Friday, January 13, 2012

Effective Listening----Empathic Communication

“You’re not listening to me!!” So often, people that I talk to both professionally and personally share that complaint about some person with whom they have a significant relationship, whether it is a spouse, friend, parent, or partner. And usually, the other person that the complaint is about feels that they ARE doing a good job of listening. Clearly there is a disconnect here, so I wanted to clarify what constitutes poor listening, good listening, and then a model for being an effective listener.

It’s essential to understand the concept of empathy for anyone that wants to become a more effective listener. Empathy is truly understanding the other person’s point of view and the other person’s feelings about a situation. It’s really climbing right into their shoes and seeing the thing they are talking about from their standpoint. This doesn't mean that you have to agree with everything the person is saying or get yourself to change your beliefs to match those of the speaker.  It is simply understanding completely the other person's veiwpoint.  

Empathy is a skill that most people have to develop, but just having empathy isn’t enough to let the other person know that you really understand what they have said. You still have to express this empathy in an effective manner.  But before I discuss how to listen effectively with empathy, I'll discuss a few common mistakes many people make when trying to listen to another person.

One complaint I frequently hear from those wanting someone in their life to be a better listener is that after they’ve spoken, the other person says something like, “I get it” or “I understand”. That’s NOT expressing empathy or understanding. The other person really has no idea from that whether they were heard and understood or not. We could listen to a lecture on quantum physics, not comprehend too much of it, and still say “I get it” or "I understand" at the end!

Another frequent complaint I hear, and more often it seems that men are accused of doing this, is that after the speaker has expressed their thoughts and feelings on a situation, the listener then immediately jumps in with a solution to the “problem” or a way fixing whatever it was the speaker was talking about. This also isn’t very effective listening. Usually the speaker hasn’t asked for help in generating a solution, they just want someone to listen and understand them.  And in my work with couples, it isn’t often that the listener actually comes up with a fix for the situation that the talker hadn’t already thought of or was incapable of generating themselves.

Lastly, in discussing what doesn’t work, saying something like “I’m sorry” isn‘t that helpful. This is expressing sympathy, not empathy, and there are times for expressing sympathy where “I’m sorry” is a kind thing to say. But it really doesn’t work when, for example, the talker has discussed for several minutes a frustrating work situation that occurred that day and the listener simply says “I’m sorry” in response. That response would connote some caring about the person’s situation, which is nice, but it doesn’t express any deep or helpful understanding of it that results in the talker truly feeling heard.

I believe that the listener often genuinely wants to be helpful to the speaker or really wants to let the person know that they care and understand, but they just don’t know how to go about that. Remember, the goal of effective listening and empathy is to deeply understand the situation and feelings from the other person’s perspective, not to fix it (unless they specifically ask for possible solutions) or to essentially end the conversation with an “I get it” or “I’m sorry”.

The basic model to follow is to paraphrase the content of what you are hearing and to also say something about the emotion the speaker is likely feeling or has even expressed that they are feeling. For example, the speaker says, “Bill is driving me crazy at work. We’re supposed to be doing the same customer service all day, and half the time he is on his phone texting people or playing games. He always takes a lunch and comes back late, and I end up sitting there all day doing my work AND his work. And the boss even gives me more to do because she knows I’ll get it done and he won’t!!!”

Again, don’t say “I understand” or “I’m sorry” and essentially end the conversation, and don’t try to fix this initially. This is the kind of comment that stereotypically sucks more guys into immediately offering solutions about how to handle Bill, what to tell the boss, how to quit taking on the extra work etc., but don’t offer solutions unless specifically asked.

The empathetic response is, “Dang, that’s got to be incredibly frustrating (so here, you’ve hit the emotion part……now the content), so you’re cranking away all day at work killing yourself to get everything done and you get even more dumped on you, and Bill is just sitting there messing around not doing much of anything!!” (notice with the content part of the empathetic response, don’t parrot back exactly word for word what the person said, pull it together in a cogent summary……doing that really let’s the other person know that you understand).

So if you’re the listener, this is the model for effective listening. If you need someone in your life to be a more empathic listener, that person may need a little coaching from you so that they listen more in the manner I just described. As I said, I believe most people do want to be helpful and do care, so you can clearly tell them that you appreciate their effort to understand when they say “I understand” or their effort to help you by offering solutions to the “problem”, but then go on to describe exactly what would be helpful and effective listening for you.........or have them read this article! 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Understanding Couples Relationships

by guest writer: Dr. Jeff George (Dr. George is in private practice in Safety Harbor, FL

A couple came into my office the other day saying they were having  "communication problems." The woman complained that she and her partner were having the same argument over and over again, and she was frustrated because her partner "just doesn’t get it." She had tried again and again to make contact with her husband only to be rejected and misunderstood, which served to deepen her frustration. She said that she had given up trying to connect and the couple had drifted into loneliness, resentment and despair.

