One Thing To Help Your Mood

Research shows that happier, more content people are less caught up in their thoughts and more focused on the present moment. The bottom line? Worry increases anxiety: rumination increases depression. So how do we tackle such destructive, yet often unconscious thinking patterns?

Here’s an empowering focus I try to build in my clients. Picture an old fashioned scale. If one side of the scale is the amount of time you spend focused on your present life and the other side of the scale is the amount of time you spend caught up in your thoughts, then you can easily picture what the scale looks like on days when you are caught up in worry or rumination. It’s tipped up, out of balance in the wrong direction. Having an anxiety disorder is like having a tipped scale nearly all the time.

Ultimately, this is a game of percentages. We are trying to increase the percentage of time you spend present and attending to your actual life and decrease the percentage of time you spend distracted with your thoughts. Success then, is won in every moment we can capture and claim for the being present side of the scale. If you have a bad day, but have increased your present percentage most of the other days, then over the course of a week, you have gained ground.

This image also gives us an alternative thought action when we notice we are worrying or ruminating, because simply berating ourselves with “stop worrying!” is pretty useless. Rather, try these steps: (1) notice you are worrying (or ruminating), (2) thank your mind for the sentiment, and (3) return with all of your attention to whatever you are doing. This exercise trains your brain to stay attentive and ultimately, with time and repetition, creates a new neural pathway, the pathway of the present moment!

Go for the percentages. Success is won in each and every moment that you can actually BE in your life.

Tend-and-Befriend

Last week I got some news that really let loose a stress reaction in me. The news wasn’t life or death, but it represented an enormous amount of pressure to me. I felt my body stepping up into response-mixed-with-despair mode. I was getting emotionally swirly and weepy and starting to cave in while simultaneously becoming an irritable, defensive, crazy lady. I know, I’m a woman of many talents.

So, I paused. I remembered something about getting good at stress, from The Upside of Stress. “When oxytocin is released as part of the stress response, it’s encouraging you to connect with your support network……Scientists refer to this as the tend-and-befriend response.” (p. 52-53) I realized I needed to harness the oxytocin that is released during a stress response and reach out rather than isolate.

Here’s what I did in the five minutes that followed:

  • I texted a couple of good friends to let them know what had happened.
  • I emailed two people who I knew sometimes dealt with the same situation and asked them to pray for me that day.
  • I vented via email to my mother and sister.

I tended-and-befriended! And nearly immediately, the email assurances and empathy texts came back to me, lifting me up…..helping me know that I’m not alone.

Then I went to work. I drafted the necessary emails, thought through my action plan, and started the work that my stress response was empowering me to do. “…the tend-and-befriend response is a biological state engineered to reduce fear and increase hope….a tend-and-befriend response makes you social, brave, and smart. It provides both the courage and hope we need to propel us into action and the awareness to act skillfully.” (p. 138-9)

To tend-and-befriend like I did in this moment, I had to overcome a really strong tendency to cave in to this horrible, alone feeling. It was really vulnerable to reach out and let people know I was struggling. But I’m really glad I did it!

What are 3 things you could do to tend-and-befriend when a challenge hits?

Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress is a great read. Click on the link to purchase.

Getting Good at Stress

I CAN’T HANDLE IT!!

How much do you say this? How often do you hear it? Truth is, a lot of times when I say it, it isn’t actually true. I am handling it or I figure out a way to handle it. Much of my job is pointing out to my clients all the amazing ways that they are handling really hard challenges too. So why do we so often sell ourselves short? Why do we instantly rush to what we cannot do when we really can do it? When we decide we cannot do something, our body necessarily needs to perceive the situation as threatening, even if it is not. With this mindset, we can unwittingly train ourselves towards a threat response when what we actually need is a challenge response.

A threat response primes you to defend yourself. You anticipate physical or other kinds of harm and your body gets ready. A challenge response primes you for performance without preparing for harm, per se. And here is the crazy thing…..having lots of challenge responses is associated with “superior aging, cardiovascular health, and brain health.” (p.111) In other words, it is good for us to experience lots of life challenges and respond with a challenge response! The good news is that we can train ourselves towards a challenge response and away from a threat response by quickly reviewing the resources we have available to us when we face something really difficult. What might this be like?

  • “What have I done in the past when I’ve been this crunched?” vs. “I can never meet this deadline”
  • Making a list of friends who will step up to help through a spouse’s chemo vs. “I will never make it through this”
  • Praying and remembering those who will pray for you vs. “I am all alone and I will never make it through this job loss.”

When we really need a threat response, when we really CANNOT handle something, then having a threat response is exactly what we need! But in reality, many of us punt to a threat response when it is, in reality, unnecessary. And learning to quickly remember all the resources we have available to us is a pretty easy intervention to learn! And then your stress response can be truly helpful to you! It isn’t the harmful thing we once thought!

