Mindfulness

The Shortlist Series: How to get Unstuck from Negative Looping Thoughts

The quote in the image above describes an idea that is so simple and yet not very easy. When we find ourselves stuck in negative looping thought-patterns, we often need a way out – a life preserver of sorts to pull us to safety. Here are  four suggestions that might help you exit those negative thought cycles. And as always, if you have a strategy that works for you to healthfully exit negative looping thoughts – please add it to the comments.

unstuck

1. Anchor to the Present Moment

When we find ourselves stuck in negative thinking, we may be ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. We can not change the past, and when we worry about the future, we are robbing today of its strength. Returning to the present moment may be just what you need to let your nervous system settle. Once you shift out of that worry or fear loop, your problem-solving brain can come back on-line, and the negative loop is interrupted. Not sure how to get back into the present moment? Here are some ideas:

5-4-3-2-1: Look around the room you are in, and carefully describe 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch (actually move around and touch the items), 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.

Ground with Colour: Look around the room you are in and take notice of everything you can see that is blue. Go slowly, pausing to notice what the item is and its particular shade of blue. Move on from blue to notice everything that is green, then orange, and so forth until you have gone through all the colours or until the looping thoughts have settled.

Letter Association by Word: Pick a word any word, and then break it down letter by letter, coming up with as many other words that start with each letter of your chosen word. (For example: if your word is COPING, start by thinking of as many words as you can that begin with the letter C, then O words, then P, then I, then N, then G.)

(These strategies are helpful because they focus our attention in a directive manner, and thus can interrupt the negative or looping thoughts that so often accompany anxiety. And the result? You return to the present moment, and the looping thoughts are interrupted.)

2. Connect with Compassion

When we are caught up in negative looping thoughts, our heart tends to be closed off. In other words, we might be thinking about the worst-case scenario, putting ourselves down, feeling as though things will never get better, and even thinking negatively of those in our lives. To exit the negative loop, try mixing in some compassion. Dr. Kristin Neff writes, “instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”. Having self-compassion means that you honour and accept your humanness – not self-downing but just being present with loving kindness. Not sure how to connect with self-compassion? Here are some ideas:

  • Talk to yourself the way you would talk kindly to a small child
  • Talk to yourself the way you would talk kindly or encourage a friend or someone you care deeply for
  • Try this breathing exercise for self-compassion: As you exhale, picture yourself exhaling stress, anger, worry, and frustration. As you inhale, picture yourself inhaling peace and acceptance. Continue slowing and deepening your breath, exhaling the worry, etc., and inhaling what you need.
  • Look at a picture of yourself at a younger age and remember you were once a child deserving of kindness and understanding
  • Look at a picture of a loved one (or look at them if you are near them) and think of 3 things you love about them
  • If you have a pet, take a few minutes to pet or play with them, and soak up some impromptu pet therapy!

3. Refreshen Self-Awareness

What is beneath your upset? Are you feeling unheard, unworthy, or unaccepted? Sometimes when we are caught up in a negative cycle, we start telling ourselves things that serve to keep the cycle going. These might be called thinking traps, negative core beliefs, or psychological defences. Regardless the name you use – take a moment to deepen your self-awareness and tune in to the narrative you are telling yourself. If it is negative, take a few moments to breathe deeply and return to the present moment with loving-kindness. You might want to question that negative narrative. For example, is what you are telling yourself 100% true, 100% of the time? What would you rather be telling yourself, or what could also be true instead? The latter question will start you down the road of connecting with the positive belief you would like to build.

4. Let it out

Sometimes talking it out can help. Is there someone in your life that you could vent to? Not for advice (unless you want it) – but rather a sounding board who can witness your tidal wave and be waiting on the shore as you ride the surf out. Emotional settling can occur when we connect with a caring friend or family member and feel heard.

If no one is around, try venting by writing out what you are feeling. You can also draw, doodle, scribble, or paint. Click here if you haven’t used writing to vent and want to hear some ideas on how to get started.

Have you discovered some ideas that help to healthfully shift out of negative looping thoughts? If so, please add what works for you in the comments.

Mindful Parenting

Dump the Distress

IMG-8488Let’s be honest: parenting just might be one of the hardest job you will ever have. It will also be the most rewarding, the most wonderful, the most awe-inspiring make-you-want-to-be-the-best-possible-you-ever job. Here is a strategy to help you through those moments when the worry and concern threaten to overtake the positive. This strategy can help enhance your self-awareness, personal growth, and provide an element of control over to shift emotion and build self-worth.

