I once worked with a client, who upon anticipating that she was about to lose her job, started putting money away, payed her car notes and rent six months the in advance, and then mentally prepared herself for the storm to come.
In fairness, she had good reason to suspect she might lose her job, and all indications suggested that she was a very competent professional. I then introduced her to an exercise, in which she used her imagination to prepare for a positive experience. For example, a new job she better enjoyed with much better pay. While this exercise caught her off guard, she pleasantly surprised herself in learning that the steps she would take to prepare for this opportunity, where realistic and beneficial towards getting that job she wanted.
It is easy to focus on our daily struggles or major events in our lives not going our way, and it may seem like the right thing to do. “I have this problem, so therefore, if I focus on how best to deal with the problem it will go away.” But this doesn’t work like that, focusing on a problem only turns your attention to more of the problem, which only makes the problem more of your everyday life. The solution is the focus more on the opposite of the problem, or more specifically a desired outcome you wish to experience, followed by realistic measures by which to realize that desire.
Take for example, you live on island A, you are sick and tired of living on island A, so you go into a travel agent’s office and you inform said agent that you are sick and tired of living on island A and you want out. Naturally, the travel agent is going to ask you; “where would you like to go?” Instead of giving a desired destination, you shrug your shoulders and state, I don’t know, and continue your rant about how much you are done living on island A.
Then consider the second scenario, where you walk into the travel agent’s office, with the intent of removing yourself from island A. However, instead of lamenting how much you don’t like living on island A, you ask specifically for a plane or ship ticket to island B. Out of curiosity, the travel agent may ask you why you want to travel to island B, and you respond that you have heard so much good things about island B that you want to go and experience these good things for yourself.
This is how best to approach your problems, acknowledge them for what they are, and identify a realistic alternative to the experience. Then come up with a plan to realize this new experience. With this technique, you are not and never will be in denial about things not going your way, you will simply be taking radical steps in your life to surround yourself with the preferred reality you wish to experience.
One of the primary issues faced by people on the Autism spectrum and those with Asperger syndrome, is coping with feelings of being overwhelmed. These issues often start in childhood, as early as a year old, when children who become easily overwhelmed instinctively react by trying to shield themselves from exposure to excess stimuli. Parents of children on the spectrum can easily relate to stories of children who cover their ears with their hands in response to everyday sounds they perceive as loud and stressful. As the child ages, the coping skills for shielding oneself from excess exposure to environmental stimuli becomes even more subtle but the consequences are the same.
By environmental stimuli, I mean people, places and things which produce overwhelming feelings for the person, causing the person’s desire to retreat to safety until it’s safe again. The consequences are often themed with unfinished work, projects and poorly developed relationships with others. This often leads to unwanted isolation and a lifestyle marked by underachievement.
The solution is easy to understand, challenging to implement and well worth the effort. The solution is to do nothing in response to feelings of being overwhelmed. By doing nothing, you are choosing not to be reactive to your feelings of being overwhelmed, which is to engage in a series of behaviors to prevent yourself from experiencing the emotions you need to experience. Regardless of the specifics of what you do, your being reactive will be an attempt to control, manipulate and/or change your reality to manage your feelings.
Instead, by choosing to do nothing, you are allowing yourself the opportunity to experience the range of emotions you need to feel. Your challenge is to simply accept these emotions for what they are without being reactive. By choosing not to be reactive, you are beginning the process of deactivating your fight or flight response pattern, thereby opening access to your solution focused mind. When people choose to stop responding to their feelings of overwhelm fueled by their fears and worries, they become more insight driven and solution focused.
To the outside observer, who isn’t aware of the changes taken place inside the person, they will often observe someone who is behaving more courageous in their daily affairs. In fact, the person is behaving more courageous, as they are now in the practice of looking past their fears and worries and seeing their issues for the mere inconveniences they really are instead of catastrophes.
