Fog in Your Throat?

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Photo by Rory Björkman on Unsplash

There are many behavioral symptoms of depression such as isolating, neglecting one’s personal hygiene, undereating or overeating, and more.  These symptoms are fairly easy to conceal and frequently go unnoticed by others.  One of the noticeable symptoms (and a costly one) is negative speech.  Our depressive behaviors can become habits if we aren’t careful.

Negative speech can set off a cycle of rejection and isolation.  Friends or family members may try to coax us out of our depression by pressing us to talk about our feelings, but are completely unprepared for our response.  These snap out of it people are usually well-meaning, but have no idea of the depths to which depression takes our thinking or how difficult the climb back up can be.  They simply don’t get it, and we then end up on the receiving end of comments like, “Don’t be such a downer” or “I can’t be around you when you are like this” or “Why don’t you just stop feeling sorry for yourself?”

They make it sound so simple — why don’t we stop?  As painful as these remarks may seem at the time, there is actually a clue to escaping negativity in them.  At the root of our negative speech problem is depression hovering around us like a fog, clouding both our anticipation of the future and our interpretation of the past.  People who love us say, “Count your blessings.  Look at what you’ve accomplished!”  The brain fog lies to us and whispers, “You’ve never accomplished anything and never will.”  And we believe it.

When we believe the lie, our ability to expect good things diminishes.  The happy times of our past are distorted as we inventory each and every little flaw throughout our life’s history.  The fog filters our thoughts, and the words we say reflect our foggy brain filter.  The people who care about us don’t understand our responses, and leave us to ourselves until we are “better.”  We end up feeling isolated when we desperately need connection.

Battling depression requires energy at a time when we have none.  This is why it is important to prepare for the next valley when you are on the current hilltop.  In other words, when you are feeling good, channel that momentum to push you through the next rough patch.  Begin by acknowledging your accomplishments – no matter how insignificant.

Dr. Seuss said, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”  The same can be said for accomplishments.  If you’ve been in a fog for a long time, admitting you actually DO have some accomplishments may feel a little weird, but do it anyway.  Write down everything, from “I got out of bed this morning” to “I got that promotion.”  If you find you are censoring yourself or are in a valley right now, ask for help from somebody who knows you.  BUT – and this is important: Don’t censor THEM, either.  Just write everything down in a journal or notebook and keep it handy.  Two things will happen if you do.

First, simply writing down three accomplishments each day will lift the fog.  Our thoughts generate chemical reactions in our brain, and these reactions generate physical sensations.  Some of us have brains with low activity in the positive-feeling areas, and high activity in the negative-feeling areas.  Writing down three accomplishments each day forces positive chemical reactions.  In other words, you are exercising the positive-feeling area of the brain, making it stronger and more active.

Second, if you encounter another bout of depression, you can refer back to your list of accomplishments.  It’s a reminder of what you CAN DO and have done – PROOF that you are capable of doing things, even when your brain is shrouded in fog.  You are also setting off those little positive chemical reactions in the brain every time you read your list.  Update it daily.  FILL A NOTEBOOK with accomplishments, big and small.  Use it to chase away the fog so you can see your life and yourself in a positive light.

 

Failure? You May Be Mistaken

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Do you call yourself a failure when you make a mistakeMistakes are typically made because of an error in judgment, or because we lack certain information or a particular skill.  These are valuable life lessons, bringing to light areas in our lives where we need to educate ourselves or make little self-improvements.  Unfortunately, many of us develop a habit of interpreting mistakes as something much worse — an indicator there is something wrong with us.

For people with depression or anxiety, this misinterpretation comes easily.  The depressive brain channels practically every event through a filter of negativity, painting our lives in a humdrum hue.  Mistakes seem catastrophic, and the towel is quickly thrown in.  There are some key differences between mistakes and failures, and learning to recognize them can help you reclaim lost self-esteem and avoid worsening symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Door Opened, Door Closed

Imagine your mistakes as open doors – opportunities to learn.  For instance, when we take up a new hobby or start a new job, we are likely to screw something up at least once.  This is commonly known as the learning curve, but it becomes a show-stopper for many of us.  Our brain processes the screw-up through its negativity filter and we receive an “I’m just not cut out for this” message.  In most cases, the error is nothing more than a lack of information or practice.  As we persist — we improve — and eventually those early mistakes become part of the distant past.

