How to Keep a Shitty Text From Ruining Your Day, According to a Neuroscientist

How to Keep a Shitty Text From Ruining Your Day, According to a Neuroscientist
Photo: fizkes, Shutterstock

We’ve all had that moment when you’re working hard, absorbed in what you’re doing, only to glance at your phone and see an upsetting text. Perhaps it’s from someone you have a difficult relationship with, or it’s general bad news, or there’s a family crisis you can’t do much about. When it happens, what can you do to keep that text from derailing your day?

Our brains are bad at multi-tasking

“The one thing our brain doesn’t do well is multitask,” said Dr. Jud Brewer, MD, Ph.D., the executive medical director of behavioural health at Sharecare and a faculty member at Brown University. “When we’re doing something and see an upsetting text, we might start ruminating about it. If we try to go back to what we were doing originally, but keep thinking about the text, our brain has to switch tasks over and over.”

This can be incredibly distracting, leading to a situation where not only are you upset about the text, but you’re also unable to properly do your work. “The working memory part of our brain can only hold a few pieces of information at once,” Brewer said. “Think of it like a computer, where there is a limited amount of RAM. Once that RAM gets filled up, the computer slows down.”

How to direct your attention back to the task at hand

If you’re trying to focus on your work but keep thinking about that text, it’s important to acknowledge you can’t do anything about it at that particular time. “Just name it and say, ‘Oh, I can’t do anything about this right now,’” Brewer suggested. “Let it settle in, so our brain actually hears it.” As he points out, this isn’t a case of us trying to fool ourselves into not thinking about the upsetting text, but rather an acknowledgment of a fact: You can’t do anything right now.

“The other piece is to ask ourselves, ‘What am I getting from being caught up in this text?’” Brewer said. “We can say, ‘Wait a minute. I’m getting all worked up. I can’t do anything about it right now, and it’s taking me away from what I’m doing. It’s using up all my energy and changing my mood for the worse.’”

How to reduce the tension

Directing your attention back to your work is always easier said than done. One additional technique that Brewer suggests to reduce the tension is to think about how we’re relating to it. To do that, Brewer suggests using mindfulness techniques.

As Amishi Jha, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and author of the book Peak Mind, recently said told MindbodyGreen, “A mindfulness-based approach is to first acknowledge and allow the emotional reaction that you had receiving the text message.”

“We can bring in mindfulness practices to notice objectively ‘here’s a text that somebody sent,’ as compared to be being identified with a thought, like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me,’” Brewer said. “Mindfulness can help us relate to it differently by bringing in curiosity. We ask ourselves questions with genuine curiosity about the intention behind the text or wonder if we could be jumping to conclusions.”

You can’t avoid receiving an upsetting text message and you also can’t avoid an emotional response to it. That’s just part of being human. However, by practicing mindfulness — in this case, acknowledging your emotional response and taking a little time to examine your feelings — you can avoid having that text ruin the rest of your day.

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