‘Broaden-and-Build’ Theory: Upward Spirals of Coping

how to cope the stress of lockdown

Positive psychology, unlike traditional psychology, focuses a lot more on the well-being of a person, not just the absence of diseases and disorders. Considering that the world is in 2 corona virus crises – mental health & social health – it is important to focus on the quality of life over and above health.

If you’re looking for some expert speak on what is positive psychology, then bookmark this page: What Is Positive Psychology?

For doing that, let’s dive into the Broaden-and-Build Theory from positive psychology.


Broaden-and-Build Theory (BBT) of Positive Emotions

When we experience positive emotions, it broadens our perspective to generate novel thoughts and creative insights, and improves the scope of our relationships. It also helps us build skills, gain knowledge as well as develop social and mental resources like resilience, social support, and optimism.

The broadening effect of positive emotions make us more open to a larger range of thoughts. The outcome of this “broadening” & “building” is increased well-being, personal growth, better social relationships, improved physical health, and an improved quality of life.

This, in turn, generates new positive emotions which continue the cycle of broadening & building. Positive emotions serve an adaptive function of survival by broadening our attention and liquefying our resources.

Dr. Barbara Fredrikson, who conceptualized this theory, calls it the “Upward Spiral” because positive emotions increasingly expand mental aspects and build resources which improve well-being. That reignites positive emotions that further broaden the mental repertoire and improve resources that ultimately lead to contentment. The cycle goes on.

Broaden Build Theory Pic
Broaden Build Theory Pic (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

However, right after contentment comes a tricky emotion – boredom.

Boredom fuels the “downward spiral” of negative emotions. After boredom, negative emotions like pessimism and frustration create stress, color our thoughts with negativity, fuel anger and insecurity which narrow resources and ultimately create the lowest states of well-being characterized by powerlessness, depression, hopelessness, and crippling fear.

It’s a state with limited mental resources; or commonly known as having no “energy” to focus or do anything. Boredom connects the 2 spirals.

So how you deal with emotions around boredom determines which spiral you climb on.

Can you tolerate boredom and find a way to experience positive emotions? Or does boredom begin a chain of unfulfilling events in life?


How Does The Broaden-and-Build Theory Apply To Lockdown

People speak about boredom. That’s the mid-point. Some people do activities that generate positive emotions and spend their time in a fairly satisfying way.

One common example of the broaden & build theory is baking bread at home.

You may have wondered why so many people have taken to baking. It reflects food security, it gives rise to a sense of creation, and a sense of mastery. The instructions are easy enough, the process takes time, but it’s hardly boring.

The initial mental state to begin baking is not difficult to achieve. The comforting nature of baking bread is enough to fuel the upward spiral, and the physical resources (ingredients) needed are few. That’s an opportunity to begin and the process itself is a “broadened skill” for many.

Perhaps the initial emotional trigger for baking is the fear of scarcity and food insecurity, and lack of control.

But why baking bread? That’s a good question and let’s answer it in 4 steps.


Four Steps To Join The Upward Spiral And Then Continue

  1. Positive emotions: The idea of making your own food creates positive emotions about security, control, and survival.
  2. Broadening: That broadens our perspective, we then think of baking – a simple, attractive activity. Instructions are simple, it consumes time, and the ingredients are usually available.
  3. Building: Once we begin, boredom is replaced with a complete sensory immersion. We tell others, we share it on social media, we feel good working.
  4. Contentment & fulfillment: Whatever the outcome is, the process creates a sense of satisfaction, a highly desirable positive emotion.

Not everyone considers baking as a wholesome activity, some aren’t aware of it. That’s where emotional contagion plays a role. We see photos on social media and that triggers the first positive emotion in the 4 steps.

Emotional contagion is the spread of emotions between people by observing them. Social media tends to amplify them and that builds the trend.

[Do your Facebook friends make you happy, or do they reduce your joy?]

Of course, baking isn’t the only option. Some can have a broaden & build approach with pets or musical instruments. Any hobby for that matter. Zoom parties, online games, new social dynamics can all be events that take place during an upward spiral. People who begin the upward spiral tend to stay on it until they are bored again.

Quite often, not gaining complete satisfaction and doing a “broaden & build” routine with many activities can sustain moderate well-being because there is no opportunity to reach a post-contentment state of boredom. But when that does happen, we see negative behaviors such as obsessing over Covid-19 theories.

Pessimism about the world can narrow our attention to focus on just the negative aspects and deplete our mental resources to stay calm. Depleted resources can bleed into interpersonal relationships due to the lack of inhibition (inhibition & restraint need resources).

Rewards can be tricky, they may reinforce the downward spiral and the upward spiral. Watching a lot of porn and wasting a lot of money on online gambling could be events that are sustained during a downward spiral and reinforced by rewards.

Before you start the upward spiral, you should ensure two things:

  1. Make a few lifestyle adjustments so negative scenarios do not burden your mind too much.
  2. Maintain a baseline level of well-being where positive emotions and new thoughts have an opportunity to thrive.

Let’s look at those first.


How To Use Broaden-and-Build To Cope With Stress: 10 Strategies

The Covid-19 pandemic has placed us under a lot of uncertain and stressful conditions. The following reminders will help you have a healthy balance of positive and negative emotions without being overwhelmed by any.

And a balance of emotions is an ideal state to begin a broaden-and-build journey.

