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Protocols: Cognitive Self-Care Recommendations
The thoughts, attitudes and perspective we have about life as we live it play a big part in determining whether we suffer from anxiety and depression or experience energy and joy.
The first step in the process of shifting our thoughts and perspectives into an anti-depressant mode is to begin to keep a record of the thoughts and feelings we encounter on a daily basis. Setting a time each day to do some written journaling will allow you to: (a) make notes about the experiences or process of your day and (b) write down discoveries and affirmations what occur to you. By reviewing your experiential process notes you can determine patterns of thinking and belief and positive and negative triggers which influence your reactions and choices.
The following are common beliefs that you may notice as you begin to examine the process of your mental and emotional day. As you read these examples ask yourself which of these beliefs operate consciously or subconsciously in your life.
- I must be loved, validated and approved of by everyone. This belief keeps people from being himself or herself for fear that doing so will meet with the disapproval or rejection. Individuals who subscribe to this belief often cheat themselves out of being who they really are, focusing instead on evaluating situations and other people. As a result, difficulty in both professional and close relationships are common due to the fact that a healthy relationship requires two separate individuals, who respect their own and each other's identity.
- I must be responsible for other people. By taking responsibility for others, we can inadvertently take away their motivation to accept responsibility for themselves. In addition, we put ourselves in a no-win situation trying to control other people, which is rarely ever possible. And most importantly we lose touch with ourselves.
- My happiness depends on people and things outside of myself. Many people try to achieve inner happiness through other people, or other things. While other people or things may provide you with some temporary substance of pleasure, it cannot provide you with love and happiness. Ultimately your happiness depends on you.
- I must be the best at everything I do. I can't make mistakes. Perfectionism is a battle that many people fight everyday. It is important to accept that everybody has areas of strength and weakness. To be human is to be imperfect. Assume that you will "mess up" at least 20% of the time! While everybody likes to excel at something, no one can possibly excel at everything. Most successful people succeeded only after many various forms of failure. Life is a learning experience.
- I can avoid dealing with problems or pain in my life. While you can postpone dealing with difficulties and pain in life, you cannot really avoid tough times. Accepting them and dealing with them emotionally allows you to truly put them behind you. Avoiding emotions is not effective of a long term. It is rarely possible to enjoy positive feelings when you have shut out the negative ones.
- Inconveniences in life are catastrophes. It is important to keep the daily hassles and inconveniences in life in proper perspective. What is the worst-case scenario? Is it really as bad as you fear? Life is full of problems. Your choice is whether or not you accept this fact or repeatedly set yourself up for disappointment by expecting life to be hassle-free. Paradoxically, when you accept this fact, problems will become easier to tolerate.
- I must be in control at all times. It is a fact that there are many things in life outside of our control. What it comes down to is that we are only really in control of our attitudes or our happiness. If we believe in the illusion of control we will repeatedly face the impossible task of trying to control the uncontrollable. While maintaining control of the situations that you can influence is beneficial, the belief that we can control all of them is an illusion that is responsible for much of unhappiness.
- If people knew the real me they would not like me. This belief leads many people to pretend to be someone they are not. Ultimately distancing themselves from other people. The bad news is that you probably do have some traits or features that others might consider unbearable. The good news is that everyone does.
- It is wrong to enjoy myself too much. Although life is sometimes painful and difficult, it is OK to enjoy life, to make a decision to seek fulfillment and joy out of the experiences available to us. Once we make this decision and believe it, we open ourselves to much more closeness and appreciation for the world around us.
- I can't change because I have always been the way that I am. If you truly believe it, it is unlikely that you will change. Choices in life are made each and every moment in life. While making changes is sometimes very difficult, if you do effect change it has to be by making choices. This often makes the process of change much more likely.
