10 things you can do to survive painful life situations

1) Remember what matters. Consider the connections you have and what your current relationships mean to you. Do something today to honor those relationships, even it if is just expressing appreciation or liking.

2) Look for meaning in the current situation; including spirituality, faith, understanding, vulnerability, and connection. Sometimes our own painful situations get us to take our guard down, soften our stance, and risk letting others in.

3) Keep in mind the “bigger picture.” How do you think you will be looking at this situation in ten years? Sometimes focusing on our current pain prevents us from seeing reality in perspective.

4) Sometimes, when we are in pain, we look around us and see how other people don’t have to go what we go through. Instead, consider what you have right now that someone else would want (A job, an able body, health, a place to live, a relationship, a child, a parent, someone to love you, a garden outside your window).

5) Consider rehearsing, imagining, or writing out a scenario in which you cope adaptively. The key is that you don’t avoid reality and that you respond in such a way that you maintain your self-respect.

6) If you can’t solve a big problem right now, solve smaller problems. Sometimes taking care of smaller problems gives us a sense that we are doing something as opposed to being passive or helpless.

7) Give your mind a “break” by planning adaptive distractions that have nothing to do with your current life stressors. Sometimes perseverating on a painful situation makes us think that we are actually doing something to solve it.

8) Take care of your health. Remember that physical activity can help you “shift gears” by releasing endorphins and changing your physiological arousal. Don’t forget to eat. When you eat, pause and actually taste the food.

9) The only way to get through a situation is to survive the moment. Instead of denying, avoiding, or escaping the moment, breathe into it. This moment too shall pass.

10) Consider how you typically respond to a crisis. Do you do anything to make it worse, such as complete avoidance, threats, or escalations? Take the first step towards doing what works. Be effective and do what is needed, even it if is hard.

Third wave behavior therapies, functions of behavior, depression, and dead conversations

Have you ever had a conversation with someone that you really cared about that ended up with them saying something like: “I’m not good enough.” “I don’t deserve that.” “I’m not worth it.”

As a recipient of this conversation, you may have been tempted to argue, disagree, convince, or encourage the person to think otherwise. While this strategy may have communicated a sense of caring or encouragement, it is quite possible that this conversation quickly fell into a polarized, deadened, undesirable re-occurring conversation. The difficulty with having these conversations is that they typically don’t end in any personal problem solving and both parties leave the interaction with a sense of dissatisfaction.

The “third wave behavior therapies” are a cluster of treatments that encourage people to look at the function and the context under which behaviors occur. For instance, if we were to think about the function of this conversation, we could start to ask a bunch of questions that would help us get at something a little bit more useful than a repeated and unsatisfying conversation.

Getting people to understand function is, in my experience, kind of hard. Function has to do with what purpose is this behavior serving. Context can help us understand under what conditions this behavior occurs.

Here are some questions that I might consider useful in considering the function of this type of conversation: What is the person wanting? How is the person expecting this conversation to end? Is convincing the responder that he/she doesn’t deserve something a way to avoid something difficult, not take a risk, do something that could change the situation for the better (but doing it is too scary)? Is the person seeking reassurance or connection? If the person wanted more of a connection with the recipient, what might be a more effective way to get it? What would be a better way of spending time together that would be more meaningful? What is the benefit, value, or use in convincing another person of one’s non-deserving status?

Third wave behavior therapies (or functional and contextual treatments) include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Functional Analytic Psychotherapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Three really wonderful books based on the “third wave” of thinking and can help people “get” more of what I’m talking about include ACT Made Simple by Russ Harris, Overcoming Depression One Step at a Time by Michael Addis and Christopher Martell, and Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong by Kelly Wilson.

I will also add that, for my surviving depression teleseminar this coming June 3 (click here for more info), I’m going to help you take a closer look at the function of worry/ non-useful thinking/ rumination- and give you some strategies for figuring out what this behavior is all about.

6 quick tips on mindfully navigating the holidays when you aren’t “feeling” it

Notice what you feel without judging. Sometimes people believe that if they don’t feel a certain way, they are missing out on some kind of grand, spiritual, or wonderful experience. I am reminded of the Charlie Brown Christmas special in which he doesn’t feel like he “should”.  Not everyone is awed, exhilarated, or spiritually “moved” this time of year.

