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6 Steps to Combat Overwhelm

We’ve all been there before, feeling stuck and drowning under a sea of to dos and pressures. We feel anxious, stressed, irritable, or even hopeless. Our thoughts are scattered, our bodies are uncomfortable, and we’re not able to take effective action. Here are 6 strategies to help combat overwhelm and stay afloat.

Tips for dealing with overwhelm

1. Get everything down on paper

When we’re feeling overwhelmed, our minds often race, bouncing back and forth among all of the things we have to do, the pressures we’re under, the obstacles in our way, and the possible things that could go wrong. A great first step to start to organize the mental clutter and devise a plan for getting on top of everything is to get it all down on paper.  

Take a deep breath and take 5-10 minutes and brain dump onto a sheet of paper. Write down all of the demands, expectations, hurdles, or other factors contributing to your sense of overwhelm. 

2. Pare down and prioritize

Now that you have a list of all of the things on your plate, it’s time to pare down and prioritize. Take a first pass through your list and cross off anything that is a “what if.” What if is a worry, a hypothetical problem to be solved in the future. It doesn’t get addressed now. 

Next, ask yourself the following questions and be honest about the answers. Use those responses to help you cross off additional items and prioritize the remaining ones.

  • Are all of these tasks actually on me to do? 
  • Of those, what do I really have to do?
  • And of those remaining, are these tasks actually important
  • Finally, are these important tasks urgent? Must they be done now?

Take steps to reduce your load, which will reduce your stress and anxiety. Revise your much shortened list so that only urgent, important tasks that absolutely must be done by you remain, and rank those tasks according to how critical they are to the big picture. Instead of feeling stressed about this “to do” list let it instead make you feel organized. 

3. Make a plan

Oftentimes, when we feel overwhelmed, we spend a lot of time with our thoughts swirling around all of the things stressing us out…and very little time actually taking action steps toward addressing those things in a lasting way. So, once you’ve pared down and prioritized, it’s time to make a concrete plan including what you will do and when you will do it. 

Schedule tasks into your day, but be realistic about how much you can accomplish in any given day. It’s important for your mental health to also make time for self-care, rest, eating, moving, connecting, working, play, and sleeping – all of the things that a human being needs to be healthy and happy. If you do not prioritize your self-care, you’ll never stop feeling overwhelmed because you won’t have the energy levels to do what you need to.

4. Break it way down

Sometimes we know what needs to be done and can even outline a plan, but the plan itself feels daunting. Maybe it’s wrapped up in an anxiety-provoking situation, we’re not sure about our abilities to do it, or we’re dreading it because it’s hard or boring. Whatever the reason, a helpful strategy is to break any overwhelming plan down into smaller steps. You’ve likely heard that before, so here’s the kicker. Break it down, then break those steps down even smaller. Keep breaking it down into smaller and smaller steps until the next step seems absolutely doable. 

Here’s an example: I have to create a Powerpoint presentation for a speaking event I’m nervous about. I know the general plan is:

  1. Pick a topic
  2. Map out the key points
  3. Create slides

But let’s say that still feels overwhelming, and I find myself spinning out or stalling. Instead, I might break it way down and use the helpful phrase: “All I have to do next is…” On a really granular level, this might look like: “All I have to do next is open my laptop.” “All I have to do next is open a document.” “All I have to do next is brainstorm some possible topics. I’ll set a timer for 10 minutes and just write down any possible ideas.” And so on. 

5. Get started right away

Procrastination is a common response when we’re faced with anything we find anxiety-provoking, hard, or boring. You’ll notice, though, that procrastination isn’t actually an effective strategy for reducing overwhelm and stress. While you get to avoid the task in question for a period, the psychological weight of it remains. Studies show this actually increases your stress. You’re not actually relaxed. In fact, you may even be adding guilt or dread or anxiety to the mix. Moreover, as you procrastinate, other things are pilling up, and your initial overwhelm grows. 

Procrastination is a complex habit, but working on your ability to get started quickly is a great way to start to break it. Any number of strategies might help you get started right away. Try these out and see what works for you. Remember, the first step is often the hardest. You just have to get going.

