It’s the beginning of the week, and that means we’re jumping into another resource/skills-based post! If you’re new, I’m currently doing an introductory series to the Dialectical Behavior Therapy skill of Emotion Regulation. If you haven’t yet, please feel free to read part one and part two before continuing here.
If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m a fan of metaphor. You remember the Rat’s Nest? Let’s stick with that imagery. That huge mess pictured above is really absolutely no help to me whatsoever. Even if I know what chord I need, and I know for a fact that it’s in there. Yes, knowing the specific chord I’m digging around for is a starting point, but I’m still in for an incredibly frustrating time if I have to dig through that tangled mess every time I need a chord, right? The question is, how do I separate out what I need and prevent it from getting tangled again? (No, this blog is not going to suddenly become full of house organizing tips, I’m the last person you want telling you about that stuff!)
As you may imagine, separating and organizing all those chords is not a one step process. It takes time and a whole lotta work! Would you look at that box and expect me to “just organize it” in the space of a few minutes? Of course not! (Well… I hope not, anyway. You’d be out of luck, there. It’s physically impossible.) So why do we all seem to demand such a miraculous feat of ourselves when it comes to mental health recovery? Honestly, we go to a hospital for a few days, or we go to therapy once a week for a few months and we get frustrated that we’re not “finished” with all the untangling and differentiation yet, we berate ourselves for not being “better”. That is incredibly unfair. All we can do is take it one step at a time. So, what’s the next step? Now that we recognize that our emotional rat’s nest is a complete mess, what do we need to do? You may think “start untangling”, but that’s not it. (We’ll get there next week, I promise.)
First step is simply to make sure that we’re not tossing in more chords and speakers and yarn! To accomplish this, I took everything out of the Rat’s Nest. It was quite overwhelming:
But, by taking it out and having it out in the open, I ensured two things: first, that I would not toss any more assorted electronic accessories into the snarls of rubber and wire already present; second, that the mess was undeniable now: in my hands, on my floor… there was simply no ignoring it or shoving it out of sight and out of mind anymore. I had to look at it, I had to feel it woven between my fingers. Yup, this is going to be a big job.
Now, in Emotion Regulation terms, getting the mess out of the box and knowing that, in the future, only properly wrapped, zip-tied, easily identifiable chords will be placed back into that box represents increasing positive emotions. I feel good about that knowledge. Taking everything out of the box and knowing that never again will I toss a spool of yarn into a box or chords just to make my life more difficult represents decreasing vulnerability to negative emotions. If the junk that I don’t need is out on the floor for me to see, in the light of my stylish yet affordable floor lamp, it’s not going to blindside me next time I need to dig something out of there. And those two skills are the next step of Emotion Regulation!
Let’s start with Decreasing Vulnerability to Negative Emotions. After all, that’s probably the one that seems most difficult, right? (It definitely felt that way to me.) If you’ve ever been to any form of group therapy or a twelve-step program, you may be familiar with the term HALT – in other words, stop and think if you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. For me, this has been a very helpful little prompt. I know that if I am any of those things, I am very likely in “Emotion Mind”, which places me at risk for using some maladaptive coping techniques. The idea with Emotion Regulation is to get out of Emotion Mind and into Wise Mind, which simultaneously honors and acknowledges what you’re feeling and uses Reason Mind to react in a balanced way. OK, I’m a little worried I’m venturing into text book territory here. This is not a class room, and I am not a teacher. I just had to give a little exposition to make sure we were all on the same wave length. There are quite a few DBT skills I could go into here for decreasing vulnerability to negative emotions, but the most popular skill is called “PLEASE MASTER.” It’s a decidedly lackluster acronym, in my opinion; and it’s one of those “way easier said than done” things. But it did help me shift my thinking, which is why I am sharing it with you. Initially designed and presented by Marsha Linehan, the creator of DBT, in her book Skills Training Manual for Treating Borederline Personality Disorder, here it is:
Treat PhysicaL Illness – Take care of your body. See a doctor when necessary. Take prescribed medication.
Balance Eating – Don’t eat too much or too little. Stay away from foods that make you feel overly emotional.
Avoid mood – Altering drugs – Stay off non-prescribed drugs, including alcohol.
Balance Sleep – Try to get the amount of sleep that helps you feel good. Keep to a sleep program if you are having difficulty sleeping.
Get Exercise – Do some sort of exercise every day; try to build up to 20 minutes of vigorous exercise.
Build MASTERy – Try to do one thing a day to make you feel competent and in control.
(Like I said, the acronym is not exactly what one would call “inspired”.)
But that’s neither here not there. If you’re anything like me, you look at that list and say, “Well yeah, if I could do that shit, I’d be way better off! But that’s where I struggle! I can’t just make myself do these things when I feel like crap!” I know. I get it. It sounds impossible. But, again, this is all about baby steps. If you’re not a fan of this technique, that’s totally cool. I’m just sharing it because it has truly been helpful to me in my own recovery. So, how did I start tackling this list? The same way I started tackling the Rat’s Nest. I pulled it out and put it in the open.
Yup, really. Right on my bathroom wall. I see it every time I brush my teeth or wash my hands.
