Brain Science – Episode #4

Coping skills and strategies

internal tools for coping with life's struggles

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Mireille and Adam discuss coping skills and strategies to use when managing the emotions and struggles of everyday life. We talk through some common ways people manage their emotions, strategies for emotional coping, as well as problem solving coping.

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We discussed the concept of SMART goals — they are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and based on a specific time frame.

We discussed the concept of HALT. Are you hungry, angry, lonely or tired? If so, coping will invariably be different, regardless of your age.

We also discussed several examples of emotional coping strategies:

  1. Name it to tame it
  2. Grounding - Our senses are real-time, so orienting yourself to what you can see, smell, taste, touch, or hear will give you a realistic view of your circumstances and environment.
  3. Deep breathing
  4. Meditation - Check out Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
  5. Visualization
  6. Ice — Allow a small ice cube to melt in your hand. It’s a distraction and a file for tolerating the “wave” of emotion.
  7. Music — Listening to music or singing (various parts of the brain are involved).
  8. Front-loading — Doing things in a certain way to conserve energy to allocate to other things.
  9. Graduated exposure vs. Flooding

Transcript

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Living up here in Western Washington, there are a number of activities that people like to spend their time doing, and one of them that my husband likes to do is actually surf. Have you ever been surfing?

Not that I can recall.

Well, surfing is an interesting thing, because I think it takes a lot of skill, and there’s multiple facets to being able to learn how to do it. Some of it is timing, balance… So many systems involved that you have to really just practice over and over and over again. And just when you think you’re good, something else changes and you have to reallocate and try again. I think managing how we react to our lives, our world and the emotions we have is much like learning how to surf.

The problem is that sometimes the experiences that we have throughout life pummel us, they’re unexpected and unwanted, and if you’ve ever – not even surfed, but just been jumping the waves in the ocean, and you get hit hard, and either take in a bunch of water or get pummeled over the coral, it’s really easy to freak out and be like “I’m not going back in that water. I’m not surfing, I’m not swimming…” And then you might even be tempted to vilify the water, the board, or yourself. And really, that’s at the heart of coping in life. We have to learn how to navigate unexpected things, or overwhelming experiences, and our emotions. I think a lot of people struggle with what to do with feelings, especially when they have the feelings about their feelings.

Yeah. Feelings are tough. Feelings are sometimes a part of your identity even. Very protective. Like, “Wait, this is how I feel. Don’t you dare tell me I’m wrong.” People are very strong about their feelings.

They are, for sure. Well, emotions are powerful. I would say emotions, at the most fundamental level, are energy. So they have to go somewhere. I would offer that we all have somewhat adaptive strategies for dealing with our feelings, and some more maladaptive, or ones that don’t work very well. One I would offer that doesn’t tend to work very well is actually avoidance.

Right?! We can put procrastination, avoidance… Both of those in the same thing. The problem with that as coping is that it actually reinforces itself.

How do you mean?

What I mean by that is that when I avoid that thing that feels overwhelming, heavy or hard, guess what I feel when I don’t have to do it? I feel relieved. I’m like “Phew! I did not have to deal with that, and now I feel better and I can just go on with my day.”

[00:04:09.12] The problem is that I now didn’t do that thing that was hard, heavy, overwhelming or scary, and so then I’m going to – when that thing comes up again, do you think it’s going to be any lighter than it was the first time?

It’s probably gonna be heavier. So what you’re saying is that you get relief from this scenario, but maybe the burden of it truly doesn’t really go away yet. It’s still there, it’s just sort of delayed.

Right. You actually are participating in a bind… Because what gives you the relief is actually what contributes to more of the problem. So here I don’t wanna do a paper, or there’s a project that’s super-overwhelming and I don’t know what to do, how to fix it… So I don’t. I just leave work that day, and be like “We’ll deal with it tomorrow.” Except that when you get in the next day, and you then are like “Oh, that didn’t feel very good, so I don’t wanna do it now…”, so now I’m escalating more of the negative energy or emotion around that hard thing, so it only grows. And ironically, it’s sort of like you actually forfeit having any feedback.

If I think that the project is hard or that I can’t do it, and then I don’t do it, guess what I’m telling myself by avoiding it? “I can’t.” Because I don’t have any data. I had no direct experience. So I show up to a game, ready to play; I’m like “Oh gosh, I don’t know if I’m gonna win.” Can you imagine if we played sports the same way?