In my practice, it is a natural reaction for a client to listen to my take on doing nothing in response to feelings of overwhelm, and then responding with an example of a catastrophe they recently experienced in their life. Often, in processing these incidents with them, it is revealed that said catastrophe began as an inconvenience, which they poorly reacted to, thereby worsening the situation.
Catastrophes do happen in life, whether as an initial incident, or as an incident made worse from an overreaction. Regardless, the most effective response to feelings of being overwhelmed, is to accept the situation for what it is, and accept your feelings for what they are. Once this is achieved, only then can you begin to take a solution focused response.
The process of doing nothing to feelings of overwhelming stress and anxiety, is something that takes quite a bit of effort for a first timer. Specifically, there are evidenced based cognitive behavioral strategies, like the ones found in this CBT workbook, “Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks: A Workbook for Managing Depression and Anxiety,” by Seth J Gillihan PhD.
A person can study and practice these strategies on their own, or with an experienced therapist.
The narratives we come to believe in our early childhood have a powerful influence over us. This is because during our early days, the part of our brains that are the most active is the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere is associated with viewing the world from an emotional perspective, as opposed to the left hemisphere which is strongly associated with logic and reasoning. This is why scientists and mathematicians are generally referred to as left brained while those who specialize in the creative arts are referred to as right brained.
So if neuroscience is mostly accurate on brain functions then all children, if not most children must be right brained, emotional, creative, primal and spontaneous. This would mean that during this period of development when the right brain is most active, children interpret most of their daily experiences, especially the acquisition of beliefs and values through an emotional and primal perspective.
This means that whatever beliefs and values you inherited during your early life experiences, is something that is mostly likely non conscious, and primarily associated with your sense of identity, even if it is false.
This is where self-deceit comes in. Self-deceit happens when we run into life challenges that require us to revise our core beliefs in order to overcome said challenges. For example, take a young person who comes from a small town and all throughout his life he was heralded as a really good football player. To the extent in which members of his town began to express great expectations for him to become a professional player. The person eventually graduates high school and gains admission into a major university, where he barely makes the school team and he is eventually cut from roster. If this person already has a self-identity forged in being a star athlete, he is going to have a difficult time accepting the reality of his situation. Furthermore, the longer he holds unto this self-identity the more self-defeating decisions he is going to make in order to maintain a sense of self consistency with his false identity and delusions. This will go on until he reaches rock bottom in his life, or he is fortunate to receive an intervention from a support group.
In the above example, you can substitute star football player with a number of different identities a person may have come to embrace during his or her early life experiences. Regardless this is the root cause of all self-deceits, when challenges a person is currently experiencing, require a major revision of strongly held beliefs which is easier said than done.
While a revision and replacement of major beliefs inherited during childhood years is easier said than done, it is possible. Through cognitive behavioral therapy someone who struggles with self-deceit can relearn to accept themselves unconditionally with positive regard. This will then make it possible for them to abandon any old and unhealthy beliefs associated with their sense of identity and adopt new and healthy beliefs which reinforce unconditional self-acceptance. All of these can be accomplished through the comprehension and consistent practice of cognitive behavioral strategies which leads a rewiring in the brain.
Ugochukwu is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC
The number one obstacle for people accomplishing any measure of change in their lives is the belief that they should be comfortable. The problem with always feeling comfortable is that it takes away your will to strive for any measure of accomplishment, in getting your needs and values met. When you are comfortable, you no longer have a sense of urgency to address challenges in your life and make the necessary changes. This is not to suggest that you must always be in a state of urgency to accomplish change in your life, but it does mean that if there any changes you want to make in your life, it is a mistake to wait to get to a state of comfort before you begin practicing change. If you wait to get to a place of comfort, you will simply revert back to old behaviors.
Feelings of discomfort are actually an evolution advantage; in that they motivate us towards taking action. For example, a hungry stomach will motivate you to get some food for yourself, however if you are surrounded by delicious junk food which influences your health for the worse, once you have satisfied your hunger with the junk food, you become less motivated towards acquiring and preparing for yourself healthier foods that will benefit your health. This is because the latter is more time consuming and requires significant effort.
