Arranging the Pieces: Finding Emotional Caffeine


By Tabitha Bozeman

Last week, I mentioned the “Build the Life You Want” podcast. This week, I learned something interesting about caffeine: caffeine doesn’t actually perk you up. When I heard this, my first thought was “That guy is drinking the wrong coffee.” Intrigued, I kept listening as he explained the way caffeine works.

It turns out that we inaccurately attribute feeling more energy to caffeine. What caffeine actually does is block another chemical in our brains called adenosine which signals the brain by fastening itself onto receptors that tell the brain we need to rest. Caffeine also fits those receptors and will attach itself and block the adenosine. We are still tired and have low energy — the caffeine just keeps our brains from realizing it.  Our brains need help recognizing things sometimes. Similarly to how caffeine keeps our brains from noticing fatigue, positive interactions, thoughts and feelings can serve as emotional caffeine.

We are wired from infancy to pay more attention to the negative than the positive—it is how our brains do their best to keep us safe. Terrible smell? That meat is bad and could kill us. Creepy behavior? That individual may mean us harm. Slowpoke on the road? Spotty internet connection? Irritating coworker? Pushy Christmas shoppers? Those things are not usually life-threatening, but they can easily ruin an entire day. Intentionally identifying things you are grateful for, though, acts as emotional caffeine. If you take it a step further, writing these things down is the emotional equivalent to drinking coffee when you have a slow morning.

This step is the one I see students have the most trouble with — why write anything down when we can just snap a picture with our phones?  I do it, too. The last time I was at an appointment, I snapped a picture of the appointment card before I wrote it down on my calendar. What happened? I completely forgot to write it down and go to the next appointment. Emotions and assumptions like “I’ll remember this” come and go because they haven’t made the jump from the part of our brain that just feels everything into the part of our brain that can plan and organize, or the executive functioning part. I notice this impacting myself and students during stressful times, like finals, big appointments, disagreements with loved ones, or even holiday planning. When I work with students, my kids, and even myself, I work toward slowing down, writing down, and then calming down. This combination has helped me transcend the stress many times — and remember more appointments.

As the semester wraps up, one of the last groups of writers I cover in American Lit is the Transcendentalists. It is perfect timing as finals and holidays approach because one major tenet of the Transcendentalists is that to reach our full potential as individuals, we need to transcend the everyday frustrations of life. One way they suggest doing this is to pay attention to Nature. Walking outside, taking a few minutes to look out the office window, noticing the sound of the wind — these actions cue our brain to slow down. These writers also wrote it all down, dumping the frustrations, struggles, negative emotions from the brain onto the page. Today, we can write, type, or text it down. Doing so allows our brains to calm down, and once they do, we can give ourselves some emotional caffeine by intentionally thinking about and noticing something of beauty, or that brings us joy, or that we are grateful for.

Last night, my youngest was frustrated with some homework. We slowed things down by coloring together, then we talked about what was frustrating her, she identified what she is looking forward to this month, and after a few minutes, she was ready to finish her work. That emotional caffeine really worked!

The leaves are still falling today, and my grading pile is growing. When I start to feel overwhelmed, I usually look out my window. I will watch the trees until I see at least one leaf fall — somehow, knowing that I saw that one lone leaf fall, and may have been the only human to have seen it, helps me slow down and transcend that moment of stress. See if you can create some emotional caffeine for yourself and transcend the stress around you — even for just a moment. Create that emotional caffeine and gift yourself some serenity this week.

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