[laughs] We’re like “Oh, there’s no game today. Sorry.”

Yeah, that would be unfortunate.

Right?! But that’s what we do all the time in saying “I’m going to avoid this thing that’s way too big, hard or heavy for me to navigate… So I’m going to avoid it.” However, if I’m like “You know what, I’m actually just gonna start small.” So instead of trying to complete the task, what I’m gonna do is I’m gonna commit to working on whatever project for ten minutes. I don’t care what that looks like, I’m just gonna set a different criterion for my success, so that I’m practicing exposing myself to that thing. Now I have data. Now I have a feedback, even in a different emotion, that goes “Look, you didn’t wanna do it, it was aversive, and you did it. So who do you need to tell you you did a good job?”

Because you know that was hard for you, and you did it anyway. So if we could shift the lens of how we look at emotions to really being this sort of “skilled and unskilled”, and that we all have propensities as based on what we’ve practiced… So some of the things, like maybe even in the workplace, we’re really good and we can rock it over here, but maybe it’s our health habits that we tend to struggle with…

Right. You see that a lot. You see people excel in their career, and suck in their health or suck in their marriage… Something is getting the better part of them, and they actually will lean in the areas where they’re successful. That’s why you sometimes see people really lean into their career, because “Well, that’s somewhat easy for me. Or it’s easier than all these other things.”

Right. So imagine that actually what you’re gonna do is practice what we call “distress tolerance.” It’s distressing to me to feel ill-equipped to do this activity, be it health-related, work-related, relational-related… And so now that’s going to bring up negative emotions. But I’m gonna tolerate those in a certain way, so that I can still actually practice doing it.

I mean, once upon a time you weren’t as skilled as you are today in your line of work, right?

[00:08:14.13] Yeah. Yesterday I sucked. Today I’m better. [laughter] No, I’m just kidding. There definitely is, because I’ve been podcasting since 2006, so there’s definitely a record of all of my bad and all of my good, or my attempts at being good, or better, at what I do.

Right. And so how did you get better? When you had those bad days, did you throw in the towel and you’re like “I’m good.”

I show up every day. That’s how I got better.

Regardless, right?

Yeah. Like, if today is gonna suck, “Oh, well. Let’s just get through it.” You’re gonna have good days and you’re gonna have bad days, but you’ve gotta show up; you’ve gotta get that time in. The age-old thought is that mastery comes after 10,000 hours of doing something. Well, I’ve gotta get my 10,000 until I’m actually mastery-level, or equipped.

Right. There’s so many things in life wherein we start out at novice. And some people are like “Well, no, if I’m way over here, I’m a master or an expert in this lane, then I should think that I would be an expert or a master over here. But I’m not.” So it’s really actually being willing to sort of look in the mirror and acknowledge where you are… And that doesn’t mean anything about where you’ll be next week, next year, five years or ten years. I just know if I don’t start practicing, I’m not gonna get better.

So when it comes to coping, what are some common paths to just practicing at coping? Give me one good example of practicing to cope.

Well, I’ve gotta give one more caveat, because I think this is important. I often use this acronym with people when they’re trying to cope… And it’s HALT. Because if we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired, your coping will invariably look different. I don’t care if you’re 3, 33, 73. If you are hungry (or hangry), angry, lonely or tired, you just have less to be able to navigate it. This is why at different life stages some things can be harder. After having a child, right?

A lot of times, both parents are not sleeping in the same way they once did. That doesn’t mean “Oh, Adam, you can’t do your podcasting…”, but rather, keeping that awareness in the forefront as sort of a filter to go “You know what, I just have less today. So instead of $100 in my bank account that I get to spend, I’ve got like $60.” So I don’t want that to deter people from practicing some of these skills… Because again, we’re all human, so I don’t care what age or where you’re at; if you’re hungry, angry, lonely or tired, you just have less energy.

I’ve definitely made some poor decisions and coped very poorly in times of HALT, specifically hangry… My wife and I - we’ll both recognize a moment where we may not be on the same page, and it’s like “Are you hungry? Am I hungry? Is it because it’s 5 o’clock, or 6 o’clock, or whatever time it might be, in prep for dinner coming soon?”

It can be very stressful, for some reason. And it’s because of just the feeling you have. When you’re hungry, you have less to spend, as you said.

