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!

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