Now, there ARE times where we really are NOT cut out for something.  If American Idol has taught us anything, it’s that not everyone is cut out to be a rock star.  That’s not to say we shouldn’t try new things or pursue a dream, but rather, in chasing our dreams we must also be willing to see and accept reality.  Not doing so can lead to despair.  Failures – like mistakes – are also a learning tool.  Failure is a closed door – an ending to our journey down a wrong path.  Although painful, failure sometimes protects us from our own self-destructive ways by telling us, “Don’t do that again.”

This don’t do it again message is why it is so important to separate our mistakes – which are many – from true failures, which are actually quite rare.  The band Genesis did a song called “Misunderstanding” which helps to illustrate the difference.  It’s basically the story of a man who misreads the signals of a woman he is romantically interested in.  This is the mistake part.  The opportunity here (or open door) is for him to become more self-aware and communicative to ensure he is receiving other’s messages clearly and not projecting his own feelings onto them.  When he realizes she is already in a relationship, this is a door closed – a signal to move on.  In other words, he can learn from the mistake and try again — this time as a better communicator — but in another relationship.

Sometimes, as in “Misunderstanding”, our mistakes DO lead to failure.  However, the mistakes we learn from are the ones which lead to great successes.  We are going to make mistakes throughout our lifetime – lots of them.  It is in overcoming the “I’m a failure” mindset and learning to live with and learn from our mistakes that we can restore peace of mind and experience new and wonderful things.

 

Eruptors and Internalizers

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Photo by LBoatwright

Depression is frequently described as anger turned inward.  The opposite can also be true; anger is often depression turned outward.  We express anger in any number of ways, but when we don’t know how to handle our anger in a healthy, productive manner, we risk over-expressing or under-expressing ourselves, never really bringing issues which matter to light.  In both cases, there is an effort being made – whether consciously or not – to avoid dealing with something

We’ve probably all encountered somebody who is seemingly angry all the time.  They appear to erupt at the slightest thing, and we walk on eggshells in order to avoid a blast.  We may even attempt to help them get to the root of the problem.  As they swear and slam things we ask, “What are you angry about? Let’s talk about it.”  We receive a puzzling response as the angry person angrily yells, “I’M NOT ANGRY!”  Alrighty, then.

At the other end of the spectrum is the person who swallows their anger in an attempt to deny it.  Their behavior is more subtle as they wage a sort of passive-aggressive battle of neglecting little chores or errands, arguing with the target of their “non-anger” in their head, and/or frequently feeling unwell.  The truth is, they probably do feel unwell – repression is a known contributor to headaches, nausea, anxiety, and other maladies.  The truth is also this; this person is also angrily yelling “I’M NOT ANGRY!”…just not out loud.

People become eruptors or internalizers because of a perceived lack of control.  The eruptor regains control by instilling fear in others, thus enabling them to avoid – essentially — everything they want to avoid.  The internalizer regains control through omission, thinking, “You’ll get a little taste of what it would be like without me, then you’ll be sorry.”  Unfortunately, the other person is rarely sorry and even more rarely notices the internalizer is unhappy.

Anger isolates, whether it is us avoiding a volatile person or a person quietly isolating themselves to avoid becoming a volatile person.  Sadly, neither of these people has actually regained control.  They haven’t empowered themselves, but rather simply found a way to retreat to their corner without losing face.  The underlying issues are still out there, still not dealt with, and on top of them are daily fresh layers of anger and avoidance, wedging more divide in relationships and more despair to the psyche.

Some anger is healthy and warranted, but all too frequently it becomes a conditioned response for those who aren’t sure how to process or express certain emotions.  Anger provides the illusion of a “quick fix” much like drugs to an addict.  It abruptly ends an unwanted or uncomfortable conversation or situation, but wounds everyone in its path.