Here it is: Take all those thoughts swimming around in your head, and put them down on paper. Write them, type them, scribble them, paint them, blur them, or doodle them. The important step in the process is simply getting your thoughts out on paper. You might be doubting your parenting skills; you might be questioning your actions and reactions; you might be confused by your child’s behaviours; you might even be comparing yourself to others and feeling as though you don’t measure up. These thoughts can be over-whelming. When you put them down on paper, they suddenly seem concrete – tangible. You can make sense of them because they are words on paper and not thoughts triggering emotions and stirring up memories. You might find that you can think more clearly. You can even start problem-solving your way through them. “Writing about an experience can help you distance yourself from the feelings of inadequacy that get in the way of enjoying the just-as-real joys of parenting.”

“Writing about important personal experiences in an emotional way… brings about improvements in mental and physical health” – J.W. Pennebaker & J. D. Seagal

Not sure how to write in a journal? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Write about any situation that comes to your mind
  2. Or, try listening inwardly: ask yourself “what am I feeling right now?”
  3. Be honest with whatever you are feeling
  4. If you are venting, destroy the page when you have finished. This not only will ensure your privacy, but is also symbolic of purging the uncomfortable and unpleasant feelings
  5. Give yourself permission to write the worst journal entry ever – this will inherently give you permission to write the best journal entry ever. It will also free you of fear of failure, which might be preventing you from getting started! (Idea from Natalie Goldberg – see reference below)
  6. Try not to spend too much time thinking about what you want to write prior to writing – let your intuition and impulses guide your writing. The process of free writing or stream writing is believed to enable us to bypass our inner critic and tap in to our own wisdom, knowledge, and creativity
  7. Try ending on a positive note – What is your hope for tomorrow? What might you do differently tomorrow?
  8. Be consistent and try writing (or “dumping”) in your journal daily

Worth Checking Out:

The on-line store Knock Knock sells a very clever journal for parents titled “I’m a Parent?”. The journal itself starts out with an informative overview of parental guilt and the benefits of journaling. Then, every journal page starts with the caption “Why I’m a less-than-perfect parent today:” and ends with the affirmative statement “You’re doing better than you think”. Check it out at:
http://www.knockknockstuff.com/catalog/categories/books-other-words/journals/im-parent-guided-journal/

Resources:

Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg (2005)
Yoga for your Brain, by Sandy Steen Bartholomew (2011)
Forming a Story: the Health Benefits of Narrative, by J.W. Pennebaker & J. D. Seagal (1999) Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, USA.

This article was originally posted on September 26, 2012, to Happy Parents = Happy Kids (focusedonparenting.wordpress.com) by Susan Guttridge

Mindful Parenting

Becoming Accountable

Mia_cat_italy_2019Raising kids can bring out both the best and the worst in parents. After a challenging day, it might be easier to connect with all the things you’re doing wrong – I know I’ve had days like that! Perhaps it’s about having more energy, more patience, handling our temper, or not feeling quite so emotionally over-whelmed. Recognizing our limitations can often be easier than identifying how to create change, committing ourselves to a plan, and sticking with it.

One of the greatest ways to successfully change a behaviour is to document it. We can do this through journaling, or by writing out a plan for ourselves. Committing our thoughts to paper somehow makes them more concrete. No longer are they fleeting words floating through our mind – on paper words take on a stronger meaning. They become real. Through writing we give order to our thoughts, which assists us in seeing a plan more clearly.

So, to become accountable to yourself, every night write in your journal the ways in which you were successful in carrying out your desired behaviour change.

Example: Becoming Accountable with Anger

  1. Think about the ways that you would like to better handle your anger. Be realistic and use small steps.
  2. Every evening, document the ways in which you handled your anger well that day. Did you follow your plan? What helped you to stick with it?
  3. If you had a “blip” (an experience in which you did not handle your anger well) – write about how you will handle things differently tomorrow.

Example: Becoming Accountable with Self-Esteem

  1. Think about the ways in which you would like to raise self-esteem in your child(ren).
  2. Every evening, write about the interactions you had with your children where you made positive attempts at increasing their self-esteem
  3. If you had a “blip” – write about how you will handle things differently tomorrow so that you remain focused on interacting in ways that raise your child’s self-esteem.