The husband agreed that they had communication problems, but said that he would be happy to listen to his wife "if she just wasn’t attacking me." He complained that she was critical from the onset of their exchanges, which prompted him to "just shut down." I saw two really smart, capable, and caring people stuck in a very common pattern.

Some people are surprised to learn that most couples wait an average of 6.5 years from the time they start having problems until they decide to seek therapy. That’s a lot of time to spend in loneliness, resentment and despair! But, there are a lot of reasons that couples wait so long to seek help. One of the main reasons couples wait to seek treatment is they have hope that their partner will have an epiphany, an "ah ha" moment, which will magically fix things. Unfortunately, that day is very slow to come, if it comes at all; and it rarely "fixes" anything for very long. Real recovery in relationship comes from transforming the foundation of our friendship from conflict to connecting. It requires attention, practice and willingness to struggle.

Why do we struggle so much with our love relationships? When we first fall in love, it is so easy to connect with our partner; they are so exciting and sexy and understanding; how could we ever see them as anything other than our perfect match? There are reasons that we use terms like "head over heels" and "swept off our feet" to describe romantic love.
Falling in love is one of the most euphoric and wonderful experiences a human being can have. Brain studies of people in the infatuation stage of  a relationship are fascinating. Natural mood enhancers like Oxytocin, Vasopressin and Dopamine are all present in elevated levels, which accounts for the euphoria and bliss we feel.

During romantic love, information is processed differently so that potentially damaging details are minimized or overlooked altogether, which validates the euphemism that "love is blind." Yet we know from years of research that somewhere between 3 months and two years after falling in love, the infatuation begins to fade, and all of the natural mood enhancers begin to fall back to "normal" levels. Now we begin to see ourselves and our partner differently and we encounter a struggle.

It is normal to struggle in a relationship. In fact, witnessing a loving couple who have truly mastered the art of conflict in a disagreement is a remarkably beautiful event. Loving couples rarely criticize each other, instead they complain without blaming. They respect and honor each other, even when they flatly disagree with their partner’s point of view. They find ways to soothe and comfort each other with humor, validation, empathy and caring, even in the midst of conflict, which serves to strengthen their friendship and deepen their passion. Master couples light the way for what is possible in a committed love relationship. They teach us that healthy conflict is a struggle for growth, which may be the very thing we need as individuals.

So, when couples come into my office saying they are having "communication problems," I hear their loneliness, frustration and despair, but I am very hopeful about what they can accomplish together. What they are saying is that they want to be understood and they want to be more connected to one other. I see that as a hopeful sign. Who wouldn’t want to recapture some of the passion and closeness of romantic love? But, I sometimes wish they hadn’t waited so long!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mindfulness: Experience the best bite of pizza ever……and decrease stress, anxiety, worry and upset!

Back in graduate school, I was waiting with the other doctoral students for the start of our weekly clinical supervision group when our supervisor walked in with a giant, steaming hot pizza. Pizza was definitely a staple food choice in grad school, and I appreciated our supervisors apparent willingness to indulge us in this as I waited for her to open the lid to the box and to give us the directive to commence stuffing ourselves. But in my first introduction to the idea of mindfulness, she only opened the box top, instructed us to shut our eyes, and then had us breath slowly and deeply as we visualized the pizza, absorbed the aroma, and imagined the taste and warmth of it in our mouths. When we finally did get a piece, we then had to chew thoughtfully, experience all the flavors, textures and smells, swallow slowly, and then imagine ourselves feeling one bite of pizza heavier!

Mindfulness is really a state of active, open attention to the present moment in which one absorbs themselves fully in all of the sensory awareness that is available in that moment, without passing judgment on anything or having their thoughts float to the past or future. But so often, our minds are churning away thinking about things that have already happened, or our minds are going through mental to do lists or what iffing things to come in the future that we don’t experience, let alone enjoy, what is happening right now.

And how can a person truly take full pleasure in and experience all the wonderful expressions, behaviors, sounds, and emotions that are a part of their child’s sporting event or performing arts show if they are thinking about all the things they need to do after it ends or worrying about an interaction they had with a coworker earlier that day? How can someone truly savor their workout routine, walk, cup of coffee, or conversation with a friend if their mind is occupied with extraneous past or future oriented thoughts? How can a psychology grad student even fully experience a bite of pizza?!