Angry YOU

Are you an eruptor?  An internalizer?  If so, you can learn healthier ways of dealing with your anger.  First, try tracking your angry feelings for a few weeks.  Rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being “I totally flipped out!”  For each, write down the event which made you feel angry.  Next, begin listing healthier ways you could have dealt with each situation and begin putting these into practice.  For instance, many people need to unwind when they get home from work, which means this is a less-than-ideal time for serious conversations.  If someone approaches you as soon as you walk in the door, politely tell the other person, “This sounds important — give me an hour to decompress from work so I can give you my full attention.”  Then do it.  Be very present in that conversation in order to build trust and prove the value of grabbing a little downtime for yourself.  There is always a chance the other person won’t cooperate with this request, but the point is to monitor your own anger responses so that even when you are pressed, you can still conduct your side of the conversation in a productive manner.

Angry OTHERS

Living with an eruptor or internalizer can be difficult because anger frequently masks their real feelings, making honest communication difficult.  It is fruitless to try and change someone else’s behavior, particularly if they don’t actually want to change it.  Instead, you may have to change the way you process their behavior and try out different ways of communicating until you find ones which work.

Some people are not comfortable talking or even thinking about their feelings.  If you are committed to a relationship with such a person, it may be helpful to process for yourself which issues actually require their input.  For instance, if you are wanting to talk about your own feelings, you should be prepared for a bumpy ride – especially if the gist of the conversation is “you made me feel like this”.  When a person doesn’t understand their own feelings, they are equally unlikely to understand yours or how their actions played a role in the way you feel.  Your angry person may never be a great communicator, but you CAN be.  Learn to process your own anger in healthy ways to reduce your own stress levels, improve your physical health, and restore a little peace to the environment.

A Potential Problem

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Photo by L Boatwright

“James” is a Billy Joel song from the 70s.  It’s the story of childhood friends, one who fulfilled his own dreams and another who tried fulfilling everyone else’s.  Has anybody ever told you that you weren’t living up to your potential?  (Don’t you just hate that?) There are always areas in our life where we could stand a little improvement, but there is a difference between self-improvement and living up to potential.

Self-improvement is self-driven – we identify an area of improvement within ourselves and set about changing our thoughts and behaviors in order to improve in that area.  Our potential is rarely up to us, but rather is told to us by other people.  In other words, we are expected to meet somebody else’s expectations.

Very often, there is a mixed message here – one which fuels frustration and depression for many.  It starts in childhood, sometimes with comparisons such as why can’t you get good grades like your brother or you should try to be sweet like your sister.  The comparisons continue into adolescence and adulthood.  So-and-so’s kid is going to school to be a doctor — when are you going to do something with your life? or When I was your age I was already married – when are you going to settle down?  Regardless of the comparison, the implication is we are not good enough because we aren’t…well…somebody else.  The comparisons frequently come with a confusing and contradictory I love you the way you are…now please change the way you are type of message.

We learn early on to compare ourselves to others and in doing so frequently find we are falling short.  We begin to feel less than and dissatisfied, constantly pressuring ourselves to keep doing until we are good enough, then never believing we are good enough.  How then can we avoid the trap of perpetual potential?  Start by examining motives – yours and those of the people you feel are pressuring you.

You can determine your own motives by asking if the expectation you have put on yourself is truly self-driven and self-realized, or if you are simply trying to please somebody else.  If the purpose is rooted in ‘self’, then ask yourself is this something I actually wish for myself, or is it based on my own comparison of myself to somebody else?  Keep in mind, it is one thing to respect a particular quality in another person and seek to build that quality within ourselves.  However, doing so can become unhealthy when we lose sight of the area of improvement and instead begin a fruitless cycle of attempting to be more like somebody else.

Examining another person’s motives can be tricky, partially because they may not even be aware of them, or may be unwilling to admit their reasons for them.  One question worth answering is: is this something they wanted to achieve themselves?  People will often project their own unrealized hopes and dreams onto those around them in an effort to vicariously enjoy the experience they themselves missed out on.  Also, ask yourself if the other person’s expectation matches your own self-improvement goal.

Sometimes it won’t.  When that happens, you may try explaining why that particular goal doesn’t fit into your current plans.  But, let’s face it, some people cannot take “no” for an answer, especially if they think they are “helping you” into being a better whatever.  In those cases — particularly where the person keeps pressuring and pressing those depression and low self-worth buttons in your brain – you may want to consider ending the relationship.  In cases where you are stuck with the person, you might do your best to avoid the subject or quickly change it should they bring the topic up.

