Thursday 8 December 2016

Top tips to manage your mind

Life's path is not always easy and can feature many hurdles, so it is important to develop strategies for coping. Dr Claire Hayes suggests 10 ways that can help us tackle these challenges head on

Published 16/11/2015 | 02:30

Free your mind
Free your mind

Someone once said 'no one gets out of here alive'. No one gets out of here without experiencing some of life's challenges either. Given the myriad challenges that we are sure to encounter and the desire to find happiness when we can, it is important that we develop strategies for coping.

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In supporting people to cope with life's challenges, small and large, I encourage them to welcome and acknowledge their feelings (whether they are feelings of happiness or sadness or something else), become aware of their thoughts, question their beliefs and focus particularly on helpful actions they can choose to take.

This approach has become my way of explaining the basic principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). I believe that there is something helpful for all of us in knowing these basic principles, even if we do not have 'issues' or challenges at the moment.

While most adults have heard of CBT, there can be a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what it is and how it works. It is not a 'quick fix'. It is not intended to suddenly make someone 'feel good' or 'happy'. It is not about 'thinking positively' and ignoring emotions.

CBT as I see it, is a wonderful way of understanding the link between our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and actions. It can help us to realistically recognise that our feelings make sense, our thoughts are helpful or unhelpful, what we believe may not be true and that it is our actions that make the difference.

Knowing that it makes sense for us to feel distressed in a certain situation can reduce pressure on us to 'feel happy' and beating ourselves up because we are not. Paradoxically many of us have experienced moments of happiness in situations that others expect us to feel upset or distressed. It can be easy to beat ourselves up for feeling happy too!

One example of this might be a student who fails an exam. The relief they feel might be bewildering to people around them who do not understand how much they hated studying that course in the first place. Just as it makes sense to feel unhappy, it is good to recognise that it can make sense to feel happy too.

The three-step 'Coping Triangle' process I have developed to explain this allows us to not only acknowledge our feelings but encourages us to focus on what we can do to improve things for ourselves. Regardless of how loudly thoughts might scream that 'there is no point and everything is hopeless' there are always helpful actions that people can choose to do.

So how can we cope well? Have a look at the following 10 suggestions and see if there are three that you particularly like and would like to use more often:

1 Recognise that life has challenges

Sometimes accepting that life has challenges can seem too difficult, and for some people can equate to 'giving up'. There can be comfort though in recognising that challenges are part of life and can deepen our resilience, rather than being proof of failure or inadequacy.

2 Remember that everyone experiences life's challenges

This can be easier said than done. When things are going well for us, it is easy to forget that other people may be experiencing difficulties. Sometimes I am reminded of this when I pass a hospital and think of the many people inside.

3 Recognise how we are feeling

It might seem strange to suggest that we recognise how we are feeling! There are times when we know immediately how we feel, regardless of whether that is upset, relaxed, worried, scared, excited, let-down, hungry, tired, angry or happy. There are other times though, when we might not be aware of our feelings and so we may be really surprised if we suddenly cry, laugh or… explode.

4 Remember that feelings are just feelings - in themselves they are neither positive or negative

We are almost conditioned from a very young age to see feelings such as happy, pleased and rested as 'positive' and feelings such as unhappy, sad and tired as 'negative'. Why? When someone we love dies, we may feel sad, upset and lonely. We may feel angry and confused. We might also feel relieved though, if we think that someone's suffering is over. Those feelings may be difficult, they may be intense but they may also be very appropriate. Labelling our feelings as 'negative' somehow implies that we are wrong to experience them in the first place and can lead to feelings of guilt and unhappiness.

5 Tune in to what you are thinking

Thoughts can be like a radio playing in the background. We can be so skilled at operating on 'automatic pilot' we might not realise thoughts can taunt us for not being 'good enough'. When we realise what we are thinking we are in a much better position to choose to focus on more helpful thoughts just as we can turn a radio dial if we don't like certain music.

6 Be more than your thoughts and beliefs

It can be so easy to slip into believing thoughts and if they are unhelpful, be dragged down by them. A helpful thought can be to remind yourself that, 'I am more than my thoughts'.

7 To cope well, we act well

It can be tempting to focus on how we feel or on how others feel and wish that we would 'feel better'. The more useful thing is often to pay attention to our actions and to realise which of them are 'helpful' and 'unhelpful'. Helpful actions can include ensuring we have regular exercise, eat healthily and have a good sleep routine. These helpful actions can help us to cope better and to be more resilient.

8 Choose helpful support

There are always people who will give support, but this support might not always be helpful. Some people who have come through an alcohol treatment programme for example are confronted with needing to change the people they rely on. If they are serious about not drinking alcohol, they may need to distance themselves from their old drinking buddies. This can be really difficult and it is important to look at other types of supports that are available, ask for and take them. Sometimes, as we know, people who believe that there is no point in living consider suicide as an end to their difficulties. It is important to know that GPs, accident and emergency services and organisations such as Aware, Samaritans, Pieta House have people who are able to give helpful support.

9 It is our responsibility to take the support that is best for us

The story about the person who is hanging off a cliff waiting for God to rescue him makes a lot of sense to me. You might know it. A number of people attempt to help him, including people at the top of the cliff, in a speedboat below and someone dangling from a helicopter. Each time he is offered help, he sincerely thanks them and says that he is okay as God is going to rescue him. When the inevitable happens and he falls and is killed, he arrives at God's gates and says: 'Why did you let me down?', he roars. 'I believed in you and you did not rescue me'. God looks at him calmly and says, 'What more did you expect me to do? I sent you people to pull you up, a speedboat to catch you and a man on a rope to lift you up to a helicopter'.

10 We can all learn to accept and cope with life's challenges

The benefits of CBT in helping people cope with a range of challenges are well documented. Now we can learn the basic principles of CBT easily. Aware has two Life Skills courses that are free of charge. Details of these are on aware.ie. My book, How to Cope: The Welcoming Approach to Life's Challenges explains how we can use the basic CBT principles in a structured and logical way in coping with challenges such as pressure, rejection, loss, failure, success and change. GPs can recommend professional therapists, counsellors, or psychologists to help.

Let's turn things around and rather than feeling ashamed of experiencing life's challenges, let's see them as opportunities to develop our abilities to cope. Just think of how the next generation will benefit.

* Dr Claire Hayes is Clinical Director of Aware and practising clinical psychologist. See aware.ie

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