  1. Set a timer for a really small chunk of time. Tell yourself you only have to work until the timer goes off. Sometimes, that makes getting started seem a little easier. Practice some breathing exercises to get in the right headspace. 
  2. Practice “3, 2, 1, Go!” Anytime you find yourself with any urge to avoid or delay a task, practice a quick count down then take a step. Repeatedly doing this will help you build that mental muscle of diving right in, and that’s a really useful skill to master. 
  3. Make a deal with yourself. You can use rewards or consequences to help boost your motivation. Treat yourself to something you enjoy if you get started quickly or enforce a punishment (e.g., do something you don’t enjoy doing, deny yourself something you like, donate to an organization you despise – just any unpleasant, aversive thing that you like less than getting started on a hard task) for procrastinating. 

6. Be a good coach for yourself

When we’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, our minds tend to chatter quite loudly. We have thoughts like “I can’t do this!” “It’s too much!” and those thoughts are like mental ankle weights, weighing us down, requiring more time and energy for each step. Instead, it’s important that we make a point of being good coaches for ourselves. 

While we can’t necessarily stop those heavy, stressful thoughts from coming, we can intentionally use self-talk to bolster and support ourselves. Saying things like “You can do this. You always get through it” won’t take the stressors away but will help you feel more capable of handling them. After all, your track record for getting through hard things is 100%. You absolutely CAN do this.

Get a handle on stress for good 

Having an effective plan for managing stress and overwhelm on an ongoing basis is critical. After all, stress is an unavoidable part of life! In honor of Stress Awareness month, we’ve made our Stress Management Mini-Course available to our community. In addition, through this link only, you can also get our Self-Care [by Design] Mini-Course for only $10. That’s $19 off the regular price! Research shows your approach to stress management and self-care should be effective and personalized. You are unique and your self-care plan needs to be, too. Give yourself the gift of building psychological strength and transforming your life experience

“Promise me you will not spend so much time treading water and trying to keep your head above the waves that you forget, truly forget, how much you have always loved to swim.”
—Tyler Knott Gregson
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Stress Together: Social Support Protects Against Stress

I was thrilled a few years ago when M, my college roommate, decided to move to Kansas City. I loved the idea of having my oldest and closest friend within walking distance after years of being several states away. Sadly, this weekend is her last in KC. As conflicted as I am about her move (selfishly, I want her to stay. As her friend, I believe this is right for her, and I’m excited for her new adventure), I know she is stressed. Packing and preparing for a move is no small task…even when you think it will be…which is why I volunteered to help.

“You don’t have to help me pack and clean,” she said. “Uh huh. Where’s the tape?” I asked. Packing isn’t necessarily fun, but it’s a lot like 3D Tetris, which I happen to be surprisingly good at it. As we wrapped up that day, she was thankful and seemed a bit relieved, and it felt good to me to be able to support her and help in a very real way.

Share the load: Social support reduces stress

Did you know that social support is one of the biggest protective factors against stress? Having people who care there to lend a listening ear or a helping hand is invaluable during tough times. Not only do we feel cared for and less alone, which reduces stress, but social support also boosts our resilience (our ability to adapt in the face of adversity and bounce back from hardships). What’s more, having a social support network also impacts our stress response on a physical level by settling down some of our body’s reactions to stress. It’s no secret that reducing your stress levels not only improves mental health, but also your physical health. The effects of stress run deep, so prioritizing stress relief and eliminating stressful situations by leaning on your social support network greatly improves your life. 

It’s not just receiving social support that helps us feel less stressed. Giving support does, too! It’s a similar situation, though, in that giving support not only feels good emotionally, but it also seems to have a calming effect on our body’s stress response. This is just one of the many health benefits to deepening our support group through social network, enriching social connection and social relationships. 

Types of social support

Social support during times of stress can take different forms. Often, we think about emotional support – someone being there for us, listening, sitting in the ick with us, expressing care, and being on our side. It’s a powerful thing to feel emotionally supported during times of stress, and that sense of connection buffers us against the multifaceted stress response.

Sometimes, however, what we need to give or get from our support system is instrumental support. We need concrete help alleviating the burden, whether that’s helping a friend pack, offering childcare, providing financial support, going to a doctor’s appointment, or making a meal. This type of support helps reduce or remove the source of stress. We are inherently social creatures designed to live in a connected community. We are not meant to be fully independent, and it’s not a weakness or a fail to need help sometimes. Life is hard. We’re human, and we need help.