The bottom line is, when we try to live up to someone else’s idea of our potential, we will most likely find ourselves feeling inadequate and unfulfilled.  Identify your own idea of potential, set your own goals, and then go for them.  If somebody else’s expectations match yours, hooray!  When they don’t align, try not to sacrifice your own peace of mind by worrying about whether or not you will ever fulfill – in the words of Billy Joel – “…someone else’s dream of who you are.”

 

 

From Rumination to Resilience

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Photo by LBoatwright

Some people in this world are amazingly emotionally resilient.  They appear to bounce back from failures, criticisms, and rejections with very few psychological scars.  At the other end of the human spectrum are those who seem to absorb every hurtful word and experience, frequently ruminating over the worst moments of their lives like a bad news reel.  I have always envied the resilient ones, often finding myself at the receiving end of their well-meaning “just snap out of it” advice, and just as often wondering why I couldn’t just snap out of it.

Rumination – like resilience – lives in the brain, and most people are born predisposed to one or the other.  For some, the negative-thinking centers of the brain are stuck in “on” mode, sometimes from early childhood.  This can be caused by a combination of an overactive basal ganglia – which control’s the brain’s “idling speed” and dysfunction of the limbic system – which controls mood.  In other words, some brains get stuck in negativity and then rev up the engine on self-destructive thinking.  These people are at high risk for anxiety, stress, isolating, and other depressive disorders.

Why Do We Ruminate?

Negative thoughts are unannounced, intrusive guests.  They seem to pop up out of nowhere – little flashbacks – bits and pieces of events we wish we could forget.  All too frequently, rather than dismiss these memories as the annoying little ANT’s they are (Automatic Negative Thoughts), we dwell on them.  In some cases, we lie to ourselves, believing we are mentally revisiting the event in order to learn from it and avoid a similar disaster in the future.  In truth, we are wishing we could go back and change the past.  These flashbacks are loaded with “if onlys” – if only I had said this, if only I had walked away from it, if only I hadn’t done that.  We dwell on them out of a need to self-punish.  While it is true there are consequences for any action, self-punishment typically extends far beyond any actual consequences.  We do it because at our core something tells us we deserve whatever happened, we deserve to be unhappy, or we are undeserving of second chances or brighter days.

How Can Ruminators Become Resilient?

The key to conquering rumination lies in learning to practice emotional health, and practicing deliberate diversion.  Pay close attention to your thoughts and recognize those which are attached to negative feelings and thinking patterns.  Keep in mind there is a difference between self-disciplining and self-punishing.  Be certain your brain isn’t tricking you by disguising self-punishment as discipline.  Discipline corrects, and in order to become resilient, we must correct negative thinking patterns.  Make a list of things you can do for two minutes: listen to an uplifting song, prepare a cup of tea, take a quick walk around the outside of the house, etc.  When you find yourself dwelling on past hurts, say “no!” to yourself and implement one of your two-minute diversion tactics.

More about Emotional Health

This TED Talk about Emotional First Aid by psychologist Guy Winch is one of my favorites.  In it, he explains why we should place equal importance on our physical health and emotional health.  Just two minutes is all it takes to start overcoming this pain – two minutes to begin healing both self-inflicted and others-inflicted emotional wounds.  I hope you’ll take the time to watch it, and that you find something helpful in it: https://www.ted.com/talks/guy_winch_the_case_for_emotional_hygiene

For more on ANTs, I recommend Dr. Daniel Amen’s book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.

Sometimes, Okay Really is Okay

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I recently had one of those “the whole universe hates me” mornings.  I was getting ready for work, and my dental partial snapped in half.  Do you remember Witch Hazel from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons?  That partial is the only thing which keeps me from looking like her when I walk out the front door each day.  I admit to having an almost desperate dependence on it, and when it broke, all the panic buttons in my brain went off.  Thankfully, the most important section of the partial – which, incidentally, contains one of my front teeth – was intact and I was able to go to work, sort of smile at people, and enjoy a liquid diet for the day.  Still, a lot of self-talk was required to pull myself out of panic mode, and I purposed to identify the root cause of my anxiety response.

