Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Understanding Couples Relationships

by guest writer: Dr. Jeff George (Dr. George is in private practice in Safety Harbor, FL http://www.fampsy.org/)


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.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Changing the Balance of Evidence

In the last blog (Evidence on Your Radar Screen) I discussed how automatic it can become to catch and collect piles of “evidence” that seems to support how we already think and feel. Even though this supposed evidence automatically hits the radar screen and lands on the old pile, we still have the opportunity to mentally grab it off of there, think about it in a different way, and toss it off to the side somewhere instead of letting it stick (Self-talking to Peace and Happiness). In this manner, over time, very little additional evidence will get added to this old pile, which then gives us a better opportunity to shift the balance of evidence in a different direction.

The way to create a new and more beneficial pile of evidence that is counter to the old beliefs is to make a conscious effort to notice and catch any life event, feeling, or interaction that could serve as evidence for this new pile. If a person works persistently at noticing these alternative pieces of evidence, that person can gradually expand the size and sensitivity of their new radar screen and can collect piles of counter evidence that in time can start to feel convincing in its proof of a different and more beneficial set of beliefs.

For example, let’s say that for years, someone’s old radar screen had registered every time that something had gone poorly in their life and that after accumulating so much "evidence", this now discouraged person had come to believe that in fact, things never went well for them and that life was usually miserable.  To change the balance of evidence and create a different belief and feeling, this person would instead begin to  intentionally catch and hang onto every example of something going well (or even reasonably decent) in their life. This is a challenging process, because as I stated in the last blog, people tend to overlook the more minor examples of counter evidence, and they tend to mentally swat away the more obvious examples by attributing them to luck, coincidence, or random acts. It therefore takes considerable conscious effort to both notice and collect this counter evidence and to store it in a new pile.

One way to more quickly build evidence for the new beliefs is for a person to rehearse the messages that they’d like to believe in but don’t currently. For example, a person might feel that little goes well in their life or that they aren’t very good at most things, or another person might constantly tell themselves how stressful their life is, that they’ll never get everything done, and that they are overwhelmed.

Instead of perpetuating these old messages and beliefs, they would intentionally rehearse an alternative set of messages. The first person could practice telling themselves that they do some things well and that there are good things that happen in their life. The second person would rehearse messages that their life is manageable, that they are competent and can get things done, and that they can feel at peace and aren’t going to get themselves stressed about things that aren’t that big a deal.

And the key then is for the person to be aware of anything that occurs each day that could serve as evidence for this new set of beliefs that they are trying to establish, and to catch and hang onto this evidence tenaciously. If somebody stood in front of a mirror and rehearsed 20 times that they felt strong and confident and that things were going to go well that day, this rehearsal could make that person feel at least a little more like this might be true; but if they actually noticed every example during the day of something good that happened or something that they did well and felt even a little bit confident about, they would greatly reinforce their messages and make them land and stick in that new pile of evidence.

Initially, of course, these counter messages that the person is rehearsing and counter evidence that they are collecting often feel like something they are just telling themselves in their head that they don’t really believe. And that is correct…….of course they don’t really believe it…..they will still believe the giant pile of old, false evidence that seems to indicate something different. That old pile is HUGE; it still outweighs the new pile. The key is to stick with this process, because in time, the new pile of evidence starts to get bigger and to carry more weight, the old pile begins to shrink, and the person will make a connection between what they are trying to convince themselves of in their head and will truly believe it and feel it in their heart.

If you did the self-observation I mentioned last time and noticed your old piles of evidence, then this week focus your awareness instead at catching the evidence that could be counter to the old pile. In the manner that I've discussed previously, talk yourself through the old, automatic things that hit you and discard those, don't let them stick on the old pile, and instead collect evidence into the biggest pile that you can for the new messages that you are rehearsing and would like to believe in and feel more deeply.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Evidence on Your Radar Screen

In previous blogs I’ve talked about the automatic thoughts that we tend to attach to life situations that hit us and how those thoughts ultimately determine how we feel much of the time. When we feel a certain way, whether stressed, irritated, down, worried, low in confidence, or happy and encouraged, there is a tendency to notice and to be much more aware of the things that happen in our lives that seem to confirm how we already feel.

