My friend warned me the news she had might upset me, so we agreed she would delay telling me for now. I was preparing for an important meeting the next day and she didn’t want me to be distracted. After a night of ruminating about the possibilities of what she might have to tell me, I realized I just needed to know because the anticipation was distracting me. The news she shared ended up being about what I expected. And my friend was right — I felt upset.
A good deal of my time and energy as a counselor and coach is helping others identify triggers for emotional hijacking, managing their stress response, and challenging negative self-talk. Frequently, I teach mindfulness techniques, such as grounding in the present moment and using breathing to reset the body and mind. Research studies prove the effectiveness of self-care techniques that decrease the negative impact of excess cortisol and adrenaline that flood the body under stress (https://centerhealthyminds.org/science/studies/well-being-in-adults). Often, I wonder how well I am doing at practicing what I preach. So, I actively, consciously chose to try some of the strategies I recommend to others to cope with this distressing situation. Here were the steps:
- Focused on taking deep breaths before and while receiving the news
- Actively listened to the message rather than crafting a rebuttal
- Monitored my negative interpretations of the news
- Reminded myself “It’s not personal, it’s just news” and it doesn’t mean anything until I assign meaning to it
- Practiced positive self-talk affirming my strengths, skills, and plans, and areas under my control
- Went for a run
- Drank a bunch of water
- Completed a loving, kindness meditation using a mindfulness app (Insight Timer)
- Slowed down and noticed what was going on around me (that building is made of cream city brick, those people are laughing, the sun feels warm on my skin, that man is talking on his phone)
- Memorized how it felt to not be emotionally hijacked, but rather grounded and in charge of my response
It worked. I successfully mitigated my stress response. I did not become overwhelmed by negative thoughts and feelings. I had a good day, made authentic connections, delivered excellent work, and felt content as the day ended.
Then, six days later, I woke from a restful sleep with upsetting, intrusive thoughts. I started to feel myself submitting to the downward spiral as the negative story I have repeatedly practiced smothered all other thoughts. This time, I cried a little, shared my struggle with a friend, and quickly re-committed to facing the challenge with confidence and a positive attitude. It worked again. My day continued without rumination or worry interrupting my mood, focus, or productivity.
Intrusive thoughts will continue to visit, but I try not to fear them because I remain committed to myself and my path, recognizing the harm to myself and my relationships that results when I start to slip down that rabbit hole. I am quite familiar with that hole and am learning how to grip the edge as I am falling, so I can more quickly climb out. One day I hope to walk around it.
The challenge with change is doing it. Thoughts that cause emotional and physical reactions become automatic over time; we forget that these are manifestations of our own doing and can be changed. Awareness is an essential first step, but truly creating and sustaining change is an active process, requiring depth and breadth of resources. It requires commitment, energy, focus, support, and time. Learning to recognize triggers and patterns, and choosing something different is the key.
Jen S. joined Empathia in 2001 and has worked as a counselor, coach, management consultant, trainer, and account executive. Prior to working in the EAP industry, she taught psychology courses and worked in the managed care field. Jen has a bachelor’s degree in biology, an M.A. in health psychology, and is a Certified Employee Assistance Professional. She enjoys yoga, spending time outdoors, traveling, and spending time with her family.