Accept and acknowledge the mundane, the everyday, or the not-so-wow experiences this season.  Remember that the glue that holds us together in the smaller, everyday nuances of our existence and our relationships also has meaning. Foster the relationships that matter.

If you want to feel more connected and less detached, practice ways to participate willingly, go with the flow, risk being open, and become involved. Volunteer, show up for the holiday parties, attend services, and remain attentive and awake to what is going on around you. Although it is possible that exerting energy takes effort (and may not completely diminish loneliness), it gives you an option to temporarily shift your mood.

Find the stillness within– Crowds, shopping, to do lists, and holiday planning can be overwhelming. Finding stillness within yourself can help you cope adaptively, slow things down, find your wisdom, and stay grounded.  Bear in mind that you have the ability to find inner wisdom, but sometimes emotions and other people can get in your way of finding it. Try the suggestions below:

Find 2-5 minutes once a day from now until Christmas to sit quietly, observe your breath, and gently pay attention to whatever sensations arise within you. After sitting quietly, try writing: I notice… I would like… I feel…I sense…I think…I am aware of…I am most worried about…

If you are out shopping or involved in intense holiday planning, make sure that you don’t skip meals or shop on an empty stomach. Take periodic breaks that include sitting down and being away from loud noises, bright lights, and crowds. Consider what you need and the cost/ benefit of overestimating your energy and pushing yourself too hard.

Pleasant events and positive life experiences

One way in which we buffer negative emotion, stressful life events, and painful circumstances is to create opportunities for positive emotion, tell people about these opportunities, and plan activities and events in our lives that we look forward to doing.

One way of doing this is to build mastery. This means doing things that are challenging or hard and provides opportunities for growth and achievement. Building mastery generally gives us a sense of purpose, accomplishment, or an “Aha! I did it!”.  Not having enough challenges can make us bored, which can be a contributing factor for depression. Approaching something that we have been avoiding, taking an emotional risk in sharing what we are feeling, or speaking up when we usually don’t might all be ways of building mastery.

Another way to create positives is to really notice and experience the small comforts throughout your day. Small daily pleasures or simple “little” things often get taken for granted, ignored, or neglected when we are focusing on our pain. When we plan for pleasant events and opportunities, resulting positive emotions show up more often. Consider spending time with someone you care about, fostering a relationship, attending and listening carefully, or being emotionally present when you are with someone. Consider sharing recent pleasant events, ways in which you are building mastery, how you are working on short or long-term goals, or what you are looking forward to this week.

When life hands you lemons and you can’t make lemonade

Has anyone ever told you to simply turn a negative into a positive? Maybe people have told you to get over it, move on, keep your chin up, or let it go. At some point someone may have suggested returning unfavorable actions with kindness, acting happy when you were not, or being pleasant despite unpleasant circumstances.

Is this kind of feedback actually helpful? Here are some thoughts on this manner:

There is some value in being able to shift perspective, look at the bright side, or even create positive emotions by doing things that are enjoyable and pleasant. It can also be quite beneficial to “shift gears” by getting your mind off your problems and distress, see things differently, or look at the bigger picture.

Sometimes, however, when the focus of our attention is always on the “positive”, it can prevent or inhibit us from fully experiencing emotion, approaching or addressing conflict in an adaptive manner, and having those “difficult conversations” in which disagreement means risking sharing what we really think and feel. Sometimes focusing on the “positive” can create environments in which there is very low tolerance for negative emotion, pain or sadness is never acknowledged, and people remain isolated in their inability to connect more deeply with each other.

However, the other extreme for this situation can also be that persons are chronically down, depressed, moody, irritable, or aggravated. Sometimes emphasizing or holding onto these experiences are a testament that pain exists, that pain is real, and that the world should acknowledge it more. Sometimes people get “stuck” in these places, however- and have considerable difficulty shifting out of it.