It’s like a radar screen that gets increasingly wider and grows more sensitive in picking up what we already believe to be true. If a person believes that people are rude and insensitive, then there is a tendency to notice and to hang onto things that seem to confirm this belief. If they feel depressed or stressed, their radar screen is sensitive to anything that happens in their day or week that feels like proof that things are stressful and depressing. If a person feels generally encouraged and happy they typically notice and hang onto life situations that confirm that there is a reason to be upbeat and to feel good.

Each blip on this sensitive radar screen then gets mentally deposited by the person, like a stone on a pile, with all of the other similar things that have hit their screen, and quickly, there is a giant and weighty pile of “evidence” that seems to confirm what the person believes to be true. Certainly most people don’t intentionally focus on and catch evidence that is depressing, stressful, anger provoking, or self-confidence reducing, but nevertheless, it still happens.

Often these piles of supposed evidence start forming in childhood based on experiences we had, how we were parented, or through the verbal messages that were modeled to us by our parents. Picture collecting hundreds or thousands of stones over the years, each one representing an example that life is stressful or depressing, or each representing something to worry about or to be irritated and angry about, or each one indicating an example that is associated with low confidence and poor self-esteem.

As the years and decades go by, this pile would be huge and the weight of the “evidence” collected by the radar screen and mentally placed onto this pile could feel indisputable. The radar screen also gets incredibly sensitive at picking up anything that could be construed as supportive evidence for this pile, so even life situations that wouldn't land on a normal sized screen can hit the far edges of the expanded radar screen and seem to confirm a person’s beliefs.

While this radar screen is getting bigger and picking up anything, supported by the supposed evidence that confirms it’s existence, the opposite process is often happening to the radar screen that could be picking up disconfirming evidence. There could be, and probably are, countless examples of things that happen in a person’s day that aren’t depressing or stressful and that do go fairly well or that are done more than adequately by the person, but these are typically missed because the radar screen that could pick up this evidence has shrunk so greatly and because very little counter evidence to the person’s beliefs has ever been collected.

It almost takes a direct bulls eye to hit this tiny radar screen, and even then, that blip of counter evidence that hits the bulls eye tends to get discounted and mentally swatted away by the person before it has the opportunity to land on a different pile. As a consequence, very little evidence makes it onto the pile that could actually convince the person that life isn’t depressing or that things often aren’t stressful, or that they aren’t terrible at everything, disliked by everyone, or always confronted with the stupidity of people in the world.

In the next blog I’m going to discuss how to change these radar screens and the piles of collected evidence. Until then, try to be very aware of the life situations that you tend to automatically notice and to hang onto. What is your radar screen most sensitive in catching? What are your beliefs about yourself, others, or life that you have collected evidence for over the years? Do you notice yourself mentally swatting away other evidence that could support a different belief?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What we can learn from survivors………and Survivor!


I’ve discussed the entire process now of how to catch the old, automatic thoughts that lead to stress, anxiety, depression, anger, and self-doubt and how to change those thoughts in a manner that produces more positive emotions and pervasive happiness and peace. It is intuitively obvious that the messages we constantly attach to situations will result, over time, in chronic feelings that mirror this self-talk, and I wanted to press on the importance of this self-talk by discussing the impact it has on how successful people are in coping with extreme survival situations. And if changing our self-talk is beneficial in getting through life or death situations, it can definitely help us to manage the situations we get hit with in our typical lives.

Most survival experts that I’ve heard discussing the keys to making it through a survival situation such as being lost in the wilderness, always state that the mental aspects of surviving often outweigh everything else. Nando Parrado discussed this in his book Miracle in the Andes about the Uruguayan rugby players whose plane crashed in the Andes Mountains. They were there for over 60 days and search efforts had long ceased by the time he and a teammate made it down and got help for the remaining survivors. Not everyone who survived the initial crash lasted the two months, and Parrado felt that those that did make it had been able to maintain hope, minimize discouragement, and keep a calmer attitude and mind.