Journaling in this way will make you accountable to yourself. It doesn’t feel very good to sit down to do this journaling exercise and have nothing to say – which is the success of the technique: You will want to implement the behaviour you planned so that you have something positive to write about in your journal!

This article was originally posted on November 16, 2010, to Happy Parents = Happy Kids (focusedonparenting.wordpress.com) by Susan Guttridge

Mindful Parenting

Learning to Love Yourself

Blond woman lying in fieldMany parents have a very difficult time making themselves a priority. From the time your children are born, you have most likely learned to put your needs on hold to care for them. When they cry in the night, you give up your sleep to attend to them. As toddlers they need close attention, and again your routine changes to ensure their safety and contentment. If your children are involved in sports, then you learn to adapt your schedule to take them to their activities. In essence, your life revolves around your children and your desire to raise them to be healthy and well-adjusted.

However, if you are in the habit of caring for your children, your partner, pets, etc. at the complete expense of caring for yourself, you will come to identify yourself solely by this caregiving role. Doing so puts you at risk of losing sight of your own individuality. Making yourself a priority, treating yourself kindly, nurturing yourself as well as the others in your life, is crucial to maintaining balance. It can also sustain you during stressful times, buffer against feelings of anxiety, and aid in the development of self-love. Everyone has time to care for themselves throughout the day: we just tend to use that time for other things. And the truth is, it doesn’t have to take a great deal of time.

For example, your plan to care for yourself may involve choosing to speak kindly to yourself (to be less critical with your self-talk). This process could involve enhancing self-awareness, which would enable you to start catching yourself when self-talk becomes critical, and then replace it with something kinder. Such a process wouldn’t necessarily take time out of your day, just a shift in your thinking process! Read and work through the steps outlined below, and make a plan to build some self-care into your week.

Part 1: Identify

In your journal, or on a piece of paper if you do not use a journal, write the title “What does it mean to love myself?”. Then, divide the page into 2 columns, with “Behaviour” on one side, and “Thoughts/Beliefs” on the other side. Take a moment to think about what it means to truly care for yourself. Once you have an idea of what this looks like for you, put your ideas on the paper, in the appropriate columns. For example, on the behaviour side, you might include things like: eating right, allowing yourself enough sleep, calling friends, reaching out for help when necessary, relaxing regularly (perhaps with a bath, meditation, yoga, reading, etc.), exercising, going for walks, gardening, limiting stress in your life, having strong boundaries with difficult people in your life, and so forth. Examples of thoughts/beliefs are: using positive affirmations, saying kind things to yourself such as “I can do this”, “I can learn to do that” (rather than “I’m such an idiot”), “I can handle my anger”, “I’m currently struggling with this because I am new at it” (rather than “I can’t do this”), “I have the power to take charge of my life”.

Part 2: Plan

Now that you have identified the ways in which you can care for yourself, take steps to incorporate loving yourself into your daily life. Review your list, and select the items on it that you identify the most with – the ones that really stand out for you. With these you will create a plan to incorporate them into your life: write down all the details necessary to carry out your plan during the following week. For example, if you want to eat better, you could review a recipe book, make a menu plan for the following days, and a grocery list of necessary food items. Or, if you commit to going for walks, but it is wintertime and you don’t own a pair of winter books, make a plan to purchase winter boots. When you are creating your plan, think of anything that could get in the way of carrying out your plan, and then deal with it. Identifying the obstacles ahead of time is important and will enable you to better change your routine in your desired ways. Start small. Be realistic. Once your plan has been created – start living it!

Reference:
Yes You Can! 16 Steps for Discovery & Empowerment, by Charlotte Kasl (1995)

This article was originally posted on October 28, 2010, to Happy Parents = Happy Kids (focusedonparenting.wordpress.com) by Susan Guttridge

The Process of Therapy

Lessons in Grieving

Grief does not have a definitive ending. There is no moment in time you arrive at with a sigh of relief and a renewed bounce in your step. Instead, grief sets us upon an atelic journey through emotion, winding us along a new path of life where we have memories instead of phone calls, and pictures instead of hugs. One of the tasks of grieving is certainly to discover new ways to hold the memory of the person you have lost so as to appreciate of the continuity of your relationship with them.

