This is the third blog in the series and addresses the second of the four steps to be resilient in the moment.
Step 2: What thoughts and feelings will assist me?
Experiencing fear and anxiety and strong negative thoughts is common when confronted by a stressful situation. The problem with negative thoughts and the associated narrow thinking is that it shuts out and excludes the type of broad thinking required for flexibility and the exploration of alternatives.
In stressful situations, negative thoughts and narrow thinking are associated with a reduction in positive feelings which are literally squeezed out by the more powerful negative feelings. The world becomes bleak. It’s easy to slip into a downward spiral of negative thinking. This is humorously illustrated on a plaque half-way up the long and arduous trip up the Hex Mountain Range to the starting overnight hut on the Witels Kloofing trail:
The way is long and getting longer
The road goes uphill all the way,
and even farther.
I wish you luck. You will need it.
The way is dark and getting darker
The hut is high, and even higher
I wish you luck
There is none.
Adapted from The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber
What can be done to break out of a negative thinking spiral? The first thing to do is to calm yourself to reduce your threat response. There are several calming techniques and an example of this is to shut your eyes and concentrate on your breathing for between 1 to 3 minutes. Quietly observe how your lungs rise with air as you breathe in and fall as you breathe out. Allow the stress of the moment to roll off you as your exhale. Visualise tense and negative thoughts flowing out of your mind and your body with the exhaling breaths and leaving calm in its place.
Once that you have calmed yourself you can begin working more rationally and systematically to alter your thoughts and emotions so as to be more resilient. Try the following exercises to find those that work for you:
1. Challenge persistent negative thoughts – often these thoughts dwell inappropriately on the worst possible outcome, and are thus exaggerated or simply improbable. Challenging them involves asking yourself if they are true and based in reality; asking what is the worst that can happen; asking what are the chances of the worst outcome actually coming about.
2. Reframe the negative thoughts – find a different way of seeing the adversity; ask yourself what you can learn from the situation or what you will do differently next time. This gives a sense of control and purpose.
3. Spend time with people you love and trust – one of the most effective ways to break negative thinking is to spend time with those special people in your life who can lift your mood. It also is comforting to feel their love for you reaffirmed.
4. Smile and laugh – this opens you to more positive emotion. So even if you don’t feel like it, “fake it till you make it”. In other words, don’t wait until you feel happy to express it, rather act happy and this will lead you to feel happy. Although counterintuitive, it works!
Positive thinking and the associated positive emotions have a welcome physiological effect. They actually change body chemistry, which enables the upward spiralling thought patterns. This biological impact extends to enabling people who are positive to even live longer.
Thoughts and feelings can be changed. By adopting more positive thoughts and feelings we become more open to possibilities; more creative; more expansive in our thinking. Positive thinking assists us to more easily build personal networks and learn new skills. This in turn initiates upward spiralling patterns of positive achievement followed by good feelings which in turn enables growth and development.
Next week this blog will continue with the third step. Watch out for it!