbeing. 

We all have a rich emotional life. When we choose to have a relationship with our emotions that consists of nonjudgmental curiosity in which we can label and validate our emotions, we are better equipped to ride an emotional storm that may come our way.  


Perfectionism Throughout My Life: A Journey Through Art

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch February 13, 2023

Guest Blogger: Andrea Naranjo Erazo, PhD: Co-director, NIH Academy on Health Disparities and Research Ethics Coordinator, OITE

I grew up with a strong desire to be perfect. Always getting A’s, never getting in trouble, and caring deeply of what others thought of me. This was also reflected in my early paintings, where I placed great attention to details, and captured landscapes perfectly.

My perfectionist tendencies led me to succeed in school and work. I graduated Magna Cum Laude in Chemical Engineering and went to work for a Fortune 500 company. After two years of working in industry I went to pursue my Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from a top 10 university.

I never questioned my perfectionistic tendencies, in part, because it served me when pursuing whatever my next steps were. Once I reached my second year as a postdoctoral fellow, I started questioning my next step, and the dream of becoming a principal investigator seemed very distant. Not choosing academia and exploring other career pathways filled me with anxiety and uncomfortable emotions at first, but it led me to dig deep inside for my values and priorities in life in order to choose a career path that would fulfill me.  

While perfectionism helped me in school and getting where I am professionally, now looking back, perfectionism kept me from learning many important lessons early on: 1) I am more than my achievements, 2) questioning/reframing my perfectionist trends, 3) 3) accepting and loving who I am.

We are more than our achievements

My achievements drove my self-esteem and self-worth. I thought my accomplishments and how well I performed were a reflection of who I was.  Imagine the anxiety I felt after I accomplished all my career goals and I did not have any other professional achievement for me to excel at!

Therapy and journaling helped me decouple my achievements from my self-worth. It helped me realize that part of my anxiety was the idea that I was going to disappoint other people for not choosing the expected career path. Being able to let go of what other people think was not easy for me.

Making a list of what I value, and love helped me realized that my achievements do not change who I am at my core. Learning how to embrace the present helped me overcome my anxiety.

Questioning/reframing our perfectionist trends

In letting go of perfectionism, I started noting my thought patterns and how harsh I was on myself. I was set on an expected path, and I was not open to the opportunities available to me.

The OITE’s Becoming a Resilient Scientist Series introduced me to Jackal and Giraffe language from nonviolent communication. The giraffe is the land animal with the biggest heart and stands for compassionate communication. The jackal represents competition. Jackal language is about judging, criticizing, analyzing, and accusing. I realized that I used more of a jackal language on myself. I started to journal about these thoughts and reframing my thoughts by asking “how would a giraffe say it?”

With practice, I became more aware of my thoughts, and I went from self-criticism to self-kindness.

Accepting and loving ourselves

I did not realize that perfectionism kept me from accepting myself just the way I am. It kept me from realizing our common humanity, we all make mistakes, and there is no such a thing as perfect person.

With this realization, I went from people pleasing to self-acceptance. From feeling inadequate to feeling “I am enough.” From “I am not good enough” to “I am not there yet.”

As I embrace who I am, I have embraced my uniqueness and my inherent value as a human that’s not contingent on my achievements. And now, I use my art is an opportunity to express my feelings and thoughts (and not just focus on perfectly capturing a landscape).

“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance!”-Oscar Wilde.


Interrupting our Self-Doubt through Self-Awareness

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch February 20, 2023

We all know the feeling of self-doubt. It’s that voice inside us that tells us we’re not quite good enough, not cut out for what’s ahead. None of us like to openly admit it’s there because that would blow our cover of proving our worth. So instead, we let it fester inside us and try to soothe its irritation by engaging strategies that usually look something like:

People pleasing: We do and say things that keep the peace around our coworkers and peers out of fear of rocking the boat or our inadequacies may be exposed.

Perfection: If we do and say everything “perfectly” then no one, including ourselves, can confirm the stirring doubts ringing in our heads.

Disengagement: Self-doubt keeps us from really facing the sources of our insecurities and practical ways we can begin to face those and make much needed adjustments. If we never put ourselves out there or take risks, then the most vulnerable parts of ourselves will never have to be on full display.

Inauthenticity: We begin acting in ways we think others want or need us to and we lose sight of our own values and guiding principles.

Over-working: We think we can outrun our self-doubt, but we’re only fooling ourselves. Unless we face it head on, it will follow us no matter how many accolades or accomplishments we have. 

Although these strategies can offer us an illusion of control and sense of self-efficacy moment-to-moment, they are only short-lived. They leave most of us feeling exhausted at the end of every day because they don’t get at the core of what we’re seeking: a sense of competence, feeling valued, and like we belong. 