A full, rich, and meaningful often involves the ability to connect to others in a meaningful way, to express vulnerability and not be alone in our pain, to take emotional risks in sharing what matters, and to (also) show up for the pleasant, mundane, simple, and joyful experiences that life has to offer. This means neither getting “stuck” in painful emotions nor living a life of hiding, masking, “sucking it up”, or denying what is painful. In reality, emotions come and emotions go. Sometimes they are intense and sometimes they are extreme. The key is to allow them to be there when they come and allow them to leave when they are ready to go. When we can both acknowledge our own pain and participate in the happiness of what life offers (taking into account the truth of both perspectives), we will have better ways of managing the lemons of life.

Should you change your behavior or change your beliefs? A closer look at self-compassion.

Social psychology research indicates that it is easier to change behavior than it is to change attitudes or beliefs. Part of what characterizes third wave behavior therapies (such as DBT) is behavioral activation. In other words, there is a focus on changing behavior over changing attitudes.

Here is one of the most predominant ways this shows up in DBT: A client with extreme self-hatred or self-blame won’t do things that are nurturing, caring, or compassionate towards oneself. The argument goes something like this: “I don’t deserve, I would feel guilty, I have to take care of everyone else, it’s always my fault anyway, I deserve to be punished…” It is easy for others to follow up with this argument by challenging, cajoling, or even opposing the argument. “Why do you think this way, of course you deserve, you can’t cater to the whole world, stop talking that way…” The dialogue of I don’t deserve/ yes you do deserve can become rather exhausting. If you’ve ever participated in one of these conversations, you could probably relate.

Part of the skill set for tolerating distress has to do with treating oneself with compassion. More specifically, engaging in behaviors that are self-soothing, calming, respectful of sadness, and a soft acknowledgement of the rough and painful aspects of life generally help people through the rough times. People who don’t do enough of this and treat themselves harshly are going to have an even harder time getting through the roadblocks of life. Self-attacking just isn’t a very effective way of solving problems.

If you are extremely miserable and you would like to feel better you may have to change your behavior despite whatever argument is going on in your head. If you could do something to make your current distress more tolerable, why wouldn’t you do it? If you could treat yourself with kindness and compassion, be understanding, and acknowledge your deepest fears and hurts- at least to yourself- why wouldn’t you? If this made your life easier, more livable, and more hopeful- why wouldn’t you do it? Arguing about deserve-ability certainly isn’t doing anything for you.

In order to feel differently you have to act and behave as if self-compassion and kindness matters. You may have to tolerate some guilt, set some limits on your time, or even say no to the demands of others. The point is that you should get started on acting and behaving in ways that are worthy or deserving of you. Over time, your attitudes may change right along with your behavior. And in addition to feeling better because you are behaving as if you have more self-respect, you will have more resources for coping when other people put you in demeaning situations, take advantage or you, or assume that you are willing to be treated poorly.

The dialectics of depression

Dialectics has to do with the concept that two seemingly inconsistent or incompatible ideas can both be true. Conflicting realities have elements of truth that can both fit together despite being conflicting. One is not more true than the other, and one is not more true at the expense of the other.

The treatment for depression generally involves behavioral activation- taking some sort of action to increase contact with pleasurable events or rewarding activities. Depressed people become easily overwhelmed, tend to avoid people and activities, and withdraw from life. This inactivity also decreases contact with naturally rewarding interactions.  The agenda of behavioral activation is to get people engaged with with people, activities, or events that generate pleasure, give meaning, and provide a sense of accomplishment. Without these things, it kind of makes sense that people get depressed. So the message is essentially: Put your energy towards getting active, engaged, and connected!

On the other hand, people who are depressed often feel a great deal of misery. Often they struggle with unreasonable guilt and low self-esteem. They may have made multiple attempts at making connections and have had bad experiences.   They may have reached out and been punished for it. They may feel so bad about themselves-and have worked so hard on changing who they are- that they got lost along the way.  They may have stopped liking themselves because they worked so hard to make things different. They may have become exhausted at the prospect of change. They may have a very strong need to be accepted as they are- without having to do something, keep changing, and keep trying.

Do you see the dialectic? 1) Changing behavior is a part of the treatment for being less depressed. Get involved! 2) Don’t try to be or become something that you are not. You are fine just the way you are!