We all had different reactions that day…..some felt that it was the best piece of pizza they had ever had, some ended up not even wanting more than the one bite because they had focused in on the oil pooling on the pepperoni and the greasy taste in their mouth, and I realized that after a few bites, I was fairly satisfied even though before the mindful moment I had felt like I could devour the entire pizza.

I talk to and know many people who seem to be almost constantly up in their head with their typical thoughts, ruminations, lists, plans, etc churning away, and this is truly life going by without living it and experiencing it fully. The key to the mindful state is the total absorption in what is going on in the present moment. This can be a difficult state to capture, but I think most people have experienced it accidentally at times……it’s the feeling you get when you’re so engrossed in something that you lose all track of everything else going on around you.

People often describe this feeling when they get lost in a good book or absorbed in a pleasurable activity. It’s similar to the feeling athletes get when they say they are “in the zone” where they are simply feeling their body perform and move perfectly without any interfering thinking or judging from their brain.

So it’s great when those moment occur randomly, but people can get increasingly better at allowing this to happen more frequently by following several important mindfulness strategies. One key is to involve as many senses as possible in the moment. What are all the things that you see…….close your eyes and list all of the scents in your awareness……what do you hear easily and what are the subtle sounds you might pick up on with more awareness……..what do you feel, the warmth of the sun on your skin, a slight breeze, the pressure of whatever you’re sitting on……..and finally, what do you sense that you appreciate, your friends voice or smile, the aroma of the food on your plate etc.

Another important element to achieving mindfulness is to relish or luxuriate in whatever you are doing at the present moment. You can do this with anything….talking to a friend, taking a shower, drinking your cup of coffee, watching your children at play, doing work around the house etc. People that savor life regularly in this way experience more joy and positive emotions and report less stress, anxiety, and depression.

Finally, it is essential to keep your mind out of the way……if your brain is thinking about the past or future or making judgments about what is going on in the present, then your thoughts are keeping you from true absorption in the moment. One way to do this is to even be mindful of your thoughts……an observer of what has popped into your head in a neutral way without judging or attaching yourself to the thought. We have hundreds of thoughts every day and you can observe them floating in and out without getting lost in them and then return all of your sensory awareness to the present moment.

Any experience is an opportunity to practice mindfulness. You can walk mindfully, drive mindfully, interact with others and eat mindfully etc. Attempt this as often as you can and you’ll notice more and more that when you are absorbed in the moment in the manner I’ve described that any stresses, worries, upsets, or mental churnings fade to the background as you become more fully alive and awake to all you can experience from each moment of life.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Assertive Communication: Honest-Appropriate-Respectful-Direct

Assertive communication is really about hitting that sweet spot between passive communication and aggressive communication, but it can be a very difficult spot to hit. It’s essential, however, to become proficient at directly and appropriately communicating your needs in order to help reduce your overall stress and to avoid resentment and irritation in the relationships in your life.

Communication styles are typically categorized as passive, assertive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive, but I find that the majority of people miss the assertiveness sweet spot by communicating too passively, so I’m going to address that and then discuss strategies for assertive communication. In passive communication, often people don’t express their needs or desires at all to others, or if they do try to express their wishes, they do so in a round about, beating around the bush, hinting sort of manner that isn’t effective at all.

I talk to many people who would like more help from their spouse/partner or children at home, or who feel that things get unduly dumped on them at work, or who feel they are treated poorly by someone with whom they have a relationship. It would obviously make things easier if these family members, bosses/coworkers, or friends would just pick up on the hints the person drops, or if it were the case, as I often hear, that the other person “should just know what I want and just do it without me having to ask”. But the reality is, people often don’t understand the indirect, hinting messages and don’t just “know” what you want.

Or sometimes, people might know what you’d like but don’t respond to the hints or lack of a clearly stated directive. Either way, the passive communicating person doesn’t get their needs met and frequently ends up feeling resentful and hurt. They often end up feeling overly stressed as well, because they haven’t received help they needed or because they didn’t clearly communicate that they didn‘t want to do something or have time to do something, and ended up taking on too much.

So why would people not express their desires and needs when failing to do so results in a significant build up of stress, resentment, and hurt feelings?! The number one reason I hear for not being assertive is that people want to avoid conflict, not create waves, and not risk having the other person get mad or upset with them.