- It's either all or nothing. Seeing things as black or white is not only unrealistic but can lead to depression and stress. The world and its population of humans function in shades of gray. No one is all bad or all good and it is ok to set limits on your exceptions of yourself and others. A job half done or done half as well as you are capable of is still 50% better than not having made the effort at all.
- I must judge others and myself. This is where your partner breaks up with you and you think "I am unlovable" or your boss gives you some negative feedback you think "I'm a loser". Being judgmental leads to judgments and judgments about ourselves and others tend to lead to reduced options and feelings of isolation. If we keep an open mind about ourselves and others we increase our opportunities and decrease our frustration.
- If this situation is a certain way all similar ones must be as well. As human beings nature has programmed us to generalize information so that we can make decisions based on prior experience. This can be helpful but can also lead us to make errors of over-generalization where we become stressed and anxious. Try and view each situation and interaction as unique and you will be less likely to feel overwhelmed.
- The way I see things now must be the truth. Our perceptions of the world around us are always affected by the filters of experience and judgment which we have developed over a lifetime. We can choose in what way we want to filter our view of events and people. Why not give things a positive slant rather than a negative one when the situation permits?
- I am basically a shameful person. Many of us walk about in life with an underlying feeling of not being good enough, happy enough, loving enough, or capable enough. If this describes you begin to examine when and how and why you take this approach with yourself Notice how your self-devaluing is present in the background even when you are being productive and successful. Then work on changing this overview of yourself to something more realistic and positive.
- I don't need all the facts to make a decision. Especially when we are feeling stressed there is a natural temptation to jump to conclusions before we have the facts. Unfortunately this means that you have to end up "fortune telling" and can draw the wrong conclusion. How much more comfortable it would be to get all the facts before we decide that a person is out to get us. Perhaps it will turn out they simply didn't stop to consider our needs or were distracted.
- If things are bad they will always be this way. In this sort of "doomsday thinking" we magnify the seriousness and extent of a situation and project it out into the future causing us unnecessary depression in the present. One thing that is always true is that things are never always true and life is a continual process of change. This goes for feelings of anxiety and depression as well. How we feel now is only how we feel now and things will change. If we work at it they will probably change for the better.
- I really should do it this way. Shoulds are the natural enemy of aliveness and joy When we "should" on ourselves we guarantee that whatever we are making ourselves do will be draining rather than fulfilling. Try to tune into your inner voice that lets you know what is right for you in each moment.
- I am to blame for everything that I am related to. Personalizing blame for events and circumstances comes from our natural tendency to want to be in control of our environments. The truth is that much of what happens around us is not in our control. Blaming ourselves for outcomes which we could not decide is a way of overextending our reach with diminishing returns.
- It is ok to make decisions even if I am upset. Decisions made when we are feeling emotional are often not the best for us. Emotions are for expressing and processing. Decisions on the other hand are best made after consideration of all the option and possibilities. Take time to make a list of the factors involved in your decision and discuss them with at least two people you trust before you make a commitment to a particular course of action.
The following are some more general attitudes that reduce stress and promote aliveness and serenity. You may wish to examine your own approach to life and integrate a few of the below healing attitudes.
Centeredness vs. Fight/Flight Reactivity
A seemingly primal response which humans have in situations of tension or danger is what has come to be known as the "fight/flight" reaction. When we are frightened or under stress we seek to either attack the source of our stress or run away from it as fast as possible. In contract, a much healthier and more adaptive response is that of becoming "centered".
Centeredness is such a different way of approaching the environment that it merits some explanation. Often people become off balance when acting in an overly aggressive or overly submissive manner. For instance if in an argument with someone important there may be an attempt to either win over them in the argument or conversely be tempted to simply give up one's position and align one's views in total accordance with those expressed by the other person. A more "centered" response is to look inside and then make a personal statement about feelings. For example, "When you step on my foot I feel uncomfortable and I would like you to get off my foot." This is much different than statements such as "You're the most horrible clod I've ever seen" or "Go ahead, you can step on my foot whenever you want to."
