Overcoming Stress and Negativity, and Becoming more efficient

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January 8, 2020
March 3, 2020

These days life is such, it demands more from you. It is easy to get overwhelmed by multiple tasks and responsibilities. Be it family, work, and other commitments, it leaves us in despair. And then appears silent killer… lurks in the shadows, depleting your energy, sacking your concentration, and shaking your confidence. Here we are talking about ‘Stress’ which not only takes toll on you mentally but also physically. There have been countless studies that show how stress can cause increased blood pressure, head ache, fatigue, insomnia to name a few. It affects mental well-being and leads to mood disorders, erratic behavior, anxiety, negative thinking patterns and eventually depression.

Let’s think about this, the bills will always be coming .. every month, every year and so on; like everyone, you also have 24 hours in a day, and your work and family responsibilities will always be demanding. That doesn’t mean one should get bogged down and stop living the beautiful gift called life. If life has given us so many commitments, it has also given us the abilities to deal with it harmoniously. You have a lot more control than you might think.

Our inefficiency to deal with the ever demanding situations lies in our lifestyle and the way we think. Let’s look at our unhealthy thinking patterns first.

Negative thinking patterns have a strong and sometimes devastating impact on our relationships, our health, our work and our lives. These are repetitive and unhelpful. They directly cause what we could describe as ‘negative’ (unwanted or unpleasant) emotions like anxiety, depression, stress, fear, unworthiness, shame etc.

It’s absolutely normal to have negative thoughts! There is nothing wrong with us. We all have minds that have evolved to be constantly on the lookout for problems and dangers, so most of us have minds prone to have many negative thoughts. The problem is not that we have negative thoughts. The problem comes when we believe our thoughts are true. When you are no longer entangled in thoughts they lose their grip on you and lose their power to generate unpleasant emotions.

Worry: Worry is when the mind projects into an imagined future and conjures up scenes and thoughts about what could go wrong. Here, it often creates ‘what if’ scenarios. Sometimes it takes the form of imagining or expecting that bad things will happen or that nothing good will ever happen for you. You might fret about your health deteriorating, your relationship going downhill, your car breaking down or your career being ruined—even though nothing has actually happened yet.

The Harsh Critic: Another pattern of negative thought is to constantly criticize and ‘self-improve’ because you’re not good enough yet. You may be very harsh on yourself, focusing in on all of your weaknesses and perceived flaws. There is nothing wrong with having goals and aiming to get fitter or healthier and the like—we can simply choose to do those because they are good for us or we want to stretch and grow. It’s a very different headspace to be doing those things because we don’t feel like we’re enough yet.

Regret: Ruminating on mistakes made in the past often creates feelings of shame, guilt and negativity. Feelings of worthlessness may arise when you play over and over in your mind, ‘bad’ choices or ‘wrong’ actions you feel you have made. There is nothing ‘negative’ about simply reflecting on past experiences. This is how we can learn, grow and mature as people. Negativity arises when you dwell on a situation repeatedly with no real intention to learn and grow–but instead you are self-beating or wishing things were different instead of being accepting of things as they are.

Focusing on the Lack: We spend all are time thinking about the things we lack. In fact, we might have lot many things to be grateful for. For example, you may have a wonderful family, food to eat and shelter, but your car breaks down and it’s all you can think about and focus on all week long. You allow the situation with the car to dominate your thinking and negative emotions arise as a result. All week you are frustrated, angry and depressed because of the car when your focus could be expanded to what is going well and what you’re grateful for. The truth is that the car has a problem. It is no longer running and needs to be taken to the mechanic. That’s a simple fact. Ruminating continuously on the situation is not constructive at all and is another way we can get trapped in negativity.

Below are the few tools that will help you get rid of this negative thinking patterns:

‘Name it to tame it’ is a phrase coined by author and psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel. When an unhelpful thought pattern (and the associated emotion) arises you simply mentally ‘label’ the story. You’ve probably noticed many of our thoughts are repetitive and involve the same story lines. For instance, one of my stories often is, “I am not enough” “I lack confidence” “People thinks I am not suitable for the said role” I find this story unhelpful so when thoughts come up along that storyline, I simply mentally note to myself, “Oh yes! the ‘Not Enough’ story is here again” and then I let it go.

