Hot-air Baloon

Ch-8: Rise Above Anxiety, Anger, and Depression

Mental Control Strategy 1: Choice--Accept or Change?

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
Send Feedback/Questions to:
You Can Choose To Be Happy:
Site dedicated to enhancing human happiness, self-development, and success
SITE MAP: All free Self-help resources includes online book, You Can Choose To Be Happy, and SHAQ

Photo of Dr Tom and Sherry Stevens
search index brief sitemap advanced site search
search engine by freefind
Chapter 8,  Part 2, from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
Go to book Contents     Go to chapter contents     Go to Dr. Stevens' Home Page

Mental Control Strategy 1:

CHOICE of Episode:   Replace it or Convert it?

 To create harmonious functioning REPLACE or CONVERT what you are doing
 Replace activities--A list of stress reduction activities
 Convert activities--Change your thoughts instead of the activity

When you feel negative emotions, examine your choices.
Do you have a choice of whether or not to be in this situation?
What are your alternatives?


How much of your time during a typical week is spent in a state of arousal that is too high--feeling anxiety, stress, resentment, frustration, guilt, or other emotions of overarousal? Is it 10%, 25%, 50%, 80%--or even more? I have many clients tell me that they are in this state over 80% of the time. How much of your time during a typical week is spent in a state of arousal that is too low--feeling bored, lonely, depressed, apathetic, "tuned out," or unmotivated? Some people tell me they feel this way over 80% of the time.

In comparison, what percentage of your time is spent where your arousal level is more "in the zone"--happy, joyful, interested, excited, looking forward to something, and confident?

Many people spend most of their time doing what they don't like and very little time doing what they do like. How very sad! What if we could transform our lives into more time spent doing what we really enjoy? What if we could spend 80 or 90% of our time in the harmonious functioning zone?

It may not sound possible, but it is! Sherry and I have greatly increased our own percentage of time "in the zone" by replacing or converting activities. We each are interested (or happy) in what we are doing at least 80% of our time. During the past few years, the biggest changes have occurred not so much from replacing activities as from converting them from stressful or boring ones into interesting ones. What has changed most are our thoughts--our mental control, involvement, and interest.
Return to beginning


You may assume that you "have no choice" but to do certain unpleasant activities, because they are necessary to accomplish important goals. One alternative to spending your time in unpleasant activities is to try to replace as many of these with more enjoyable ways of accomplishing similar goals.

When you question your assumptions, you may find that an unpleasant activity serves no current high priority goals. If so, consider eliminating it or consider spending less time doing it. When you begin to question your assumptions behind the "I have no choice" statement, you will find that you almost always have many choices.

Many people have eliminated or reduced time spent on unpleasant tasks. They minimize chores by moving from high-maintenance to low-maintenance homes, by planting low-maintenance plants, and by shopping infrequently. They minimize housework and teach children to do more for themselves.

Good time-managers do the highest priority tasks (those with the most happiness and productivity payoffs) first, forcing themselves to do the low payoff activities in what little time is left. Sherry and I find that these methods give us much more time for activities like writing, tennis, going out, travel, and other things we love to do. (See O-PATSM self-management chapter.)

Choice--accept or replace image

Involving and enjoyable activities can help cope with negative emotions. One way to get control of your emotions is to get more control over how you spend your time. You can choose your environments and activities.

Evaluate every situation or activity you are in for its emotional effects on you. How do you feel afterward? Anxious? Resentful? Frustrated? Or another overarousal emotion? Do you feel depressed? Bored? Apathetic? Or another underarousal emotion?

You have a lot of control over your schedule (no matter what you think). You have choices. Sprinkle in more activities that get you into the zone and add variety to your schedule. Try to achieve some balance in meeting different values, interests, and parts of yourself. You are unique and must find the combination of activities that works best for you.

PRACTICE: Make your own lists of emotional coping activities.
A. Evaluate emotional effects of regular activities: List every activity that you do regularly or spend a significant amount of time doing. On a scale of 0-100, rate how happy you are when you do it. Is the negative emotion an overarousal or underarousal emotion?
B. Make four lists:
(1) a list of "stress-reducers" to calm you when you are feeling overstimulated, overaroused emotions like anxiety, anger, or confusion;
(2) a list of "stimulators" to get you mentally and physically more energetic, when you are feeling down, depressed, apathetic, tired, or lethargic; and
(3) a list of activities that get you "in the zone" at almost any time. Make sure that you include items that you can do quickly, inexpensively, and alone.
(4) List activities, thoughts, and/or people to avoid when you want to feel better.