I’m amazed over and over again by the resiliency of people and the amazing capacity of human beings to handle really horrible, scary, and tough, tough life situations. Watching people realize they can and/or have made it is one of the joys of being a therapist.

So, are you willing to try reviewing your own resources when you find yourself moving towards a threat response?

The quotes are from Kelly McGonigal’s great book: The Upside of Stress. See my blog reviewing the book here.

How to Think Better

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 “Hell is an endless, hopeless conversation with oneself” ~Dante’s description of rumination (in a biography of Churchill)

People who do this know exactly why Dante describes rumination this way. When I get caught up in a ruminative spin, I am only half experiencing my current activities and half of my energy is swirling in whatever unanswerable question that’s plaguing me that day. The spins are different for everyone, “how will I ever get all my work done?” “why am I like this?” “why does my boss hate me?” “what am I going to do about my miserable marriage?”. But the outcome is clear—rumination does one thing and one thing only—it negatively impacts one’s mood.

So why do we do it? Sometimes our mental spinning can reveal an underlying question that actually needs our attention. BUT, spinning all day on the question is not the type of attention that really gets you anywhere. What I suggest is that you process the important questions of your life ON YOUR OWN TERMS. What I mean by this is that you address the important questions that are tempting you to ruminate when you are rested, grounded, and focused. Set a timer for 30 minutes and really concentrate on the question. Give it your best, most creative effort for those 30 minutes and then stop for the day. When you notice yourself tempted to spin on it later in the day, remind yourself that you will be working on that question on your own terms at a better time and return your attention to what you are doing. You may need to keep pulling your attention back to your life a lot, but each time you do, you are creating a new neural pathway in your brain—the pathway of non-rumination. It will be worth it!

So, go get that timer out and add productive processing to your repertoire. Rumination isn’t getting you anywhere.

The Power of Sleep

 

This morning the most forwarded NY Times article was about meditation and sleep problems. It seems that people are catching on—SLEEP IS IMPORTANT!!! For anyone who has suffered from sleep problems, you know just how horrible it is. Inadequate sleep:

  • Makes us more prone to rumination and worry
  • Leaves us emotional fragile
  • Seriously alters one’s perspective and outlook
  • Makes weight loss more difficult
  • Limits our ability to access our functional resources for problem solving and emotional regulation
  • Increases irritability and irrationality

Sometimes clients come to me with some other presenting problem and when I explore the person’s disrupted sleep patterns, we wind up starting there knowing that all the other work will be far easier to tackle when sleep is regulated. Getting help with sleep regulation is not only wise, but sometimes really necessary. People don’t realize that what they do to make up for sleep problems sometimes makes the problem worse. Sleeping in and long naps can wind up exacerbating nighttime sleep issues, and lying in bed awake isn’t “helpful resting” like some of us would like to believe.

A few thoughts to get you moving towards better sleep:

  • Don’t lie in bed awake more than about 20-30 minutes. Get up, read a bit, and try again in a half hour. Lying in bed awake trains you to lie in bed awake.
  • Wake up at approximately the same time every day no matter how disrupted your sleep was the night before. You may be tired for a day, but you will be more likely to sleep at night after that.
  • Watch for anxiety about whether you are sleeping. Nothing makes sleep harder than stressing about whether you are sleeping. Get up and do something else if you find yourself in that state of mind. Try to sleep again when you feel tired and are no longer anxious.
  • Racing thoughts in bed can be a sign of a larger anxiety problem that may merit treatment.
  • When you wake at night, remember that the parts of your brain don’t wake up at the same rate. The fear center of the brain wakes up faster than your capacity to reason. So, the middle of the night is rarely a good time to do any productive processing about your life. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent in existential angst in the middle of the night only to wake up and wonder what my fretting was all about.
  • Research is showing that rigorous daily exercise and meditation/contemplative prayer practices are helpful. Check out the NY Times article I mentioned earlier.

Let’s make March “Better Sleep Month” and start really working on getting better (and more) sleep!

Intrusive Thoughts: The Little Bit Of Crazy In Us All

I’ve been doing an experiment lately. I’ve been writing down all of the unwanted intrusive thoughts that I notice I’m having. I’m doing this because I so often tell clients that we cannot control the thoughts that pop into our heads and that we are always choosing to ignore some and to pay attention to others. Here is just a small sampling of thoughts I’ve written down in the last two weeks:

  • “what if I accidentally do something that causes my husband to fall off the top of the shed he’s standing on and he breaks his back?”
  • “would I be able to keep being a therapist if my face were horribly burned?”
  • “if I could endure the most pain imaginable for one hour and then have the body of Jillian Michaels, would I do it?
  • “is my underwear making a line on my butt?”
  • (when leaving my kids for the weekend to celebrate my anniversary) “what if I never see them alive again?”
  • “if I were selected to star in a Broadway musical, would I disclose my history of vocal chord problems?”
  • “what if someone I respect reads this and loses all respect for me because my thoughts are totally nuts?”

