It Isn’t All Bad

Blue Monday is just around the corner and is said to be the most depressing day of the year. But maybe it isn’t all bad?

I’m guessing the immediate reaction for some of you will be along the lines of ‘it bloody well is’!

Certainly, if you happen to be going through a difficult time in your life then it is likely to feel that way. Even if you are not going through a major life event you may still feel like this from time to time.

It is very easy to get bogged down in the day to day hassles that life presents us with.

When someone simply tells you to look on the bright side or some similar well-meant but largely unhelpful platitude, my guess is that you internally tell them where to stick their bright side.

That said, there is something about the way our attention works that could prevent us from seeing a bright side if we think that everything is going wrong or if we are feeling bogged down.

 

Focus of attention

Our focus of attention is not an objective thing; it is subject to numerous biases and we tend to filter out some information while paying particular attention to other information.

This is a very necessary way for us to operate because if we took in all of the available information to the same level, we would struggle to process it all or to get anything done!

Our brains, sometimes helpfully but at other times less helpfully, tend to take short-cuts.

I will talk about 3 short-cuts in particular that work together to maintain the belief that everything is awful.

  1. We pay particular attention to the things that support what we already believe and these things are generalised and magnified.
  2. We largely ignore information that contradicts what we already believe.
  3. We distort neutral information to fit in with what we already believe.

 

To flesh this out a bit, let’s imagine person A has the belief that everything is going wrong and person B has a belief that things are going pretty well.

Now let’s say that the same 3 events happen to person A and to person B.

  1. They each go for a job interview and don’t get the job.
  2. They each get positive feedback from the interview despite not getting it.
  3. They each get stuck in traffic on their way home that night.

Person A will definitely turn their full attention to the fact that they didn’t get the job but it is unlikely to stop there.

If they have a belief that everything is going wrong they are likely to be thinking:

‘I knew it’, ‘I never get the jobs I really want’, ‘I’m always really bad at interviews’, ‘I’ll never be able to get a promotion’, ‘nothing ever works out in my favour’, ‘what’s the point in even trying’.

It becomes about more than just this one job interview. It becomes about every job interview they have been unsuccessful in and it about every job interview they will go to in the future.

It may also be generalised to other unrelated events that are not going well – maybe the boiler broke last week or their car needs to go into the garage – it all becomes lumped together and gives more weight to the belief that everything is going wrong.

So later, when they receive feedback that they did very well in the interview and that it was just down to the other candidate having a little more experience, person A doesn’t really acknowledge the positive feedback. It is simply discounted.
Later still when person A gets stuck in traffic (which I am classing here as something fairly neutral) they are likely to give that their full attention and interpret it as being terrible because it fits with the way they already think and feel.

Maybe it goes something like:

‘Oh, this is all I need after such a bad day’, ‘what else can possibly go wrong’, ‘I hate being stuck in traffic’, ‘now I’ll miss out on time this evening’.

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Person A still holds the belief that everything is going wrong and probably feels pretty de-moralised.

 

A different focus

On the other hand, person B is less likely to focus as much attention on the fact that they didn’t get the job. They may feel disappointed but if they already believe that things are going well they are more likely to dismiss it:

‘It is disappointing but there will be plenty more opportunities out there’, ‘It wasn’t the right kind of job for me anyway’, ‘it was good experience to go to the interview’, ‘I’ll do better next time’.
Later, when they receive positive feedback and are told it was just down to the other candidate having a little more experience, they will give that positive feedback their full attention and they are likely to generalise and magnify it.

‘That was nice feedback’, ‘I am pretty good at interviews’, ‘They seemed impressed with me, I’m sure I’ll get the next one’.

Then, when person B gets stuck in traffic they may think:

‘I don’t mind having a bit of time for my brain to unwind before I get home’, ‘I can listen to that podcast I have been wanting to listen to’, ‘I’m not in any rush anyway’.

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Person B still holds the belief that things are going pretty well.

Neither way of looking at these events is right or wrong. They are both biased. But person B is going to experience far less negative emotion than person A.

 

Changing Focus

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So, if you wanted to challenge the belief that everything is going wrong, it is going to take a change of focus.

Not so much looking on the bright side, but purposefully seeking to alter the attentional biases at work.

