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