When Life Gets You Down

Hello everyone! Sorry about the break from posting. I, along with many of you, have had an extremely busy spring and summer and am just settling into the routine of long, hot, humid summer days at home. Recently, I have felt as if my days are filled with "one thing after another," and generally those things are not very exciting (at best) and distressing (at worst). So I wanted to spend a little time talking about how to manage when life just seems to be dealing you a bad hand. Sometimes, this includes big things like family illness or loss. Other times, it can be the found in the minutiae of daily tasks taking longer or being more difficult than expected. Regardless, these experiences can leave you feeling worn out, tired, overwhelmed, discouraged, disappointed, or like there is no point in trying. While it is tempting to throw your hands up, give up, and never leave your house (or your bed), this is the exact opposite of what is recommended.

Believe it or not, negative feelings often pass on their own if you acknowledge them, talk about them, and then allow them to accompany you through your daily activities.I give people a "24-hour" rule. You get to feel miserable for 24 hours, but then you have to get back out there and keep plugging ahead. So, for those of you who are getting dealt a bad hand right now, acknowledge your feelings, get support, and keep plugging ahead. Better times are ahead of you.

**Note: If you experience chronic, persistent depression, anxiety, or other mood problems, you may need additional treatment with a psychologist or psychiatrist.**

Stop Comparing Yourself

Do you ever feel like you're not good enough? Or wish you had what other's have? Do you get jealous or angry when you think about other people? If you answered yes, you're probably falling into a typical thinking trap - comparing yourself to others. 

Our awake brain spends a lot of time doing one of three things: thinking about the future, thinking about the past, or comparing ourselves to others. Each of these patterns drives different emotional patterns, and comparing oneself to others usually leads to jealousy, anger, resentment, or frustration. It can also lead to problematic pride or condescending behavior. When we measure our lives against the lives of others, we are constantly either coming up short or putting other people down. Neither of these helps us feel content and satisfied with our own lives. Yes, I know that many of us were taught to contextualize our problems by thinking about how small our problems are compared to things like world hunger, and for some of us, that's helpful. However, it's generally just invalidating and leads to suppression of valid, real emotions.

So, how do we stop ourselves from falling into the comparison thinking trap? I recommend one of two approaches, both of which require that you first notice what you're doing. Label your comparison to others by saying, "I am comparing myself to others."

Then either:

  1. Ask yourself if it's helpful. If it isn't, try to develop a thought about the other person that is more helpful.
  2. Alternatively, use a mindfulness or grounding exercise to redirect your thinking to your present environment. Focus on your breathing or a sensory experience (e.g., smell something stinky, touch something with an interesting texture). 

Although this sounds easy, it's not. It's hard to catch ourselves doing things that occur as part of human nature, and it's even harder to develop alternative thoughts or bring ourselves back into present awareness. Despite this, it's worth a try! Also, it gets easier with practice. And remember, even if you are able to do it 5% of the time, you're spending more time thinking in ways that ease negative emotions than you did before.

Happy practicing!

Living a Value Driven Life

One of the most common things I hear in my practice is a desire to increase happiness. We, myself included, get caught up in the day-to-day of living and wonder if we're really living the lives that we dream about or hope to have. When this comes up, my go-to skill is determining how you can live more of a "value driven life."

Living a value driven (or value based) life is a common intervention for overcoming doubt and increasing life satisfaction. Psychologists have been talking about and researching it for years, and it has recently become more commonplace in corporate employee wellness programs. It has even become part of self-help programs for individuals without any type of mental health disorder. Living a value driven life has shifted from being a skill for individuals with mental health difficulties to being a skill for literally everyone. So then, how do you do this? 

  1. Identify 5 values that you want to frame your life around. Ask yourself, how do you want people to describe the way you life your life? Do you want to be remembered as honest, responsible, kind, etc? 
  2. Make a plan for how you can better fulfill at least one of those values today and throughout the week.
  3. Go do the plan.
  4. When faced with choices, remember your values and make the decision that best lines up with those.