Isolation and stress

We are literally wired for human connection. Yet, when we are struggling internally, many of us instinctively withdraw. We go further inward, pulling away from others. We don’t feel like socializing or being around loved ones.

We may worry about the impact our burdens will have on our loved ones. Concerns about weighing them down, making them worry, or bringing them down by not being fun or happy can all push us toward withdrawal as well. That’s unfortunate because doing so prevents us from using one of our best stress management tools and deprives them of that benefit as well. Next time you find yourself in the midst of a hard day or feeling stressed out, lighten the load and let a friend, family or community member, or a co-worker be there. to support you. It’s good for you both.

The wrong kind of social support

When it comes to receiving and giving social support in the face of stress, I want to call out two pitfalls to be wary of: venting and invalidation.

Venting isn’t always a good thing

It can feel good to vent to someone about the things stressing us out, but it you pay close attention, you’ll realize that venting isn’t always that helpful. Rumination is a nasty mental habit of looping endlessly on the same, typically negative thoughts, and venting often turns into ruminating out loud. When you rehash the same territory again and again, without a resolution or new insights, you’ve crossed into unhelpful venting. While it may on some level feel nice to share your frustrations with another person, especially if they agree with you, you’ll likely notice that your emotional landscape is anger, stress, worry, or sadness. You’re unnecessarily feeling the same things all over again, like stoking a fire that needs to die out.

Keep in the mind the difference between processing (making sense out of a situation and your reaction), problem-solving (coming up with a feasible solution to change or address the situation), and venting (rehashing and complaining repeatedly). Spend your time and energy on the first two and skip the latter.

Invalidation

Validation is an important relationship skill that involves recognizing and affirming another’s emotional experience. Invalidation, on the other hand, takes the form of denying, dismissing, or rejecting their emotional experience. It is a sneakily damaging thing that negatively impacts our nervous systems and erodes relationships and trust over time.

While some people intentionally use invalidation as a tool to manipulate, most people are well-intentioned and don’t even realize that they are being invalidating.

In an effort to help others feel better, we say accidentally invalidating things that actually hurt more than help. These kinds of statements come from a good place, our desire to help them feel better, alleviate some of their burden, or help them navigate a difficult situation. Unfortunately, they tend to feel dismissive, rejecting, or denying. Keep an eye out for comments like these common responses:

  • “It could be worse.”
  • “But at least…” (Finding the bright side can be quite a helpful strategy at times but not others.)
  • “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
  • “Don’t be sad/anxious/embarrassed.”
  • “I don’t know why that bothers you so much.”
  • “You shouldn’t let that get you down.”

Instead, try reflecting back their feelings. Acknowledging another’s emotional experience does not mean you agree with it. It just means you see them and you understand them. Try something like “I can see how stressed you are” or “That sounds really tough” or (my personal favorite) “Of course you feel ____! That makes sense.” Once you’ve validated and offered support, you can shift into problem-solving or letting go or whatever the next step needs to be.

Strengthen your important relationships

Strong healthy relationships are important for more reasons that just managing stress, so it’s well worth the effort to develop effective relationship skills. In fact, relationships is one of the key elements of psychological strength. The next Peak Mind Quarterly Psych Strength Workshop is coming up on Tuesday April 12, and we’re focusing on communication styles. This workshop will help you understand your own communication style and characteristic ways of relating to others. It will also help you better understand important people in your life and gain more effective ways of communicating and connecting with them.

Develop a comprehensive personalized stress management plan

Last week, we made our Stress Management Mini-Course available to our community for the first time, and many of you took quick action to get a handle on stress. Kudos to you! If you haven’t yet, now is the time to redefine your relationship with stress and learn to navigate it with ease. Through this link only, you can get the Stress Management Mini-Course AND add Self-Care [by Design], our most popular course, for only $10. 

“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”
 – Fred Rogers
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The Challenges of Facing Uncertainty

Intolerance of Uncertainty

As an anxiety specialist, I spend a lot of my time helping people learn to handle facing uncertainty. OCD, for example, is perhaps best understood as an allergy to uncertainty that manifests in a number of ways: will I get sick (I need to know for sure this safe)? What if something bad happens to me or my loved ones (I need to know for sure it’s going to be ok)? What if I make a huge mistake (I need to know for sure it’s all going to work out)? 