Right. Because why do we eat? What does it give us?

You’ve got it.

Satisfaction! Happiness!

Yeah, and connection… All these things.

True, yeah.

[00:11:48.20] So when you can name that and identify that as a component, it can change the way in which you ride that emotional wave. Because then you’re not going toe-to-toe with Heather, right? You’re like “Oh, we’re both just hungry.”

Well, usually it’s about where should we go to eat or what’s for dinner, and it’s simple decisions pretty much… But for some reason, these simple decisions are very hard to accomplish because of our inability to actually execute on the decision, because we’re hungry, or we’re tired, or it’s the end of the day and it’s like “Come on…!” That’s why a plan beforehand is always good, for this and other scenarios.

And you just named it. There you go. There’s one of the best ways in which we can cope. So planning and/or front-loading are one of the ways we navigate it. I can remember back in graduate school when I was doing multiple roles… Because during that time I was in school, I also worked at a local university counseling center, while I was also working a practicum site over in a different area of Los Angeles… And I coached a high-level competitive gymnastics team.

Wow. That’s a lot.

Yeah, so I had a master list of the books I would need for any given day of the week, I had what meals I needed to take, which changes of clothes I needed to take, and what assignments or other responsibilities in each lane were due according to that day of the week.

Right. So when you started to fall down, you didn’t fall down and be like “Oh, my life…! The day is over. Let’s go back and not play the game.” It’s “Okay, what’s my plan?” Because you’ve already thought about it beforehand, right? You’ve already done the work of thinking through it.

Right. The key is that we’re going to fare better, our frontal lobe is going to come online more when our emotional reactivity is less. Because remember that emotional processing part of the brain - we can sort of get a cog there, and we won’t process information in the same way… Which is why it’s so much harder to make some of those decisions when you’re stressed or overwhelmed, or there’s more of an emotional load. So it’s sort of like “How can I calm down, and then I can plan even more effectively?” I can do meal-planning for the week. Frontloading would look like - the same day of the week I do these sort of routine behaviors, be it getting gas, getting groceries, meal-planning… Any of these things. At the heart of this is bill pay. If I set them up in advance, I know my bank is gonna handle those responsibilities, and then I don’t have to allocate my energy to do those things.

So then, apart from planning, if I’m going “Well, I’m still pretty activated”, it’s really hard for me to calm down, for whatever reason. There is what we call grounding. Grounding is a psychological experience wherein you actually attend to the sense. So what sensory data are you taking in live? Because senses are all real-time. I’m not seeing something that I saw last week, or yesterday; it’s what’s within my visual field right now, immediately. If you’re in your office, there’s a chair, there’s bookcases, your computer, your keyboard… All of the things. And then it could be “What do I hear? What do I smell? What do I taste?” All of these things orient you to what is actually happening, not that sort of background chatter that your brain wants to shout at you.

Sometimes when we’re anxious, one of the words we give to – a way in which we think that doesn’t work well is catastrophic thinking. Catastrophic thinking is this way in which I’m imagining every possible, plausible, wretched outcome I could come up with… And it’s amazing how many things a brain can come up with.

[00:15:55.22] Yes, it is. You’re not thinking very rationally at that moment. You’re thinking very irrationally, and pretty much anything you dream of; it’s like Chicken Little almost. The sky is falling. And it’s not really falling.

Right. And imagine that when you’re in that place of anxiety, rational thought has no effect. Imagine you’re trying to have a conversation with a two-year-old in a grocery store about why they can’t have candy. They don’t really care. They just want what they want, when they want it.

That’s right. Two-year-olds, come on…

So in some ways we all have this inner two-year-old, that likes to hang out, and wreak havoc, and wants what they want, when they want it, how they want it.

That’s really interesting to even think about… Because that’s true. You see that play out too with people often, if you have conflict at least. You see somebody, sometimes, in their two-year-old state, or that inner two-year-old wreaking havoc.

Yeah, exactly. And that’s why it’s really hard to have more adult-like, rational conversations. And then you end up having to try to talk to Chicken Little, which really doesn’t get you anywhere.

So the “name it to tame it.” What do I see, smell, touch, taste or hear. And literally, you can even feel the different textures around you, be it your desk, or computer, keyboard etc, so that your brain is like “This is what’s actually happening, live, real-time. Not any of the plausible things I make up in my head.”