It’s my multiple-times-daily reminder to do healthy things that will benefit me in my recovery, or, if I’m not doing them (believe me, there are more days I “miss” applying some or all of this list than there are days I “hit” it, but I’m working on it!), at least I can check my mood against this list and see what may be contributing if I’m having a hard time. A group facilitator at the hospital told us all to “check our lens” every time we went to the bathroom. She chose the bathroom because, like it or not, it’s something we all have to do multiple times a day. “Checking your lens” is essentially what I’m describing. Checking my feelings against how I’m doing on wellness goals, reminding myself, even if my lens is “narrow” (i.e. tunnel vision, focused on the negative self talk and the lies my depression and anxiety like to throw at me), that it will pass. That there are environmental and physical factors at play that will not always be present. That I can ride it out. I chose to post this list in the bathroom as a sort of homage to that group facilitator. You can do whatever you’d like with it.
ALRIGHT, so that’s one way to REDUCE vulnerability to negative emotions. What about INCREASING positive emotions? That sounds more fun, right? It certainly did to me.
Here’s a funny thing about our brains. When something amazing happens, we remember it. When something terrible happens, we remember it. When something mildly annoying happens, we remember it. But when something mildly good happens? We tend to forget it. Here’s a little story to illustrate:
I wake up for work. My alarm goes off as scheduled. My coffee maker kicks on automatically and I have a cup on my way out the door. My car unlocks and starts without issue. As I’m driving to work, I hit a traffic jam. I realize I’m going to be late. My phone properly connects to BlueTooth, I call my coworkers to give them a heads up. They assure me it’s nothing to worry about, and they’ll see me when I get there. I get to work twenty minutes late because the traffic jam was truly terrible. I accomplish all of my work tasks. I drive home without incident. A family member asks me how my day was. I say, “It was terrible! I was 20 minutes late to work this morning!”
I carried the stress of being late to work with me all day, because I am not usually late to work. All of the things that went “right” in my day are so routine, I don’t even consider them positives. Can you relate to that?
Now, again, this isn’t a post on inspirational, magical thinking to use the power of positivity to poof your depression/anxiety out of existence. Just a reminder that our default setting is not to be mindful of positive events. But, we can nudge our minds a little in the direction of focusing on positive events when they happen. And that act, in and of itself, can increase our general happiness over time. If you live with anxiety and depression, though, you know that even when things are going well, it’s really easy to slip into worrying about when the positivity will end and things will go to hell again. (Hey PTSD friends, I’m looking at you, too!) When this happens, the principles of mindfulness also apply. Refocus on the moment. Try not to get caught up in the past or present. The flip side of that is to be UNMINDFUL or your worries. Distract yourself from thinking about when the positive experience will end; distract yourself from thinking about whether or not you deserve the positive experience.
YEAH, sure. OK. Noooooooo problem. All those deeply ingrained negative thoughts, I’m just gonna shove them away with positive mindfulness. Yup. I’ll buy that. Okey-Dokey. Absolutely. That makes perfect sense.
Seriously, though. That’s not what I’m saying. Remember everything in DBT, and in recovery in general, is a skill which needs to be used and used, frequently and often, before there will be any major change. It’s basically re-wiring our brains to diminish the maladaptive thoughts and negative coping skills that get us into trouble and then, over time, to increase our ability to form adaptive thoughts and positive coping skills. This takes work. This does not happen over night, or even in a few months. BUT, you can take the first few steps toward getting there any time.
The best way to start anything in life is to begin where you are. In the short term, what can you do to increase pleasure in your life? The goal here is to pick a few things that you truly enjoy and make time for them each day – even if it’s only ten minutes. I enjoy playing my guitar. I do it for a minimum of ten minutes a day. During those ten minutes, I am enjoying myself. I am experiencing positive emotions. What’s something you’re good at? What’s something you enjoy?
Ahh… but you’re depressed and you don’t enjoy anything at the moment. What then? Loss of joy is sort of a hallmark of depression, right? It can be overwhelming to even consider something that you might enjoy doing depending on how deep in the abyss you find yourself. This is a valid point. This is also the part of the post where I share yet another resource I’ve found helpful. Beautiful humansperson, I present to you the The Adult Pleasant Events Schedule. I know, it sounds corny (or maybe even slightly taboo), but it’s really just a list of prompts of things that adults find enjoyable – everything from needlework to sightseeing, watching sports to, yes, sex. I promise you you will find something on this list that is at least moderately fun. I found it very refreshing because it is a pretty comprehensive list. Most of my experience in therapy hasn’t really touched on the fact that adult people enjoy adult things. This list does not shy away from that fact; it embraces it outright. And I’d like to give you the same challenge that my DBT group facilitator gave me – pick seven things* from this list and commit to doing one a day for the next week. Like I said above, even if it’s just ten minutes a day. I did this exercise, and the impact on my over all emotional state was impressive.
*Some activities on this list (like gambling, spending money, drinking, and sexually-based activities) may be a specific “problem area” for you. DO NOT CHOSE AN ACTIVITY THAT WILL DECREASE YOUR OVER-ALL WELLNESS. That would defeat the point of the activity. I’d also like to reiterate that I am not a therapist, doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist. I am sharing techniques from my own, personal recovery process that I’ve found to be helpful, and that I hope you will find helpful as well. Beyond the disclaimers, go forth, dear reader! Have a fun week!
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, complaints, or tangential observations on this series or the blog in general! Please lemme know in the comment section below, and feel free to hit me up on Twitter and Facebook as well! If you decide to take on the seven day challenge, I’d be really interested to hear what activities you chose and how the experience was for you! please feel free to share that, too!
ALSO, I’m wicked excited to be able to share with you all that I am OFFICIALLY a contributor to The Mighty Site! Please feel free to check out my first Mighty article 5 Things I Learned Living with PTSD and Bipolar Disorder.