POWs often say similar things in terms of the importance of not letting negative thoughts take root and using constant encouraging and reassuring self-talk to help maintain hope. Victor Frankl, who survived Nazi death camps, hit the nail on the head when he said, “Everything can be taken from a person, but the last of the human freedoms--- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.” This statement is so true; we always have control of what we think, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

A compilation of research on the mental aspects of survival by the Discovery Channel also pointed to similar mental characteristics in wilderness survivors. The research demonstrated the importance of repeating to yourself affirming statements about surviving, recognizing your negative emotions and addressing them before they took hold, and not blaming yourself for getting into the situation.

There’s no comparison between participants on the television show Survivor and the true survivors in the preceding examples, but it is still incredibly interesting and exemplary to hear the self-talk of different individuals on this show and to see in a matter of days the impact that these thoughts may have on their well-being and overall coping with the lack of food, little sleep, and sometimes cold, persistent rain. During a recent season of the show, all the people were experiencing the exact same conditions, the same lack of food and sleep, and the constant cold rain, but the self-talk and resultant appearance of two contestants was striking in contrast.

One initially strong and athletic appearing individual was invariably seen slumping over, head hanging down, and looking miserable and discouraged. When interviewed, he typically said things like, “ This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done; This is so miserable; I’m so cold and hungry; I don’t know if I’m going to make it.” And he sure looked like he might not make it. In contrast, another contestant stood out in the rain, arms crossed defiantly, chin in the air, and said, “This is nothing; This just makes me stronger; I wanted it to be just like this……I didn’t want some resort that I could take my family to on vacation.” And he looked like he would have survived out there forever!

What an enormous difference the encouraging, calming, realistic self-talk can make with participants on Survivor and with true survivors! And then consider again the situations we are getting hit with in our own lives…….probably not life or death survival situations, but definitely times when things initially feel incredibly stressful and overwhelming and we might doubt our ability to manage everything. But we can learn from survivors. We can always choose the attitude of encouragement and reassurance in any situation and not allow the negative emotions to take hold, we can always give ourselves affirming statements about getting through the life challenges, and we can probably even stick our chins defiantly in the air and say, “this just makes me stronger!”

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Self-talking to Peace and Happiness

Once somebody gets proficient at catching and putting the brakes on the old, automatic thoughts that elicit those familiar feelings of stress, worry, depression, anger, or self-doubt (The Old Stinkin’ Thinkin’) they can begin to steer their thoughts in a different direction that produces more overall peace and happiness. Remember that the old thoughts don’t control you and that in the same manner that you unintentionally rehearsed them and made them automatic, you can rehearse a new set of thoughts that will become more automatic over time and that will allow you to talk yourself through any life situation and to feel the way you desire. Conceptually, this is a simple process, but in practice, it is very difficult because the old thoughts are so ingrained that they seem to be true. It takes significant initial energy and effort to begin changing the self-talk in ways that will work much better for you.

The question to ask yourself as you try to change the characteristic thoughts that you typically attach to situations, is, “How can I talk myself through this in a more encouraging, calming, realistic way?” There is always more encouraging versus discouraging, calming versus alarming, and realistic versus over exaggerated self-talk that can be attached to a situation that has hit and initially created some negative emotion. I’ll go through several examples of what this process might look like.


Let’s say that a person who often feels stressed and worried looks at their schedule of all the things they have to do that day or week and first attaches the old, automatic thoughts to this, such as, “I’m never going to be able to get all this done; I’m so overwhelmed; Why is my life always so stressful; What if I can’t get the house cleaned before people come over and see it; What if I don’t get that work project done today and my boss gets upset; What if….(these “what ifs” can go on indefinitely and generate more and more stress and worry!).

But……since this person is working on catching their thoughts, they quickly think, “Ah, there go my old stressful thoughts kicking into gear, okay, how am I going to change them in a more encouraging, calming, realistic manner before they get rolling?” And they tell themselves, “There is a lot to do, but I’ll just take it one thing at a time and do the best I can; I can manage all of this….I do it all the time; None of this stuff is life or death and I’m not going to make myself all stressed out if I don’t get something done; I’m not going to what if the future by predicting alarming things….I’ll get most of this to turn out just fine.”

