Are your thoughts and feelings filled with anxiety and stress? And are these uncomfortable feelings robbing you of focus, mojo, productivity, and peace?
I’m calling this corona brain.
I’ve been reaching out to offer to coach to former students, clients, and front-line workers. To my delight, a former student recently contacted me to take me up on my offer. She is experiencing many uncomfortable feelings (notice I don’t call them negative emotions) – she wants to be more positive, productive and engaged with life. She was seeking strategies to get off the roller coaster of emotions that she’s been riding.
Maybe you can relate, one moment she is fine and then next she’s tumbling down into despair.
This has actually been the case with many of my clients and fellow coaches. So if you too are feeling a perpetual cycle of uncomfortable feelings, know that you are not alone.
But the great news is that there are evidence-based strategies that can help decrease your overwhelm and anxiety and elevate your wellbeing.
Which of these three strategies will you adopt?
Love and Compassion
As I wrote to you a few weeks ago, please begin with love and self-compassion. Your brain is supposed to be afraid of things that might harm you. And a pandemic is such a thing, right?
If you are experiencing fear and uncertainty, there is no shame in that. If you’re feeling closed in and tired of all of this, there is no shame in that. And if you are calm, peaceful and are feeling that this is the best thing that’s ever happened to you, again, there is no shame in that. And if you feel all of these things in one day, no shame in that either.
I recently listened to Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on Insight Timer (the amazing meditation app I use) and she suggests, “The opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear is compassion. You cannot chase the fear out. You can only bring love in. Bring love in, and the fear starts to subside. Bringing enough love to your heart that you feel you’re cradling yourself with infinite tenderness and the fear will have no choice but to start to relax its hold on you.”
I love this and Elizabeth Gilbert for suggesting we love ourselves out of our fear.
How do we love ourselves out of fear? Gilbert suggests that we write a love letter to our fear. Just as someone who loves us unconditionally would show up for us, we show up for ourselves. I did this. And it was a wonderful experience.
As you can imagine, my fearful self had lots to say. Following Gilbert’s lead, I responded in my love letter to my fearful self with assurances that we can do this, that I see her and hear her. I also told her, “I will always be there for you. It will all unfold just as it is supposed to unfold. Breathe. In this moment, you are safe. I’ve got you. If the scary thing happens, we will take care of it together.”
If you just read the paragraph above and you think I’ve gone off the rails, I have two things to say. One, I was never on the rails, to begin with, and two, try it and see for yourself the comfort it brings.
Cultivate a gratitude practice.
Science has shown that naming three things you are grateful for each day creates lasting happiness and decreased depressive symptoms. I have had a steady gratitude practice for 10 years. And I have ramped it up tenfold during this pandemic. I typically journal three gratitudes as part of my morning page journaling.
We have added to this as a family. During dinner, we each state one thing for which we are grateful and before going to sleep, Joe and I play ping pong gratitudes where we take turns stating three things for which we are grateful.
Gratitudes can be as simple as “I made it through today”. Because let’s face it, that is where you are sometimes.
I make one caveat here. Stating gratitudes is not a means to bypass your emotions such as “I am frustrated with being stuck inside but at least I have a home.” That is shaming yourself for your emotions. And remember – shaming yourself does not bring the peace you are seeking.
Including your contribution toward what it is you are grateful for is also helpful as it offers a sense of agency, a sense that you have more control of how you feel than you think. It may seem that you haven’t contributed for that which you are grateful. For instance, I love and appreciate the beauty of nature so many of mine include what I saw that day in nature. The other day when my gratitude was, “I am grateful that I saw the ducks orange feet paddling in the lake.” How do I include my contribution? “I am grateful that I took note of the ducks feet paddling in the lake.” Because taking the time to notice is in my control, I know that if I want to feel this same type of joy I can stop and take note of nature around me.
Name It to Tame It
We all experience uncomfortable emotions. It’s an inevitable part of the human experience. Unfortunately, we have been conditioned to suppress our uncomfortable emotions, to see them as undesirable. Yet, uncomfortable emotions are beneficial in many ways. One such benefit is that they act as an alert system to protect us.
When we experience an intense emotional response, our limbic system fires up and stress hormones begin to flow. This in turn leads to the activation of a “fight or flight” response. Your muscles contract and your heart pumps harder and faster. In other words, your body readies for action. This fight or flight response, deeply rooted within our nervous system, takes over. This is helpful to your safety when someone is chasing you down a dark alley. Not so much when you are in a meeting, home on the couch, or homeschooling your child.
However, experiencing constant intense emotions can cause: anxiety and depression, headaches, heart disease, memory and concentration problems, problems with digestion, trouble sleeping, and weight gain. So we need to engage in activities to counteract the activation of the fight or flight response.
When you experience a moment of heightened anxiety and a tiger is not chasing you, try this. First, name the emotion you are feeling. Studies have shown that having more emotional clarity about your fear can reduce your physiological response to fear. Author and psychiatrist, Dr. Dan Siegel calls this evidence-based technique, “Name it to Tame it”. Naming your emotion takes the power away from it. I liken this to exposing your emotion to the sun rather than hiding it in a dark corner where it grows like mold.
I created a chart of feelings to help you name the emotion you are feeling.
After naming your feeling, you might want to journal your uncomfortable thoughts and feelings (what some call negative thoughts and feelings). Journaling your uncomfortable thoughts and feelings doesn’t make them stronger as some might think. In fact, it does the opposite. Journaling exposes your thoughts and feelings thereby taking away their power over you.
There is much going on in our heads, with our families, and in the world. Your wellbeing is depending on you to put the oxygen on yourself first.
Which of these strategies speaks the most to you?
Try it out. And then try another.
Find the best fit for you. Your brain will thank you.