Every anxiety disorder essentially boils down to some intolerance of uncertainty. But it’s so much broader than that. Even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, you’re likely impacted by levels of uncertainty in some way. Our brains don’t like it, and we often have a built in adverse reaction to it.

The Assumptions We Make

How many times have we all heard over the past 18 months something along the lines of “These are uncertain times”? They are, of course, uncertain times. To be fair, though, times have always been uncertain. We just weren’t necessarily aware of it. The pandemic slapped us in the face with uncertainty – we can no longer take for granted that life is going to plug along the way it always has or the way we expect it to. A lot of our assumptions were shaken.

This foundation shaking has always happened, just typically on a more unique, individualized basis. Someone gets a life altering medical diagnosis. Someone is laid off. Or moves. Or an important relationship dissolves. We’ve all had periods of transition, periods of uncertainty in which our vision of the future becomes blurry.

Outside of those obvious, in your face moments, we often overlook uncertainty, assuming certainty without an actual guarantee of it. For example, how much are you worried about the plane barreling toward you right about to crash into you as you read this? Are you running for cover? Seeking shelter? I doubt it.

Do you know for certain, 100% without a shadow of doubt, that a plane is not barreling toward you? No. Could it happen? Sure, theoretically. But, in the face of little evidence to the contrary, little sign of danger, we assume certainty and, therefore, safety. We operate as though the plane crash absolutely cannot and will not happen.

And that’s adaptive. Imagine what it would be like if we didn’t assume certainty in some instances. Would you still go to work and save for retirement if you weren’t assuming you’d be around to see it? Would you still invest in your children if you weren’t assuming they’ll grow into healthy adults? Would you still eat kale if you weren’t taking care of your body with the hope of health and longevity? (No. Who eats kale for the enjoyment of it?!). The point being that we make a lot of assumptions about the continuity of things as they are. 

That’s ok. In fact, it’s quite helpful.

But, the past 18 months have made us keenly aware that the future is not certain. Things can change abruptly. Our foundations have been shaken, and uncertainty is actually quite hard for us.

Our Brains Hate Uncertainty

Our brains are designed to keep us alive. When things are familiar and predictable, our brains can relax a bit. We’re safe. As soon as we enter into uncharted territory – something new, unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or – you got it – uncertain, our threat detection system goes into high alert. We may have a fight or flight response. We may have a hard time to cope with uncertainty, whether thats worries about the future, or something as silly as a post on social media. We don’t know what to expect. We’re not sure what’s going to happen. We might not be safe.

Our brains begin to scan, looking for every potential danger or thing that could wrong, and we experience that as anxiety or unease. Our brains are constantly looking for worst case scenarios to save us from. Our brains start striving toward certainty and safety again. Remember, that’s their number one job. This striving comes out in all kinds of ways, all centering on getting some sense of control. For example, we may plan, figure out, avoid, ruminate, try to control others, analyze, and any number of strategies ultimately aimed at getting rid of the uncertainty, getting us back to familiar, predictable ground. We want a sense of control, and we want a guarantee of safety. While it’s natural, the problem is that sometimes there isn’t a way to resolve the uncertainty, to get that guaranteed outcome that we’re looking for, and all of those efforts actually exhaust us or stress us out further. The goal, then, is to learn to tolerate uncertainty. To learn to be ok with not knowing and, hopefully, trust that we’ll be able to handle whatever might arise.

Tolerating Uncertainty

Dealing with uncertainty is like training a muscle that can be developed (think risk tolerance or expanding your comfort zone, both similar concepts here). One step you can take is to start to get clear about what is and isn’t knowable so that you can stop spinning your wheels seeking certainty where it’s not possible to get any. Ask yourself these key questions to determine if it’s worth your time and effort:

  • Is this knowable?
  • Is this knowable by me?
  • Is this knowable by me right now?

If the answer is yes, yes, yes, by all means, continue to spend the time analyzing, thinking about, figuring out, and controlling. You can find the answers you’re looking for, then act accordingly.

If, however, the answer to any one of them is no, you’re better off working on accepting the uncertainty and putting your time and effort into other things that you actually can control.

When will COVID really be over? 