Step 1: State only the fact, rather than generalising and magnifying.

Step 2: Acknowledge the positives, rather than discounting them.

Step 3: Ask yourself if there is a different way of seeing the same situation. How would you view it if you felt better? How would someone else view this situation?

Have a not so bad day!

Lemon Squeezy makes wellbeing easy!

How to Know What Works

How to Know What Works (and what doesn’t)

In my work as a therapist I see people who have been caught up in the same kinds of unhelpful patterns time and again.

Usually people work very hard at trying to feel good and do well but sometimes despite their best efforts, it seems to backfire.

Sometimes we are well aware of what actually works well for us and what works less well.

Sometimes, though, we can misattribute what is actually working in our favour and sometimes we just get it plain wrong!

  • Have you ever said that you work best when you leave something right up until the deadline because the adrenaline fuels you through it?
  • Have you ever thought that being harsh or critical towards yourself helps to motivate you?
  • Have you ever skipped lunch or breaks because you believe you need to in order to get everything done?

If you have answered ‘yes’ to any of these then I will show you a method of analysing whether these things are actually working or not.

Why Do We Do Unhelpful Things?

First of all, let’s look at why we fall into unhelpful patterns in the first place.

Like all animals, we are wired up to learn based on the immediate consequences of our actions.

An example I often use in therapy is that if you are training a dog to do a trick, you would give it a treat straight away when it has performed the trick, right?

This way, the dog associates performing a particular action with a reward.

If you gave the dog a reward half an hour after the trick, it would not associate the action with the reward so it wouldn’t be as likely to do it again.

We learn in just the same way.

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If our action produces a reward in the short-term, we are more likely to do it again.

Those of you familiar with psychology will recognise this idea as positive reinforcement.

The same is true if we avoid a negative or gain some kind of relief from discomfort  – we are likely to repeat this action.

This is called negative reinforcement.

As humans, we can all recognise that our actions have long-term consequences too. The problem is that we are not wired up to respond to these in the same way.

The good news though, is that we can reflect in a way that can help us to make choices based on the longer term consequences of our actions and get a better outcome as a result.

For Example…

Let’s take the example of skipping lunch or breaks (or both) to get something done.
Step 1: Identify the aim of the behaviour. 

Aim: Let’s say the aim here is to be productive or efficient.

Step 2: Identify the short-term reward or how it removes some form of discomfort in the short-term.

This will tell us what is reinforcing our action.

Short-term consequences:

  • We may feel relief of a little pressure because we now have more time.
  • We may have the thought that we are being conscientious or diligent
  • We may feel a certain amount of pride in the thought that we can work harder than everyone else or that we are determined enough to get it done.
  • We may temporarily feel like we are  ‘good enough’ as long as we are constantly pushing ourselves.
  • If nobody else takes breaks in our workplace, maybe we are pushing through to avoid criticism from our colleagues.

There are many potential short-term rewards (and relief) for this particular action.
So now for the long term consequences…

Long-term consequences:

  • The first and most obvious longer term consequence is fatigue.
  • If we have actually skipped eating rather than eating while we work at our desk, there will also be the obvious dip in your blood sugar levels (which – by the way – can be an internal trigger for increased symptoms of anxiety).
  • Our concentration will undoubtedly suffer and the chance of making mistakes will increase as a result.
  • A lack of focus will cause you to take longer in whatever it is you are doing and it will feel harder.
  • Then, the pressure increases again and our thoughts may turn to more negative ones: ‘I’ll never get this done’, ‘this is taking too long’, ‘even though I work harder than other people, I don’t do as well’, ‘See, I’m really not good enough’, ‘I’m going to get criticised for not getting this done in time.’

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All of our short-term rewards have flown out of the window and the initial aim of being productive or efficient is not being met at all!

How We Attribute What Worked
Let’s imagine you do actually get the job done.

How do you attribute what has worked for you?

I’m willing to bet you would think something along the lines of

‘I would never have got that done if I had taken my lunch or my break.’
THIS IS NONSENSE!
You got it done in spite of hugely disadvantaging yourself!
Now let’s imagine you did not get the job finished.

How do you attribute what didn’t work?

‘I bet you wouldn’t say:

‘it is because I worked all day long without a break.’

Even though this is likely to be the reason you were unable to complete it.

It is much more likely that you would think something along the lines of:

‘It is because I am not as good/fast/efficient/productive as everyone else/as I should be… and next time I will have to try even harder.’

So, the next time a similar situation comes along you skip lunch and breaks again in an attempt to do better.

Hopefully, you can see that if we look at it this way and break down the aim, the short-term consequences and the long-term consequences, you can begin to see if a strategy you are using is actually working or not.

If it doesn’t, then you can make a choice to try something different.

Hopefully it is also clear that even though our unhelpful actions are well intended, they are not things that we would suggest to someone else as a helpful strategy.

Often we already know what the downside of the action is.

I’m sure you all pre-empted the long-terms consequences of this example – we all know that working constantly will ultimately lead you to burn out.

So, take a break, start noticing your aims, your short and long-term consequences to find out what works… and what doesn’t.

Lemon Squeezy makes wellbeing easy!

Image Credit: Pixabay

How to Recognise Survival Mode

Are You In Survival Mode?

I’m not sure where the term ‘survival mode’ comes from but it is a phrase that seems to resonate for a lot of people I speak to in my work as a therapist.

Have you ever had that feeling that you are just treading water and that if you stop kicking you could sink at any moment?

Ever feel that it would only take a fairly small wave to swallow you up altogether?

Then survival mode will probably resonate for you too.

This analogy seemed particularly pertinent a while ago when I was listening to the radio and the Royal National Life Guard were talking about a campaign giving some survival advice if you get into trouble in the water.

They were advising that rather than thrashing about, people should float, conserve their energy and gather themselves in order to enable them to swim or until help arrives.

You can find more about the RNLI Fight or Float advice here: https://bit.ly/2yxNsrI

However, this is also a brilliant analogy for our emotional state and the psychological concept of survival mode too.

All too often, the thing that we automatically do when we are in survival mode is to try harder, push ourselves, do more, work longer hours or use the same old strategies that may have worked for us once but are not working any more.

In essence, we are thrashing about in the water.

 

What is survival mode?

First, I should probably explain a little more about what I mean when I am talking about survival mode.

For the most part, I think survival mode looks a lot like functioning and can even feel functional too but survival mode will leave you:

  • Exhausted
  • Stressed out
  • Overwhelmed
  • Snappy
  • Restless
  • Unable to concentrate for long
  • Forgetful
  • Making more mistakes…

…but it feels like you are doing something nonetheless.

 

From personal experience…

Survival mode looked like never stopping for air –

Rushing to work, not taking breaks, rushing from work to collect the kids, then cramming in as many activities for them as I could before getting them to bed, doing as much housework as I could fit in once they were settled then collapsing into bed (probably being woken up 3-4 times) then starting the whole thing all over again.

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One of the problems with this approach is that it can work to some extent, giving us little reason to change until it becomes unsustainable.

I could still be a good therapist, a good mum and have a reasonably tidy house when I was operating in survival mode but it was difficult to enjoy it. Instead, it felt like being on a treadmill. Working hard but getting nowhere.

I wasn’t enjoying it, I was just surviving it.

There is no balance when you are in survival mode.

 

Recognising survival mode thoughts

Survival mode can be so busy it is difficult to recognise it when you are in the middle of it. Here are some of the thoughts you may notice in survival mode:

  • I just don’t have the time
  • I ‘should’ be doing…
  • I can’t cope with anything else
  • It is just one thing after another
  • There’s too much to do
  • I never stop
  • My head is too full

 

How to break free?

If this sounds like a place you are in right now, then you are faced with the problem of how to change it.

Maybe you try to take on something new to try to get your balance back?

Do the things you believe that you ‘should’ do rather than the things you truly want to do?

Try to cram in even more to re-gain a social life or exercise routine?

You might try a different angle and look for ways to escape by…

  • looking for a new job
  • putting things off (usually the hardest or the most important things)
  • turning down opportunities to see friends because you are just too tired
  • collapsing in front of Netflix and zoning out with a bottle of wine and a big bag of crisps.

All the while neglecting to do the things that help you to float.

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What we really benefit from when we are in survival mode is to pause.

Float, breathe, gather your energy and resources.