Perhaps you are shocked when you read this. Perhaps not. I suppose it depends on the kind of intrusive thoughts you are aware of having. Without being intentional about noticing them, I am sure I would have forgotten most of them by now. And the thing is, most of us have all manner of wild thoughts and then we go through an unconscious decision-making process about which thoughts we will take seriously and which ones we will dismiss as a brain blip. And here’s the rub. That unconscious decision-making process is what can get us in trouble when it tells us we ought to take very seriously a thought that is not helpful.

For example, if I’d taken the thought about never seeing my kids alive again seriously, it would have wrecked my anniversary weekend getaway. I would have been preoccupied with grief and probably very worried about how my kids were. I might have cancelled the trip or checked on them obsessively throughout the weekend. The fact that I had that thought was not a signal to become hyper vigilant. Rather, it was a random firing of my brain that probably comes to most parents from time to time.

How about some of the sillier thoughts? If I took the thought about the Broadway musical or Jillian Michaels seriously, I might have an interesting ethical debate with myself, but I would be seriously wasting my time! I will never face either offer!

We get duped when we consider every thought that pops into our head to be a signal, a warning from God, or an omen. A lot of what comes into our heads is simply noise that can completely distract us from the things we care about. Intrusive thoughts can certainly pull us out of the present moment and lead to swirling mental harangues that pull our moods into the toilet. Discrimination is required for us to decide which thoughts are helpful to us.

I’ll continue sharing my experiments with you as I venture into applying the principles I talk about so often on this site. I hope that you’ll share your own stories of dealing with intrusive thoughts!

Living Next Week’s Life This Week

How often do we ruin a perfectly good week because our minds are in the next one? I’ve caught myself several times lately in a hurried mindset. I know what’s behind it. Beginning in 5 days, over a 16-day period, I am leading a 3-day training, speaking at a conference, going on a group spiritual retreat, attending a daylong training, and going with my family on a spring break trip to the beach. This mad rush has been coming for a long time. It seems that every organization I’m involved with and every training cycle that I’m a part of picks early April as the perfect time to hold their events/conferences…..right before/during spring break! And so, I’m facing a crunch.

Here’s what I do. The near constant subtext of my thoughts is in next week. I’m going over my plan, making sure I’m prepared for everything, checking to make sure that I’ve scheduled all the clients I need to see before and after, wondering how tired I will feel in between this and that, and generally I’M LIVING NEXT WEEK’S LIFE BUT IT IS STILL THIS WEEK! Here’s the evidence I collected that let me know I needed to challenge my mindset:

  • I had forgotten that I still have a whole weekend at home before all of this begins.
  • I had thoughts like “I hate that using the bathroom takes so much time!”
  • I was compulsively flipping through the weeks in my calendar as if I had missed something.
  • I would get in my car to drive home from the office and think, “I wish I were just already home.”

I wonder if Jesus ever got caught up in swirls like this? Do you think that while walking from the temple to Simon’s home that he sometimes muttered, “geez, if only we didn’t have to spend all this time eating we could really do some good here.” Maybe. But for the most part it seems that Jesus was imminently interruptible and open to changes in his plan. He gives us an example of being present. That’s what I realized I was lacking. I started intentionally talking to myself when I noticed my hurried and ‘next week’ thoughts. I talked to myself like this:

  • “Yes Janice, you have a lot coming up, but you have it all planned out and today is a good day to enjoy.”
  • “Janice, everyone poops, so the story goes. This is a part of being human.”
  • “Janice, one more look at the calendar doesn’t help you stay in the moment.”
  • “Janice, use the drive home from the office to unwind and mentally review your work day. This time is a gift”

I have become convinced that the better we are at talking to ourselves, the healthier we will be. I felt my attitude shift and I’m grateful. The next weeks will likely be intense and I wouldn’t want my entire life to be scheduled like this. But each piece was carefully chosen and planned for and I will be just fine. Part of it is a vacation, for crying out loud! Another is a retreat! Much of my anticipation has a quality of exaggeration. How do you talk to yourself so that you can stay in this week?

Living Well With Stress

I heard an intriguing Ted Talk recently by Kelly McGonigle entitled, “Making Stress Your Friend”. McGonigle is a psychologist who spent the better part of her career trying to get her clients to reduce their stress level. She did this until she came across some shocking research that made her change her whole treatment approach. Here are some salient points from her talk:

  • Research shows that it is the belief that stress is bad for you that impacts life expectancy, not stress itself.
  • Stress helps us get what we need for a life of connection. Oxytocin is a hormone that moves us to reach out to others for support. This wonderful byproduct of getting help and support happens because we get stressed and our body releases it!
  • When you reach out to others for support or support others, you make your stress response healthier.
  • Research also affirms that people who spend time caring for others have no increased risk of death even if they report having many stressful experiences in their lives.

