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.

 

Time to Worry

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Photo by Heather Zabriskie (www.unsplash.com)

There is a song by Mark Knopfler called “Why Worry” on the Dire Straits album Brothers in Arms.  This is the chorus:  

“Why worry?  There should be laughter after pain

There should be sunshine after rain

These things have always been the same

So why worry now?”

For many it seems quite simple; this too shall pass, life will be rosy again, and troubles will cease.  However, for some, worry takes a foothold in the brain.  Instead of making a hasty departure when a problem has righted itself, it latches onto one thought and then another until it becomes a chronic condition.  When this happens, worry can easily be mistaken for normal thought patterns.  In fact, the question becomes “Why NOT worry?”

How can you tell when thinking has morphed into worry?  Trace its path.  Healthy thinking follows a path and eventually reaches a stopping point, or destination.  There may be turns, U-turns, and even wrong turns along the way, but at some point the train of thought reaches the station.  Worry is an enormous, meandering loop which also has its share of turns, but never actually leads us anywhere but to more worry.

Despite never reaching a destination, the outcome of worry can feel very finite, which is why depressive and anxious brains are susceptible to it.  Worrisome thoughts can trigger those emotions tied to experiences long past and buried deep in our memory.  We may not be able to recall the particular experience, but because the current correlating emotion is so strong, the thought becomes valid.  Over time, as one worry leads to another, it begins to guide our behavior and take over our lives.

Can a worrier ever stop worrying completely?  I would be lying to you if I said, “Yes”.  Bad things happen, and when life seems uncertain, it is only natural to worry a little bit.  Allowing yourself to worry a little bit is the key to bringing joy back into your life.  Just as controlled burns are sometimes necessary to preserve a forest, controlled worry is necessary for preserving our peace of mind.

The key is: Worry a little bit.

Try scheduling your worry.

  1. Schedule 10 minutes a day for worrying. Try not to schedule it first thing in the morning or just before bedtime.  You don’t want to start or end your day worrying – at least not anymore, right?
  2. Get yourself a notepad and carry it with you throughout the day
  3. When you find yourself worrying, write the problem down in your notepad
  4. At the appointed worry time, review the things you wrote down
  5. When time’s up, tear that page out and throw it away

Don’t worry (sorry!) if you write the same thing down day after day.  The point is not to solve every problem, but rather to stop allowing worry to control your thoughts.  Consider scheduling worry time just before your bath or shower.  That way you can decompress and wash the day’s worries away.

Scheduling time to worry may sound counter-productive, but it works by putting you back in control.  By writing down your worries and designating an appointed time for them, you allow yourself to quickly refocus on whatever task is at hand.  You also reduce worry about worry.  Ever had trouble falling asleep because you were troubled?  The next night, did you find yourself reluctant to even lie down because you were certain you’d have another night of worrying?  No more!  Write it down and say, “Good night.  I’ll see you at your next appointment, and not a minute sooner.”

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