In order to exercise the change, you need in your life, you will need to adopt a mindset where you come to appreciate all feelings and sensations as helpful. This means that even when you experience feelings of discomfort, you come to see these feelings as messages from your brain and body. These messages can be about things either going your way or things not going your way. When greeted with feelings that communicate any measure or severity of discomfort, ask yourself why you feel this way and then make a commitment to attend to the message without seeking to alleviate yourself from the discomfort. Often times this commitment can be made in writings. Over time, you will become more tolerable of uncomfortable feelings and more skilled at attending to the daily challenges in your life which require you to exercise change.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC.
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
It is not uncommon for me to run into a potential client who is seeking to change a detrimental habit. The habit can range anywhere from issues with procrastination to substance abuse. In the process of gathering more information from the client. I encounter a pattern of unhealthy thinking and behaving that is prevalent in all areas of the clients’ life.
Upon bringing this to the attention of the client, I receive a response that the only thing he or she wants to work on is changing the specific habit they complained about, and nothing else. Well, this is a problem, because everything about us is interwoven. This means that while we are working on cognitive strategies to change thoughts and behaviors regarding the identified behavior, the client continues to engage in his established pattern of thinking and behaving in other areas of his life, which only reinforces the bad habit he wants to change.
The idea that we can departmentalize our behaviors is a misunderstanding, A misunderstanding because some people experience significant success in some areas of their lives than other areas of their lives. The simple reason for this is because in the areas they have experienced more success, they invested more time. Regardless, if you are experiencing negative consequences due to chronic detrimental behavior you engage in, it is based on your mindset, or simply put, an unhealthy mindset you adhere to. This means that for people who struggle with unhealthy behaviors, while simultaneously experiencing success in another area of their life, then they have experienced that success in spite of their unhealthy mindset. Furthermore, in the absence of the identified unhealthy mindset, they would achieve even more success in the area or areas they are already excelling in.
Ultimately, the ability to identify a need to change, and the preference to cherry pick what type of change will occur, is a primitive instinct. Meaning that we want to experience positive changes in our lives with little cost or sacrifice.
It is also important to note, that for those who embrace focusing on the whole versus the parts, the process of changing your entire life is counter intuitive in that you only focus on your mindset and become cognizant on when and how you practice change in all areas of your life.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC.
“A friend of mine was learning how to swim, when he suddenly felt he was starting to drown. He began splashing wildly about when his instructor told him to stand up. Much to my friend’s relief and embarrassment, he discovered he was okay.”
Anxiety is based on primal fear, and primal fear is based on the idea of not having enough. Not having enough of your basic needs met and perishing before you reach a ripe age, not having not enough social support and being vulnerable, and the list could go on. The point is that when we are struggling with anxiety our mindset operates on the idea of scarcity. When we think from a place of scarcity, we are fearful, we are timid, we are excessively selfish, we are desperate and hurried in our decision making. The mind of the anxious person is irrational, like the story of my friend learning how to swim and pessimistic, picture yourself at noon in the middle of any desert during the summer months with less than a quarter of warm water left in your canteen.
The anxious person does not take any risk, because he operates from a place of what he might lose as opposed to what he might gain. This leads to a self fulfilling prophesy, where like the unfortunate hiker in the middle of the desert, the anxious person is careful about not exerting too much energy, least they might end up losing the little they have left.
By now the answer may have become obvious to you, to rid anxiety visualize yourself having enough of what you need. So once my friend learned that he was in the shallow end, he exercised more courage in his swimming lessons. So in essence, his level of safety was enough. Or you can also practice imaging yourself as a hiker with enough water to last you to the next well or tap.
How the mental practice of visualizing yourself easily getting your needs met, is not enough. This is because people who struggle with anxiety, have experienced anxiety for most of their lives. This means that for most of their lives, their brains have become wired to think in regards to scarcity. So they have become habituated to thinking in regards to timidity, desperation and primitive survival instincts. The good news is that our brains are malleable, meaning that it is never too late to learn new ways of thinking and doing.
