Shift Your Thinking to Lift Your Mood

In light of our world’s current health and economic crisis, so much is unknown. As we try to adapt to the ever-changing state of affairs, we must adjust our actions accordingly. We must also consciously shift our way of thinking. Here are some useful tools to shift perceptions, improve mood and promote feelings of security and well-being.

Trauma is in the eye of the beholder. Studies indicate that the way individuals experience, process and respond to trauma varies greatly from person to person. In other words, trauma is uniquely relative. You may wonder what variables are at play when one person can walk away from an incident feeling traumatized, while another person may walk away unscathed. Why do some individuals appear to thrive while others barely survive? The answer is in fact within you; specifically within one’s thoughts, perceptions, feelings and manifestations of our inner experience.

The honest reality is that so much of our world is out of control. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified this notion in a very real way. Powerlessness breeds fear and from fear comes anxiety. When faced with chronic unresolved stress, the trauma centers of our brain release cortisol, thereby keeping us in a constant state of fight or flight. Cortisol makes it difficult to override our central nervous system’s stress response. Research in the field of neuropsychology, however, indicates that with practice, intention and mindfulness, we are able to cultivate and direct our thoughts in a meaningful way. I choose the word “cultivate” because this work requires a degree of practice and persistence.

How do we IMPROVE our experience in a global crisis?

Research suggests our brains retain the most information when we create mini mind maps or mnemonic devices. Remember this simple phrase: IMPROVE the Moment. The following is a list of what psychotherapists refer to as cognitive reframes. Cognitive reframes are tools used to shift our thinking to support more productive self-supporting narratives. IMPROVE the Moment is a distress tolerance strategy from dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). DBT is research backed, evidence-based and clinically tested. It works if you practice it. As you read this list, I encourage you to mentally concentrate on each task at hand.

I: Imagery

Use your imagination to take yourself into another head space. You may choose to see yourself coping gracefully. Fast-forward to a time when this pandemic feels more under control. Imagine where you may go, what you might do, and what your future self would say about this unique experience. Imagine yourself as a caterpillar weaving your chrysalis and re-emerging as a butterfly with a new pair of wings. Imagine yourself feeling accomplished when you come out on the other side.

M: Meaning

Often, we can create meaning out of difficult experiences and learn lessons about ourselves. Sublimation is the process of channeling tragic and painful experiences into something beautiful and cathartic. Musicians, artists and writers often use creative modalities to transcend difficult experiences. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this experience? How has this pandemic created an opportunity in my life? What are the areas in my life where I would like to grow?” Re-focus, re-assess and re-establish the things that bring meaning to your life.

P: Prayer

Prayer may or may not be connected to a spiritual or religious affiliation; this is entirely up to you. Take a moment to practice gratitude. Reflect on the tiny wins or noteworthy highlights in the day. Send a message of appreciation to those who inspire or support. This can be as simple as texting a friend, delivering a donation, planting a garden, playing your favorite song, meditating, etc. In addition, you may choose to focus on a personal saying or mantra: Stay safe, stay home. This too shall pass. 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.

R: Relaxation

Check in with your body to recognize areas where you may be holding tension. Far too often we fail to check in with our own internal state. If you are a caregiver or an essential worker, you may need to schedule a time for relaxation. Take a minute to breathe deeply, engage in yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, take a hot bath or go for a walk. People with a lot of tension may have a difficult time feeling relaxed. If this is the case, engage in strenuous exercise to induce exhaustion. Hold a plank pose or a bridge pose for a minute, then lay still on the floor.

O: One Thing in the Moment

When we ruminate on experiences from the past we feel remorse or regret. When we are consumed by thoughts of the future we feel anxiety and insecurity. Bring yourself into the here and now. Rather than multi-tasking, focus your entire self on one small task. This can be quite challenging to do. Notice when your thoughts wander. It’s helpful to use grounding with the five senses: What are five things you can see? Four things you can touch? Three things you can hear? Two things you can smell? And one thing you can taste?

V: Vacation

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. It’s not safe to travel right now. This term refers to giving yourself permission to take a mini mental vacation. Picture your favorite vacation spot; remember a fun memory from a trip you’ve taken. Where would you go on your dream vacation, what would you eat and what would you do? Picture your surroundings there. Sometimes it’s helpful to make a special meal from a place that you are fond of. Listen to steel drums on Spotify while you eat a pulled pork sandwich and sip a cold glass of lemonade in the sunshine.

E: Encouragement

Self-validation and self-compassion are forms of encouragement. Encouragement does not have to come from external supports. Give yourself grace and room to make mistakes. Accept yourself as you are in your best, as well as your worst moments. There are valid reasons to snap at loved ones right now. There are times when you won’t have energy to give. You may feel distracted, numb or angry. That’s okay. I encourage you to recognize your strengths and areas where you shine. You’ve got this. We’re in this together. Humanity will prevail.

When we learn the tools to IMPROVE the Moment and actively practice cultivating our thoughts, the world feels a lot less scary and overwhelming. Our internal state can transform our external experiences from a state of trauma to a state of resiliency. As Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking stated, “Change your thoughts and you’ll change your world.”

Darcy Newby is a school counselor, licensed child and family therapist and expressive arts therapist at the Overlake Specialty School.

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