What follows is specific psycho-physiological technique which can teach achievement of a more centered internal state. It can be helpful to practice this centering technique several times each day in order to develop an internal instinctive grasp of the centered response.
In order to "center" focus attention on the exact geographic middle of the physical body. That is a point an inch or two below the naval and in the center of the abdomen. Just as you can hold out your hand in front of you and feel the sensation of opening and closing our fingers (try it) you can "feel" this center point in your body.
Once a sense of this center point of physical anatomy is developed, it can be used as an intervention in times of stress, crisis, and when wrapped up in a compulsive doing. By focusing on this center point, attention shifts inward and internal balance get reestablished.
In order to "test" your centered state, ask someone to give you a gentle push on the shoulder while standing side by side with you. If your body wobbles, you are not centered. If you feel a sense of solidness and stability you have mastered the centered state. As with all healthy behaviors, we need to keep practicing.
Expansion vs. Contraction
When under stress many people experience the desire to contract and pull inward. For example, someone who is experiencing a breakup of a relationship such as a divorce often will keep their feelings to themselves attempting to "solve the problem" on their own without the benefit of friends or relatives. This is an example of contraction or the human instinct to in a sense "circle the wagons" when facing stressful situations.
Unfortunately a contraction response in a stressful situation can often increase rather than decrease the level of stress. Resources are cut off as contraction occurs which are needed to solve problems (friends, choices, financial resources) or help make a smoother and more comfortable adjustment. Thinking in more expansive terms allows the possibilities and potentials to be seen that normally might not be drawn upon.
Acceptance vs. Resistance
This is one of the most powerful attitudinal stress management approaches. Society trains us to see life in terms of problems which need to be controlled or overcome. In fact life can be best viewed as a river which is moving in a healthy and nurturing direction - so long as we don't stand in it's way! Developing a sense of gratitude, acceptance and awareness of destiny allows us to "go with the flow" rather than fighting the river of events happening. When life is accepted, we open up to and embrace the energy around us. When life is resisted, energy is cut off. We do not always have to like or be happy about what is happening, but it is always healthiest to approach events with an attitude of acceptance.
Being Now vs. Future Striving
Some philosophers and spiritual leaders have suggested that the essence of life can be found in the five senses (sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing). All of these senses are experienced in the immediate moment rather than in the past or the future. In order to fully enter into the river of human existence therefore, it is essential that to learn to live in the now. Now is the time to reach out to friends and neighbors for comfort and love and now is the time to be able to enjoy the beauty of the natural world. It is perhaps through the five sense that the knowledge of nature of the universe and God is gained.
When living in the now, events are experienced as much less stressful and difficult since there is less worry about the past and less fretting over the future.
Here are a few additional ideas and perspectives which can assist you in working through difficult situations and feelings:
- What would you say to a friend? People are generally much harder on themselves than they are on others. Suppose a friend were getting divorced, and felt like a selfish, uncaring. vindictive failure. What would you say? Probably something like: You're not a failure simply because your relationship ended. Many marriages end in divorce, just like many winning teams lose games. It's rough to endure a divorce, and break-ups never bring out the best in people, but I've known you for years, and you're a warm, kind, caring person.
- Examine the evidence. Your partner says they could be happier with your sexual relationship and you think "I'm lousy in bed", but are you, really? Perhaps sometimes you just don't have any energy for sex, or perhaps you are feeling unconnected emotionally to yourself or your partner. Those are things you can work and get through and that's not being "lousy" in bed.
- Experiment. A family member calls you selfish for wanting to keep the house, but are you really? If you were truly selfish, you wouldn't give to charity, wouldn't help friends in need, and wouldn't share credit for your group's accomplishments at work. Test your reactions the next time a charitable solicitation arrives, or a friend calls with a problem, or your group's efforts are recognized. If you write a check, offer to lend a hand, or praise a coworker, you re not entirely selfish. You may not be as magnanimous as you'd like to be, but you're not the ogre your ex says you are.
