#4: Emotion Focused Coping; Thought Changing

Best fit coping for what you can’t control

As you learned in Lesson 2 in the 4 Steps to Destress series, the side you can’t control is where emotion focused coping lives. Good fit or best fit coping is important to use here. Otherwise, you can make a stressful situation even worse!

(BTW, here is Lesson 1 of the series, and Lesson 3 of the series.)

When it comes to what you can’t control, part of you hopes to figure it out or fix it somehow. That’s a poor fit with this type of stress. Worry or obsessing about what you can’t control – this creates more stress for you. With Covid, watching too much news could be an example of a poor fit. That’s akin to when people watched the planes flying into the World Trade Center over and over and over…

What can help with this side of the problem? For the side you can’t fix, change or control, you are looking to lower your stress level anyway possible. What’s the opposite of worrying? What do you do when you need a break, or need distance from your stress? Anything can help and anything goes, as long as it works for you, and isn’t harming yourself or others.

The list here can include: praying/meditation/relaxation (still practicing that daily, ya?), getting a massage, watching a show, talking with friends, getting out in nature. Writing in a journal has been shown to be very effective. Anything that’s constructive or nourishing, anything that can re-inspire you, or give you a good reset. Going out dancing? That can sure work. OK not now, but… soon let’s hope. In the meantime, how ‘bout some Zoom Zumba?

Hopeful, positive thoughts can be relevant. How you are thinking about things is a huge piece of Step 4. Do you think Covid-19 a nightmare? Is it the end of the world as we know it? Or it is a necessary wake up call, a temporary adjustment to set things right? The perspective you hold is critical to your stress level.

Catching your negative thoughts is a key practice for step 4. It’s easy for thought to create more stress with this unknown, uncertainty side. The coping you use here – no it doesn’t change the problem. But it can help by giving you a break. That lowers your stress level. That helps you man/woman up to the challenge you face in a stronger way.

Anything to restore your strength. Any help to add a layer of soothing balm to a perspective bruised by the unexpected or unknown. That’s good fit coping for the side you can’t control. Without realizing it, part of you wrestles with this side at first. But the sooner you shift gears and see what’s happening, the sooner you rise to the level of choosing best fit coping skills here.

THOUGHT CHANGING – THE KEY PRACTICE FOR EMOTION FOCUSED COPING

Your thoughts can go wild with the side you can’t control. The brain wants to keep you safe, so it will examine all the potential threats, what ifs, and worst case scenarios that might happen.

These thoughts often are operating under the radar. Even so, they’re wreaking havoc and causing the FFF response to kick in. They’re raising stress levels. Stress mgmt. mastery must include gaining control of these suckers. The first step is catching them in action. With a little practice you can find those lurking thoughts and revise them. You’ll nip them in the bud before they bring you down or destroy your day, your hopefulness.

There is often some truth in these thoughts, but they’re usually stated in a terribly unhelpful way. Let’s go back to our example with Kelly. Her negative or automatic thoughts were fear- based. They predicted a bad future. Her mind would start out with,

  • “If there was ever a worse time for job hunting, you sure chose a great one”.

These thoughts can be cynical or critical too, like,

  • “If you weren’t such a slacker, you’d still have your job versus so and so.”

Or the crystal ball type thought,

  • “You’ll never get a good job again.”

Yes, these thoughts can be harsh – but again, you have to catch them, get them out into the light, before you even realize the trouble they’re causing behind the scenes.

The 3 steps to Thought Changing.

Here is the Thought Changing worksheet. Yes, you can try this at home.

1) Capture the thought. Write it down. Rate how strongly you believe the thought, 1-10, 10 is high. Name and rate the emotion it brings up, same scale.

2) Ask two questions of the thought. Is it true? Yes or no. Is it helpful? Yes or no. Elaborate on your answers to both of these questions, and you are starting to make a case for some push back to the thought. You’re changing that cynical, fearful, black and white rogue to a more accurate and helpful friend.

3) Reframe the thought. Using the bigger picture you’ve fleshed out in step 2, make a new sentence of the original thought that better captures the truth of the situation. It needn’t be namby pamby, Pollyanna BS – it can name the challenge. AND it can also include the strengths and skills you have to bring to the situation.

Let’s illustrate these  3 steps using Kelly’s negative thoughts above.

1) Name the thoughts and ratings:
a) Well, you sure chose a great time for a job search (not!)
b) If you weren’t such a slacker, you wouldn’t have been laid off.
c) You’ll never get a good job again.
How strongly I believe the thoughts:  6-7
Emotion: sad/hopeless  level 7-8

Wow, just naming these is great. I can see that they’re a bit… exaggerated? Mean? Black and white? Just plain wrong or off? (Yes, that’s what happens when you get them out of the dark and onto the paper.)

2) Are the thoughts true? Well, not really, no. Not completely true at all.
Are they helpful? Certainly not.

Tell me more (this gives you more data for push back):
Thought a) I didn’t choose this time – covid isn’t my choice or creation. It could be a suck time for this. And/or, it could turn out to be … as good of a time as any for a job search, really.
b) I wasn’t a slacker. I was the newest member of the team, and there were / are a lot of good workers there. Some were faster and more experienced at trouble shooting than I was – but that doesn’t mean I was a slacker.
c) Jeesh. Ok, I don’t know what kind of job I’ll get. But I’ve had good jobs before; I’ve got good skills and a good education. I could just as easily get a better job, or at least a comparable job.