I don’t think that’s knowable in general, certainly not by me right now. Rather than analyzing every bit of news (or noise – opinions and predictions masquerading as facts), I’ll focus on thriving through the uncertainty.

What if my business venture (kids, relationships, fitness efforts, etc., etc.,) doesn’t succeed?

The future isn’t knowable. I can feel overwhelmed worrying about success, or I can spend my time working on strategies and steps that improve performance and move my business forward.

Notice the places where you find yourself saying (or thinking) “I just need to know” or worrying about how things will turn out or struggling with the unpredictability. Ask yourself those key questions. Then focus your energy and efforts accordingly.

Psychological Strength Is Key

When I look back over periods in my life that have felt very uncertain or were characterized by big transitions, I see how psychological strength is so helpful in navigating those times. These skills are invaluable in being able to thrive through adversity and deal with challenges. Fortunately, psychological strength can be developed. April and I will be diving much deeper into uncertainty and, more importantly, how to thrive through it, in a live virtual workshop on Wednesday. If you want to take charge of your life and be more proactive in shaping how life feels for you, we’d love to have you join us. Tickets are only $19 (or free for Ascend members). If you can’t join us live but this topic resonates with you, go ahead and get your ticket. With your ticket, you get 30 days access to the Peak Mind Platform where you’ll be able to access the workshop replay and workbook to go through on your own time.

 “If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is perfectly acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness, and creativity.”
— Eckhart Tolle
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Feeling Fear: A Trick or a Treat? 

Scary movies, haunted houses, creepy crawlies that go bump in the night…yes, please! If you’re like me, you enjoy a good scare. The anticipation as you wander through the haunted house, knowing that someone – or something – is waiting to jump out at you at any second. Startles and screams followed by laughter, a delightful release. In a controlled, realistically safe situation, feeling fear can be fun – a real treat, if you will. 

If you’re not like me in this regard, that’s ok. Lots of people hate scary movies and rollercoasters and the like. The reality is, lots of people truly hate the feeling of fear itself, even when it’s intentional, even when they know it’s a trick, that there’s no real danger present. Honestly, that makes a lot of sense. By design, anxiety is unpleasant. It’s our body’s built in warning system, created to keep us safe and alive. Our heart rate goes up, we may go into fight or flight mode, fear is an intense human emotion that the physical symptoms, even when there is no perceived threat, is not worth feeling at all. It feels so icky so that we’re highly motivated to get rid of it by avoiding or escaping and, by doing so, returning to safety and security. 

This is an excellent feature when it comes to avoiding car accidents or dangerous situations, but fear can also hold us back from taking physically safe but socially or emotionally uncomfortable steps, like being vulnerable, going for a big goal, or making a change.

It keeps us alive. It holds us back. It can be fun. It can be awful. It’s a trick AND a treat, depending on the situation.

Understanding the Fear System 

Fine tuning your relationship with fear and anxiety is one of the most empowering tasks to take on. Learning to be open in the face of it – to venture boldly into those real and metaphorical haunted houses, is a life expanding move. And to get there, you have to know what you’re working with. You have to understand the ins and outs of our fear system.

Here’s some interesting info to know. The part of our brain that is primarily responsible for fear and anxiety (the limbic system, with its superstar the amygdala), continually scans looking for signs that indicate potential threat. Unfortunately, anxiety can’t tell the difference between real and imagined. When we watch scary movies or go through those haunted corn mazes, we’re capitalizing on that fact. We experience the fear response even though we’re not truly in danger. It’s a brain trick…and a treat for those of us who enjoy it.

Here’s where it gets interesting to think about. We have another part of our brain that is capable of imagining, right? We daydream, speculate, plan, anticipate. We worry. That’s just imagining possible bad things that can happen, almost like an internal private horror movie. And our adorably strong but primitive anxiety system can’t tell the difference, so it sounds the alarms. 

Think about it, if those things you worry about were actually happening, it would make complete sense to feel anxious or afraid, wouldn’t it? And you’d be well-served to let anxiety guide your decisions and do what you need to avoid or escape those bad things. But they’re not happening in the outside world. They’re only happening in your inside world. You’re imagining it. And your anxiety system is responding, just like it does to a scary movie or haunted house. The difference here, though, is that you may not realize what’s happening, and that makes the anxiety feel real and meaningful. These mental scenarios mean danger!

