What a bizarre mixture of out-of-control events we’ve gone through this past year! Our losses of people, places, habits, friendships, and family patterns have driven us to online life to a degree we all know is unhealthy.
More significantly, they’ve undermined a sense of safety and sameness our brains and bodies crave in order to keep hopeful and move forward despite it all. Each change – even positive ones – that demand us to live differently creates stress.
Any loss – including a sense of dread of what could be coming – creates a sense of missing, failure, even panic. It affects our lives, health, and business.
The purpose of this article is to focus on what helps us get past “treading water and waiting for the boat to arrive.” We’re not helpless; we can start swimming if we only know in which direction to head.
This means that we must refocus instead on what we can do and seek the support and techniques to “get us to shore.”
Afraid to Act
Following are key examples of what happens in our brains to make us feel overwhelmed and afraid to act.
Brain freeze/fear to act
The brain is better at predicting, as in guessing, than as an accurate “accountant” of what’s really happening. It’s why we lose our phone 20 times a day: our brains are so busy moving to the next task, anticipating what we need to do, that it can’t keep track of where we actually are in space and time. The subconscious response is to feel “stuck,” unable to recognize what’s actually before us, afraid to act lest we make things worse.
“Awfulizing,” dreaming of worst-case scenarios, is the first line of defense when facing an uncertain outcome. When we actively think of negative possibilities, the brain receives a hit of dopamine, and it reinforces the desire to worry more. Yes, we’re addicted to worry.
How does this relate to a sense of powerlessness and loss during these difficult times? We’re a living mass of stress chemicals as we bounce around amid bad news, horrific politics, and personal worries and losses. We must avoid manufacturing more stress than is already ladled out to us. Worry and negative anticipation are automatic; the antidote is to plan and act.
We’ve come, as a collective culture, to believe that we all have a touch of attention deficit disorder (ADD). In fact, it’s how our brains work best to keep us alive: we’re geared to avoid danger so sudden change of any kind—visual, physical, auditory, even a thought—will be given top billing in the hierarchy of our attention. Staying on track means ignoring distractions, which isn’t an automatic process for our brains.
To work our way from beginning to end on any plan or project (even cleaning the kitchen) is a challenge. When we pay attention to one thing, we must ignore everything else.
Every single action we take – calling a friend, cleaning a surface, or scrolling through our phones – is a transaction. We’re taking what precious little attention we have and diverting it toward a lower priority.
Ask your “higher self,” God, or to-do list, “What’s the best use of my time and attention right now?” And then do it! Turn off ringers on your devices when trying to focus on a task and complete it.
Defying our own best intentions is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. It’s the automatic response to change and loss. If you’ve ever had a great idea or impulse to “do the right thing” (e.g., write a blog, do 10 squats, create a place to put your keys or phone, clean out a junk drawer), but then found yourself avoiding or forgetting to do it, you’ve met resistance.
Resistance is your worst enemy and constant companion. Challenging it is akin to negotiating with a terrorist, but it can be done.
So that’s the bad news. Coping, dealing, or moving through loss and resistance isn’t easy, but it’s simple. There are plans and actions that you can take in just minutes per day that will turn your fears into possibilities, and your dreams into action.
Who am I to be addressing this? One who has the wisdom to teach what I most needed to learn.
The 18 months beginning July 2019 and through the January 2021 presidential inauguration have been the most difficult of my 72 years. Health, projects, relationship, and, oh, yeah, COVID-19, became constant sources of uncertainty.
I tried on a few attitudes: despair, denial, self-pity, more denial, and worry that I was too sick to act. By the way, these are key elements used by resistance. Though I tried each of them on, they didn’t fit. In order to “deal,” I sought new teachers and reviewed some of my favorite techniques.
I want to share with you the techniques and experiments that got me back on the track from which I’d derailed. Specifically, I had to keep stepping out of the stress response. And that meant redirecting my attention to what mattered most: financial success, health, giving and receiving love, and living “on purpose.”
Actions to Get Back on Track
The following actions are “neuroscience gold.”
- Do a stress-level check-in: ask yourself, “From 0 to 12, how tense or stressed am I right now?” – can you lower it? Breathe…
- Turn off your devices, leave them charging in a safe place and turn off the ringer whenever you can.
- Do daily five-minute journaling: list at least three items in each category:
- (+) gratitude
- (-) unwanted experiences/problems
- (!) to do today
- Walk or stretch daily – even 10 minutes – no matter what. Do squats while waiting for the microwave.
- Sneak in brief meditation – if you can’t manage 15 minutes, at least five breaths can bring peace of mind.
- Walk while talking on the phone to friends, family, even clients (in my case, they appreciated that I was taking care of myself, and many joined me at the other end).
- Rest (in my case, it was my biggest challenge because I’m an avowed “busyholic,” my fight reaction to stress response). I learned the importance of sitting down between tasks in another room.
- Say “No, thank you” and quickly move away from tasks that aren’t yours. Remember that refusal skills aren’t just for kids accosted by strangers; they’re also for us to safeguard our time to focus and achieve.
Each of the tools and teachers I’ve listed below lifted me higher. (Note: Amazon links allow you to “look inside” books, but feel free to borrow them from your local library or order them from your local bookstore if you prefer.)
- Five Breaths to Bring Peace of Mind – therapist Cynthia Wall helps you refocus and achieve peace of mind with three brief yet effective breath exercises.
- How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life – planning consultant Alan Lakein describes how to determine priorities; what would you do if you only had 20 years? Or 10, 5, 1… 6 months left to see, learn, fix, and taste?
- Getting Things Done – productivity coach David Allen outlines his process to lift us out of “overload” and regain the ability to work according to priorities.
- InsightTimer – free app for sleep, anxiety, and stress that encourages us to experience moments and even hours of quiet and relaxation.
- Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamin, Oxytocin, and Endorphin Levels – professor Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD, explains how to retrain your brain to produce the chemicals you need to feel happy.
- Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain – essayist Lisa Feldman Barrett illuminates mysteries about how the human brain works.
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less – author Greg McKeown helps you apply a disciplined mindset to get the right things done.
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business – journalist Charles Duhigg discusses how to change your life by changing your habits. Actually, any book on improving your habits would help, and there are many books of this type, each with its own charm and encouraging ideas.
- The War of Art: Break through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles – writer Stephen Pressfield explains about resistance and how to succeed in any creative sphere.
- The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload – neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains how to process the deluge of information with which you have to deal every day.
You’re welcome to reach out to me if you’d like to consult on a specific issue. I love working with people in business who want to overcome limited thinking or old patterns and ways of behaving. You CAN do this!