Return to beginning


If you do not choose to get out of the situation (or replace the activity) to feel better, you can accept the situation and change how you view it or cope with it. In other words, you can convert the activity into an interesting one. Does that seem impossible with many tasks you "hate"?

Let's return to Victor Frankl's life in the Nazi Concentration camps to see how he coped with the boredom and pain of minimal human existence.


Almost in tears from pain (I had terrible sores on my feet from wearing torn shoes),
I limped a few kilometers. . .to our work site. Very cold, bitter winds struck us.
I kept thinking of the endless little problems of our miserable life.
What would there be to eat tonight? If a piece of sausage came as an extra ration,
should I exchange it for a piece of bread? . . .
How could I get a piece of wire to replace . . .my shoelaces?
I became disgusted with the state of affairs which compelled me, daily and hourly,
to think of only such trivial things. I forced my thoughts to turn to another subject. Suddenly, I saw
myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and
pleasant lecture room. In front of me I saw an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats.
I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that
moment became objective, seen and described
from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow
in rising above the situation,
above the sufferings of the moment,
and I observed them as if they were already of the past.
Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study...
Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering
as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.

It was how Frankl thought about the situation that was the critical difference. He switched from thoughts that focused on the details of his misery--trapped in its midst--to thoughts that came from higher parts of himself--such as his inner psychologist. When he switched into the role of thinking about the situation as a psychologist, it became interesting.

Frankl also found that to have positive emotions--such as hope--people must not only find their lives interesting, but also meaningful or purposeful in some higher sense. Thoughts that reflect higher meaning are therefore more helpful for overcoming negative life events.


The prisoner who had lost faith in the future--his future--was doomed.
With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold;
he let himself decline and became the subject to mental and physical decay...
Regarding our "provisional existence" as unreal was in itself
an important factor in causing the prisoners to lose their hold on life;
everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot that
often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation
which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp's
difficulties as a test of their inner strength,
they did not take their life seriously and despised it
as something of no consequence. . .
Yet in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge.
One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into
an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate,
as did a majority of the prisoners.
Any attempt at fighting the camp's psychopathological influence
on the prisoner...had to aim at giving him a future goal to which he could look forward.

Frankl's keen observations of hundreds of concentration camp prisoners can be a lesson for us all. Their external situations were very similar. The factor that made the difference in their emotions was their thinking--finding positive meaning in a hostile environment. Return to beginning

Much of our time may be spent in unpleasant activities pursuing important goals. What activities do you dread? Going to work on Mondays? Doing household chores? Being with certain people? Doing some important project that can make a difference in your career? Looking for a better job? Facing a major decision? How much of your time is wasted dreading the future?

You may spend most of your unpleasant time pursuing important goals such as working, doing chores, commuting, caring for children, or obtaining a college degree. You may assume that these tasks must remain unpleasant. You may believe that you have an "innate" dislike of paperwork, doing the dishes, confronting people, studying math, going to meetings, or commuting. All of these activities may be important in order to meet important goals, but you do not need to feel unhappy while you are doing them.

The first step to convert these unpleasant activities into more pleasant ones is to realize that these feelings are not innate or unchangeable. Being closer to harmonious functioning immediately increases our enjoyment of the activity.

We can get "into the zone" for any activity.  At one time I didn't look forward to seeing certain clients, because I was not feeling as interested or challenged by what they were saying. I used to think that it was because I had seen too many clients with that type of problem. Now I realize that it is my responsibility to maintain my own interest, and that my own interest is a good predictor of progress in therapy.

My boredom is a red flag that something is wrong with what is happening in the counseling session. For example, I had a client who talked about her problems with her family one week, her problems with school the next, and something else the next. Yet it didn't seem that any of these particular problems were much of a problem for her. She was handling them all fairly well, and the sessions were "ho hum." I was not looking forward to seeing her, because it seemed our time was not productive.