Along with that would be the “name it to tame it.” So when I can’t say what I’m feeling, or what is going on, it really helps me navigate things different. I know I’ve mentioned that it’s more of the limbic system which does the emotional processing, but like all things with the brain, it’s never that simple… So more of our right, frontal lobe is also responsible for emotion, whereas many - not all, but many - language is a left-hemispheric function. So when I name it, it’s like I manage the teeter-totter of the right-emotion, and the language - left. So it’s like “Phew! I came back to some sort of…”

You’ve got balance.

Yeah, yeah. So then you don’t feel quite so out of control, and then you can shift even to the planning or problem-solving.

Right. Let’s go further into strategies then, because I think that – there isn’t one on the list that we have here to go through, or at least one that I’ve done recently… And I’m sure there’s way more than this list. The exhaustive list of coping strategies is probably many.

But sometimes, when you’re super-angry, maybe the easiest way to calm down is just to be quiet for a while, for example. What are some good strategies to step away from these emotions really taking over?

Well, I think if you can hold on to the fact that emotions are energy, which means you’re gonna do better when you move them, or maneuver them. This is why when we’re anxious, to just sort of sit still, it’s like I’m gonna wanna tap my foot, or move back and forth, or click my pen very irritatingly… Because I’m trying to move or discharge that emotion somewhere. So if you’re really angry, exercise. There really isn’t a better all-around strategy for managing our feelings than exercise.

That happens a lot, too – it does a lot to your body. Obviously, your joints, your back, different parts of your muscle release cortisol, I believe, or different… Different things happen because your body moves. And it’s definitely a different reactive state that your brain is in when you’re in that kind of motion, too.

It is. It’s really fascinating, because actually, exercise as well - research has shown that it tends to increase or improve brain plasticity. And what I mean by that is literally like exercise is yoga for your brain.

[00:20:09.07] So you’re able to move and maneuver more adaptively when you exercise. It makes your brain more pliable. Much of what I encounter with individuals struggling with anxiety or depression, a lot of the times I’m trying to increase or improve this flexibility in their mind, that life and the way in which they see the world doesn’t have to be black or white. It’s not binary, “Either this or that.”

There’s some grey area in there.

Yeah, exactly. So when we’re at that heightened place of emotion and we can’t really reason with ourselves, we’re apt to try to reduce things, to make them very black and white… Like, “Either it’s this, or it’s that.” And there’s so much in life that really isn’t black and white, so you can’t really ever feel like you get a grasp on the emotions… Because it’s like your brain will remind you of one other caveat, or one other way in which you can see it, and you’re like “Oh, I thought I had that shut down.” [laughs]

So exercise, moving… And once upon a time, we used to think that with anger - that it was better to do more angry outbursts, so to be more physical, like fighting or things like that… And that’s changed. We don’t necessarily think that using aggression, or feeding that sort of way in you, but rather – think of it like sublimation. I’m bartering one emotion for a different one.

You brought up some brain chemicals… And one of the key ones that gets released when we exercise is dopamine. So you get that huge rush… This is why if you’ve ever heard runners talk about runner’s high, what they’re actually referencing is that high on dopamine.

Yeah. I mean, as soon as you’re done with the marathon, you’re like “Okay, next one please.” Unless, obviously, it took you way longer than it should have, and you’re depressed, or your feet are falling off… But the best time to sign up for the next marathon is after the existing one, because you’re high on it.

Sure. And if you think about it from even a multidimensional perspective, when you’re exercising outside, think of all the sensory data that you’re taking in while you’re moving your body.

Well, yeah, you’re getting the experience – well, for one, Vitamin D from the sun, likely, because you’ll probably be running the marathon outside… Potentially, in a clouded or overcast day, but you’re still getting some rays… You’re getting to see a lot of nature, and whenever I get to experience more of the world, more of the nature, more of the natural things in the world, there’s happiness that sort of comes with that. There’s joy that comes with – me in particular getting out with a mountain bike; I go out into the woods. It’s great, because I’m exercising and I’m also experiencing the world. I can see the textures and the colors of the world, and it’s different than my office, or my home, or my truck, or whatever.

Right, but it’s all real-time, Adam. All of that sensory information is live, so your brain isn’t in fast-forward, like anxiety, about what’s to come… And you’re not depressed, going “Oh no, what did I do that I still need to do, that I forgot?” You’re actually living live, now… And that’s also what feels so good.