I know there are women in this world who would have responded with laughter.  They would have walked into work, flashed a big toothless grin and said, “Witch Hazel’s in the house today!”  I pondered the difference between myself and such women, and I realized; it’s an abundance of joy vs. an abundance of shame.  You may already be familiar with the concept: guilt says I made a mistake, shame says I am a mistake.  Shame is the thing which makes us believe it is somehow wrong to accept our faults, even if they’re not, well, our fault.

I remember a rhyme which was drilled into my head during childhood:

Good, Better, Best

Never let it rest

Until your Good is Better and

Your Better is Best

I hate that rhyme.  On the surface, it may seem harmless enough and many of us have been on the receiving end of similar messaging by well-meaning people.  Ever been told if you try your hardest, you can’t fail or you can always do better?  These may seem like words of encouragement, but they carry a damning implication: If you are not the best, then you are not good enough.  Very often, this is the message received and stored in the depressive brain, and it can generate a multitude of anxieties.

There is nothing wrong with trying to better ourselves.  However, when we “never let it rest” we put an awful lot of pressure on ourselves, and risk losing the ability to accept a compliment.  The depressive brain has a glitch in its filter and filing system.  It will take an incoming signal like “you look great today” and deliver it as “I must not look great every day.  I NEED to look great EVERY day”.  We hear a, “wow, she’s lost weight” comment about somebody else and although we may nod in agreement on the outside, inside our brain is misfiling that message into an “I must look fat, I better lose weight, too” directive.  We run exhausting mind marathons, secretly competing against others as we try to have the better job, better house, better relationship, better figure, etc.  In other words, we never let it rest until we are the best.  The trouble with this is there will always be somebody who is better than us at something.  We will die trying to out-do others and ourselves in our perpetual quest for perfection.

So, where do shame and joy fit in?  Shame leads us to believe okay is never okay.  The person who has found joy has learned — sometimes, okay is okay.  Joy is the life-preserver of self-esteem.  Shame is the ultimate joy-stealer, constantly revealing to us the tiniest flaws in even the loveliest of things, and particularly in ourselves.  For instance, we see a flower and our first response is what a pretty flower.   Within moments, the joy-stealer snatches that thought and replaces it with something like there’s a petal missing.  What begins as occasional pessimism can quickly evolve into a chronic condition of dissatisfaction and self-loathing.  We become unable to appreciate the beauty within ourselves because we are so focused on our own missing petals.

Overcoming this mental misdirection can open the door to joy, but requires a willingness to be very self-aware in order to chase the joy-stealer from our brains.  Try making a point to remember your “up” thoughts, such as what a pretty flower.  When the “down” thought comes, such as there’s a petal missing, counter it immediately by combining both thoughts into one accepting thought.  The internal conversation might go something like this:

What a pretty flower.  There’s a petal missing.  What a pretty, flower – even with a missing petal.

Make a point of celebrating even your smallest victories.  For instance, instead of focusing on the week you didn’t exercise, think about the times you did exercise and know you can do it again.  Write them down in a journal somewhere.  Then, when negativity aims its guns at you, you can reclaim your joy by reminding yourself of your achievements.  There may always be areas where we can use some improvement, but there are also times when “giving it a rest” is the very best thing we can do for our spirit.

Sublimation

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Photo by Ruth Caron

Defense mechanisms are behaviors we instinctively turn to when our self-image needs preserving or senses danger.  Have you ever known somebody to have a bad day at work then take it out on you?  They are demonstrating displacement.  How about the somewhat cliché “I can stop any time I want to” of the compulsive gambler or alcoholic?  That’s an example of denial.  Those are pretty overt defense mechanisms – fairly easy to spot — but sublimation is a sneaky devil, often blinding us to important matters.

We’ve probably all been told at one time or other to channel our grief, anxiety, anger, you name it, into “something productive”.  Great things can happen when we do.  For instance, somebody who was abused as a child may grow up to become a school teacher or social worker in order to help and defend other children.  A person who has lost a loved one may start a local support group for people who are grieving.  These are all examples of sublimation.  These are wonderfully productive ways to cope, right?  They are…unless they actually cause us to avoid coping.