Well, sure, most people want to avoid an argument and not have somebody get mad at them, but where is the evidence that being assertive causes conflicts or typically results in negative emotion from the other person? It often goes quite well! And most healthy functioning people are perfectly able to tolerate someone being direct and honest in communicating with them……most people even appreciate this because they don’t have to waste energy figuring out hints, reading between the lines, and trying to read the other person’s mind!

Even on the occasion that the respectful and direct communication isn’t received well, that is diagnostic of something going on with the other person that they chose to get upset or create an argument. Perhaps you’ve learned something valuable about that other person and their difficulty in handling assertive communication effectively or appropriately. But ultimately, you haven’t done anything wrong in communicating your needs/wishes; if the other person wants to get themselves upset or to try to create an argument, then that is their responsibility.

And really, the passive person often is only temporarily avoiding conflict anyway, because in addition to being stressful, the irritation and resentment of not communicating your needs and not having your needs met will build up over time. Eventually it gets difficult to keep the lid on the frustration, and when the lid blows, the resulting expression of upset and emotion often flips over to the aggressive side of communication and doesn’t work very well either.

So, the benefits of assertive versus passive communication are clear, and there are several general strategies to follow to communicate assertively. A good acronym to remember to help steer your communication is that it can be HARD to communicate assertively (Honest, Appropriate, Respectful, and Direct). If you are able to assess what you’ve said to someone and it meets these components, then you’ve hit the sweet spot of assertiveness. Telling someone, “No thanks, I don’t want to do that” meets HARD, as does, “I would like some help with this please”, or, “I ordered this without mayonnaise, could you please take it back”.

When attempting to tell somebody that they are doing something that you don’t like, the usual model is “I feel _______ when you _________”. For example, I feel frustrated when you don’t follow through with what I’ve asked you to do; or, I feel upset when you speak in that tone of voice to me, could you please stop.

As is the case with most things, effectively communicating directly and clearly takes considerable practice, but becoming more proficient at assertive communication should result in the significant benefits of reducing stress, resentment, and frustration while increasing the likelihood of getting your needs met. Look for your practice opportunities to communicate assertively, and even though it may feel risky at first for the reasons mentioned in this article, go ahead and assert yourself repeatedly until it becomes comfortable and automatic for you.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Preventing Burnout

No, not the burnouts that the NASCAR drivers do after they win a race, those are great, but the burnout that people experience when the typical life demands associated with work, family/kids, and general life responsibilities drain their physical and emotional energy and leave them feeling chronically depleted and without sufficient reserves of energy to continue to manage everything. It’s fairly common for me to talk to people who present as depressed, stressed, or chronically irritable, only to have it become clear that these mood symptoms are secondary to the person experiencing varying degrees of burnout from all of their life demands.

Many people I talk to feel that their tanks of physical and emotional energy are frequently well below half-full and even accept that this is about as good as it is going to get, given all of their life demands that drain from their tank. And realistically, mostly full tanks may not be likely, or even necessary for good health and bright moods; but burnout arises when a person has been running nearer to empty or even on fumes for extended periods of time.  I‘ve seen people keep that up for years or decades, but over time, continuing to push on a near empty tank results in significantly unhealthy emotional and physical symptoms.

The characteristic symptoms of burnout are 1) feeling physically worn out most of the time; 2) feeling emotionally drained, which can present as chronic irritability, moodiness, or dysphoria; 3) experiencing more frequent illnesses secondary to a lowered immune system; 4) withdrawing somewhat from interpersonal relationships and getting less enjoyment from them; 5) finding it harder to get into work and becoming less efficient and motivated while at work; and 6) feeling increasingly pessimistic and finding it harder to get excited about life.

It can be incredibly challenging once burnout has set in to refill the tanks and to feel recharged in any lasting sense, so the key is to notice early on when burnout is occurring and to do something about it immediately. The strategies for doing this could comprise a full book and would include the obvious things such as taking care of yourself by getting enough rest, eating well, and exercising. I‘ve also covered the cognitive strategies for mood management, so in this article, I wanted to discuss a specific behavioral strategy that is often neglected but is incredibly helpful at keeping the tanks sufficiently above empty.

John Gray, in Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus, discussed the idea of the necessity of cave time for men and how men need that in relationships. My spin on cave time, however, is that men and women both need cave time from the standpoint of rejuvenating and refilling the tanks of physical and emotional energy. Cave time is really anything that a person can do, that for them, recharges the system and prevents the downward spiral of running on fumes and hitting burnout.