Nope. It’s a trick!

Don’t Fall for Fear’s Tricks 

This year as I watch my first Michael Meyers movies (yes, I somehow made it to middle age without ever seeing one), when I feel scared, I’ll tell myself it’s just a movie, and I’ll take comfort in that. I’ll even enjoy the sensations of fear as I experience them. I’ll laugh at my exaggerated startle response and giggle at my gasps because I know I’m safe and that this is all just for fun. I 100% believe that anxiety is not bad, that it can helpful sometimes.

And when your mind starts playing whatever scary movie it loves to give you, tell yourself something similar. Say, “That’s just the You’re Going to Get Fired movie or the Someone is Going to Get Sick story or the Everyone Will Get Mad at Me saga.” Remind yourself that it’s ok to feel anxious. That it’s just a trick.

Interested in Learning More? 

Check out this episode of the Building Psychological Strength podcast episode.

Episode 150: Break Free from Anxiety

 
 
“I think being fearless is having fears but jumping anyways.”
—Taylor Swift
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Understanding Shame

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When was the last time you felt ashamed? Did you feel inclined to talk to someone about how you were feeling, or did you keep it to yourself? As you think back, were you feeling ashamed about something you actually had control over or were you accepting shame for something outside of your direct control?  

Does shame ever play a role in influencing your behavior when you realize that you’ve changed your mind on a belief you once strongly held? Do you ever feel shame toward other people when they seem to “flip-flop” on important issues?  

What about at a societal level? Do you see the influence of shame in any of our core institutions? The legal system, perhaps? Or the school system?  

These are all of the questions we’re addressing during this week’s episode, which is an in-depth conversation with Nick Jawarski, the host of the podcast “Shame Rules!” 

Nick became fascinated by the complex ways in which shame impacts us at both an individual and a societal level. He attempted to cover it in an episode of a podcast, but he quickly realized it deserved its own show.  

In our conversation, we begin by diving into what shame and guilt are and how they impact us individually. We talk about the role they play in keeping us from growing and learning new things, particularly in the age of social media.  

Then, we take an interesting turn to talk about the near-universal role that shame plays in our broader institutions in society. We’re talking about things as fundamental as the legal system and our public school system.  

The experience of shame is one of our conscious emotions, and that sense of shame is deep-seated when people feel guilt. How we respond to shame can add to destructive behaviors with personal and social anxiety and the creation of further negative beliefs.

Not only will you leave this episode with a more in-depth understanding of the ways in which shame might impact you on a day-to-day basis, but you’ll begin to see it everywhere in society. I know I did! 

I can’t wait for you to meet Nick Jawarski and to check out his new podcast, Shame Rules! https://www.shamerules.com/  

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How To Holistically Heal Your Brain With Dr. Brant Cortright

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Since 1950, rates of anxiety and depression have rapidly increased in the U.S. and around the globe, to the point that we now have a mental health crisis on our hands. Improvement in testing and diagnosis does not explain this increase. Rather, changes in our diet, environment, and lifestyle are believed to explain this rapid increase. 

Our brains are constantly changing (neuroplasticity) and growing (neurogenisis). Cutting-edge research shows us that the linkage between our brain and the “neurotoxic environment” we currently live in is leading to a weakened brain, causing us to experience heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and cognitive decline. 

While there are many types of holistic medicine, when referring to mental health issues, the term addresses alternative therapies other than conventional medicine. The holistic approach often combines western medicine with alternative medicine complementary to form a mind/ body connection.

This week on the podcast, I’m speaking with Dr. Brant Cortright, clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the California Institute of Integral Studies. In his recent book “Holistic Healing for Anxiety, Depression, and Cognitive Decline,” he discusses the link between our “neurotoxic environment” and our mental health. 

Most importantly, we have a deep conversation about how we all can begin to reverse these effects. You won’t want to miss this episode. Your brain will thank you! 

Learn more about Dr. Cortright at: https://www.brantcortright.com/  

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What a Bug on Your Windshield Can Teach You

I came across this excellent metaphor on how to focus attention this week, and I have to share it.

You’re driving down the road, and a giant bug splats on the window right in front of you. Maybe you startle a bit as the splat suddenly enters your awareness. Then what?