There are cognitive behavioral strategies you can learn and implement which would make your practice of visual exercises fruitful. Here’s one, start small. Visualize yourself engaging in a small challenge, which you have passively dreaded due, to your perception of the risk to reward ratio, or your lack of confidence in yourself. Create a plan to follow through with this small challenge in which you create a narrative which consists of the best possible scenario and outcome for this challenge. Then when you are done engage in the challenge.
The mere process of your creating a plan for the challenge, rewires your brain to how you see the situation and increases your motivation to make you overcoming this challenge a reality. It is not uncommon for people to experience some emotional difficulty when practicing this exercise. These are usually due to past traumas. If you are experience difficulty completing this exercise due to difficult feelings you can’t get past, a therapist can help you process these difficult feelings and get you back on track.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and a professional life coach.
Our feelings serve to draw our attention to messages. These messages can be good, bad or indifferent. The intensity of the feelings serves as a call to how urgent we should attend to these messages. An analogy would be the mistaken act of burning your thumb on a hot stove, while cooking. The intense pain you would feel from this incident would be the nerve endings in your thumb, calling your attention to the fact that you are cooking your thumb. This would lead to you instinctively taking your thumb away from the hot stove, examine the damage and seek immediate relief from the pain. So in this analogy the pain would represent the feeling with the message being the burnt thumb.
To further expand on this analogy, the feeling of pain was a sensation produced by the properly functioning nervous system in response to a part of the body being exposed to excessive heat that was resulting in damage to that part of the body. So in essence the feeling was internally generated as a result of the incident. Given a similar analogy with the difference being a non working nervous system, there would be no pain which would most likely lead to permanent injury.
When you experience psychological feelings, it is a result of a proper functioning neurological network in response to a specific stimulus or stimuli. Feelings whether joy, sadness, indifference or rage exist to draw our attention to a message. The more intense the feeling is, or the more emotionally aroused you are the more urgent the message is. So if you receive good news, like the birth of a new family member, you would most likely experience feelings of joy. Your feelings of joy would draw your attention to the message that something important and good just took place in your life. Same thing if you go to work on Monday and you were let go, you would surely experience negative feelings which would draw your attention to something unpleasant and serious taking place in your life.
We generate our own feelings, as a result of the interaction between our beliefs and our experiences. So it sends a self defeating message when we hold others accountable for our feelings. The only way for another person to hurt us is to visit physical pain upon our person hood, however as far as hurt feelings are concerned, we simply experience pain when we perceive things are not going our way.
When we focus on the fallacy regarding how others hurt our feelings, we fail to attend to the message our feelings are sending to us and we emotionally regress to the mindset of infants, where there is a strong expectation that our feelings are supposed to be attended to by someone else. In this mindset we risk further exposing ourselves to more hurt, pain and shame which leads to a vicious circle.
The answer is unconditional acceptance of self with positive regard. You accept yourself unconditionally simply because you exist. Doing so allows you to get past difficult feelings and examine the messages they are trying to convey.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and professional life coach.
Happiness does not exist, this is because happiness is illusive. What we describe as a happiness is really joy on a daily basis. Such a feat is not possible, specifically we can experience joy but not on a consistent basis. Further evidence of this is documented in neuroscience where the fleeting neurotransmitter associated with happiness is dopamine. Dopamine is naturally released in our system when we accomplish a goal or are rewarded. This is why some people will abuse and get addicted to drugs like cocaine, because cocaine artificially stimulates the release of dopamine and subsequently blocks the re uptake of dopamine, leaving dopamine in the synaptic gap longer. The closest we can come to experiencing the myth of happiness is being at a state of peace and content.
The key to this lies in restriction. It lies in wanting less. The more we seek, the more chaos we bring into our lives. This is because change is a constant due to variables constantly being in flux. The more of anything we seek the more variables we have to keep up with and the more chaotic our lives become.
