Never for Nothing

This week I had a client tell me the people he used to get high with are harassing him, he’s having trouble finding work, and his relationships are falling apart.  He said, “I feel like I’m doing all this for nothing.”  Don’t we all feel like that sometimes?  No matter what goal we are working towards – saving a relationship, finding a job, losing weight – the journey can be two steps up and one step back for so long that we lose sight not only of our progress, but our purpose.

If we are honest with ourselves, it has taken us months, or even years to dig the hole we are in.  Just because today we decided to lose weight or get clean or be a better whatever, the hole will not magically fill itself in and gently ease us out.  In fact, the opposite is usually true – we are going to face resistance – from other people who aren’t ready to leave their holes, from those who don’t want to see us succeed (sadly), and from our own self-sabotaging brains.

I love watching old episodes of Dragnet, and admire the way Joe Friday handles resistance from people who complain about the police – he invites them to join the force.  When you make a decision to better yourself, you become the force.  You become a source of light, maybe weak at first but becoming stronger with each positive step you take.  Ever see a bunch of people coming out of a movie theater, shielding their eyes from the sun?  When you become the light, you may unintentionally expose the darkness in other’s lives, and they may not be ready to see it.  In most cases, this is where resistance comes from.

Resistance is never a reason to give up.

Stay focused on your progress and purpose.  Hang motivational signs and sayings where you can be reminded why you’ve chosen your goal.  It may feel as if you are only moving forward one inch at a time, but one inch at a time will still get you there.  A lifestyle change begins as a series of conscious choices, but these choices eventually become habits and will come naturally.  Let that one inch become two, then six, then a foot, then a yard, and so on.  Don’t dwell on your setbacks.  Just analyze them long enough to determine where the mistake was and how you might avoid it in the future.  Count each setback as a member of the resistance, and don’t allow them to convince you your efforts have all been for nothing.

It is NEVER for nothing, because YOU are not nothing.

Try taking a tip from the Borg (Star Trek).  Granted, they are an emotionless race and we are emotional beings, but they have an admirable singular-purpose mindset.  When you are working toward your life goals, stay on track.  If you go astray, shake the dirt off and get back on track as quickly as possible.  Be Borg-like and tell yourself,

Resistance may be brutal, but it is futile, because I WILL SUCCEED.

It is futile because you have a singular-purpose mindset.  Just keep going.  When you feel like you don’t want to do it for you, do it for the others who want to come out of their holes but don’t know where to begin.  Regardless of whether you have anybody supporting you in your own battle today, someday you may have the opportunity to join somebody else’s force and give them a hand up out of their hole.

 

The Power of Now

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Photo by Uroš Jovičić on Unsplash

Ever heard the joke “hard work and dedication pay off with time, but procrastination pays off right now”?  It implies there is some kind of reward for putting things off.  In reality, putting things off can be a source of anxiety and depression.  We find ourselves in a cycle of feeling overwhelmed by what needs doing, then feeling guilty for not doing it.

Unfortunately, our procrastination is frequently interpreted as laziness or rebellion.  We end up on the receiving end of accusations such as, “You never get anything done”, “Why can’t you ever finish what you start?”, and “If it really mattered to you” — or worse – “If I really mattered, you would have done it.”  We accept the labels of lazy, uncaring, and selfish and our already struggling self-worth plummets.

The truth is, most of the time procrastination has nothing to do with laziness or motivation.  Years ago, my sister turned me on to a website where I found helpful tips on cleaning and organization, but the concept which really got my attention was that procrastination is actually perfectionism in disguise.  How could that be?

The writer (Marla Cilly) went on to explain it is fear of failure which often prevents us from beginning a task, as well as the reason we get started and quickly become overwhelmed and give up.  Our brain tells us “if you can’t do it right the first time it isn’t worth doing”, or “you don’t have time to complete it”.  We consider the task at hand and rationalize “I don’t have time to finish this right now, but am off on Saturday, so will do this Saturday”.  We feel a flash of satisfaction at having made a plan.  Saturday comes and we rationalize, “I’ve worked hard all week and I’m exhausted.  I need and deserve a break.  This task isn’t critical, so today I will rest and I can take this task on tomorrow or even next Saturday when I feel more rested”.  Unfortunately, “feeling good” Saturday never comes, and as our list of the undone grows, so do our feelings of self-defeat.  We begin to believe the labels of lazy, unproductive, and irresponsible really do apply…and we accept them.