Being in the present, you mean? Being in the here and now.

Being in the here and now. Our brains are always wanting to hijack us; our emotions sort of move us to the future. Some people would offer than when it comes to mental health, we’re really trying to manage aspects of chaos and rigidity. Just like that teeter-totter, too emotional, and I’m just – all the chaos; or I’m too rigid, and everything has to fit neat and tidy into a box. But what’s ironic is in life a lot of things don’t fit neat and tidy into a box, and so if that throws you over into more chaos, now you don’t have the same strategies or files to fit the things that are supposed to fit, and now you’re in trouble because, because, because… All the things, as a result of that.

[00:24:08.18] Coping kind of reminds me of habits in a way, because you have something that sort of cues this emotional charge, the emotion attached to whatever the scenario is and how you deal with it, the coping practices, how you navigate troubled waters, right? Like, that’s what coping is. How you resolve something.

Right, and that’s why too you might be really skilled in one area, because that cue carries a different emotional charge than a different one. So you could say “Professionally, in my work, I feel incredibly competent and skilled and master, but then I move over here into relationships, and it’s like, I’m back down at the novice, and maybe sometimes get up to beginner.” But that isn’t reinforcing then, unless you figure out a hack to be able to build in the positive feelings around this skill acquisition.

So if it is that I wanna use exercise and that isn’t very skilled for me, then I wanna go “Well, what other thing am I more apt to do, or that I would enjoy more?” So you can think about “Do I wanna hang out with my friends? I really wanna be able to go to dinner with them on Friday night.” It’s like, “Okay… Then what I’m gonna do is I’m going to schedule or queue up this aversive thing that feels hard, heavy or overwhelming just before that, or on that day, and then my reward gets to be that dinner with my friends thereafter.

Right. Kill it doing this, and then as a reward you get fun time with friends.

Right. So I’m also building that dopamine as coming from something else, but I’ve now linked it into something else that would feel more chaotic or undesirable.

So what would happen then, if you didn’t accomplish said hard thing that day? Would you just go to dinner anyways and feel bummed out, or what would happen?

I’m so glad you asked… That’s an awesome question. This is where really the shift – we wanna move from being so fixated on outcomes, like “It has to look like A, B or C”, to effort. I wanna reinforce and reward the effort, not a particular outcome.

Okay. So basically if I try, “Okay, pat on the back. You tried. You made an attempt to cope in a manner that is more healthy”, rather than give up and not play the game, like we said earlier.

Yeah. Have you ever heard of SMART goals?

It rings a bell, but I’m not familiar.

Whenever we’re looking at goals, we want them to be SMART, like an acronym. So is it Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and that there’s a time associated with it.

So if I just say I want to get better at X, Y or Z, that’s very unspecific. There isn’t a time coordinated with it, so I can’t necessarily measure the effort I put forth. If it’s related to a healthy habit, or something at work that’s aversive, it would be that I’m going to spend 15-20 minutes on this project that I don’t necessarily want to do. That is my measuring effort, as opposed to “I completed the project, I shipped it” or “I lost a certain amount of weight”, or “I could fit into these jeans”, but rather “I went to the gym” or “I went mountain-biking for 20 minutes, two times this week.” Then it alleviates that pressure that it has to look a specific outcome.

[00:27:48.15] I like the focus on the effort, because I think we all try. Sometimes we try harder than other times, sometimes we struggle to try harder etc. but the outcome is always the variable; the effort is always gonna be present, whether it’s small or large… And I think we need to give ourselves some credit for even making the plan to try. There’s so many people who just get stuck on that part alone. And I know for me - like you were just saying that, about the results - I often will attach my happiness to a result, rather than just showing up… And as we said earlier, showing up is half the battle. To get better at something, you have to show up.

Exactly, Adam. Exactly. I think that as well everybody’s evidence of effort is going to look different.

So it’s still a variable. You can’t really name or describe what the effort is gonna look like; it’s gonna be different for you, it’s gonna be different for me…

Yeah. This is what I love with watching my son with his soccer team. All of the boys are around the same age, but their level of skill, and even personal strengths and weaknesses, are all varied. As a parent, I’ve had to practice going “How can I see evidence of his effort?” We have conversations before game days, and we work to identify and alternative goal that he can do, as opposed to whether or not they win.