Denial loves to wrap itself in the cloak of sublimation.  The key to knowing lies in our motives, and determining our true motives often requires a great willingness to be brutally honest with ourselves.  To expand on the previous examples, suppose a mom catches her son torturing a small animal and finds it is something he has done more than once.  She is shocked and disturbed because she knows this is atypical behavior for a child and possibly an indication he is missing some important traits such as compassion, tenderness, and respect for life.  She speaks to him calmly about his behavior, explaining why animal life matters, but when his behavior doesn’t change, she becomes even more distressed.  Not wanting to believe her young child is heartless, she decides to lead by example.  She begins volunteering at the animal shelter and hopes he will learn respect for animals by watching her.  When he doesn’t, she finds it difficult to be around him and increases the time she spends at the shelter.  Do you see what’s happened?  She is, in essence, trying to make amends for his behavior as well as for any perceived parenting flaws on her part, but in doing so she may be overlooking the root cause of his acting out.  What if he is being bullied at school?  Or abused by another family member?  This may seem like an extreme example, but you can probably substitute this boy and his mom with two people you know and come up with a similar “ostrich head in the sand” scenario.

The reason sublimation is such a popular defense mechanism (certainly my favorite!) is because it really can lead us to do good things.  However, sublimation lies to us, telling us we are coping exceptionally well with a problem when in fact, we are actually avoiding it.  If a man has an abusive boss, he may make a conscious effort not to discuss work at home believing he is protecting his partner from his work stress.  Day after day his partner asks, “What’s wrong?” and he replies, “Nothing.”  Then one day his partner leaves to find a relationship where the other person will be more present.  The man is shocked because he truly believed he was showing love by not burdening his partner with his problems.

How then to harness the productivity of sublimation without blinding ourselves to issues which need our attention?  Check your motives.  Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to play The “Why?” Game with yourself.  Ever encounter a young child (or remember being one?) who asks “why?” a gazillion times a day?  Do that.  Keep asking yourself “why?” until you uncover your true motive.

For the mom in our scenario, her “Why? Game” might look something like this:

  • Why do I volunteer at the shelter so much? Because I care about animals – I always have.
  • I never volunteered before, though. Why then is it so important to volunteer now? Because my son doesn’t care about animals. I feel guilty and saddened by his treatment of them.

That’s a pretty abbreviated version, but the key is to keep asking “why?” until you reach the following types of statements:

  • I feel / don’t feel…
  • I want / don’t want…
  • I can’t / won’t…

Examine these statements very closely.  If you find your motive is a variation of avoidance, it doesn’t mean you are wrong for doing the productive things sublimation has motivated you to do.  Rather, you can now use those as healthy coping mechanisms while you take the necessary steps to address the issue at the root of them.

Sense and Inability

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Photo by J. Thomas

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.

Thought-Stopping

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.

Thought-Delaying

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.

 

Looking Forward to Looking Back

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Brazos Bend State Park, TX (LB)

Song lyrics, memes, and more often tell us, “Don’t look back.”  It seems like sound advice.  In a practical sense, we know we should watch where we are going in order to avoid an accident.  Metaphorically, if we dwell too much on what is past, we risk missing out on great things in the present and future.

The pain of a loss, disappointment, or failure can be so great we often choose anger or avoidance as a way of minimizing the grief we feel.  It makes sense – anger is an emotion over which most of us feel we have some control, whereas grief can launch a full-fledged assault on all of our senses, leaving us feeling emotionally and energetically empty.  Avoidance is a sort of “saving face” inner voice which tells us, “I didn’t really care about that as much as thought I did, so it doesn’t really hurt as much as I think it does.”  To be fair, anger and avoidance can be effective coping mechanisms for the short-term.  However, the issues they appear to heal today can reappear as open wounds tomorrow.

Grief is a time of nevers.  “I’ll never fall in love again.”  “I’ll never forgive that person.”  “I’ll never get another pet.”  Ever heard something similar?  Ever said something similar?  The problem with never statements is they trap a piece of our psyche in a particular place and time.  Our brains are basically big file cabinets.  We file painful memories deep in our subconscious, and research has shown our brain sometimes files for us, stashing away traumatic events in an effort to protect us.  However, painful memories have a way of springing to the forefront – sometimes in our dreams, and sometimes because of a trigger such as a smell or sound.  When you prepare for the possibility of the past appearing in the present, you minimize the anxiety and depression which might otherwise accompany these troubling and intrusive thoughts.

