The past six months have been a bit of a roller-coaster. I completed my Master’s Degree, then got downsized from my job of 11 years. I found a new job, but had to temporarily leave my family behind in another state in order to begin work. Fortunately, every down has had its up, but it has truly been emotionally draining and I have found it difficult to relax and set my mind to doing anything – even the things I love to do – which is why this blog has been somewhat neglected over the past few months. Why is it during those times we most need to be kind to ourselves, we seem least able to do so?
The depressive or anxious brain has many less-than-useful talents. One is an ability to sense inability in nearly any situation. When the unexpected bad happens, our lives become a bit like the broken horse on a merry-go-round – we feel stuck while life continues to spin on around us. We start to forget we have choices because we are so focused on our problems we can’t see the various paths ahead for us to choose from. When this happens, we allow our troubles to drive us forward rather than our strength and ideas. Worry can quickly become a habit if we allow it to take over too much territory in the brain.
Another not-so-useful skill is the brain’s ability to take the energy we need for dealing with the issue at hand and diverting it into a hurtful self-assault. Instead of attacking our problems, we attack ourselves with thoughts like, “I should’ve known this would happen”, “I deserve this”, “I’m such an idiot” and more. This negative self-talk can be debilitating. It simultaneously fuels our depression while halting our effectiveness.
In order to silence the naysayer of the brain, we need to be able to recognize negative self-talk as soon as it begins, then be ready with our counter-attack. This is where some thought-stopping or thought-delaying techniques can come in handy. Thought-stopping is useful when you are trying to stop a particular train of thought or eliminate a harmful thinking pattern. Thought-delaying is helpful when you are trying to rest, relax, or focus but your thoughts won’t let you.
Suppose you have recently gone through a painful breakup and find yourself thinking about your “ex” morning, noon, and night – or perhaps you are trying to give up a bad habit or addiction. First, select a personal happy place such as a quiet beach, flowery meadow, or peaceful woods — whatever image calms you or makes you smile. The next time unwanted obsessive or recurring thoughts arise, imagine flipping a switch in your head. Imagine you are turning off the power to the unwanted thoughts and turn on thoughts of your happy place. Sometimes it is helpful to even say “no” to yourself when you want to stop the intrusive thoughts. This thought-stopping method empowers you by interrupting the unwanted train of thought and replacing it with something positive.
If you’ve ever rested your head on the pillow at night, only to have your mind catapult itself into a hundred different things to worry about, try using a thought-delaying technique. Start by keeping a pen or pencil and some paper near the bed. At the top of the page, write “For Tomorrow” and as each worry comes, write it down and say to the thought “I’ll deal with you tomorrow”. This little exercise prioritizes your thoughts (“rest now, worry later”) while providing reassurance you won’t forget about these things because you have written them down. Some of our problems are absolutely legitimate and real, but sometimes – particularly in times of stress – minor issues feel and appear worse than they really are. Thought-delaying may take some practice, but after trying it a few times you are likely to find when the new day begins, some of the previous night’s worries are far less overwhelming.