Or another person who often views things as annoying and irritating gets poor customer service help from a seemingly unfriendly and impolite worker. Their automatic, anger inducing thoughts start rolling and they think, “Why can’t anybody be polite anymore in our society; What happened to good customer service; That person is such a jerk; I hate having to deal with people!”

But……again this person catches those old thoughts, observes them neutrally for a second, and reminds themselves to try to look at this in a more encouraging, calming, realistic manner. “This person wasn’t the friendliest, but there are lots of polite people I deal with; Actually, I often do get good customer service or at least somebody that is doing their best to try to help me; This person might just be having a bad day or maybe something happened that has them in a bad mood…..who knows, maybe if my life were exactly like theirs I might have a hard time not acting like them.”

Another example could be of a person who’s typical self-talk leaves them feeling discouraged, self-doubting, and unconfident. “Why can’t I do anything right; I hate how I look; I’m never going to accomplish the things I want; Why can’t I be pretty like my coworker; I’ll never be happy.”

But they catch these thoughts and change them as described before….. “This didn't turn out quite like I hoped but I try hard and I do lots of things well; I may not be as happy as I’d like to be right now, but I’ll keep working at it and I’ll achieve the happiness I desire in time; I can become confident, strong, and I can believe in myself!”

The first time or 50 times that the people in these examples change their thoughts as described might result in them feeling only marginally better, only a little more encouraged, hopeful, calm, and happy. But then picture them sticking with this process through hundreds of life situations over weeks and months, and you can see how it is possible, with enough rehearsal, to permanently change those old thoughts and feelings and to experience the happiness, hopefulness, and calm that you may desire. Give it a try and stick with it!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Old Stinkin' Thinkin'

Before you begin changing the old, automatic self-talk that causes more feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, anger, or self-doubt than you would like, it is essential to become great at recognizing when that characteristic thinking gets rolling and the typical words or phrases of the recurrent thoughts (Runaway Mental Semi-trucks). Sometimes people catch it when they notice some of their familiar self-talk popping in their minds, and sometimes people first notice an increase in the emotion that they are working on, and then realize that the automatic thoughts are cranking away.

Either way, pay very close attention to the thoughts that you might often attach to the many situations you get hit with daily. Are there thoughts that would tend to elicit irritation and anger, such as, “People are such idiots; Why is this person always a jerk; Why can’t anybody drive correctly, give proper customer service, or have correct manners etc.” Or is the typical self-talk more stress and anxiety inducing, such as thinking, “I’m so overwhelmed; I have a million things to do; What if _______……and fill in the blank here with any number of alarming things that you imagine could happen in the future”. Is the self-talk eliciting feelings of self-doubt and low confidence, such as, “I can’t do anything right; I’m always screwing up; I’ll never be able to do that; Nobody really likes me; I’m such a loser; I hate how I look, etc”. Or is the self-talk more discouraging and depressing, such as, “I’m so depressed; Nothing ever turns out the way I want; Everything is terrible in my life; It’s all hopeless”.

Then imagine rehearsing these familiar words and phrases countless times over years or decades, and it’s easy to understand how someone could end up feeling a lot more chronically down, anxious, stressed, angry, or insecure and self-doubting than they would like. And again, not because the life situations are making the person feel that way or even that their life is that way. The constant rehearsal of those messages has sunk in over the years, convinced them that things are that way or that they are that person, and it feels true…..it truly feels that the old, automatic thoughts and resultant feelings are facts that can’t be disputed.

But it isn’t true!!!!! It is so important to believe that it isn‘t true and that with time and practice, it is possible to get proficient at attaching a new set of thoughts to life situations, to change those old thoughts and feelings permanently, and to much more often, talk yourself into feeling more the way that you desire.  At that point when you catch the familiar thoughts or emotions starting to roll, it is essential to mentally put the brakes on the old self-talk in whatever manner works for you. Some people like to mentally tell those old thoughts to STOP and might picture hitting the brakes on the familiar thinking. Other people like to stay with the neutral observer strategy we’ve discussed (Calming Your Emotional Pond) and just notice those old thoughts and think, “hmmm, there is that thought again, ah, my brain is wanting to think that again….oh well, just my old thoughts, they don’t control me”. Try out different ways of halting the old, automatic thinking and see what works best for you.