In my job, I meet people every day who have been the victims of trauma, who have been in prison, and/or who are trying to overcome addictions to drugs/alcohol/sex/gambling/food — you name it.  Several have a special item or memento they keep close at hand which serves a dual purpose.  First, it grounds them in the present to remind them of where they are right now in their recovery.  Second, it reminds them of how far they’ve come, and how much worse things could have been had they not taken a step towards positive change.  It is something they can touch — a coin, a family heirloom, a necklace — which helps them regain focus when life seems out of control.

Keeping a memento does not necessarily mean we are living in the past.  It can mean we have prepared ourselves for those times when our present feels too much like the past.  Likewise, looking back doesn’t mean we are going back, but rather serves as an acknowledgement we have made progress, no matter how small.

Only looking forward can be daunting, particularly if you have a big goal.  For instance, if you are trying to write a novel or lose a hundred pounds or run your first marathon, the road ahead can seem frightfully long and arduous.  Take a moment to look back – look at the first word on the page, the first pound lost, the first mile you ran without stopping.  Then remember it wasn’t very long ago those small milestones were hurdles in front of you.  In moments of quiet reflection, it is sometimes helpful to look back – not so we can live with regrets or dwell on the past – but to enable ourselves to keep pressing forward.

 

 

Anxie-tea

tea

We all know life is good at throwing us curve balls.  Some of life’s difficulties — such as the death of an elderly relative or a child going off to college — although unpleasant, are not entirely unexpected.  The real curve balls are those sudden shocks to the system – finding out you have cancer, losing your job, a breakup – that are like suddenly being hit in the face with a steaming cow pie.

Some people expect trouble all the time, living with a constant burden of fear and worry.  Just watching the news for a few minutes should be enough to convince anyone these worries are not completely unfounded or unreasonable.  Bad things happen regardless of whether we’ve been naughty or nice.

Getting caught by surprise can send a shock wave through our coping systems, overloading us with worry and regret.   The result is often a fear of trying new things.  New relationships, careers, adventures – all are avoided because of an inner voice which echoes, “You remember how badly things ended last time, don’t you?

To say you can learn to expect the unexpected would be untrue.  Someday, bad news is apt to hit you like a bolt of lightning, and it will totally suck.  But living with the expectation of trouble also sucks; it sucks the joy out of life.  So how can we weather life’s storms today without losing hope for tomorrow?  The key is in preparation, not expectation.

People in the Gulf Coast often keep a ‘hurricane kit’ on-hand.  Those in the north often have extra supplies on hand for surviving blizzards.  For weathering those soul-crushing storms of the psyche, there is much comfort to be found in small, seemingly mundane tasks.  As an avid fan of British mystery shows, I often wondered why nearly every crisis was met with somebody saying, “I’ll put the kettle on.”  Tea was made and cups poured, but frequently untouched.  After a particularly trying day, I decided to test this peculiarity out for myself and I discovered something: the act of drinking tea is less important than the act of making it.

There’s nothing complicated about making a cup of tea, but something magical happens while we do it.  The part of our brain which handles repetition and sequence is engaged, granting us a temporary reprieve from the anxiety centers of the brain.  Granted, stopping to make tea doesn’t resolve the major issue at hand, but it does allow us a moment to catch our breath.

Try imagining the brain as a file cabinet, with the front files in disarray and those in back in perfect order.  So often, an event takes us by surprise and we feel completely powerless.  This is the front of the file cabinet, but very close behind is order – those things we CAN control in a time where everything feels quite out of control.  It may seem odd to claim there is power in making tea or coffee, or doing laundry, or any number of ordinary household tasks, but indeed there is.

When a crisis comes, allow yourself to stick with some small habit, even if it means encountering some disapproval from the people around you.  If you normally go for a walk every day, try sticking with it even if you have to limit your time.  If you write or journal each day, go ahead and write, even if the topic is how you don’t feel much like writing.  Feeling anxious?  Make a cup of tea or coffee.  Make several if it helps you feel better; nobody says you have to actually drink them — sometimes just holding the warm cup can be soothing.  The point is to focus – if only for a few minutes – on the back of the file cabinet.  The problem of the day may still need to be addressed, but you will be better able to deal with it because you’ve found yourself some breathing room.