  1. News: Limit Covid-19 news. Everything you need to know can be known in just 5–10 minutes. Anything beyond that is just going to unnecessarily occupy your mental space with news that doesn’t affect you. If constant pandemic news is a new habit hobby you grew, ask yourself: Why? Do I even like it? Is it affecting me positively?
  2. Control: Focus on what you can control, not what is beyond your control. Worry about things you can control, that way you can do something about it.
  3. Abuse: Seek immediate online help if you are experiencing any form of abuse and toxicity at home. People are stuck with people and that creates an opportunity for aggravating negativity. It is also an opportunity for predators to take advantage of your vulnerability.
  4. Productivity: Don’t feel obligated to be the most productive person on the planet. It is not compulsory. It is also ok to feel bored or have nothing valuable to do. You’ll learn to tolerate the new balance of boredom, fun, and productivity. Begin small.
  5. Guilt: Don’t feel guilty for not making the most of your time. These are hard times for many and in spite of what memes say, nothing is wrong with you if you are leading a normal life and not learning 29437 new skills. Especially if that is all you can handle.
  6. Loneliness: There are ways to feel slightly better if your loneliness is crippling you – have a warm bath, sleep with a blanket, video call, have random conversations, wear clothes which make you feel secure. Loneliness is complex, but aloneliness (yes, that’s a word) makes things more complicated because you may be stuck with people who you cannot get away from.
  7. Physical activity: Move in whatever capacity you can. Exercise, stretch, yoga, breathing, etc. It’s for your baseline health.
  8. Basics: Food, Sleep, personal hygiene, and home hygiene are fundamentals you shouldn’t ignore.
  9. Conflict: Personal conflict might feel “exciting” to some. Remember – those who are already fragile may be at their breaking point right now. Those who were previously healthy, may be in a fragile state.
  10. Rewards: Be proud of surviving. Create a reward for yourself, even if it is a token, to show some self-love.

For you to employ this approach, it is important to snap out of the downward spiral.

For that, here below are some recommendations to snap out of anger. It is one of the deeper emotions you feel in the spiral. Ideally, most people can function well enough with other emotions in the downward spiral – frustration, stress, doubt, worry, etc.


How To Use Broaden-and-Build To Get Over Anger & Hate: 10 Strategies

What should you do if you are fuming with anger and experiencing hate?

The following tips are ideal when you are already in the downward spiral and experiencing a lot of negative emotions. Feeling frequent anger is a sign of being in the downward spiral enough to stay there. Snapping out of anger and the downward spiral can help you reset.

These are 10 ways to exit the downward spiral at the pit-stop called anger.

  1. First of all, withdraw yourself from the situation. If you have to, announce you will return after you have calmed down.
  2. Wash your face, brush your teeth, change your clothes, stretch your body as a diversion from your thoughts.
  3. Use the 4–7–8 breathing technique: Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7, exhale for 8. Doing this a few times is enough. Regular deep breathing is also fine if this is too hard. Try a 3–6–5. Use a timer and watch the seconds increase. Focus on the time.
  4. Use the 5–4–3–2–1 sensory grounding mindfulness technique. Notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste. Use this to snap out of it.
  5. Listen to music, close your eyes, and get into the groove. Of all possible things we can do, only music has the power to regulate every aspect of our body and mind.
  6. Don’t vent. Don’t try to “let it out.” Don’t try to release your anger through aggressive actions. Those things usually amplify your anger, not reduce it. Catharsis is often not the solution, nor is venting on social media. However, honest conversations about it can help.
  7. Dance or exercise. Do any activity that disconnects your body from your mind. Anger is a complex emotion built out of simple aggressive and intimidation “stances” – tightening of muscles, closing of fists, locking eyes, clenched jaws, etc. Disconnecting the body by exercising or dancing changes the feedback to your brain and modifies the emotional state.
  8. If you must express your anger to resolve it, do it after a time-out. Choose a later time – say 30 minutes later. That way you will express it in a different way than you would have, usually it’ll be less intense.
  9. Focus on what is behind the anger & fear – is there any insecurity, disappointment, personal problem, is some other issue being misdirected as anger?
  10. If you are generally angry, think about what you do not want to lose because anger can strain all sorts of relationships, compromise physical health, mental health, reduce productivity, and even reduce self-respect and others’ respect for you, etc. Focus on what you value in those, even if it is very very hard for you to see in the moment. Don’t stop until you see it.

By the way, what’s the best creative way to control anger – this?


Final Words

The broaden and build theory of positive emotions describes how positive emotions broaden our thoughts and behaviors and help us build social, mental, and physical resources. This means our perspective broadens and we build better relationships, coping mechanisms, and improve our health. Ultimately, that leads to an improved quality of life.

10 Tips For Building Resilience

Our life in the lockdown is different from what we are used to and prepared for. To deal with the stress and fear, you can kick-start a fulfilling life with a few positive emotions. Between a spiral toward happiness and a spiral toward fear and misery, there is boredom – the critical point which is neither an upward spiral or a downward spiral.

How you cope and what you do determines where boredom takes you – happiness or misery.

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Author Bio: Aditya Shukla is an applied psychologist from Pune, India; most renowned as the creator of Cognition Today – a website that explores the inner workings of the mind. He is less known for his ability to create soundless whistles. Some of them can last 10 minutes.


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