Text and Image published in collaboration with the Jewish Press

Moods, to some extent, are just part of being human. With the holiday season behind us and the chilly weather blowing in, many of us find ourselves feeling down more than we’d like. Almost everyone feels like this sometimes- I know I do. When we wake up “on the wrong side of the bed” or encounter frustrations, we may feel that we are being ambushed by inevitable negativity. But the truth is, there are therapeutic techniques we can use to actively reprogram our moods more favorably. One such tool which I use frequently in my practice (and my own mind) is the horizon of healthy thinking exercise. Take a quick look at the horizon picture featured above, and save that for reference in a few paragraphs.

How do moods start?

Our moods are generally created by our thoughts. Some of the thoughts that we have pop up instinctively in response to a stimulus inside or outside of ourselves- for better and for worse. Not every life circumstance is going to yield naturally happy thoughts. However, there is a way that we can train our minds to meet reality where it is but translate it into a psychologically healthy cognition, which will then in turn, precipitate more deliberate, effective thoughts, feelings, and moods.

For this exercise, our thoughts can be labeled: unhelpful, neutral, or helpful. I use the horizon picture as a visual analogy:
Picture the water with big, choppy waves crashing down, threatening to pull you beneath the surface, below the horizon. When we’re down, we’re sinking under the waters of unhelpful negativity. This can look like depression, rage, anxiety, hopelessness, toxic criticism, blame, or judgement- any potent, persistent, unwanted emotional experience.

Now picture calm waters, with a sailboat, bobbing along the waves, simply tracing the horizon of reality however it is. This represents a neutral state- passively following reality as it is. It just “is.”
Finally, picture a seagull soaring upward, above the horizon. When we’re in a “good mood” we are generally producing mostly either helpful or neutral thoughts. This doesn’t necessarily mean positive; we can have helpful thoughts about a negative situation too, and there are times when misplaced positivity can be inappropriate and unhealthy. Above the horizon just means that we are in a healthy place, approaching whatever circumstances we find ourselves in with either a productive, growth-promoting, or accepting mindset, like the seagull, gliding upward, over the horizon, toward the sky.

When healthy thoughts evolve organically, either because our brain chemistry is fortunately aligned that way, or because we find ourselves blessed with favorable happenstances, we can simply relax and enjoy the ride; our psyches are doing well on autopilot in those moments. When we are functioning in a neutral headspace, we tend to be ok with that too. The problem arises when we find ourselves in moods generated from unhelpfully negative thought patterns and feelings. The horizon of healthy thinking process suggests that we formulate the thought in three distinct, progressive iterations:
1.         The way it occurs spontaneously: below the horizon. Acknowledge the problem and the negative feelings. This is important because we can’t correct what we deny exists.

  1. The way it would look if it were less toxic: on the horizon. Describe the problem and feelings more matter-of-factly, from a place of distance- as if it were about someone else and solvable.

  2. The way it could sound if it were its healthiest permutation: above the horizon. Reformulate the issue and the feelings, in a way that promotes empowerment, growth, possibility, or acceptance.

It should be noted that the “above the horizon” version should not sound phony. It can and should be true to the experience, but just framing more usefully. Here is simple application of this technique in action, based on a true, recent incident. I had to fill out some important forms, but I accidentally checked the wrong box in one field, crashing the automated system. I then needed to spend substantial time on the phone with service reps to correct the error. Here are the three ways I could have narrated this vignette to myself:
1.         Below the horizon (drowning): I’m such an idiot! How did I not see the wording on that form? I messed this up completely! I hate technology, and I hate my own incompetence. It’ll take forever to figure this out and then there will probably be another glitch. What a hassle!

  1. On the horizon (sailboat): Hm... It seems that I answered something on the form incorrectly, and now it won’t process. I’m not sure I know how to fix this myself.

  2. Above the horizon (seagull): Oh, I misunderstood that question, and it looks like that invalidated my application. I’m going to need to some help untangling the red tape on this. I’ll need to find a block of time to call customer service and ask them to walk me through it. I’ll also ask them to explain to me how this works so I don’t make that sort of mistake next time. I’ll be glad to get this resolved.

See how the first reaction is overly self-critical and pessimistic, the second is just factual, and the third is constructive? This is the horizon method in action. It may sound like a simple moment, but I actually need to do this sort of reframe often; I don’t naturally have great frustration tolerance for my own mistakes or ignorance. These minor incidents can ruin a mood when processed in unnecessarily negative ways, but they feel more manageable when processed as a learning experience. When you apply this technique regularly and to heavier thoughts about oneself, others, or the world at large, you begin to create newer, healthier thought patterns, which generate better feelings. These will forge new, brighter pathways in our brains, problem-solving, accepting, and appreciating our life events stories from a place of possibility and strength.

Elisheva Liss, LMFT is a mom, wife, writer, lecturer, proficient procrastinator, and psychotherapist in private practice on Long Island, NY. She has recently published her first book, on which this article is based: Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking: A Three- Step Technique for Better Living, which is available on Amazon.