Simple, right? Usually, the answer is yes. However, there are inevitably going to be times when two of your values conflict with each other. For example, what if you really don't like someone, and they ask you to spend time together. How do you be both honest and kind if honesty suggests you should tell someone you're not interested and kindness suggests you should spend time with a person who enjoys your company? In these moments, take stock and ask yourself if you can in fact live by both values (perhaps there is a kind way to be honest). If there is truly no way to live out both of your values, then decide which one is more important to you in this moment. In the end, you are hoping to make a decision that you can look back on without regret since you will know that you lived your values the best that you could. 

Bring this practice into your daily life, and you are likely to experience more happiness and less guilt and anxiety about decisions. Enjoy!

Problem Solving 101

I mentioned problem solving in my last post but did not fully outline the steps, so I wanted to do so here. This is a little more of a technical and a little less fun post, but it is important for those of you out there working through difficult choices. I find the use of a whiteboard particularly useful during this activity. Sometimes, I even like to use colored markers. But you can do this with good old fashioned pen and paper as well.

Steps to Problem Solving:

  1. Clearly identify the problem that you are trying to solve.
  2. Brainstorm every possible solution (even crazy or impossible ones - you may end up coming back to these) to the problem.
  3. Make a list of pros and cons next to each one. Be honest with your appraisal of each option.
  4. Decide which option makes the most sense based on the balance of pros and cons. Sometimes the path will be clear, but sometimes you'll be faced with many possible good choices.
  5. Follow through with whatever action you chose. 
  6. Reflect upon how whatever you did worked. Sometimes, it worked great, and you're done with the problem and might know what to do when similar problems arise! Other times, it wasn't that great. If that is the case, go to the next step.
  7. Return your original brainstorming list and choose a different option! Carry it out, assess, repeat. 

Now you know the basics of problem solving! Good luck to you all in tackling your decisions!

 

Self-Compassion

Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to treat ourselves with the kindness, compassion, and love with which we treat others. We beat ourselves up over small mistakes, miscalculations, or missteps that we would never begrudge another for committing. For many of us, when we realize that we have been hard on ourselves, we are hard on ourselves for being hard on ourselves. Thus, we find ourselves in a vicious cycle of self-degradation. If anyone else then validates our self-criticism, we become even more convinced of our terribleness and continue to chastise ourselves with increased vigor. As you might have guessed, this can make us feel terrible and can even lead to depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns.  

One of the tenants I teach in my therapy practice is to be compassionate with yourself the way you would be compassionate with others. As a daily tool, I advise to think about what you would tell a loved one, particularly a child. Then, I encourage you to talk to yourself in this same loving yet encouraging way. Many people, myself included, struggle to do this on a regular basis or even at all. In fact, I face a lot of resistance from people who believe that being kind to themselves will lead to laziness or lack of performance. This is just untrue. You can be kind to yourself while also offering a different action. As a general script, you could try, "You did ____, and that is okay. Next time try ___." 

Building the muscle of self-compassion is challenging and often benefits from daily practice. One of my favorite mindfulness meditations is focused on loving-kindness for others but also for yourself. It can be found here. Daily practice can train your brain to be more likely to go to kindness when you make a mistake. This, in turn, may protect you from a vicious cycle of self-criticism. 

 

Mental Health and Gun Control

This is a controversial topic; I recognize that. I also will not pretend to be an expert on gun safety or public policy. However, I do know a lot about mental health, and I do consider myself an expert on promoting safety among those with mental health diagnoses. 

In mental health fields, when someone is at risk of hurting themselves or another, we assess for three primary things: Plan, Intent, and Means. Often, people have a plan for how they might commit a violent act, but they do not intend to do it. Other times, people have a plan and intent but lack the means. It is only when people have a plan, the intent to execute the plan, and the means to execute the plan that we are truly concerned about safety. Any missing ingredient of the Plan + Intent + Means equation is a barrier to harm. This is why it drives me insane when mental health gets blamed for mass shootings (or even violent crime) in this country.  

Yes, mental health concerns are part of the equation in many cases. However, even the most motivated person cannot commit a mass shooting without a gun. To promote public safety, we need to limit the plan, the intent, AND the means. If we are successful in just one of these areas, we could save a lot of lives. It is reckless not to address every component of the equation, and it irks me to no end that our policy makers cannot see this.