I think of grieving as a dance between sorrow and longing, love and remembering. Feeling the gift of a memory and allowing the accompanying music of emotions to wash  over you – letting your heart fill with love, allowing a threshold of pain, a tear of sadness – all the while keeping your feet on the dance floor of the present moment. Do not walk backwards through time and live in the pain of loss. Step forward bravely, holding the memories in your heart, and finding a new way to honour your loved one.

There are lessons to be learned in grief, if we tune in and allow the process to unfold: that loving means we will one day experience loss, and that living means we will feel both joy and sorrow. That each bittersweet memory is like a gentle kiss, lingering and leaving you wanting another. And as each memory brings with it sadness, or anger, or regret, so too can it bring joy and laughter.  We all have the capacity to stay grounded in the present moment, to love those that are still with us, and to learn and accept our shortcomings and try differently. Grief demands that when we turn to the past to mourn, that we also remember to return to the present moment – because we are here, living this life. By living it fully and honouring memories as they arise, we honour the ones we have lost.

If one of your loved ones has died, and you are touching into the profound pain of loss, I’d like to share a strategy that can help you navigate through those strong waves of emotion. The following questions can be used for reflection in whatever means works for you (such as journaling prompts, a point to reflect, or a story to share with a trusting friend or family member). Take your time with your responses, reflect on them, and allow them to grow as you need. The inner reflection prompted by these questions aids in grieving as they are designed to spark remembering, a continuity of your relationship with the person you have lost, and a bringing of your story forward in order to transfuse it with new meaning.

Personal Reflection Questions:

  • How was my life shaped or influenced by this person?
  • What stories do I want to carry forward in my life, to keep the legacy of this person alive within me?
  • What will my practices of remembering be?
  • What stories, strengths, and attributes do you believe this person would have wanted you to carry forward from their life, in your daily life?
  • What teachings did this person bestow upon you, that will continue to live by?
  • What memory stands out for you today of this person?
  • If you could talk to this person right now, what would you say?

This article is written in honour of my Nonna, who was always wise, strong, and beautiful
Giuseppina “Nella” Di Staulo,
Oct 12 1928-Jan 28 2019

nonna_mom_zia

Affect Regulation · The Process of Therapy · Uncategorized

Journaling 101

journalingTo write in a journal or not to write in a journal, that is the question. Do you dread writing down your deepest thoughts for fear someone might find your journal and read it? If so, you are exactly like most people! I’d like to share a strategy that will respect your privacy while also facilitating the hugely therapeutic process of journaling. I recognize that writing isn’t for everyone, and that it’s important to find what works for you.

The Reason to Write: Emotional Coping

The bubbling up of strong emotions tends to leave people feeling out of control, over-whelmed, and flooded. During these moments, one’s immediate reaction may be to shut down the emotions causing them to feel that way. We do this in all kinds of ways – some healthy and some super unhealthy. Coping well, and healing from trauma, is about being with the emotions and the message those emotions are providing in a more conscious and titrated way. Writing those heavy thoughts down is one way to get them out of your head, see them more objectively, and process some of the emotion connected to them.

Always use Two Journals

Journal 1 – The Dumping Journal
Your dumping journal can be any notepad or piece of paper. What you write on isn’t important, because once you dump the thoughts, you will be destroying the page. A dumping journal can be used to work through strong emotions, such as anxiety, anger, and grief. When you feel the pull of strong emotions, write about it. Literally dump it from your head onto the page – write it, draw it, scribble it, paint it. Write about the situation and about what’s stirring up for you.

Tip: If you sit down to journal and no words are coming – keep writing. Put your pen to paper and just write anything that comes to you. Within a few minutes the flow of thought will start to pour out onto the page.

This journal is called a dumping journal because we dump out the nagging emotions and thoughts onto page. Once complete, feel free to review what you have written, and then destroy the page. Shred it, burn it (safely) – ensure there is no record. The therapy isn’t in keeping what you write down, it’s about getting it out of your head and onto paper so you can work through it. The dumping journal isn’t to be kept because it’s not a reflection of who you truly are – it’s the angry, sad, traumatized, frightened, disorganized, annoyed, and vulnerable parts of you that are simply finding a voice. Each page gets destroyed after it’s been created in order to maintain the privacy of your healing process.