So if you are going through a period of chaos in your life, practice seeking less of what it is that you want. So if you are dealing with constant conflict with a particular person and all you want is peace with that person, you should accept where you’re in your relationship with that person and engage accordingly. If you are seeking more money in your life, you should do less and increase the quality of the less you do. If you are looking for love, look less and simply focus of being the best person you can be.
This is a counter intuitive approach, that contradicts the idea of doing more which most of us where raised to believe. The reason doing less is more effective than doing more is because peace and content comes from within ourselves. When we engage with people and other things we initially project the peace inside of ourselves unto the people and things we engage with, which is then returned to us. However, when we do more, the quality of our engagement decreases due to our inability to keep up with the changing variables from doing plenty and what gets returned to us is a constant state of chaos, which then becomes the state of our reality.
So how does one transition from hyper engagement with the world around them to reduced but quality engagement? Focus on what you are best at doing, or focus on what you do better than others. For example, in your relationship with others, focus on fostering a relationship with those you have a better relationship with. (An exception would be if you have children.) If you are looking to bring in more income into your life, focus on what you already do, specifically on increasing the value of your work. By focusing on areas you already excel at, you eliminate engagement with people and things that introduce needless chaos in your life. Further, with the people and things you are more adept at dealing with, the chaos presented becomes more manageable, due to your expertise in keeping up with the changing variables presented by those people and things.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach
We all have them — those days or nights when the brain simply won’t shut up. Round and round it goes, generating worries and destroying your concentration. Called rumination, it’s as though your brain is stuck in gear and overheating. You can learn to help it slow down and cool off, however. To turn off your brain, you must learn to take your focus off the worry.
Practiced regularly, these techniques can help eliminate rumination. Remember, it’s not the worry that’s the problem; it’s the brain latching on like a dog with a bone and chewing it to pieces. To change the process you must interrupt the rumination and turn it off. Two additional strategies are to worry once, then let it go, and to plan instead of worrying.
Stop Worries in Their Tracks
Whenever you catch yourself ruminating, stop the thought. Simply picture the ubiquitous red octagon sign and tell yourself, “Stop!” As soon as the thought stops, tell yourself something reassuring, assertive or self-accepting. You can create a list of these and practice: “I am a competent, confident individual.” “I am in control of my thoughts.” You can also use this technique to worry well but only once. Set a timer and spend 10 to 20 minutes intensively worrying about something or about all your worries at once.
Don’t do anything else, just worry. When the timer alarm sounds, use the stop command. If you’ve identified a worry that needs to be addressed within the next day or two, write it down on your to-do list or calendar. Now, whenever that thought tries to pop up again, you can say “Stop! That worry has been taken care of,” and focus your attention on something else.
Give It a Rest
Just as a machine will wear out if it runs constantly with no maintenance, your brain needs to take a rest from rumination. The ‘turn it off’ strategy allows you to shut down the rumination so your mind can calm down. Sit or lie down with your eyes closed. Imagine that you hold a beautiful vase or decorated container. As each worry comes into your mind, imagine putting it into the container. When you have the container full, imagine closing the lid and put it on a shelf. Now that you have those thoughts neatly packaged, invite a different thought into your mind. If you do this just before bedtime, you can invite a peaceful, pleasant image or thought into your mind as you drift into sleep.
Don’t Worry, Plan
Having a plan can decrease your anxiety and allow your ruminating brain to relax — if you can keep it from thinking of the plan as just something else to worry about. A good plan may need to be tweaked occasionally, but it doesn’t need constant fretting. To make a plan, identify the problem, list possible options to solve it, pick an option and write out a plan of action. Having a plan allows you handle rumination more easily, as you can use it as part of the thought-stopping command. It can also help you break down what seems like an overwhelming problem into small, manageable parts.
Remember, changing habits takes time, and constant rumination is a habit. Don’t be too hard on yourself if it takes weeks or even months. Be patient; you will gain a sense of power and mastery over your own thoughts.