Almost anything could work as cave time! You can even invite other people into your cave with you if that helps to fill up the tank, but during cave time, make it be exactly what you need. Common caves for people are watching television shows, reading, playing on the computer, doing yard work, engaging in hobbies, cooking, working on a project, shopping, and exercising. You probably noticed that a couple of those caves had the word “work” attached to it, but it really isn’t work if you feel rejuvenated and restored from it. A colleague of mine used to spend hours in his garden and with his rose bushes and talked about how doing that was better for him than bottles of stress medications and blood pressure pills.

One of the keys is to make this cave time part of the daily routine, even if it is fairly short in duration. How many times have you gone on vacation or escaped from all the life requirements that take energy, maybe for a weekend…..maybe even an entire week…..and then returned to “real life” (as I often hear people say) only to find the tank of energy almost empty again in a day or two! The more helpful strategy is to find something that you can do every day so that you can constantly refill the tanks and keep them from getting too low.

Conceptually cave time is a fairly simple and obvious behavioral strategy, but people have great difficulty doing this for two primary reasons. I often hear people say that they feel too guilty to take time for themselves when they know others in their lives have needs that will go unmet during that time. People also often can’t get themselves to take time to rejuvenate because they’re all too aware of the mental list of the next 10 things that need to be done, and that won’t get done, if they take cave time.

But life is an ultra marathon, not a wind sprint! Someone may get a good start initially by redlining their engine constantly and running on fumes without refilling, but if they crash and burn down the road with the physical and emotional problems associated with burnout, that great start sure wasn’t worth it. I know it’s difficult to overcome the guilt of taking time for oneself and difficult to let things sit for later while taking some rejuvenation time, but burnout can be prevented this way; and in reality, by taking those regular breaks, you have much more to give in the long run because there is energy in the tank to put toward the kids, to stay productive and energized at work, or to truly enjoy and take pleasure in some of the good things going on in your life.

And again, I want to stress the importance of doing this now and doing it regularly. I talk to so many people who have hit a point where they have been running on fumes for years or decades, and they have an incredibly difficult time bouncing back from this and ever getting their tanks to fill back up. So take your cave time now, talk yourself through the guilt you may have about doing it, don’t let the discomfort of letting other life demands sit for a bit stop you from taking it, and ultimately, prevent burnout from occurring!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Can Money Buy Happiness?

Well, the Lexus ad states that anyone who says money can’t buy happiness isn’t spending it the right way. Certainly money can buy a Lexus, and a lot of other things too, and it’s fairly common for me to hear people say that they would be happy and their life would be great if they could just win the lottery or make movie star or professional athlete type money. They’d quit their job, buy anything they wanted, move somewhere exotic, and live happily ever after. The ubiquitous news reports of movie stars and other wealthy people who are having significant problems would seem to indicate that loads of money doesn’t necessarily correlate well with peace and happiness, but I wanted to discuss some current research evidence that addresses this question.
A 2008 and 2009 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey of 450,000 Americans indicated that reported happiness and overall life satisfaction increased with income to a point and then leveled out. Additional income beyond that point continued to be associated with an improved sense of well-being, but not necessarily with more day to day happiness. The researchers also compared life-satisfaction survey results amongst countries and determined that America ranked 9th behind the Scandinavian countries, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland and New Zealand.

In another recent study by Jordi Quoidback that was reported in the 2010 August edition of Psychological Science, results indicated that while money allows people to buy things, it also simultaneously impairs their ability to enjoy those things. The wealthier that the workers in the study were, the poorer they were at displaying a capacity to enjoy their positive experiences. The researchers explained this by stating that while wealth allows people to buy and experience more things it ultimately undermines their ability to savor life‘s simple pleasures.

For example, they stated that if someone had frequent opportunities to take expensive vacations, eat at fancy restaurants, and drive pricy cars, they might not get the same feelings of pleasure from having coffee with a friend, experiencing a sunny, nice day, or taking a walk with a loved one. Indeed a study of lottery winners indicated that the winners experienced less enjoyment from life’s simple pleasures than those who didn’t win money.

Sonya Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., argued that having money raises our aspirations of what we should expect to have in our daily lives. These raised aspirations not only lead us to take things for granted and impair our savoring abilities but they can also cause us to consume too much, tax the planet's resources, overspend and under save, go into debt, gamble, live beyond our means, and purchase mortgages that we can’t afford (20% of Americans trade in their automobiles every two years).