By ‘let it go’ I mean, I stop giving it all my attention and stop taking it so seriously. I realize it’s just a thought, not reality, then I open my awareness to the world around me again—the birds in the trees, the sounds, the breeze. I get out of my head and into my life.

As soon as you name the mental story or pattern, you have now stepped back from being caught up in it. In other words, you have initiated cognitive defusion. From a neuroscience perspective, when you name the thoughts you stop being hijacked by them from the negativity they create because you bring the smartest part of your brain online (the frontal cortex). The frontal cortex is reflective and helps you step back and get a greater perspective. You can do the same thing with emotions, naming them to tame them like “ahhh anxiety is here” or “oh shame has arrived”.

When naming or labelling your thoughts or emotions, one important tip. Make sure when you mentally label, to do it in a soothing, kind tone of voice. This is important as it helps you to settle and invite compassion and soothing into that moment instead of aggression or struggle. We’re not going to battle with the mind here. We are gently training it into new neural pathways of peace and ease.

Be Present: Notice that many negative thoughts mostly flow from two directions. The first is dwelling on the past..maybe you ruminate over mistakes, problems, guilt and anything in your life that’s did not go the way you believe it should have gone. The second is worrying about the future..fear of what may or may not happen for yourself or others.

When lost in negative thinking, we tend to be so engrossed in thoughts that we completely lose touch with what is actually happening in the present moments of our lives. We miss the little pleasures of living each day. The sunlight on your skin, the taste of the food we’re eating, a real connection with someone we love while they are talking. When we’re lost on our heads we lose touch with the world around us….and we lose touch with ourselves.

To become more present, and able to step out of negative thinking, one powerful method is to ‘come to your senses’. To do this simply redirect your attention out of the thoughts in your head and bring your focus to your sense perceptions. Be aware of the sounds, the scents, the sensation of the air on your skin or the contact points with the seat beneath you. Be there fully in the moment. This is a form of mindfulness practice.

Research from Prof. Mark Williams from Oxford University showed that when difficulties arise in life many of us tend to get caught up in excessive unhelpful thinking. Sometimes people try to stop constant unhelpful thinking but we don’t have to try to stop our thoughts. A more effective way to ease all that internal noise, we are supposed to pay attention to our direct sensory experience. In this way there’s simply little to no room left in our attention for all that excessive thinking. Coming to our senses calms the mind and grounds us in the present moment.

Now, it’s not that we’re aiming to live completely immersed in our senses all the time. It’s appropriate to think when it’s useful of course. But we can use this awareness of our senses to ground and centre us in a greater awareness when we find ourselves caught up in negative thinking.

Mindfulness Practice: Each time your mind wanders in meditation, your task is to notice it and then detach from your thought stream and come back to your senses, in the moment. This is a practice of untangling from thoughts over and over again, a habit which translates in the rest of your life too. It becomes a habit to notice and let go with ease. Each time you observe the mind that is an opportunity for ‘insight’ into your mind’s habits and patterns which eventually leads to wisdom or self-awareness.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Some kinds of negative thinking patterns can be quite ‘sticky’. You may find that you try to ‘name it to tame it’ and come back to your senses but the thoughts continue to have a grip on you. If you find yourself in this position, you can try the helpful questions for unhelpful thoughts. These are drawn from ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy).

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you untangle from the thought. You ask them and then you can answer them in your head. Usually you would just pick one of these at any given time.

  • Is this thought in any way useful?
  • Is it true? (Can I absolutely know that it’s true)
  • Is this just an old story that my mind is playing out of habit?
  • Does this thought help me take effective action?
  • Is this thought helpful or is my mind just babbling on?

Then you can (mentally) ask these questions below to create new focus and new possibilities. These questions will help you focus on constructive thoughts and actions and help you effectively face your day-to-day challenges and move towards living a more meaningful life. Again, you may only use these at a time but you could always try more than one too.

  • What is the truth? My deepest truth?
  • What do I really want to feel or create in the situation? How can I move towards that?
  • How can I make the best of this situation?
  • Who would I be without this negative thought?
  • What new story or thought can I focus on now?
  • How can I see this in a different or new way?
  • What can I be grateful for in this moment?