You can focus all of your attention on the bug guts splattered on your window. Or, you can focus your attention on the road ahead. You’re still aware of the bug, but your attention is focused on the road.

Let’s say, though, that the bug grosses you out or annoys you and you just don’t want it there (you just cleaned your windshield!). What happens if you try to remove the bug from your awareness? If you try to deny its existence or pretend like it’s not there? That gunk on your car will stand out even more! 

It doesn’t really matter what those specific thoughts are. You’re ruminating now, which is a pretty unhelpful mental habit. Your attention is fully absorbed by your thoughts. You’re in your head, which means that you’re not in the moment. 

The more we pay attention to the present moment, the happier we tend to be, even when those present moments are unpleasant (like a bug splat). And like that bug, unwanted thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, events, and circumstances may crop up, whether we want them to or not.

Whether we asked for them, caused them, or had anything to do with them. What shows up in our awareness isn’t necessarily under our control. Where we focus our attention, however, is. 

Choosing to pay attention to the things that help move us in the direction we want to go is a powerful psychological strength move. It takes a lot of self-awareness and practice, but it’s so worth it!

 P.S. A big thank you to Carl Robbins and Dr. Sally Winstead, professional colleagues at the Anxiety and Stress Disorder Institute of Maryland, for sharing this metaphor.

“What you do with your attention is in the end what you do with your life.”
― John Green
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What To Do When Your Mind Holds You Back

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We’ve probably all had the experience of wanting to make a change, try something new, do something bold, or attempt something uncertain…only to have our mind kick in and talk us out of it. 

Self-doubt, the inner critic, anxiety, and judgment are killers of progress because they influence us so heavily. They keep us stuck. 

These feelings of self-doubt can have a broader effect on one’s mental health including a lack of confidence, Imposter Syndrome, fear of failure and other negative thoughts. There’s a myth that successful people overcome self-doubt and build confidence but in truth, we all experience feelings (at some level) of self-doubt. Practicing self-compassion and being a good friend to yourself is important.

Today, we’re digging into one of the most fundamental principles of the way our mind works. We’re going back to the basics to tease apart the role our mind plays in keeping us stuck, and what to do about it. 

If you’re even thinking about making a change or taking on something new, this is the episode for you! 

For more information on the Ascend program, visit www.peakmindpsychology.com/ascend 

We want to hear your questions and feedback! Email us at info@peakmindpsychology.com  

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Watch Out for These Red Flag Words

Language matters, perhaps more than you might realize. Take, for example, the scenario you’re running late to meet a friend. When you arrive, you say one of two things

“I’m sorry I was late.” vs. “Thanks for your patience.” 

One signals to both you and your friend that you messed up. Cue guilt for you and irritation for them. The other primes you both for positive emotions like appreciation and respect. Both acknowledge that you were late, but the language used produces very different results

Let’s take another example. You have a hard task to do, and you say to yourself:

“I have to…“ vs. “I get to…

The first leads to dread while the second promotes something else, perhaps gratitude, excitement, or motivation. The second may help you tap into your values and make the difficult task feel more worthwhile. Notice that there’s only one little word that’s different, yet the sentiment changes pretty significantly.

Language shapes out thinking, which, in turn, influences our feelings and actions. That makes language incredibly important. In the 15 or so years that I’ve been working with people within my psychology practice, I’ve learned to pay attention to red flag words.

Red Flag Words

 Red flag words are ones that consistently signal problematic patterns of thinking; that is, thinking that is likely to drive unnecessary anxiety, sadness, guilt, or anger and/or urge you to take unhelpful actions. Training yourself to catch and change these red flags – or at least notice and disregard them – can be incredibly powerful. 

1.     Should

If you’ve been with us for a while (or have ever had a conversation with me) then you may have heard my soap box about should. It’s the Mean Girls of the English language – criticism and judgment packaged as something helpful. Shoulds are expectations, and they are often unrealistic. Even when the expectations sound realistic, though, reality often doesn’t match them, which leads to internal ick. Don’t take my word for it. Pay attention to what happens when you should on yourself or someone else. I can almost guarantee that the outcome is a feeling of anxiety, guilt, or anger. One of the best things I’ve ever done for myself is ban the word should from my mental vocabulary. A handy trick to start with is to catch the should. Then, try to rephrase the sentence with “I want to _____ because_____.” If you can’t accurately and realistically capture the same sentiment, it’s an unhelpful should. Kick it out! 

