Being grumpy… a choice?

My first inking that something was amiss came when I couldn’t find the document I needed… I knew it was amongst the pile of papers that I’d carefully placed in a safe place somewhere on my cluttered desk. At the time I was on was my fourteenth call of the day, to the fourth time zone and things weren’t exactly going according to plan… well, not according to my plan.

At about 4:00pm my tummy growled at me and I realized that I’d skipped lunch again.

Next, as I climbed into my new car to drive home, I noticed that less than a month old, it had evolved from being my prized new toy into a messy vehicle.

When I got home and my dogs weren’t all that interested in saying “hi” and finding out how my day had gone, I knew that I was in trouble. I couldn’t really blame them – I was grumpy and I wouldn’t have been real excited to see or wanted to play with me either.

Being a motivational speaker and self proclaimed expert when it comes to the phenomenon of mood and mood management, particularly in the face of life not working out exactly the way I want it to or think it should :-) I’ve learned that regardless of whatever’s going on in my life, if I get triggered and go to the dark side (aka start acting like a victim, heroically suffering, becoming intransigent etc.) life isn’t going to be anywhere near as fun or pleasant an experience as it is when I can find a way to stay out of my own way and dance through life in a good/positive/productive mood.

I used to subscribe to the Suck it up Princess Approach to Mood Management. I assumed that with strength of character, willpower, a stiff upper lip and enough commitment, that I – and everyone else – should just be able to pull it together and move from the dark side back into the light at will. Conceptually this was a great idea, albeit somewhat naïve given that to assume that we all have this God given natural capacity to pull ourselves together instantaneously at will, would be to ignore the physiology (including the neurology, psychology, and endocrinology) associated with moods and mood management.

So a few years ago I embarked upon a mission to understand the phenomenon of what’s going on inside our bodies whenever we get stressed. I discovered that there’s nothing simple about how the mind and body work… infact the biochemistry and physiology is amazingly complex and can be quite interesting. Having discovered some of the how and why our bodies react the way they do when things don’t go our way – I became intrigued with finding ways to effectively intervene when I got stressed. What I learnt was:

  1. First (and obvious), when things don’t go the way I want them to, I have an emotional response… usually something along the lines of “Oh crikey!”
  2. Next, my stress (aka fight-or-flight) response kicks in. This causes, to some degree or another, numerous physical reactions. My respiratory rate increases. Blood is diverted from my digestive tract to my muscles and limbs, which require extra energy for running or fighting. At the same time, my pupils dilate, sight becomes more focused, awareness intensifies, impulses quicken, and pain threshold heightens. My perception of time seems to slow down and I prepare myself—physically and psychologically—to fight or flee. This heightened state of fear and awareness causes me to think irrationally, perceiving (to some degree or another) almost everything around me as a possible threat or enemy. In this fight or flight mentality, it’s almost impossible to adopt a productive mood, explore possibilities, trust others, or make sound and coherent choices. In this state, my ability to be creative and to come up with options or alternatives is diminished; I’m more rigid, less resilient, and focused on short-term survival, not long-term consequences. For as long as I’m oblivious to everything that’s going on in my body and mind, it’s really easy for me to get caught up in whatever drama I’m experiencing and any accompanying unproductive moods (some of my usual suspects can include being overwhelmed, grumpy, resigned, resentful, arrogant, cynical, heroically suffering etc.)
  3. Next, a while later, I become aware of all this – that’s the point where I begin to have the opportunity to change things.
  4. If I take a few (deep) breaths, I can feel myself becoming more relaxed and present… the adrenaline and all the other neurochemicals coursing around my brain begin to settle down and I begin recalibrating my central nervous system. The urgency and/or anxiety that I was feeling begins to dissipate and I’m able to remind myself that I have a choice as to how I respond to any situation.

What I find empowering about this wonderfully simple understanding is knowing that whenever I’m stressed, at some point in time, I’m going to be able to get out of my own way; I’m going to have the opportunity to come up with a new story that will enable me to move out of the stressful narrative I was caught up in and into a more productive place where I have an expanded set of choices. At that point in time I can choose the mood I want to adopt. The important thing to note is that at that stage, I’m in a place where I’m aware of what’s going on in and around me and the neurochemicals aren’t controlling my reactions, I am.

So, back to me getting home and becoming aware that my dogs weren’t all that interested in saying “hi” and finding out how my day had gone. The first thing I did was to take a few deep breaths. Feeling myself relax and becoming aware of my mind clearing, I soon found myself considering how the features of my life (messy desk, forgetting to eat, lack of appreciation etc.) are typically a direct reflection of the state of my spiritual (not religious) conditioning and that my spiritual conditioning is directly related to how rigorous I am with my practices. I reflected on my daily practices:

  1. Was I getting 8 hours of sleep a night? Nope.
  2. Was I eating healthily? For the most part.
  3. How about exercise? More often than not.
  4. Prayer, meditation and attention training? Not so good. (No wonder it had taken me so long to become aware of my stress)
  5. Spending 2 minutes each morning journaling whatever it is that I’m grateful for and by 10:30am expressing (e-mailing, calling or face-to-face) my appreciation to someone? Nope… that’d fallen by the wayside of late.
At least now I had some inkling as to why it had taken me so long to become aware of and to do something about the stress my mind, my brain and the rest of my body had been dealing with throughout the day.

Update: 4 days later:

When I got home tonight, my dogs rushed up to say “hi” and find out how my day had gone. It probably shouldn’t… but it continues to amaze me, that when I take the time to be healthy, present and grateful, that I’m less likely to get caught up in the unproductive moods that can intrude  upon my days — and that even when I do take brief forays to the dark side, I seem to become aware of it much sooner and can quickly return to the light. Being grumpy clearly becomes a choice.

Life is good!


Success simplified; lessons learned down a hippo's throat. Speaker, Author, Coach who will parachute in when traditional solutions won’t get it done.

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  1. GREAT information, Paul, on exactly what happens to put us in that unhappy place, what is going on with us physiologically – AND how to get out of it!  Excellent stuff!

  2. So true, so true, Paul.  One of my favorite authorities on the subject of breath control, Dr. Andrew Weil, has written; “You cannot always center yourself emotionally by an act of will, but you can use your voluntary nerves to make your breathing slow, deep, quiet and regular, and the rest will follow.”  Your great information has inspired me to write a blog on the health benefits of conscious breathing. Thanks for the inspiration! 

  3. Thanks for your honesty Paul.  I think choice is a very powerful word – we choose all day and your blog reminds me of the healthier choices I can make.  P.S. I like your dog.

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