Remember, even though your brain may automatically think all the usual thoughts when things happen, it is still your brain and you control what direction those thoughts take! The self-talk may head off in the characteristic direction, but with practice, you can get better and better at steering those thoughts in a different direction and begin to look at any situation in a manner that helps create greater feelings of encouragement, peace and happiness. In my next post, I’ll discuss how to do this.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Calming Your Emotional Pond

In the last three posts I’ve discussed the idea that it isn’t the situation itself that dictates our mood but rather how we talk ourselves through the situation (Nothing is Good or Bad But Thinking Makes it so), how challenging a process it really is to change our automatic thoughts (Runaway Mental Semi-trucks), and how we can acquire automatic emotional reactions to life events even before we begin attaching our characteristic self-talk to it. In this post, I’m going to discuss a strategy for lessening the initial emotional impact when a life event hits so that it becomes easier to change the old, automatic self-talk.

A metaphor which accurately captures the emotional calming that I’m discussing is one of sitting out on a boat on your emotional pond. The water may be calm at times, but it often isn’t calm for too long because life events hit it, and we quickly experience the familiar emotional waves as they begin to spread out. These life situations come in all sizes, with some hitting like a boulder and resulting in large waves, while others hit like a rock with resulting ripples.

  One of the keys to staying calmer is to keep your focus and awareness on just the initial hit and the emotional waves that come from that. The tendency, however, is to start picking up a bunch of rocks in your boat that are similar to the first one that smacked your emotional pond and to then perpetuate or even increase the size of the waves from the initial hit. For example, let’s say that a person who often got themselves worried and stressed had one of the following examples hit their emotional pond: an extra assignment at work, problems with a coworker or ex-spouse, lots of chores piling up at home, or a money shortage to pay bills etc. Understandably, they might initially experience their recurrent feelings of stress, but the reaction often doesn’t stop there.

Their old, automatic thoughts kick in and they start tossing in all the rocks of their familiar stressful self-talk, “I‘m never going to be able to get all this done; I‘m so overwhelmed; Why is my life always so stressful; I’ve got a hundred more projects to do at work and tons of household things to get done; I just want to give up and go to bed!” Now, all of the waves and ripples from these self-talk rocks are also hitting their emotional pond, and they are perpetuating and exacerbating their feelings of stress and worry. Similarly, other people might have familiar rocks and waves of depression, self-doubt, insecurity, or irritation and anger.

Instead of adding to the size of the emotional waves as in the above example, it is challenging but possible to sit with and to observe your initial emotional reactions to events and to keep the waves and ripples to only that event. The key to this process is to become an aware but neutral observer of the reactions or emotions that you’re experiencing. If we stay with the above example, that chronically stressed person has the ability, with practice, to sit in their boat, and after the initial hit of the life event, to observe it and just be aware of it. “Hmmm“, they may think, “there’s that familiar nervous feeling in my stomach, heart is beating faster, ah, muscles are feeling tense……feeling like I need to get up and start cranking on my to do list…..interesting how that feels.”

And with practice, they can begin to notice that the waves start to spread out, start to decrease in size just like they do when one rock is tossed in a pond. As the waves get smaller, the person feels a little calmer, a little less stressed……and they continue to observe what is happening in their mind and body in that neutral way until the emotional waves are significantly reduced in size.

Like anything else, the more you practice this the better you get, so start by being aware of the familiar rocks that hit your emotional pond. Then sit for a few moments with neutral observational awareness of what happens in your mind and body……..notice those old rehearsed thoughts that try to get in your head, and neutrally observe them too. And picture the waves from the one situation that hit you slowly spreading out and dissipating.