I’m like “Can you do a maradona?” That’s one skill. Can you stay on your feet for X amount of time? I just want him to fall in love with the process of getting better and acquiring things that were hard, because then you learn – really more of this grit, that goes “I can tether in the positive feelings while it still sort of sucks.”

Yeah. It’s also building on something over the long term, too. We often so focus on microwaving results, and actually results take a lot of – I mean, it’s varied, but there could be a lot of time involved, and just incremental… What I like to say “iterative change” or “iterative process.” That’s a thing to also focus on, because you can’t microwave something and expect it to be amazing. You’ve gotta put in the time.

You do. And that’s why seeing those small changes repeatedly over time is so huge… Because we don’t always see the gains we make without more perspective. So I want to be able to feel good about whatever it is I’m working towards, while I’m working towards it. Not because I hit that expert or master. I mean, you’ve been doing podcasting for how many years now?

Since 2006.

Right… So why do you keep doing it?

I don’t know. [laughter] I like it, it’s fun, I get to meet people… Many reasons. It’s now turned into my job, so I kind of have to like it…

There’s an aspect too that pays… And I would offer that part of what pays for you is that experience of learning, because each individual you interview or hear about their story, it makes you more curious. Then you get to interface with all sorts of different people, with different strengths, ideas, weaknesses etc. and that never gets old.

In all honesty though, one of my biggest motivators has always been to be a servant… Because there’s a lot of things that we’ve done through our main show (The Changelog) and others to serve the community of the software ecosystem, software developers, anybody in and around the software world - tech entrepreneurs, technology etc. It’s the ability to be able to see somebody in need and help them through something, hear their story and reinforce something, whatever… But in a lot of cases it’s really about serving the community.

[00:31:59.19] Yeah, and so it pays for you to be able to help people struggle less. Because if more people have access to information – and that’s what I would say with this; if I don’t know that there’s other options for how I navigate my feelings, why would I choose something else? I didn’t even know that it was available.

So this is another thing when it comes to emotions - we can have expectations. And when those expectations go unmet, we’re apt to have feelings about those… And going, “That doesn’t infer anything about me, my value or my competency.” But we’re really apt to make meaning of things, because that’s how we’re designed as people; we wanna understand the value of different things. But we are all sort of in process, and even if I am struggling in this way over here, it doesn’t mean I can’t get over there. But if I’m going to make meaning and say that I can’t, because I couldn’t in this instance, now I’m gonna struggle, even more than where I was at the beginning.

Moving right along, other options… This is an interesting one. Have you ever held a piece of ice for an extended period of time?

Right? This is an interesting one–

Wasn’t sure if it was a trick question or not.

Well, if you get a small piece of ice and allow it to melt in your hand, one - again, it’s a process, so it doesn’t happen immediately, but it also distracts you away from that internal chatter, or the other overwhelming emotion, while also sort of constricting blood flow. Because when we get activated and emotional, it’s not surprising that our bodies react in multiple ways. So holding a piece of ice - one, it reminds me of the sort of crescendo and decrescendo that comes with feelings. When I first take a piece of ice, it’s really cold…

It’s almost jolting.

Yeah. And very unwanted. You’re like “I should put this down!”

But if you allow yourself - and I’m not talking a huge piece of ice, but a small piece of ice, and go “Okay, this won’t last forever. I just have to ride it.” Sooner or later, the ice cube melts and your hand numbs out a little bit. And it then also gives you a file for what it’s like to tolerate the negative emotion. When we’re really super-emotional, it’s really hard to remember time, and so when I do that, it’s helping me go “This is a file that emotions can look like. It’s gonna come up, and it’s gonna go down.” But when I’m activated, it’s really hard to reason with myself and tell myself “It’s not gonna feel this way all the time, forever and ever, always, amen.”

Right, right, right. Geez, I really wish I could tell myself some of these things whenever I’m at that critical moment of high emotion in a moment, because I think I would tell myself, given that I have rational thought now and not then, in those moments, “Chill out. Chill out, take a break”, or “name it to tame it”, “breathe deep”, whatever it might be, hold some ice, do something that is not a negative response to this scenario, and something that delays potentially even dealing with it. I know we said earlier that could be kind of a bad thing, but maybe a delayed reaction to this thing might be better, because I can put my frontal lobe on, I can put my lid on, as you’ve said before, and rationally cope with the challenge at hand.

