How to Get a Grip
So – you were grappling with a problem that really stressed you out. Then it shifted. You woke up refreshed after a good night’s sleep, or you spent some time by the ocean, or talked through your problem with a trusted friend. You realised it wasn’t really such a big deal. Or if it was, you knew you could deal with it.
This shift in our perspective happens because positive experiences, such as a good sleep or breathing in those negative ions by the ocean, change your body chemistry. You feel different; as a result, you think differently. This connection between your emotions and your thoughts is pretty elusive, which is why it can be so hard to get a grip sometimes. Thought and feelings are like thieves in the night—we are often barely aware of them and what they are up to! Our feelings literally change our thinking and our behaviour. In turn, our thoughts as well as what we say and do, influences how we feel. It’s the old vicious cycle. It looks something like that diagram above.
Except it needn’t be a vicious cycle. We can short-circuit it. In fact, we must short-circuit it if we want to free ourselves to deal more effectively with our problems. But where do we start? Where we have the most control, of course.
There are three variables in the above diagram. In reality, there are four because the situation around us is influenced by what we do, but let’s keep it simple for now. There are only two variables over which we have any control, or which we can influence.
Have you guessed which two yet?
(1) Our thinking and (2) our behaviours. And sometimes not even our thinking! Feelings are slippery. We can’t control them, especially when they have a grip on our brains and bodies. Once we’ve realised we are emotional, we can however choose how we react. I do this regularly. If I’m stressed out, I take a big deep breath (or six) to relax my body and calm myself down.
Equilibrium Breathing and Other Ideas
Sometimes, as I breathe, I silently make equal counts in and out like this: In 1-2-3-4, Out 1-2-3-4, moving towards 6 as my breathing slows. This practice has been shown to steady and balance our heartbeat, which helps us relax.
A walk around the block, journaling about our feelings, talking with supportive friends, exercise, yoga, and visualisations can also be good ways to cool the fires of stress and anxiety. Once I am calmer, I can catch my thinking to make sure it’s not fuelling my emotions. I ask myself: “Might there be another way to think about (or explain, or respond to) this?”
However, there may be times when we are so emotional (or tired) that we can’t think clearly. It’s hard to change our thinking if we’re riddled with anxiety, guilt or depression. In fact, trying to force ourselves to take control when we’re overwrought could make things worse, not better. Before we know it, we can begin criticising ourselves for being so negative (or anxious), which only adds suffering to our suffering! An inner struggle like this can leave us feeling even worse than before and the vicious cycle continues to drag us down.
To end this inner struggle, a good therapist can teach you simple strategies to create psychological distance from unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and memories. Psychologists call this cognitive defusion. Recognising that your thoughts are separate from you means you can allow thoughts (and feelings) to come and go of their own accord. They needn’t control your actions and decisions. When you stop trying to get rid of your feelings and negative thoughts, your mind tends to calm down all on its own. When you let go of this struggle you regain more control over your life.
I often say to my clients—whether they are students, salespeople or senior executives—that the ability to self-soothe is one of the most important life skills you can practise and improve upon.
Because when we are calm, we can deal with just about anything.
Need help dealing with stress? The team at North Brisbane Psychologists can help! Book an appointment today.