In the past I probably would have continued focusing on these "minor" problems. However, I no longer do that. Now I look for a fresh approach. I told her I was feeling that something was wrong. I asked if she was really very upset about these problems. She said that these problems weren't really bothering her very much, but that something was bothering her and she didn't know what it was.

She had only been talking about these more "minor" problems, because she had assumed they were the source of her unhappiness. So it was her unhappiness with her life that had brought her into therapy, not any of these "minor" problems.

That insight may seem small, but it was important and led to an entirely new direction in therapy which we both suddenly became fascinated with. Her life lacked direction and meaning. She was having a great deal of inner conflict between wanting a life focused upon inner peace and happiness versus a life focused upon success, money, getting married, and having a family. Progress in resolving that underlying conflict helped her feel more inner peace and confidence in all of the situations she had formerly been discussing.

This "breakthrough" began because I took responsibility to convert my own feelings of boredom into feelings of interest (and not blame the client for my feelings).Return to beginning

Adjusting involvement, challenge, and complexity of the activity adjusts emotions. I first learned several mental control methods while working with students who were trying to improve their academic performance. Their main goal was to improve their motivation, memory, and grades. We learned that the best way to improve all three was getting out of the zones of confusion or boredom and into the zone of harmonious functioning.

As a by-product of using techniques to get more mentally involved in the content and understand it at a deeper level, I witnessed many students who had "hated" a certain class become genuinely interested in it. The class did not change, the students changed. They became much more mentally involved in the class.

These students learned to use their "inner observer" to monitor their emotions. If they felt highly interested, they were in the zone of harmonious functioning and maximizing their learning. If they felt too confused or anxious, they would use methods to get more understanding.

If they felt too bored, they would use methods to increase the involvement, challenge, or complexity of the studying. Thus it is almost as if they were adjusting a thermostat to keep their interest (and therefore their learning) in the zone.

We can either replace or convert the situation we are involved in to change our emotions. Sometimes the best solution is to replace it with one we like better. More often, the best solution is to accept the situation we are in and convert our emotional reaction into a more positive one. Harmonious Functioning mental control strategies 2-6 stress converting our reactions to a situation. Methods 2-6 give us the tools increase internal control and self-esteem. You will be able to say,

No longer is the situation master of my emotions,
am master of my emotions.


PRACTICE: Practice accepting and converting situations or activities. (1) List at least three very unpleasant, boring, or stressful situations (or activities) that you will probably have to endure in the future. (2) What thoughts have you had in the past during the situations? (3) What negative thoughts have you had about the situations? (4) List alternative thoughts that will help you accept the situations with a more positive attitude (find "meaning" in them). (5) List interesting thoughts you can have during the situation.

SUMMARY: Mental Control Strategy 1: CHOICE,
No matter how bad the situation, you always have a choice.
The first choice is to replace the situation or to accept and convert it.
Consider replacing unpleasant situations.
Make a creative list of alternatives.
Otherwise, accept and convert the situation.
Even if you cannot change the situation (or don't choose to),
you still have choices.
You can choose to look at the situation negatively and
keep thinking boring or stressful thoughts--like most people would.
Or, you can be like Victor Frankl,
and choose to find meaning and interesting thoughts.
Strategies 2-6 tell how to convert it. In short,
do what you enjoy
or enjoy what you do!
Return to beginning
Go to next section of Chapter 8

The BOOK (free download): Go to Contents of Dr. Stevens'  book,  You Can Choose To Be Happy: "Rise Above" Anxiety, Anger, and Depression.

FREE SELF-HELP materials available on this web site (click here to see list)  

  How to ORDER You Can Choose To Be Happy  

Success and Happiness Attributes Questionnaire (SHAQ)  to assess self on many factors  including HQ-Happiness Quotient 

Email feedback to Dr. Stevens I welcome your comments about my web site or any of its contents.           

Self-Help and other resources on this website (and site map)

Web site created and maintained by: Tom G. Stevens PhD Psychologist-Faculty Emeritus,
California State University, Long Beach Counseling and Psychological Services.
URL of this web site:

Return to Dr. Stevens' Home Page

Copyright 2021 Tom G. Stevens PhD