So before jumping into skills of interrupting our self-doubt we first have to understand what it’s protecting us from. Take a moment to reflect on the following:

My self-doubt tends to show up most strongly when…

The people who trigger this in me most are…

What I fear most in these situations is…

The belief I hold about myself in these situations is…

I struggle to feel worthy in these situations because…

One way I try to counter my self-doubt and prove my worth is by…

This serves me by…

But this also has a cost for me and these costs usually entail…

If I could suddenly shift things for me in these situations, I would change…

The parts of this shift that I have control over are…

Take a moment. Just notice how you’re feeling and what’s coming up for you. There might be a lot of emotion present or no emotion at all. Just notice. And let it be. Reflect on where you can have impact (what can you change and control) and where might you need more support to process your struggles with self-doubt? If you find yourself feeling stuck, reach out to an OITE Wellness Advisor. We are here to help:

Or if you are reading this but not at NIH or aren’t ready to reach out, consider these tools to get you started on your process of shifting away from your self-doubt:

  • Tamper down unhelpful comparison by practicing turning inward and thinking about how you’ve grown and where you want to go. 
  • Reconnect with activities and that allow you to practice mastery and people who remind you that you matter.
  • Check your inner critic and replace it with your inner scientist by asking yourself: What’s another way of interpreting this? What skill can I cultivate to feel more confident? What do I need to do to pull back and gain accurate perspective in this situation?
  • Practice fierce self-compassion by remembering you’re not the only whose have ever felt inadequate or unsure, and you don’t have to stay stuck there. What is it that this moment calls for from you and what do you need to do to show up in way that aligns with your goals and values? 

And if you’re ready to dig even a little deeper, you may consider checking out: Get of Your Head and Into Your Life, by Steven Hayes, Ph.D. for more tools to counter your self-judgment and build self-awareness.


How to Work with What You Got: Managing the Unpredictable Challenges of Working with Chronic Health Issues

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch February 27, 2023

Many of us are dealing with health issues, mental and physical, that are chronic and can impact our capacities at work. Our energy levels, pain, and ability to concentrate may be unpredictable day-to-day, making it difficult to always plan accurately for what we might be able to get done. This can lead to feelings of guilt and shame that only add to the pressure we’re already experiencing given the situation we’re in. With all this in mind, I think it’s important to directly acknowledge that there are no perfect or one-size-fits all solutions to navigating this difficult situation. Working while managing persistent health issues is hard and sometimes incredibly frustrating, and even with the best laid plans you might struggle. That is okay. Having people around you whom you trust and can support you during these especially difficult times will be important landing spots when the following tools just don’t seem to cut it. 

Understand the cues of your body and be honest about what you need: Often we have grown accustomed to pushing ourselves to the limit, either because our work culture sends the message we have to or because we convince ourselves there is no other way to get things done. When we can build awareness of our body and mind’s signals of specific needs, like rest, we can more proactively tend to those needs before we’re fully depleted.

Practice self-compassion: Your best self today might look really different than what your best self can offer tomorrow. This is normal; so instead of judging yourself on the tougher days, reassess where you may need to prioritize your time and focus your energy there. 

Catch unhelpful comparison: Maybe you’re comparing to your “old” self - the you before your health change – and you’re frustrated with how hard it is to put in the same hours or energy as you did before. Or perhaps you’re comparing to a colleague who isn’t dealing with the same struggles as you. Catch these thoughts when they come up for you, and instead of following them, reorient toward more productive thoughts: “Where can I prioritize my time today?” What ways am I taking care of myself so I can show up in the ways I want and need to today?” “I am handling a lot and doing the best that I can.” Consider what phrases might be helpful to recenter you in the moments when you find your mind wandering to comparison and write them down somewhere you can readily see in times of need.

Ditch all or nothing thinking: Many of us fall victim to the cognitive distortion of black and white thinking that reinforces the belief that we have to be at full capacity all the time to do good work. Even without chronic health issues, this isn’t true; none of us are operating at one hundred percent all the time so we need to let go of the messages that lead us to internalize this. Instead, learn how to check-in with yourself and recognize where you may be struggling, not necessary as a signal to stop, but as a signal to reassess expectations to be more realistic. 

Know your rights and plan for sick (or less-than-ideal) days: Make sure you are aware of your rights regarding leave and necessary accommodations that could be useful. You have complete agency over how and with whom you share your health information; however, it might be helpful for key players on your team to understand what you’re navigating so they can support you in practical ways. We can’t fully predict how we’re going to be day-to-day. That’s part of what makes chronic health issues difficult but thinking about how you might be able to build in buffer days in your plans can be helpful to protect against the negative ripple it can have on our life.  

It’s important to reiterate that none of this is easy and you shouldn’t have to navigate this alone. A mental health condition can have considerable impacts on our physical health and vice versa; so remember to attend to all parts of yourself as you think about what care and support you need. Reach out: - we are here for you!