Some tasks can be delayed with little consequence, but if we are already prone to self-criticism, even these small acts of procrastination can lead to big emotional assaults as we tell ourselves, “I’m so useless – I can’t even do this one little thing.”  We become frustrated and confused, particularly if we are well-organized in other life areas, such as work.  We wonder, “Why can’t I be this ‘on top of things’ at home?”

The simplest answer is perhaps you feel mentally and emotionally rewarded at work in a way you do not feel rewarded at home.  Much of the time, our efforts to clean or repair things around the house go unnoticed, unappreciated, or are criticized.  This reinforces a why should I care if nobody else does mentality, which can quickly morph into why should I care about myself if nobody else does?  When this negative thinking combines with our fear-of-failure-based procrastination, it can be emotionally crippling, and it is super-fuel for depression.

Try the following steps to avoid the perfectionism-procrastination monster.

  1. Make a list of tasks. Include anything you feel needs to be done, from pick up the dirty sock to repaint the bedroom.  Use different colors (or whatever works for you) to sort tasks into two categories – those which take less than 15 minutes to complete (-15), and those which take more (+15)
  2. Select one of the (-15) tasks and do it now, then mark it ‘complete’ — use stickers, smileys, whatever – the point is to feel good about the accomplishment, no matter how trivial it may seem, and to consistently reinforce that good feeling each time you add a new sticker or checkmark
  3. Identify those (+15) tasks which are actually projects, such as those which would take a half day or more to complete
  4. Identify the steps required to complete each project. In most cases you will find many of the steps are actually (-15) tasks, which can be tackled one at a time. Sure, it may take a while to complete a project, but every step completed is not only another accomplishment, it is progress towards your bigger goals

For some of us, the temptation will be to continue tweaking our list to perfection.  The Flylady website has lots of ready-to-use lists, so if you find yourself getting bogged down in your own list-making, consider using one of theirs.  As you approach tasks on your list, note those items which consistently get skipped or saved for later, then think about your reasons for the delay.  Doing so will help you spot the perfectionism monsters hiding in your list, and allow you not only to conquer them, but to find empowerment in now.

4 Steps to Conquering Anxiety

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

A few years ago, I went through months of chronic and distressing anxiety.  I’d be in bed – or getting ready for bed – and a sudden wave of nausea would hit me.  This was followed by hot and cold sweats, light-headedness, and trembling.  My chest hurt and my heart would race like it was trying to escape my body.  My brain went into hyper-drive, blasting a series of run away, run away, run away messages.  A couple of times, I truly thought I might be having a heart attack, and even went to the emergency room.  When no physical cause for my symptoms was discovered, I was sent home, bewildered.  How could there be nothing wrong?  I felt not only several hundred dollars poorer, but also embarrassed and ashamed.  Quite frankly, I thought I was going nuts.  I had no idea these were panic attacks.  What I felt was physical, not mental…right?

I knew I couldn’t keep going to the ER, but also knew something was wrong.  I tried taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds for a while, but these left me feeling zombie-like and numb, and they didn’t actually prevent anxiety attacks.  I didn’t want to be medicated – I just wanted something that would stop these attacks in their tracks.  The doctors didn’t seem to understand (or believe) I wasn’t drug-seeking, and weren’t interested in explaining what was happening to me.  It was demoralizing and discouraging.  I decided to figure this out for myself – to find the safe equivalent of hitting myself in the head with a coconut – something to STOP the panic once it had started.

I started by tracking my symptoms and soon discovered my bouts of nausea were either caused by gastrointestinal issues or a “gut punch”.  You know the gut punch.  It’s the feeling which triggers our fight or flight response, such as when we suddenly get bad news.  Studies have shown people with anxiety have a faulty flight switch.  In other words, it flips on at random, sending panic messages from the brain to the various systems in the body, thus generating the physical sensations of a panic attack.

When the nausea would start, I’d go through a brief mental checklist to determine the source: Is this possibly food poisoning? Did I eat something which could trigger IBS / diverticulitis?  Most of the time, I was able to rule out a gastrointestinal cause for the nausea AND I was able to determine my IBS flare-ups and panic attacks followed similar — but distinctly different — patterns.  Identifying these differences was the key to feeling better.  I made some minor changes to my eating habits which GREATLY diminished my gastrointestinal issues, which in turn reduced some of my stress and meant less confusion between my physical and my mental health symptoms.