She concluded that there were several research supported ways in which money could be spent with sustained feelings of happiness. These ways included spending our money on activities that help us grow as a person, strengthening our connections with others (dinners or trips with friends) contributing to our communities, spending it on activities and experiences rather than material possessions, spending it on many small pleasures rather than on one big-ticket item, and splurging on something that we work extremely hard to get and have to wait for. Dr. Lyubomirsky also concluded that we can derive the most happiness from our purchases if we take the time to appreciate the objects of our spending and strive to not compare ourselves with others in terms of what we have or what we’ve done.

Overall, these fairly recent research studies seem to indicate that to a point, a certain amount of money can be helpful in increasing perceived happiness and overall well being but that there can be pitfalls when having money and buying things leads to a loss of ability to savor the little things each day or to overspend, over consume or take things for granted. There also appears to be several ways money could be spent with sustained feelings of happiness.

Ultimately, I’ve heard many philosophers and psychologists discuss happiness as an inner state that transcends where we live and what we own, and in that sense, the things a person buys or does with money are fairly irrelevant in determining the happiness of the person.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How Do You Eat an Elephant?!

In my prior posts, I’ve discussed the entire process of cognitive restructuring, or changing the self-talk that we typically attach to life events to more encouraging, realistic thoughts that will result in feeling more the way we desire. This week, I wanted to discuss a specific cognitive strategy that can be applied to one of the most frequently occurring sources of stress that I hear discussed-----feeling overwhelmed with numerous life demands.

So often I hear people say that they have a million things to do, that they are never caught up at work, that they can’t get to everything that they need to do around the house, or that they feel overwhelmed in juggling all of the life demands coming from home, family, and work. The result of all this is a constant feeling of stress and pressure that can take a significant emotional and physiological toll on a person over the years and negatively impact overall peace and happiness.

The cognitive strategy I wanted to discuss is one of the keys to reducing the feeling of this chronic stress and pressure, and it hinges on the answer to the question I asked in the title of this article, which is-----One bite at a time! Probably most people have heard this saying or some version of it, and while it is a conceptually simple idea, actually doing this takes significant practice and persistence.

We all have our own life obligations coming from work, family, home, relationships etc. that make up our personal elephant to eat, and sometimes all of this can feel insurmountable; but one way that I see many people creating more stress and pressure than is necessary or healthy is by looking at the entire elephant and consequently feeling overwhelmed, discouraged, and stressed. And of course looking at the entirety of all that needs to be accomplished often results in difficulty even getting going and accomplishing anything.

I remember a stress management group when a member said that she was too stressed to practice the meditative breathing I was teaching on that day because she was leaving on a trip in 8 days and had “a million things to do before she left“. I said no wonder she felt stressed!!!! That was a lot of things to do in a short time and we should write them all down….maybe she would need to postpone her trip! So we wrote down her list, and she had seven things to get done before she left, 5 of which she was going to be able to do in a total of 2 hours! Sometimes those elephants aren’t as big as we tell ourselves they are, but as I’ve discussed before, when you hear yourself saying repeatedly that you feel overwhelmed or have a million things to do, it will start to feel that way.

In addition to looking at the whole elephant and feeling overwhelmed, many people also have the tendency to carry the weight of the entire elephant around with them most of the time. They may be at work trying to knock some things out there, but they are still thinking about all that they have to do when they get home, or they may be trying to relax at night or get to sleep, but they’re still ruminating on and feeling the weight of all the things they have to do at home and at work the next day. It gets exhausting mentally carrying around all of these life “have tos” all the time.

The more beneficial strategy for someone is to mentally put the elephant of life requirements off to the side somewhere and cut out that first bite that they are going to tackle. They’re only one person-----they can’t be in two places at once or do “a million” things at the same time, so they should take that first manageable bite, keep all awareness on only that bite until it‘s done, and then think about and cut out the next piece to accomplish.

The cognitive challenge is to get good at catching when you mentally start to ruminate, stew, churn, or carry around the many life things that are piled up. When you notice this happening, remind yourself that you already have the one bite that you are working on, and mentally put everything else off to the side again until you are ready to begin the next piece.

The same concept applies if you are trying to do something fun that doesn’t involve taking any bites out of the elephant for a little while---- remind yourself that it’s okay to take those moments to enjoy your show, play with the kids, mess around on the computer, or whatever you’re trying to do to rejuvenate and reenergize. Don’t let your mind go back to rehearsing all the things that you need to accomplish. With persistence, you can get good at carrying around only the manageable thing that you can do at that moment, letting everything else go, and greatly reducing your overall stress and pressure.