It takes a lot of practice, so start with even small rocks and work up to the bigger ones. Lessening the impact of these life events is important, because in the next post I’ll be discussing how to change our old, automatic self-talk to more calming, reassuring, realistic thinking, and having smaller emotional ripples to manage makes this thought restructuring significantly easier!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Saber-toothed Tigers

In the last two posts I’ve talked about the life events that hit us, the characteristic self-talk that we attach to those events, and the helpfulness of changing that self-talk to more calming, upbeat, realistic thoughts that will more likely bring greater feelings of peace and happiness. This is a difficult process, however, because in addition to our old automatic self-talk being deeply ingrained through years of rehearsal (see Runaway Mental Semi-Trucks) the life events that hit us do so with some initial emotion even before we begin thinking about them.

There are implicit memories that get stored in our brains, and when a new event triggers that area or memory in a familiar way we can quickly feel the emotion that has been repeatedly associated with that event or a similar event. Our bodies have been wired physiologically to do this since the beginning of the existence of humans because it can be a very helpful process in some circumstances.

If one of our early ancestors walked out of their cave and heard the familiar growl of a dangerous animal such as a saber-toothed tiger, it would have been fairly important for the emotional/physiological response to that sound to occur automatically. If thinking were first required to create the emotion of fear, our ancestors probably would have been eaten by the time they thought, “hmmm, I’ve heard that before; I remember several times after hearing that sound that it was a dangerous animal to be feared; I’d better get psyched up now so I’m ready for it!”

Similar to this fear response, when feelings of discouragement, anger, stress, self-doubt, or anxiety have been repeatedly paired with certain life events (our modern day saber-toothed tigers), we often quickly experience one of these emotions when a new life event hits us, even before we’ve attached our characteristic thoughts to it. Your mind and body want to work together, so the initial emotional reaction to an event can easily  trigger the cascading self-talk that further elicits more of the negative emotion. Over time, people can become chronically stressed, anxious, depressed, self-doubting, or irritable as their mind and body work together in this fashion.

For example, many people frequently feel annoyed or irritated by others. They have chronically paired “frustrating or annoying” interactions with other people with corresponding self-talk such as, “Why does this person always have to act like that?; Why are people so stupid?; Can’t anybody do their job the right way anymore? What happened to manners in our society? Look at what an idiot that person is!” etc. Over time, any new situation or interaction with another person in which that other person behaves contrary to how they should be behaving, driving, talking, working, etc. quickly hits with those old familiar feelings of annoyance and irritation. These feelings are then exacerbated by the old, automatic self-talk that is attached to it.

This process works similarly for reoccurring feelings of discouragement, depression, self-doubt, worry, or stress. It is quite difficult to change the ingrained, automatic messages we attach to life events, but it becomes easier to do this when you can lessen the impact of the initial emotion that hits you, and in the next post, I will discuss one strategy for accomplishing this challenging task.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Runaway Mental Semi-trucks!!


In the last blog I talked about the idea that any life event that we experience is neutral until we attach our thoughts or self-talk to it. I also discussed that we have characteristic self-talk that we tend to apply to the many little things and occasional bigger life situations that occur and that it is essential to catch when we are doing this in order to improve at practicing the calming, upbeat, realistic self-talk that can lead to more consistent peace and happiness.

Conceptually, it is a fairly simple idea to change your thinking and self-talk in ways that help you to manage situations and experience the mood that you desire regardless of the life events that are hitting you. In practice, however, it takes significant initial effort and energy to make this happen. Our old, characteristic thoughts and self-talk are incredibly automatic and ingrained after years of rehearsal. Most people don’t intentionally attempt to get themselves stressed, depressed, worried, or angry by generating self-talk that elicits these moods. But when our brains have repeatedly attached the same types of messages for years or decades to life situations that occur, those old, automatic, negative mood inducing thoughts are often off and running before we realize it.


It’s like a semi-truck in neutral that is just starting to roll down from the top of a hill. If we were able to catch that initial movement in the old, ingrained direction, it would be possible with practice to put the mental brakes on those automatic thoughts. But if the semi picks up speed and the old, characteristic thinking gets rolling, it can be incredibly difficult to get out in front of that self-talk and stop it.