I began practicing the following thought-stopping / distraction techniques at the first signs of a panic attack:

  1. Counting backwards from 100
  2. Switching on a funny show and closing my eyes, picturing the action in my head instead of watching it on the screen. This forced me to focus on what I was hearing and helped me turn off the panic switch by activating a different area of my brain
  3. Taking long, deep breaths – three seconds to inhale, three seconds to exhale

These three techniques worked wonders for me, but it wasn’t an overnight cure.  I had to put these methods into practice and repeat them until I’d conditioned a habitual, healthy response to anxiety.  There were nights when I would have to count backwards from 100 more than once, or would lie awake listening to Bob’s Burgers for hours, but now I can honestly say I haven’t had a full-blown anxiety attack in at least two years.  I still get the gut punch on occasion, but am able to quickly calm myself and avoid those horrible heart-attack sensations.

The 4 Steps

  1. Track your symptoms
  2. Separate brain and body symptoms.  If possible, make changes to your daily habits to reduce symptoms related to medical conditions
  3. Find the patterns
  4. Use early distraction

If you are currently taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, DO NOT stop taking them without your physician’s consent.  Mood disorders are complicated and many require medication to restore chemical balance in the brain.  The point of this post is NOT that you do not or should not need medication.  The point is you can attack your anxiety INSTEAD of allowing it to attack YOU!  When you learn to control your brain’s faulty fear factor, you not only minimize the physical and mental distress of a panic attack but also maximize the effectiveness of your medication.  You will start to FEEL better!

 

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.

 

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.”

 

 

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

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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.

 

Sometimes, a Not-so-Thanksgiving

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Photo by Maria (unsplash.com)

Have you ever witnessed the epic failure of good intentions?  I once attended Thanksgiving dinner at a small church.  Just prior to the meal, the pastor suggested we each share our favorite Thanksgiving memory.  Seems harmless enough, right?  In fact, it is somewhat of a tradition for friends, family, and colleagues across the nation to share holiday memories and those things for which they are thankful.  However, in a perfect example of why it is important to know your audience, this idea was received about as well as a half-deflated football.

And so it began, one story after another about abuse, abandonment, loneliness, and grief.  A few people even walked out.  One could easily defend this pastor and say he couldn’t possibly have anticipated such a negative response, but I found myself wondering, how did he NOT anticipate it?  He’d served this church for years, and knew most of these people and their family histories very well.  Why then didn’t he select a less risky conversational topic, or skip it altogether?  My theory is, holiday happiness made him forget his audience.

Perhaps the magic of the season lies in its ability to help some forget the pain of holidays past, and helps others look ahead to new years and fresh starts.  I believe it is this holiday forgetfulness which led to the strange reaction this pastor encountered.  Some of us get caught up in in the festivities, becoming blind to those around us who are completely miserable.  Others of us are so caught up in current circumstances, we become blind to the joys around us.  The constant barrage of happy this and merry that can seem cruel if you’ve just experienced a great loss.  Pair that with the guilt of not feeling the holiday cheer which seems so overwhelmingly obligatory, and it’s no wonder some people find themselves simply hoping the season passes quickly.

If you are currently a holiday reveler, good for you!  Please, just be kind to those around you who are going through a rough patch.  You don’t have to let them bring you down, but you might just check to make sure they are coping.  Try to avoid pressing people to participate when they aren’t quite up to it, and perhaps offer an alternative, such as a small get-together instead of a big holiday party.

If you are finding the holidays particularly difficult this year, here are a few survival tips.

  1. Know your limits. If you don’t feel like you can endure an extended family gathering, find out what time the meal will be served and plan your entrance and exit accordingly.
  2. If you dread sitting home alone – don’t. Many restaurants and businesses are open.  Take yourself out to dinner or a movie.
  3. Talk to somebody. If a friend is also struggling, suggest a mutual morale-building plan.  It may be something as simple as sending a “How’re you doing?” text message every hour or two, but those little messages can be a big help if you are feeling alone.

If you’ve had some good holidays past, try writing down some of those happy memories.  If, like my church friends, your past Thanksgivings left you not-so-thankful, think about what you’d like the holidays to be.  Then try one or two small things to perk yourself up, such as lighting some candles or baking yourself a treat.  Some people choose this time of the year to volunteer at the local shelters or food banks in order to help others who are also down on their luck.  Helping others is a great way to lift yourself – and someone else — out of a valley.

Try different things until the holidays shape themselves into something less dreadful.  By doing so, you are not only empowering yourself by taking control over events during a time when things may seem very much out of your control.  But, you are also creating a new future, one in which each holiday season becomes better than the one before it, and perhaps even — dare I say it – cheerful.