What are the implications? If we believe ourselves to be weak, frail, and unable to cope with the stresses in our lives, then we will be weaker, more frail, and less able to thrive in times of stress. We may even die. If we understand the great mystery of God’s design of our bodies as able to sustain us in times of stress, then we can thrive even when stress is high. Our bodies are designed to take us through times of stress.

I often hear clients say that they cannot handle things, usually their strong emotions. I know there was a time I believed that myself. But you know what? I did handle it. A not so subtle lie has entered into our psyches: Strong or negative emotions will do me in. A more accurate statement would be: My beliefs about strong or negative emotions will do me in. We are created to contain a vast, profound, deep, and very intense array of emotions. Our growth in this life is not to tap down the strength of our emotions, but rather, to understand our capacity to experience our emotions as expandable and adaptive.

What we believe really does matter.

Listen to the compelling Ted talk here.

Your Holiday Wish

The conversations begin around November 20th. “I’m bracing myself for the holidays.” “That will have to wait until after the holidays”, “I dread the busyness”, “If I can make it through the holidays”, “I dread making that meal”. …. I get the picture that for many people, their holiday wish is that the holidays would be over.  But wishing the holidays away won’t make January come any faster and it fills our minds with dread and bodies with tension. Grayson calls this the wishing ritual.  We engage in it every time we wish for something that is not our current reality.

What are we doing? Wishing for a different life makes it nearly impossible to enjoy the one we have.  “When we compare reality with fantasy, we destroy and demean the moment.” How many times have you stressed and struggled through a Holiday season like you were being tortured only to look back on it fondly a few years later? These are the times and days that we are given and we are often missing them by wishing they would end! When you think about it, how absurd!

How do we honor rather than demean our present reality?

  • Grow our awareness of thoughts of dread or wishing to be in another time. When we notice it, simply say to yourself, “Thank you mind, but I will be staying in my actual life, but appreciate the reminder of how horrible everything is!”
  • Pray for a new understanding of your capacity to experience and enjoy each day.
  • Engage in spiritual practices that bless you in spite of feeling busy.
  • Reframe all of the preparation that you are doing. If you think of it as a nasty obstacle to the life you prefer, it will be hard to experience any of it as a loving act that has meaning to you.
  • Do one thing at a time with intention and focus.

I’m like everybody else…..when I consider what the next 6 weeks will require of me, I am tempted to think it is all too much. But taken day by day and task by task, with the values that are important to me in mind, it all feels different. I can turn my attention from the negative story about this time and towards the wonder, joy, and blessings of my life. Each celebration can be for me either the end of a grueling race or it can be a spiritual and emotional blessing. I’m going to try and honor my present reality this Advent. Won’t you join me?

The book I quoted is Jonathan Grayson’s Freedom from OCD.

Does God Need Us To Worry?

I spoke at a conference this weekend. The college students in attendance were Christians and seekers dealing with all the things you’d expect; relationship worries, grades/jobs worries, sex worries……lots of worries and anxieties overall. One topic of discussion that I’m still kicking around is how we are often duped into thinking that by worrying or being consumed with something that we are doing something productive or even spiritually important.

What I learned from students this weekend is that they can buy into certain mindsets that are a particular draw for Christians, and I wonder if the same holds true for people from other religious traditions. The mindsets go something like this:

  • If I am consumed with thinking about ________, God will know how much I want that thing. If I am NOT consumed with worry about ________, then God may think I don’t care about it any more and then God may not give it to me!!!!!!

Some of us actually function as if our worry alerts God to what we want or need. We remain in utterly unhelpful cycles of worry because are worried about the spiritual implications should we stop!  If we are honest, each of us in our own way is tempted to think that our worry has some value. The outcome of this thinking in relationship with God is a sad and subtle attempt to manipulate God with our own suffering. What if God knows us so well and so intimately that our wants and needs are clearer to him than to us? What if God will hold our wants and needs with great tenderness and care whether we worry or not? If God were compelled by our worry, then wouldn’t we be commanded to worry in the Bible?

Worry is a mental process that is largely unhelpful to we humans. After we have assessed what we can do about any given situation, worry becomes an anxiety-provoking and distracting practice. It takes us out of our actual lives and into a future-looking possible outcome that scares us to death. Bringing that fear into our relationship with God looks very different than worrying. While worrying spins us inside our own thoughts, prayer regarding our fears involves a relational process of requesting, confessing, surrendering, and ideally, some listening too. Let’s get real about what we are really doing when we are worrying, because sometimes it is a practice that enables us to avoid bringing the deeper feelings more squarely into our relationship with God.

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