2.     Yeah but

This red flag signals negativity, specifically a negative thinking pattern called discounting the positive. Our brains are wired for negativity, which makes them really good at noticing all of the problems, flaws, and downsides. Yeah but is your mind essentially honing in on the negative, like a heat seeking missile. How’s this for an illustration: “I just won the lottery! Yeah but, I’m going to have to pay taxes on that free money.” Kind of dampens things, doesn’t it? When you catch the yeah but, follow it up with a but at least. “But at least I’m getting a whole pile of unexpected money, and it only cost me $1 for the lottery ticket!”

3.     What if

What if is a worry. Worry is your mind looking for and trying to predict anything that could go wrong. While helpful at times, the effect is that you feel anxious or worried in the here and now…even though NONE of those potential bad things are actually happening. When your mind starts to throw out those what ifs, I encourage you to respond by saying, “What if is a worry.” Then shift your attention back to the present moment and what is actually happening. If you can’t disregard the what ifs, at least make your mind do some work to balance the picture. For every negative (and they’re almost always negative, aren’t they?) what if, make your mind find a potential positive what if as well. “What if I tell them how I really feel about it, and they get mad?” “Well, what if I tell them how I feel about it, and they listen appreciatively, and we resolve the whole situation?”

4.     Always and Never

Extremes like always and never or everyone and no one signal black-or-white thinking and are another sneaky form of negativity. Very rarely does someone always or never do something, and when you generalize in the extreme like that, you’re creating problems for you and them. Notice how different “You never listen to me” sounds from “Sometimes, you don’t listen to me.” (Better yet, soften it even more with “Sometimes, it seems like you’re not listening.”) Which one is likely more accurate? When you catch the always and nevers, ask yourself, “Is this true 100% of the time in 100% of situations? There are truly zero exceptions?” If not, choose a more accurate word like sometimes/often/frequently or some/many/a lot of people.

5.     I’m just…

I’m just…making an excuse. Just is for justification, which is a fancy excuse or rationalization. It may seem harmless, and frankly, it may be in some scenarios. Other times, however, it undermines your message or keeps you from doing hard but necessary work like taking responsibility for missteps or making changes, especially within relationships. Imagine that a coworker raises a concern about the quality of some work, and you respond with “Well, I was just trying to get the project done before the deadline.”  While that may feel true, it’s coming from a defensive place with the intent of deflecting blame. It does nothing to acknowledge the situation, take ownership, or make a plan to address or fix it. Instead, something like the following seems a lot more helpful: “The deadline was tight, and I felt a lot of pressure to get everything done in a timely fashion. I didn’t intend to sacrifice the quality of m my work. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.” The dialogue that follows is likely to feel a lot different. Instead of “just” justifying your actions, feelings, needs, or perspective, try owning them.

As April and I love to say, your mind can be your most valuable asset or your biggest liability. You get to choose. So watch out for these red flag words and train your thinking to be more helpful and accurate. And if you want to learn more ways to make your mind work for you, check out Ascend, our comprehensive psych strength program.

“Change your language and you change your thoughts.”
 – Karl Albrecht
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Post-partum depression, anxiety, and related issues are so much more common than we realize, and on today’s episode, I’m speaking with Lauren Robbins. She is a therapist and Executive Director of Pregnancy & Postpartum Support MN.  

In this episode, we’re talking about the sensitive and important topic of supporting parents through their pregnancy, postpartum, and parenting years. If you are a parent, or if you know and love someone who is, you won’t want to miss this episode. 

 Learn more about PPSI-MN at https://ppsupportmn.org 

If you need help, you can call or text PPSI-MN at 612.787.7776 

Learn more about the Self-Care [by design] program at https://www.peakmindpsychology.com/selfcare  

Those suffering from postpartum anxiety disorders can encounter physical symptoms including panic attacks and sleep deprivation. Feeling overwhelmed, mood disorders and panic disorders are just some of the mental health challenges many face in the postpartum period. While family members can be helpful, those with higher risk factors may want to consider cognitive behavioral therapy through a licensed professional.