With these powerful questions you can change your focus from being stuck in negativity to being focused on what’s going well. They will also help you take constructive action and move towards living a more meaningful life.

Our mind is the driver of the bus called life. If you are able to program it and discipline it, your bus will go to places. Besides being aware of your thoughts, daily lifestyle choices or habits will enable you to tackle stress and negativity effectively.

Below are simple and important yet most ignored lifestyle changes that will help us in the long run physically and mentally:

  • Exercise: Yeah Yeah Yeah… you must have heard it a lot and I am saying it too. Hit a gym, Run, take those stairs instead of lifts, keep yourself active, you will see instant positive change not only physically but also mentally. Try it, you will love it.
  • Sleep: A good night sleep of 8 hours works like wonders. Turn off screens one hour before you want to go to bed. You should also aim to go to bed at roughly the same time each day so that your mind and body get used to a predictable bedtime routine
  • Eat Well: Eating a regular, well-balanced diet will help you feel better in general. It may also help control your moods. Your meals should be full of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and lean protein for energy. And don’t skip any. It’s not good for you and can put you in a bad mood, which can actually increase your stress.
  • Talk to Someone: If things are bothering you, talking about them can help lower your stress. You can talk to family members, friends, a trained professional, a colleague, or a therapist. Talking can work by either distracting you from your stressful thoughts or releasing some of the built-up tension by discussing it. Stress can cloud your judgement and prevent you from seeing things clearly. Talking things through can help you find solutions to your stress and put your problems into perspective.
  • Self-Talk/ Diary: Not all of us are comfortable talking about something that’s bothering us. You can still have it all let it out. Maintaining a diary can be very helpful to become more aware of the situation and it might also give more insight about ourselves and the trigger that made us miserable. You can also talk to yourself. It’s called self-talk and we all do it. But you need to make sure it’s positive and not negative. So listen closely to what you’re thinking or saying when you’re stressed out. If you’re giving yourself a negative message, change it to a positive one. Accept that you can’t do things perfectly no matter how hard you try. You also can’t control everything in your life. So do yourself a favor and stop thinking you can do so much. And don’t forget to keep up your sense of humor. Laughter goes a long way towards making you feel relaxed.
  • Learn to say ‘No’: Many of us find it difficult. But at some point of time we have to take a stand and simply say NO. To learn to say “No”, you need to understand why you find it difficult.  Many people find it hard to say “No” because they want to help and are trying to be nice and to be liked.  For others, it is a fear of conflict, rejection or missed opportunities.  Remember that these barriers to saying “No” are all self-created. Know your limits and stick to them. Whether in your personal or professional life, taking on more than you can handle is a surefire recipe for stress. Distinguish between the “shoulds” and the “musts” and, when possible, say “no” to taking on too much. You can try by saying “Now is not a good time”, I would love to but..”, “I am sorry, I can’t commit to this”, “I have other priorities”
  • Identify Source and Eliminate: While it’s easy to identify major stressors such as changing jobs, moving, pinpointing the sources of chronic stress can be more complicated. It’s all too easy to overlook how your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors contribute to your everyday stress levels. Sure, you may know that you’re constantly worried about work deadlines, but maybe it’s your procrastination, rather than the actual job demands, that is causing the stress. Figure out what are the biggest causes of stress in your life. Is it your job, your commute, your schoolwork? If you’re able to identify what they are, see if you’re able to eliminate them from your life, or at least reduce them. If you can’t identify the main causes of your stress, try keeping a stress journal. Make note of when you become most anxious and see if you can determine a pattern, then find ways to remove or lessen those triggers.

Stress and Negativity is bound to enter your life. Sometimes other people will thrust negativity upon you. Other times, you’ll find negativity dwelling within you. However, you encounter negativity, choose to navigate these situations mindfully. Accept the presence of negativity with nonjudgmental awareness, and you’ll have the opportunity to act with intention. Instead of letting negativity control your experience, you get to choose your own path forward.

“I promise you nothing is as chaotic as it seems. Nothing is worth diminishing your health. Nothing is worth poisoning yourself into stress, anxiety, and fear.” ― Steve Maraboli