- Look for partial successes. Instead of thinking your a complete failure at your job or at home consider how you are successful. You put yourself through school, and now have a much more fulfilling career than you had. You have two great kids, and the problems that led to your breakup have given you valuable new insights into the kind of person you'll look for in your next relationship.
- Take a survey. Your ex insists that your refusal to take the kids for an extra day after a holiday weekend proves you re vindictive. You maintain that you're open to rescheduling time with the children, but not when it means allowing your ex to jet off to a luxurious resort with the new lover. You feel justified, but after a screaming argument on the phone, your confidence is shaken. Perhaps you are a vindictive SOB. That's the time to call a few friends and solicit their views. Chances are they'll say you're justified.
- Define your terms. For example, a coworker says you are "blind" to a certain area of your job. Define "blind". The dictionary says "completely without sight". That wasn't you. You saw that there was a problem and have just not been ready to deal with it yet, or were waiting for your supervisor to give the go ahead to make a change. You weren't blind, just too trusting of someone else's promptness.
- Solve the problem. You blew up when you came home early and found your old roommate who'd moved out months ago, unexpectedly in your house. Since your last interaction involved a argument you've been thinking that your "terrible temper" has turned you into a "monster". Possibly, but the problem here is that your ex-roommate still has keys to your house. Maybe it's time to change the locks.
- Get a pen and paper. Write everything down. The act of writing automatically puts some distance between you and your negative thought. Jotting things down provides perspective and helps people detect distorted thinking more easily. If you can't put pen to paper try saying things out loud.
- Identify the upsetting event. What's really bothering you? Is it simply the fact that you got a flat tire? Or is it that you soiled your outfit changing it? Or that you knew you needed a new tire, but didn't replace it? Or that the flat made you late for your daughter's soccer game?
- Identify your negative emotions. You might feel annoyed about the flat, frustrated that replacing it soiled your outfit, angry at yourself for not replacing it in time, and guilty for being late to the soccer game.
- Identify the negative thoughts that accompany your negative emotions. About failing to replace the tire: I always procrastinate. I never take care of things in time. About soiling the outfit: I'm a slob. I can't go anywhere and look okay. About being late for the game: My daughter will make a scene. She'll think I don't love her. And the other adults there will think I'm a bad parent.
- Identify distortions and substitute rational responses. About the tire: I don't always procrastinate. I juggle my job and family, and accomplish just about everything that has to get done. I would have replaced that tire in time, but I had to deal with an emergency at work, and the tire just got by me. About the stained outfit: I am not a slob. I'm usually very careful about my appearance, more so than most people, which is why things like this upset me. About the tardiness: My daughter knows I love her. She knows that if I'm late, whatever detained me was beyond my control. She's unlikely to make a scene, but if she does, the other adults will comfort her. I've done the same for their kids, and never thought them to be bad parents. No one will think the worse of me.
- Reconsider your upset. Are you still heading for an emotional tailspin? Probably not. But you still feel annoyed about getting the flat.
- Plan corrective action. As soon as the game is over, we're getting that tire. That will take the time I'd planned to spend cooking dinner, so I'll pick up some take-out instead.
Taken together these last suggestions (H-N) allow you to address the following important areas:
- Determining if an upsetting situation is important to you.
- Asking if your thoughts and feelings are appropriate given the facts at hand.
- Assessing if the situation is modifiable.
- Choosing to take action if, in the balance, such action would benefit you and others you care for.
- Determining what action is best between: Problem Solving, Assertiveness, and Acceptance
As you develop greater awareness you will begin to realize that your thoughts and feelings about certain situations are not automatic, and at some level involve a choice. The key is to make a choice to engage in a different thought process. What we think can very much influence how we feel. Anxiety and depression can be replaced with energy and joy if we are willing to risk changing our thoughts and perspectives.
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