[00:36:02.25] Yeah, and that isn’t a bad strategy in that sense, but the key different is that you’re actually going to come back to the thing or the feeling that’s causing the upset, as opposed to just “I’m not gonna deal with it again.”

So that’s a really important distinction when we’re talking about it.

So maybe not have a deep conversation about something in the heat of the moment. “Let’s pause this scenario here. This is important, let’s talk about this, but just not right now. Let’s talk about it when we’re in better places, when we’re not in HALT”, or whatever it might be.

Yeah, I think of this a lot in working with couples, romantic partners, in that a lot of times in the relational dynamic there tends to be one individual who tends to be what we call the pursuer, who’s going to come after, go after, relentlessly pursue… Whereas the other partner tends to be what we call the withdrawer. So imagine the withdrawer as sort of like the turtle who hides out, and the pursuer is banging on the turtle shell, like “Come out! Come out!”

“Let’s talk about this!”

Right?! And the turtle is like “Just leave me alone! I’m in my cave!” [laughs]

This visualization I’m having right now is so crazy.

Well, so having a time specified… And I say never longer than 60 minutes, because the pursuer needs to go “I know we’re coming back.”

Right. And they’re waiting.

Right. Whereas the withdrawer gets to be like “Phew… I get to breathe, hang out in my shell, my cave… Like, give me 60 minutes and then I can re-engage around whatever upsetting thing occurred.”

So what would you do during the breakdown?

Well, for the pursuer, the person who wants to have the conversation, writing things down. We’ve talked a lot about the “name it to tame it.” Well, when I’m putting words to things, imagine that’s still an action-based coping strategy, because I’m maneuvering the data and I’m utilizing additional parts of my brain. I have to actually pay attention to the words, the feelings that are coming out in words in my mind, and then I have to engage my supplemental motor cortex, as well as my frontal lobe… All of these different things in order to put the information down on paper. And then I’m ironically actually practicing for and advocating for myself in the relational dynamic.

Right. Let me also throw one more in there… What you’re actually doing too is you’re channeling the existing energy and the emotion. Since you said it has to go somewhere, well why not put it to pen paper? That’s a methodology of allowing that emotion to continue to flow… And maybe when you get to the scenario later on, you’re more calm about it, because you’ve actually had some therapeutic moments with yourself.

Exactly. And you feel far more equipped, because it doesn’t come out just like this gibberish of information, but rather “Hey, I’m upset when you did X, Y or Z, because this how I heard you say that to me, and then I was offended, hurt, angry, sad”, you name it.

So it becomes far more – I would say the challenge it these sort of relationships is while you still feel vulnerable, you actually have to be your own advocate. And that’s hard…

Super-hard.

Yeah. Well, you’re activated and you’re emotional, and it’s like “I’ve gotta get this out, I’ve gotta get this out”, because what you’re trying to do is relieve the tension of that emotion.

Right. What about the turtle?

Well, the turtle - they’re gonna do whatever they need to do as well. And I would still recommend the same strategies, with writing things down. Also breathing… We haven’t mentioned that, but what a lot of people don’t realize is ironically when they get upset, they hold their breath.

[00:39:54.25] Oh yes, that’s true. That’s why I love my Apple Watch. My Apple Watch reminds me several times a day, even if I don’t listen, to breathe.

Yeah. This is really at the heart of the beginning of panic attacks. And always there’s more to it than this… But you start holding your breath, and then you can’t breathe, and then your brain is like “Hey, you’re not breathing…!”

There’s an actual panic.

Right, so I’m sending the signals, like “You’re in danger, you’re in danger…!”

Which reinforces your concerns, yeah.

Correct. You’ve catapulted a whole cycle. And that’s why even just the five-count, breathing - breathing in for five, and breathing out for five. Breathing in for five seconds, and discharge and breathe out for five seconds.

We should tell our audience to do that right now, those listening. Just pause this show and breathe.

Sure… [laughter]

Here we go, we’re gonna breathe in… Ready? One, two, three, four, five. And breathe out. Two, three, four, five. And one more time - in, two, three, four, five. And out - two, three, four five. How do you feel?

I feel better. It sounds like you’ve done this before. Is this not your first time doing that?

