Wednesday, September 7, 2011

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade: Thriving in Tumultuous TimesThat

That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane -
Lenny Bruce is not afraid. Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn -
world serves its own needs, regardless of your own needs… It’s the end of the world as we know it…and I feel fine… --Michael Stipe, REM

Stipe’s 1987 lyrics ring prophetically true as we ended last month with a sudden earthquake and a hurricane. The end of the world? No! However, sometimes we might feel like the bad news is ratcheting up the stress levels. From the debt ceiling debacle in congress, financial crises here and in Europe, high unemployment, starvation in Somalia, to climbing death tolls in our wars, the news can be unnerving for the most centered among us. Each day, we process an ever increasing amount of information in this globalized technologically-linked world. It can overwhelm.

As the news media compete for market share, it seems the news gets hyped more than ever. We may find it difficult to keep a healthy perspective to maintain balance. We want to stay engaged in our lives and the world, but we may feel bombarded by too much bad news and too much change for us to have time to process and respond in a meaningful way.

Such feelings of overwhelm can lead to anxious thoughts or depressed mood or some of both. The symptoms can impair your ability to live your best life and leave you wondering how to thrive in uncertain times. A glimpse at the neuroscience of stressful events can give us understanding and hope on how to maximize our brain’s potential to help us stay grounded to what is real and find balance. Our brain evolved from the brain stem, which is hard-wired to warn us of imminent threats with a fight, flight, or freeze response. More careful consideration of a threatening situation happens a few seconds later in the prefrontal cortex—the “CEO” part of the brain that allows us to organize and manage all of the information and sensory data coming at us.

of the brain that allows us to organize and manage all of the information and sensory data coming at us.

It is the fight, flight or freeze response that activates our nervous system to respond, and even if the threat is not “real” but an anxious thought or worry, the physiological changes still happen, causing us to be in a suspended state of stress that is not healthy for our body or our mind. To overcome the stress response, we need to activate our relaxation response—allowing us to consciously return to equilibrium. We use our CEO part of the brain to consciously choose to relax the automatic stress response. The simplest way to do this is take a deep breath. Awwwww…can you feel the difference already?

There are many simple, yet effective strategies that can help us regain our balance, reality-test our fears and move forward from our place of power. To help with negative or anxious thoughts, try the following process:

· Become aware of what you focus on. If you notice you are feeling tense, edgy, or depleted, take a conscious breath and look at your stream of thoughts. If we can start practicing this a few times a day, we can start to get an inventory of how we think, and therefore start to see how our thoughts are feeding our feelings and affecting our behavior.

· Next, we reality test the thoughts that are giving us trouble. From a relaxed, objective, and compassionate point of view, ask yourself if your thought is 100% true. If it is not, how true is it? Sometimes by taking this approach with thoughts that seem automatic, we find out that they are not true at all. We just believed they were true because they were so pervasive.

· Once you know an anxious thought is not true, it may not be enough. The neural pathway may be well worn by the automatic thought, so now your job is to just notice it—come and go—and try not to engage in the thought. You can name it silently (i.e., “that’s my worry thought”) or come up with a mantra to diffuse the thought’s impact, such as “I am not my thoughts” or “I choose to let this thought go.”

· If a worry is real, make an action plan to take care of it. Break the plan down into small, doable steps. Share it with others that are supportive and positive. By being constructive and directly facing your concern, you are taking control of the worry and not letting the worry dissipate your energy.

· Name your worries and the worst fears/outcomes that you can imagine. Then name the best possible outcomes and some neutral options. Which ones are the most realistic? Notice if you were catastrophizing and, if so, could you remind yourself of less dire outcomes when your worry returns?

· Turn off the news. Sometimes it is just a habit to have the TV, radio, internet tuned to news and we don’t realize the negative impact it is having. Listen to some favorite music or enjoy the silence instead.

To promote positive experiences in your life, try some of these ideas:

· Focus on the positive. Our brains are wired to watch out for threats, so when something good happens in your life or in the world around you, take a moment to breathe in the good feeling. Savor the goodness and notice how it feels in your body and mind.

· Keep a daily gratitude journal or name at least 3 things you are thankful for each day.

· Volunteer for a cause that is meaningful to you. By putting your values into action at the local level you can make a difference.

· Nourish your body and soul by eating well. Plant something edible (even a pot of herbs is rewarding!) and watch it grow. Enjoy the miracle of a living thing while savoring the taste of homegrown food.

· Take time to check in with yourself so that you become more aware of when you are getting stressed out. Learn some ways to relax that resonate with your lifestyle. Some ideas include meditation, yoga, tai chi, walking, dancing, singing, journaling.

· Use visualization in your daily life. Make a conscious choice to imagine and feel good outcomes.

· Share your success with others. If you have survived a difficult life event and feel comfortable about it, find a way to share what your learned with others that might be facing the same difficulty. Speaking to a local support group, blogging on-line, writing an article are some ways to share with others.

· Maintain and nurture connection to your spirit.

We have the power to create a positive, life-affirming environment in which our body, mind, and soul can express and thrive. If you notice that you have let negativity creep too far into your life, pick a step and start to take one small action today. You will make a difference.

By: Pam McDonald, LCSW-C

301-712-9015, Ext 1022

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