3) Now you restate the original thoughts into a concise, “reframed” thought. You change it to be more accurate. More truthful.  Include the hard facts, without overdoing the drama or harshness.
a) No, I didn’t choose this time for a job search and I don’t yet know how it’ll work out.
b) I learned a great deal on the last job, and am networking with my co-workers. They said I was good.
c) I can’t know what my future job will look like, and on good days, there’s a sense of possibility here.

Finally – Kelly re-rates her stress level and emotions. For the stress level, she goes back to the original thoughts of step 1 and asks herself,
How strongly do I believe these thoughts (from step 1) now?  3­_
How strong is the sad/hopeless feeling now: ­_4_

Well, look at that. Kelly’s stress has dropped about 50% or so. She didn’t even realize her thoughts were impacting her so much. It was really helpful to get them “named & tamed”, another name for thought changing. Next time she’s feeling unease, she’s going to ask herself, “What am I telling myself right now?” If she finds a negative lurker, she’s got options.

OTHER HELPFUL EXERCISES FOR STEP 4

1) Ten Nourishing Things List: Write down 10 nourishing activities you can do in fifteen minutes or less, that would be nourishing or comforting. These are examples of emotion-focused coping that can work to lower stress, to manage it.

They don’t have to be earth shaking. Some housecleaning or decluttering can work. The old hot bath. Candles, incense, music. A good book. A nourishing podcast or church service. A walk in the woods. And how is that relaxation/meditation practice going? You follow me. Write your list down, and keep it handy. Sometimes you might want to write these on small pieces of paper, put them in a basket, and just pick one when the stress level has gotten high, and you’ve no clue what to do.

PS If I pick something from the basket I don’t want to do, I just pick again…

2) Working with Emotions

Trying to suppress emotions can be like holding a beach ball under water. If  you stay focused it works, but it’s exhausting. And if your attention wanders, POP! Out it comes. Well, there is a better way.

Emotions, if allowed to naturally flow and inform you, can pass in about 30 – 60 seconds. While they don’t live on the side you can control, they are an important part of life force energy, of passion. Sometimes they also have important information to share. Fear and anxiety? Can express an appropriate concern. Anger? Can help you address a boundary violation. Sadness? Can help you take notice of an important loss that you might miss if you don’t slow down.

Befriending emotions – that’s what this Emotional mindfulness exercise can help with. You don’t want to be blown over or taken over by emotion, but they can offer help and information for a peaceful, passionate life, once harnessed well.

Here is a video that walks you through the steps of the mindfulness exercise. Try this out. Once finished, another good thing to reflect on –  does this emotion feel familiar, like in the example below?

Maybe an example would be helpful. A client noticed some emotional eating going on. With the key step, the I of the RAIN acronym – a lot of info came in. The emotion was sadness. It had a moo moo, type of sound. Dark color, cold, mushy. When asked, does it remind you of a past time, she realized, “Oh, that reminds me of when I was a kid, and mom was in the hospital”.

Turns out, she was eating similar food now as that past time, when she was missing her mom terribly. In other words, her nourishment, and support. This exercise ended her emotional eating as she realized she needed some extra nourishment right now. She also made some time for reflection and connection with her (now passed) mom.

A final resource for handling stress – a new psychosensory tool getting attention – is called self havening. Here’s a brief video describing this stress management practice. Body-based tools like this are great when your stress is 6 or above on the 1-10 scale.

SUMMARY OF STEP 4 – EMOTION FOCUSED COPING

Step 4 can be a tough one, but working with thoughts and general, regular stress management steps will lead to mastery. Usually, you will need to write out the Thought Changing exercise a dozen times or so to train your brain to notice and catch negative thoughts. Soon, you’ll be able to reframe on the go.

Working with emotions will also take a bit of practice. When this deep intelligence and passionate energy is allowed to flow, and inform you, that is another game changer. So many here! The RAIN acronym makes it easy and also portable for your travels.

When you master the challenge of having options for dealing with what you can’t control? That’s the Yoda level of stress management. That’s when his ears go up nicely and he’s smiling, versus frowning and sighing… and thinking the Jedi are doomed. Hey Yoda, dude – watch those thoughts now!

CONCLUSION – FOR NOW
All of the 4 steps to Destress, bring to mind the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
– American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr names good fit coping very well here. Accepting the side you can’t change? Well, you certainly don’t want to wrestle with that side more than you have to, by trying to fix it or figure it out. Acceptance comes with time, maybe not right off. Regular stress management and watching thoughts are key practices here.

Having the courage to change what you can change – this is step 3. Problem solving names your best next steps. Often you might procrastinate on next steps to take; that’s normal, at first. Ongoing avoidance will create more stress though. Active coping and leaning into next steps will help you feel better and more empowered.

The wisdom to know the difference? That is helped immensely by Step 2. So simple, yet so … monumental, to name the two sides to your problem or dilemma. Choosing the best fit coping, depending on what side is most stressful or worrisome now – this makes you a stress mgmt ninja. Yoda. Wonder woman. Or at the least, better able to sleep at night. And act effectively during your days.

Wishing you Yoda level stress management mastery and an increasingly peaceful, purposeful life. Thanks for being alive in this crucial, transformational time.

Namaste,
Denise Barnes

Worksheets for Step 4
The Thought Changing worksheet
The Emotional Mindfulness worksheet

4 Steps to Destress Worksheet, 4 pages with all steps + assessment
Stress management Self Assessment by itself

PREVIOUS 4 STEPS TO DESTRESS LESSONS

Lesson 1
Lesson 2
Lesson 3

P.S. There are two more bonus steps on the way. Step #5 communication tools and Step #6 social strengthening.

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Comments, questions, barriers? Aha’s, game changer stories? Would love to hear from  you below.