For example, let’s say that a person has ingrained self-talk that often steers them down the road toward stress and worry. On many mornings (and afternoons, evenings, and at bedtime) their brain starts thinking about all the situations past, present, and future in their life. They think about the usual pile of tasks to complete at work, all the things that they should get to around the house, several errands they need to accomplish, places they need to run their kids, relationship stresses, and 20 other life events that have already happened or might happen in the near future. They attach their automatic thoughts to all of this, “I’ve got a million things to do, I’m never going to be able to get all this done, What if I don’t finish everything at work,, I’m so overwhelmed and stressed that I can’t stand it, What if my kids don’t start doing better in school, Why is my life always so crazy!”.

As those old, automatic thoughts pick up momentum, they become harder to slow down, and this person likely ends up experiencing their familiar chronic, pervasive feelings of stress and anxiety. Thoughts of irritation and anger or discouragement and depression gain strength and create chronic negative emotions in the same manner.

As stated in the first post and again here, one of the keys to changing the old, automatic self-talk is the early recognition of when those thoughts start rolling. It is easier at that point to put on the mental brakes and replace those thoughts with the calming, upbeat, realistic self-talk. It is also very helpful after early recognition of the characteristic thinking to have a strategy to dissipate the intensity of the emotion that was experienced. I will discuss in the next post how to dissipate the intensity of that initial reaction and then how to change the automatic thoughts to self-talk that generates more pervasive peace and happiness.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Nothing is good or bad---but thinking makes it so" Shakespeare

Cognitive psychologists agree with the Shakespeare quote in the title.  They say that any situation or life event is neutral, not good, bad, depressing, or anger or stress provoking until we begin to attach our thoughts to it.  In addition to the stacks of research that support this idea, it really makes common sense that if we think in depressing ways about things that we'll feel more depressed, or if we attach stressful or angry thoughts to situations that we'll feel stressed and upset. 

Many people argue, however, that it is life circumstances that dictate a person's mood.  They feel that if only they had less work, more money, better relationships, cars that didn't break down, nice weather, improved health, etc. that they would be happy. But even if mostly everything in a person's life was going as they wished and they felt happy, the power for their happiness is still in the circumstances and events in their life versus their own control.  As soon as something doesn't go well or isn't what they wished, their mood is taken in some other direction than peace and happiness.  Life for them is like riding in a sailboat without any way to guide it.  They get blown whatever direction the wind moves. 

When we become better at managing the thoughts that we attach to the different life circumstances that arise, we are taking back the ability to feel more the way we desire regardless of what has happened.  It is not the situation that determines our mood but rather the way we talk ourself through that situation.

To illustrate this, pretend that you and three of your friends are flying away for a week to an awesome vacation destination.  When you arrive there, you find out that your luggage has been lost and that you have nothing but a few things you carried on the plane.  If this event dictated how your group felt, all four of you would feel the same way, but you don't.

One of your friends might react with thoughts like this. "Why does this always happen to me? Every time I try to do something it goes wrong. My trip is ruined. This is just horrible. I wish I could just go home." And of course this friend ends up feeling down and discouraged.

Another friend might respond by thinking these thoughts. "I knew those stupid idiots at baggage claim were going to mess things up. I hate this airline, they always screw something up.  Why aren't there any competent people anymore that can do their job?!" And as this friend stomps off to yell at somebody, they feel quite angry!

Your third friend might think stress and anxiety provoking thoughts. "Oh no, what are we going to do now? I'm never going to be able to buy all the things I'm going to need down here.  I had all my favorite clothes and now my outfits are going to look totally stupid. What if they never find our bags and we never see our things again?!"

You are learning the importance of the thoughts that you attach to situations, so you think, "Well, I'd like to have my suitcase, but it's not that big a deal. The airline will probably find it in a day or two and I don't need that much to get me through.  We've got our room, were in an awesome place, and I'm going to have a blast on vacation even without my suitcase" And you are able to keep yourself fairly calm and upbeat.

There are multiple little and sometimes big life situations or events that happen in a day or week to which we attach our characteristic thoughts.  Begin by simply catching and observing as often as possible the self-talk that you tend to put on these situations.  Recognition of when you are engaging in your characteristic thinking patterns is an initial step toward being able to better change your self-talk to the calming, upbeat, reassuring thoughts that will lead to the more pervasive feelings of peace and happiness that you may desire.