In a haze of exhaustion, anger, PMS and the stresses of child-rearing the other day, I completely lost it while trying to get this project done.
It started with my toddler refusing to have her omlette and demanding cookies for breakfast and quickly snowballed into a full-blown cascade of negativity.
Problem is, it had nothing to do with my toddler or breakfast or even child-rearing. There is this tape that keeps playing over and over in my head whenever I get upset. Its like a continuous refrain that crescendoes into self-doubt and tears. What am I doing half a world away from family and friends trying to raise a child when I can barely take care of myself? How long did I think I could keep up this charade of domestic bliss living in an extended family of eight? Yes , eight. What am I, with my professional degrees and independent rearing doing depending on my husband for everything like some 19th century stay-at-home wife?
I became so fixated on these “issues” that I started bawling right alongside my two year old. The project I was working on? Straight out the window.
Funny thing is, on the whole I am genuinely happy. I chose to live half a world away from family and friends and raise my child with my husband. I actually like living in a huge family, not the least because it gives me so much more support in raising my two year old but also because I am a better mom for it. And not to piss the feminists off, but I actually enjoy having a capable, strong and protective man take care of me emotionally and financially for this brief period in my life while I devote myself to the first few years of our child’s life. Contrary to popular belief (and to my own) I am blessed to have the kind of life that I do.
So why do these same old thoughts cycle through my head when I’m struggling to be productive – like some well-worn belt of a treadmill that goes nowhere? Because I think too much.
Although new mothers are often ones who over-think and mire themselves in a pattern of negative self-talk, I am pretty sure we aren’t the only ones with a penchant for brooding over an issue until everything explodes around us and we lose track of what it was that we are actually trying to accomplish.
Do you over think things too? What if you nipped these seeds of negativity in the bud? Negative thoughts often trigger a chain reaction with one dark thought roping in another and before you know it, you find yourself in the throes of anger, resentment and depression. What if you could declutter your mind and streamline your thoughts?
Sometimes its better to just let experiences wash over you without analyzing, judging, inferring or processing at all. Experiences, after all, are the primary products of life, and you cannot completely avoid unwanted situations. What you can control, however, is whether or not you fuel these unproductive feelings with your thoughts. The way you think influences your productivity. Do you want to live a positive life or a negative one?
Just how do you clip your negative thoughts anyway?
I had this crazy clinical instructor in university. The kind that told you quirky stories that you thought went nowhere but you listened because they were interesting. Then BOOM! You realized that they applied to your life and your learning goals. Some of them weren’t just interesting anecdotes but practical, engaging learning tools.
This one time in my freshman year, I was close to tears dealing with a particularly difficult patient when she pulled me aside and told me about the acronym ‘STOP’. I listened politely until she went:
“You need to STOP”
“Slow down, you mean”
“No STOP, you think too much and get yourself worked up”
I looked at her trying to figure out if it was a random story or one with a moral. You never knew with her.
She went on to tell me about a concept that I have been coming back to over the years when I’m wrangling with a particularly challenging situation or emotional problem. Or when I’m looking to make a quick, impactful decision.
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Stop. The deciding factor in how most situations turn out for us is how we react to them. The S in the STOP acronym stands for disengaging from a situation before you react. Gut reactions are great in fight or flight situations but we no longer live in the caveman days of running away from the carnivorous beast that wants to devour us. We live in a social world and staying calm in an upsetting situation is a skill we can only master by stepping back before we react emotionally. Not only do rash decisions clip our productivity, they may also cause us to make mistakes that we may regret later. Some mistakes are much harder to undo and it is much more productive to just take a moment to step back and make a rational decision rather than try to patch up a crappy decision later.
Take a Breath. In fight or flight, the adrenaline seeping into your system makes you breathe rapid and shallow. The oxygen in your brain drops as your brain shunts the blood to your limbs for fight or flight. Take a deep breath in. Smooth and slow. Take your time breathing it out it out. Breathing deeply tells your brain that you are not preparing to fight or flee.
Observe. Not all thinking leads to negativity. When you react instinctively, you are often focussing on how wrong or unwanted the instigating event or behaviour is. If you are in conflict with another person, observe how they are feeling, try to see what has caused them to behave I a way that has upset you. A little empathy goes a long way in human interactions. If the conflict is self-imposed or internal like mine was, try to step back and look at the whole picture. Observe how your body feels when you are upset. Observe what events or thoughts may have triggered your response. Perhaps naming this emotion may help you understand and resolve the situation in a rational manner. At this stage, your observation is as objective and detached as you can possibly manage.
Proceed. This is where you step back into the situation at hand, preferably calmer, with a bigger picture in your mind. When I put my toddler situation into perspective, it wasn’t such a big deal after all. Just because my toddler asked for cookies at breakfast doesn’t mean I failed as a mother or as a human being. Rather than focussing on my overwhelming self-doubt, I ended up calming my baby down with crayons so I could carry on working on my project. Stepping back and putting the situation into context will help you be an effective problem-solver when you come back to resolve it.
At first using STOP may feel awkward. Lets face it, that’s a lot of steps to go through in the split second between getting upset and thinking negatively. Avoiding a downward spiral of negative thoughts takes practice especially if you (like me) have been thinking negatively for a long time. Difficult thought it may be, learning this skill of putting things into perspective will do wonders for your productivity in a stressful situation.
Try the STOP strategy the next time you are upset – and let us know how it went for you. Leave a comment below!