Connect with your emotions and find time for relaxation. Then maybe it will be easier to swim in the direction you want to go when you have recovered.

Looking after your wellbeing doesn’t feel like a priority when you are in survival mode.

You believe that if you stop, you will sink.

Maybe there is an alternative – maybe you could float.

Lemon Squeezy makes wellbeing easy!

Image Credit: Pixabay

Why I Don’t Like the Terms ‘Stressed’ and ‘Depressed’

First of all, I am not denying that many people feel stressed and depressed and I am not suggesting for a second that these terms are not valid descriptions of people’s experience.

I have used them to describe my own emotional experience and within my blogs!

The difficulty I have with the terms ‘stressed’ and ‘depressed’ is that we have come to use these words as a shorthand for too many of our emotions. As a result, I believe we are in danger of losing touch with our emotional vocabulary and with our emotions themselves. 

OK, they are useful umbrella terms in day to day conversation but underneath the ‘stress’ or the ‘depression’, there is likely a myriad of emotions going unrecognised, un-named and unprocessed. 

Whats more, when we overuse terms like ‘depressed’ in day to day conversation to mean sad or fed up, it can diminish the meaning of depression if you are experiencing an episode of clinical depression.

What happens if we lose touch with our emotions?adult-blur-business-986831

It may feel safer or more socially acceptable to tell someone you are feeling stressed or depressed than it is to say you feel:

  • dejected
  • furious
  • terrified
  • despondent
  • lost
  • flat
  • empty, deflated, defeated, bereft, sorrowful, rejected, apprehensive, bored, or have a sense of impending doom.  

But what happens when we only acknowledge the label ‘stressed’ or ‘depressed’ to ourselves?

We could miss the nuance of our experience…

We could avoid acknowledging and feeling emotions that could help us to understand something about ourselves or our situation…

Or we may just feel overwhelmed and confused because we don’t really know how we feel. 

Think for a minute about the difference in how it feels when you think of the word ‘depressed’ in comparison with ‘bereft’.

What do they feel like? Can you tell the difference?

 

When we don’t define the emotion it hinders appropriate action

When we can’t express what we are feeling to ourselves or to others, it could also prevent us from taking appropriate action or having our needs met. 

For example, I have recently noticed that my 6 year old will tell me he is hungry when he is actually bored. 

He is expressing to me that he has a need and he wants his internal state to change but he sometimes mis-labels what he is experiencing.

If he is actually bored but tells me he is hungry, I will give him something to eat but then in 10 minutes he will come back to tell me he is still hungry. 

His true need has not been met. 

If, on the other hand, he can identify and tell me that he is bored, the solution to this problem is different!

We might get out some different toys or activities or go out to play! (He has now started to differentiate between hunger and boredom with a little prompting).

 

Emotions are there to be felt!adult-change-clown-1990

Even the emotions we experience as negative are there to help us make sense of our internal and external world. 

Just identifying our emotions helps us to acknowledge and process them. Being specific about what you are experiencing is far more helpful than using a catch-all term. 

Of course, you may actually feel stressed or depressed, in which case these descriptions are absolutely valid.

But if you find yourself frequently using these words with other people or to yourself, or if you rarely use any other ways to describe your emotions, see if there is anything else hiding beneath them. 

Don’t stop at negative emotions either! Identify your positive emotions too!

Don’t you think elated, ecstatic, overjoyed, victorious, invincible or carefree feel better than ‘good’?

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Have a lovely, emotional day!

Lemon Squeezy makes wellbeing easy! 

Image Credit: Pixabay

 

5 Relaxation Myths

5 Relaxation Myths

One of the questions I ask my clients on a regular basis in my work as a psychotherapist is whether they find it easy to relax. You would be surprised by how many people don’t really know what I mean by that. 

Here are some of the responses I get to that question and the myths about relaxation they link to.

Myth 1: Relaxation is ‘doing nothing’

“I don’t do much at all, so yeah, I can relax”

Doing nothing is not the same as relaxation! 

Are you ever really ‘doing nothing’ anyway? I think what people mean when they say they are ‘doing nothing’ is that they are not actively engaged in a task. 

Maybe they are sitting and staring at the wall. 

Maybe they are half-watching TV. 