It is not. Because this is what I help teach people how to do, and that’s why it really is acquiring a skill. One of the things I also incorporate with deep breathing is what we call visualization, or a guided imagery. You can find these on YouTube, practices… And I wanna say there are other apps that have it; they’re just not coming to mind right now. But what it is is imagining a scene, and oftentimes they’re like a forest scene, a beach scene… It’s some way in which, again, you’re gonna utilize all the senses and walk through it. Maybe we do this in an upcoming episode… But we’d walk through what it’s like when you come to a beach, and you can see the sun, and the water, and the sun glistening off of it, and you can feel the breeze that is at the ocean, and you smell the air. So I’m gonna walk you through and I’m gonna speak to every sense. Probably not taste, unless you’re going to be eating something on the beach.

Well, you can taste the ocean water in the air…

Sure. Sure, yeah. So all of these things help remind your body that there isn’t a real and active present danger that you need to react to.

I used to do something similar whenever I lived in Upstate New York and it was really cold. I would imagine Florida, or a beach… I’m not sure if it’s the same thing, but I would basically trip my mind from thinking “Wow, you’re really cold right now”, to “It could be a little bit warmer, or whatever it might be.

Is that the same thing as visualization? Sort of a mind-trickery, so to speak?

It is. Well, this is sort of – I don’t know, I think odd in some ways, but it totally makes sense… But our brains don’t really know the difference whether it’s real or imagined, because it has to run the same neural network. So whether I’m picturing myself in Florida at the beach, or I’m really in Florida at the beach, it’s running the exact same thing. So imagine what you’re trying to do is cultivate this entirely new neural network that goes “Here’s my queue. I’m emotionally charged. And here’s how I run that play.” You just change the entire way in which an experience feels, because you’ve told your mind “This isn’t the thread that you perceived it to be.”

Is that similar to public speakers when they say “Imagine the audience naked?” Because if an audience is naked, they’re the ones vulnerable. Usually, when you’re naked, you’re vulnerable.

So maybe they’re less of a threat. Is that the same thing?

[00:44:02.28] Yeah, yeah. It’s a strategy to calm their brain, so that they’re not in that anxious place around what is everybody thinking, imagining, perceiving etc, which… We’re never in charge of how other people hear what we say. The things I’ve heard people say I’ve said, I did not say… [laughter]

That’s really interesting, this mind-trickery. I think we’ve talked about this before, but this idea that you said our mind doesn’t understand if it’s real or if it’s manufactured, so to speak. I like that, because it’s a way you can acquire a skill even.

If you watch somebody else do something that you really enjoy, maybe your brain thinks you’ve done it and somehow you’ve acquired this skill, and maybe even some courage.

Sure, because it’s further enhancing that network that goes “This is the way we play.” This is why it’s even (I would say) used more often in athletics that you get filmed. When you see yourself being filmed, it also facilitates more of that comprehensive picture of you doing whatever skill or play, so that then you can picture how you want it to be done, and carry that out. This is why I’m so fascinated by the brain. There’s so many things around how we can do our lives, and really to help them feel better, because we don’t – I don’t know… We get a second go. I just want whatever we’re walking through. I think life can be incredibly enjoyable. But if we’re not considerate of or reflective around our minds as sort of our steering wheel, we’re gonna feel like everything just keeps hitting us, and that we’re not in charge of our lives and what happens to us.

So what are some key takeaways for the audience then? If we’re talking about coping and how to get through these emotional charges, and these irrational thoughts we have in a moment of HALT, or whatever it might be…

One, it’s really important, like we’ve talked about, that you can get where you wanna go, but that it’s going to take practice, like all things, and we never get better at the things we don’t practice. I often talk about approximating the live event, because whenever you’re trying to learn these new ways, you’ll think about it after the fact, like “Oh, I would have/could have/should have done X, Y or Z when I got upset, when I got activated, mad etc.” But remember that when you’re emotional, that same part of the brain responsible for emotional processing is memory. So it can be really challenging to retrieve some of these things that we’ve talked about, because they’re new. So I would write them down, and put them somewhere in your visual field, so that when moments come, you know where to look and you don’t have to rely on your memory in order to retrieve the things.

So you can go let me pick from my list of five, and then experiment. Go try. Even after the fact, even if it feels silly… You won’t find out; you forfeit vicariously if you never are willing to try.

Changelog

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