Journal 2 – The Healing Journal
The healing journal is the one that you will keep, so take some time to find a beautiful book to use. On any given day you may want to look back through this journal for strength, motivation, and a reminder of what sustains you. The healing journal is the one that you will to use to document all the good stuff. Some examples include:

  • a technique you learned that helps you cope,
  • something about life you learned that impacted you,
  • an “aha” moment,
  • things you are grateful for,
  • positive memories and photos,
  • the best fortune cookie message you ever received,
  • anything that reminds you of your strength, perseverance, and worth.

Here is how it works:

Whenever you have finished writing in your dumping journal, turn to the healing journal and write something positive. Turn towards gratitude, acknowledge your worth, connect with your peaceful place. Perhaps what you want to do differently tomorrow, or something that sustains you, or motivates you, or all the examples from your past that have demonstrated your ability to persist.

If you have written or processed something pretty heavy in the dumping journal, you may want to do something symbolic that represents a clear division between processing hurts and daily life. Taking a shower or washing your hands can be symbolic of washing it away, have a cup of tea do 10 burpees – whatever works to better enable your brain to recognize the dumping is complete and you are now letting go and returning to the present moment.

Tip: If you journal at bedtime, and then have difficulty settling the thoughts as you try to fall asleep, gently remind yourself that you have already “done the work” for the day and that it’s now your ‘time off’. Pull your peaceful place image back in as often as needed, or use a bedtime story app such as Calm.com to settle in for sleep.

Additional Resources to Inspire Journaling

Rhonda Brynes talks about writing 10 things for which you feel grateful for each day, in her book titled “The Magic”

Kristen Neff talks about journalling to build self-compassion 

The Process of Therapy

Three Little Things: Journaling to build Self-Worth

One key way we build self-esteem is by accomplishing the goals we set for ourselves. Every accomplished goal trickles into our sense self: it feeds our personal integrity, that sense of trust we have in ourselves that we will do what we set out to do. Our proven ability, even though only proven to ourselves, contributes to feeling good about ourselves. But what happens when a negative core belief such as “I’m not good enough” has a stronghold over our thoughts?

Negative core beliefs are false self-referencing beliefs, and they pack a pretty heavy punch. When a negative belief screams out in our brain, a powerful emotional response reverberates throughout our memory network and our body responds with much the same level of activation as when the negative belief was created – even though in the present moment we are safe. Experiences from childhood may have planted the seeds of the negative belief, and then additional life experiences may have strengthened them. Because these negative beliefs have been reinforced over and over again, they feel very true. “Negative beliefs come to create a perpetual filter through which we view ourselves and our world” (Parnell, 2007).

Negative core beliefs feel true but they are not true. Because these beliefs are capable of infiltrating all of our daily activities, social interactions, and inner dialogue, we need an equally powerful method for countering them. Counselling is an excellent way to heal early wounds and develop coping strategies for the present. There are also techniques we can focus on between sessions to practice being present with new, positive belief systems.

journal for self-worthThree Little Things: 

For this journaling activity, you are going to want to use a beautiful book: one that makes you smile when you look at. You won’t be journaling in the traditional style: this will be more of a ‘healing journal’, one that you are going to want to flip through often, to remind yourself of what you have written.

Each evening before you get ready for bed, take 10 minutes to sit down and reflect on 3 things you did well that day. These are the little things that we often over-look, that there are no accolades for. When we take the time to notice, we develop compassion for our selves. We start to see the evidence that yes, we are human and we make mistakes, but also that we are also inherently good and worthwhile beings. If you find that you are having trouble getting started, try reflecting on the list of prompts below.

Writing Prompts for Reflection:

  • What did I do well today?
  • How did I cope successfully with a triggering moment today?
  • How did I care for myself with loving kindness after a triggering moment?
  • What am I grateful for today
  • How did I demonstrate gratitude today?
  • How did I implement something I’ve been learning today?
  • How did I show kindness today?
  • How did I show up with courage in my life today?
  • How did I practice self-acceptance, or self-forgiveness today?
  • What daily goal did I follow through on today?
  • How did I live with intention today?

For more strategies on journaling to build self-compassion (and a really good read…) check out Dr. Kristin Neff’s website: self-compassion.org.

Resources:
Parnell, L. (2007). A Therapist’s Guide to EMDR: Tools and Techniques for Successful Treatment. New York NY: W.W. Norton & Company.