What people are usually doing when they think they are ‘doing nothing’ is:

  • Over-thinking. 
  • Dwelling. 
  • Worrying. 
  • Arguing with themselves internally. 
  • Giving themselves a hard time internally.

None of these things are relaxing!

Relaxation is an active process.

Relaxation is a choice and a decision you make to engage in an activity that relaxes you. 

It could be a guided relaxation in which you are visualising, focusing on your breathing, or tensing and relaxing your muscles. It could be an activity that you find soothing like drawing, reading or listening to music. 

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But whatever relaxation is for you, it definitely isn’t ‘nothing’.

This leads me on to the second myth…

 

Myth 2: In order to relax, you have to do nothing. Not even think.

“I’ve tried sitting and emptying my mind but it doesn’t work”

Damn right, it doesn’t! 

The only times your brain is ‘empty’ of conscious thought is when you are asleep (and not dreaming), unconscious – or dead!

Brains like to think. It is what they do best. 

Left unfocused, brains will come up with all kinds of random things for you to over-analyse, worry about and remember and this can impact how we feel emotionally and how we behave as a result. However, relaxation is not about clearing your mind altogether.

If you are engaged with relaxation of any kind, you will have a focus for your attention. 

If you are using a visualisation, you are thinking pictorially of a scene.

If you are focusing on your breathing, you are directing your conscious awareness to your breath.

If you are listening to an enjoyable piece of music, you may be remembering positive associations you have with that song or making meaning from the lyrics.

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Myth 3: Distraction is the same as relaxation.

“Yeah, I can relax. I watch a lot of Netflix”

Of course, watching Netflix has its place.

With this myth, it can be tricky because it depends more on the way in which you are doing something than what you are actually doing. 

You could be watching TV as a distraction. You could be watching TV as a form of relaxation. 

You could be reading as a distraction. You could be reading as a form of relaxation.

You could be walking as a distraction. You could be walking as a form of relaxation.

Here is how to tell which one it is:

Distraction

When we distract ourselves it is with the aim of escaping from something, namely:

  • Our thoughts
  • Our emotions
  • Our physical state

Distraction can work in the short term to some extent. If, like me, you have young children then you will know the power of distraction to help them move on from a grazed knee or a bumped head  (once cuddles have been properly administered, of course).

The trouble is, we are often trying to distract ourselves from stress, dissatisfaction, frustration, worry, rumination… but:

  • You are unlikely to be fully engaged with the distraction e.g. not fully able to concentrate on what you are doing.
  • Distraction is less likely to fit with the things you value e.g. watching whatever is on TV rather than watching something that truly interests you.
  • The difficult thoughts and emotions don’t really go anywhere in the long term.

Distraction may give you a temporary escape is not the same as relaxation.

Relaxation

Relaxation is about engaging with something positive rather than escaping something negative.

Of course, relaxation can give us a breather from difficult thoughts, emotions or physical states, but it is with the aim of gaining a resource rather than purely for escape. 

Relaxation builds resilience in the face of difficult thoughts, emotions and physical states.

When you are relaxing or engaging in a relaxing activity: 

  • You are more likely to feel fully engaged with it and be gaining enjoyment or satisfaction from it.
  • It is more likely to fit with your values and interests.
  • It helps you to feel restored and more able to face difficult thoughts and emotions or to gain a different perspective on them.

 

Myth 4: Numbing out is the same as relaxation

“I can only relax by drinking wine”

In the same way that distraction is about temporary escape, so is numbing. 

Numbing gives the illusion of relaxation but ultimately it is an imposter.

In the same ways as myth 3, numbing is not building any internal resource for you. In fact, it is likely doing the opposite and leading you to under-estimate your ability to cope without it.

If numbing out is your main relaxation strategy, I would suggest that it is all the more important to learn some good quality relaxation techniques and emotion regulation tools.

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Myth 5: Learning to relax is too hard

“I don’t have the time”

“I don’t have the patience”

“I don’t like the voice on my relaxation CD”

Relaxation does not have to be difficult. It can be as simple as learning how to breathe from the diaphragm.

If you did want to go deeper than that, the time and patience it will take you to learn to relax properly will give you so much more in return.

Lemon Squeezy makes wellbeing easy!