It was a challenge to choose a topic for this month’s article. Omicron, holiday health and safety, COVID testing, the importance of getting a COVID booster, getting your children vaccinated — the list is long.

However, one common thread runs through the many possible topics. Nancy Carlson, Minnesota Department of Health behavioral health expert, shared the following concept of “Mind the Gap.” I found it enlightening and something we can all practice to reduce stress and improve our emotional health.

Emotional health by minding the gap

We are living and working in a world of uncertainties. Disruption, unending difficulties, and having every hopeful question answered with a firm “no, not yet,” have been our fare for 20 months. Most of us are conditioned to react automatically to the circumstances that occasion our emotional responses. Our sense of emotional equilibrium is usually based upon our circumstances. If the circumstance meets our expectations, we are happy, peaceful, and/or content. If the circumstances fall short of our expectations, we often experience disappointment, anger, grief, or even despair.

As humans, we easily focus on negative more than positive circumstances. Yet, we can still have hope as an option even if the circumstances are routinely negative. We can even experience peace, encouragement, gratitude, and even joy.

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Choosing your emotions

Viktor Frankl was imprisoned in a concentration camp and lost all of his immediate family. He wrote about how we can live hopefully when the situations around us are dire. He believed we could retain equilibrium and live positively even when there is suffering all around us.

Frankl stated: “In between stimulus and response is a space. In that space, we can choose our response. And in choosing our response lies our freedom.” We are self-programmed to choose most of our emotional reactions automatically, without thinking about them. We then blame our circumstances (or the people in them) for our emotional reactions.

And while these reactions may seem to result from our circumstances, they are not out from under our conscious control. So instead of reacting automatically, we can choose a healthy response intentionally.

Frankl’s point is that we can choose to exercise control over our emotions, including our most disruptive ones. To do this, we must insert a conscious choice into the space between the stimulus—whatever triggers negative emotions—and the response. To do this, we must identify that space (“the gap”) and intentionally choose a better response.

With practice, we can recognize emotions welling up in us and “mind the gap.” For example, if we feel hopelessness rising within us, we can stop that emotion and create the gap. In the gap, we might begin thinking of things we are grateful for or hopeful for. If we are beginning to feel angry in the moment, we can stop that emotion and choose tolerance, prosocial concern, forgiveness, or walk away and walk it off.

Mind the gap

We can choose to be hopeful, happy, at peace, forgiving, unoffended, and focused. Of course, it takes practice but doing so returns control in our lives to us. It restores our freedom. William James, the American philosopher and psychologist, stated, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” After all, who wants to be controlled by circumstances or other people's choices when we can exercise choice and gain freedom?

Take action: Think through in advance the emotions you want when negative emotions—anger, unforgiveness, offense, hopelessness, despair, wanting to quit, etc.—begin to well up within you. When in emotionally taxing situations, “mind the gap.” Create the space to choose one thought over another, to create an intentional response to replace the usual automatic reaction.

Think about choosing gratitude for your many gifts and advantages, for the opportunity to save lives, for friends, family, faith, and forgiveness. Think about hopeful things, about caring strategies, about how much you love certain people and what they mean to you. Think about your mission—saving lives and spreading comfort and even cheer in dark times. Prepare these choices, then “mind the gap” and insert these new thoughts and emotions before negative ones take over.

We recognize that these strategies can be much more challenging than what we are sharing. We do get it! At the same time, give it a try; like Viktor Frankl, he not only survived the most horrific experiences, but he thrived to help and support others.

For more information on minding the gap check out this video on Shift Happens at: vimeo.com/560633345.

The phrase “mind the gap” is announced over the intercom when exiting the subway in London. It is a reminder to be aware of the gap between the train and solid ground — a good metaphor for the transition between a negative event and our emotional response.

Marcia Schroeder is a registered nurse with Horizon Public Health, which serves five counties, including Douglas County. Contact Schroeder at marcias@horizonph.org.