Stop, Detach, Observe
-- Deepak Chopra, from Wiki for Peace Workshop 101
With the anniversary of 9/11 right around the corner and the threat of more terrorist activity weighing heavily on the minds and emotions of so many of us, perhaps it's time to look at what we can do individually to manage the fear and stress we might be feeling.
Stress is unavoidable in the best of times. Today's version, compounded by a teetering economy, joblessness and now the specter of terrorism only adds to the potential stress load. However, even if you can't control what's happening around you, how you deal with it is something you actually have some power over. Stress is not entirely bad. It can actually help you become more attentive, more focused, more purposeful and more emotionally strong -- anyone who has found their child in danger knows how powerfully focused you can become. That's a kind of helpful response to stress that allows you to filter the meaningless and focus instead on what matters most to you.
However, when stress crosses over into distress, things can go haywire, panic can set it and all manner of unhelpful responses can arise. When you feel under such a severe threat that you can no longer see your larger life goals and direction, your focus narrows to finding relief or escape from the distress. It is during these distressed moments that you are in danger of engaging in self-defeating behaviors, such as denial, procrastination, saying "Yes," when you should say, "No," trying to please everyone, running away or engaging in destructive health practices like smoking, drinking or eating poorly. These kinds of distress responses can make you feel better in the short run but actually make your life worse in the long run, especially when you have to apologize to people for what your coping mechanisms did to them -- when your behavior becomes a stressor all on its own.
The longer you can go before your stress crosses over into distress, the more in control and more success (and happiness) you will have in life. I love Deepak Chopra's advice to Stop, Detach, Observe, but I am also a huge fan of mindfulness and realize that for the vast majority of people, something as simple and wise as his advice may not initially work.
If you are among those struggling with the stress to distress response, here are some alternate ways to deal with stress, a kind of 9-1-1 call to your own personal first responder. These simple tips, taken from my best-selling book, "Get Out of Your Own Way," can help you to calm yourself down, refocus and prevent stress from turning into distress:
The Seven Steps of Calming Yourself
The "Seven Steps to Calmness" is a way to talk and walk yourself through any upset you're experiencing and at least make things a little bit better instead of worse. Surely, you will notice the pattern -- it's all about awareness, and awareness at progressively deeper levels:
- Physical Awareness. When you're feeling in distress after a trauma, think to yourself, "I am physically feeling [what] in my [where in your body]." For example, "lightheaded and sick to my stomach."
- Emotional Awareness. "Emotionally, I feel [angry? frustrated? scared? sad? disappointed? hurt? upset?] and my [emotion] is really [level of intensity]. For example, "I'm scared out of my wits and more scared than I can ever remember feeling in my life."
- Impulse Awareness. "Feeling [physical feeling] and [emotional feeling], and feeling it so [the level of intensity], makes me want to [impulse]." For example, "run away and hide."
- Consequence Awareness. "If I act on that impulse, the most likely immediate consequence will be ____, and a longer-term consequence will be ____. For example, "I will probably feel even more out of control and even more hopeless."
- Reality Awareness. "While I am holding off (for now) on acting on that impulse, a different and perhaps more accurate perception of what is going on might be [seeing the world as it actually is] which can further help choose a more effective response." For example, "Sure, these circumstances may have changed my life forever, but that doesn't mean my life is over."
- Solution Awareness. "A better thing for me to do instead would be to [fill in an alternate behavior and what you could imagine doing to achieve those outcomes]. For example, "I can learn to accept and adapt to life never being the same again and I can start by interacting (vs. withdrawing) with others. We can comfort each other and think together about what we can do now vs. focusing on what we can't. We can each commit to doing something positive to achieve our desired outcome."
- Benefit Awareness. "If I try that solution, the benefit to me immediately will be [fill in the immediate benefit]. For example, "I'll begin to feel more in control and less helpless or hopeless."
As an alternative to talking yourself through this series of questions, you can always imagine doing the exercise with someone who cares or cared about you (I sometimes imagine my deceased parents or former mentors taking me through the seven steps).
Why do the "Seven Steps to Calming" work? I view trauma as a horrendous and horrifying event that splits apart the thinking, feeling and acting parts of your personality. When that happens, you feel the next step will be for you to shatter, or what some patients describe as "fragmenting." At that point, you begin to panic.
The "Seven Steps to Calming" works because it reconnects the thinking, feeling and acting parts of your personality. More than that, it enables you to adapt to the reality of what is, as opposed what no longer is. One patient told me it felt like suturing their personality back together again.
The "tipping points" of the calming are the fifth step, "Reality Awareness," the sixth step, "Solution Awareness", and the seventh step, "Benefit Awareness," because those are the three steps that reframe your perception of the world and push you into taking positive action. Taking action into life is essential to recovery. It's only when you take action that you create a new memory. Thoughts alone do not create new memories as profoundly as actions taken. New memories are important in order to dilute out the impact of the horrendous traumatic ones. If you don't create new memories through action, you can remain stuck.
To help reinforce this, imagine looking at the rings of a 100-year-old tree that has been cut. Each ring represents a year. The ring from a year of drought looks different than that of a year of rain than that of a year of floods than that of a year of fires. All put together, they give the tree character, and each ring is less important than all of them put together, which is the life of that tree (kind of makes you wish someone hadn't cut it).
Applying this to your life, if 2011 is the year of an awful disaster, when you keep acting into life, 2012 could become the year you met the love of your life, had a child, moved into a new home or a job you love. And although the disaster of 2011 doesn't go away, the life you live after it dilutes its impact on you.
The "Seven Steps to Calming" is also a great tool to teach your children to help them overcome setbacks, disappointments and to master stress, and for them to internalize a way of pausing, calming and centering themselves when they hit obstacles later on in life.
"Just because you're afraid, doesn't mean you are in danger, but until your body and emotions listen to what your mind is trying to tell you, you won't believe it."
-- from "Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior"
If you want to learn more about these ideas, these resources can help: