Coping tools and techniques for we “mere mortals”
I’ve received many questions about my recent post, “Facing Your Demons and Conquering Your Fears,” where I wrote about retired Navy SEAL David Groggins and the techniques he uses to defeat his demons and fears, negative self-talk, as well as develop resilience and mental toughness. Many asked if I knew other tools for accomplishing this, especially if running ultra-triathlons, setting world records for pull-ups and all the other amazing things Groggins has done simply isn’t your thing. Put simply, my readers have asked, “Do you have any tools we ‘mere mortals’ can use?” I do, and I’m going to share them with you in this post. Please remember, though, what works for one person may not/probably won’t work for everyone. There are no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all solutions. You’ll need to find what works for you and tweak it to get it right. Hopefully, you’ll find a tool or a technique in this post that can help you deal with those shitty voices screaming in your head, build resilience and develop mental toughness. (I’ve even provided an image I created of what I think goes into developing mental toughness.)
Short and long-term strategies
Let’s face it, the world we live in seems to work hard to make sure we get input from all sides – positive and negative. This creates anxiety and negativity or, as I like to call it – “bad juju.” Today, each of us wears many hats on many different levels. It can feel as if you’re a computer with a million windows open. It’s a tsunami of information overload. Every time we read or hear something negative, it gets reinforced unless we develop good coping strategies to prevent this from happening. The basic strategy involves getting quality sleep, balancing exercise with recovery and eating a healthy diet. If you’re prone to anxiety and panic attacks (when your Amygdala hijacks you), you’ll want to smash your ANTS (Automatic Negative Thoughts) by trying some of these practices below.
Breathing and attention
ANTS are simply your brain doing its thing and replaying the old story again. You can choose not to believe it. Box breathing is a great way to start when the “ANTS” come crawling. Inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds and hold for four seconds. It’s a trick I learned in the navy. Or you can try resonant frequency breathing, which is a ten-second breath cycle that works out to taking six breaths a minute. With this technique, inhale for four seconds and exhale for six seconds. There are several other breathing practices around. Find one that you like and use it. Your attention is another crucial tool. Think of your attention as being like a light. When you focus it on a single thing, internally or externally, it’s intense like a flashlight. But when anxiety and/or negative thoughts arise, you must shift your attention, i.e., broaden your light and shine it elsewhere, making it more like a big spotlight.
Create your own characters
Many people like to create their own characters, e.g., a good “you” and a bad “you.” Exercise Physiologist, Nutritionist and Neuroscientist Paul Taylor calls his not-so-good version of himself a gremlin and his optimal version of himself his inner sage. It’s simply looking at two extremes of yourself – a positive and a negative. He recommends giving your characters names and even drawing them. Write down your positive character’s strong/positive points, i.e., the ones you want to develop in yourself. And when you’re facing a struggle, ask yourself what your positive character would do. This takes you out of the equation and enables you to see the problem from another perspective. It allows you to shift attention and shine your light on your positive character and tell yourself your power story. Exercise and even a good cry are other ways to get rid of anxiety. Try being an observer of your thoughts.
Be an observer of your thoughts and be curious about them. “Hmm, where did that thought come from? Or why did I automatically think that thought?” In between stimulus and response is a space where you can choose how you react. You should visit this space repeatedly. Choose not to think negative thoughts. Think positive thoughts, such as “I’ve got this,” instead. Every time you repeat a negative thought or pay attention to one, you’re strengthening it. Neurons that fire together, wire together, as the saying goes. As a diplomat, I received quite a bit of media training to deal with critical/negative questions from friendly and not-so-friendly journalists. The first thing we learned was not to repeat the critical/negative question, a technique commonly used to buy time while you’re thinking of an answer. Our instructor told us that every time you repeat that question, you’re strengthening it in the minds of everyone listening.
Break down your goals into mini-goals. You need to do this because your brain will prioritize immediate reward over long-term reward. Big goals on view every day aren’t for everyone. Groggin’s Accountability Mirror will work best if you break down your BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious, Goals) into smaller, even daily goals. Let’s say you want to lose 40 Kg. Do you want to be reminded of those 40 Kg in the mirror every day? I don’t think so. Instead, write these big-ass goals down, hide them away and focus on the smaller goals. During “Hell Week,” I couldn’t focus on the whole week ahead of me. It would have been too much. I focused hour by hour and, at times, just exercise by exercise. No one is 100% motivated all the time. You learn to just force yourself to do things. So don’t feel guilty or shameful when you fail or slip up. It’s natural- we’re wired that way. And when it comes to dwelling on negative thoughts, remember that it’s not 100% your fault that you made the bad decisions you made in the past; you did the best you could with the life experience and tools you had then. However, you’re 100% responsible for doing something about it from now on by not replaying that same old negative story. It’s your choice.
Visualization and comfort zones
Visualization works! If you don’t believe me, watch elite athletes preparing for a competition. You can visualize by asking yourself questions like, “Who am I going to be today? What version of me am I going to present to my loved ones and the world?” If you’ve had a shitty day at the office, what version of yourself do you want your partner and children to see? Visualize it and make it happen. Comfort zones are nice, warm and fuzzy, but they aren’t going to help you grow. “No good shit ever happens in your comfort zone,” according to Paul Taylor. When we seek comfort, we get soft. Get comfortable being uncomfortable – not comfortable being comfortable. We have a saying in the navy: “Everybody wants to be a frogman on a sunny day!” But are you willing to put in the effort when it’s freezing-ass cold, dark, rainy and every fiber in your body is screaming for you to stop the pain? If so, you’re on your way to developing resilience and mental toughness.
Balance hard work with recovery
Think of your most outstanding achievement or the thing you’re most proud of. I’ll bet it involved stress, hard work, fears, pain, the fear of failure and being outside your comfort zone. Make sure you balance hard work with recovery. No one (well, 99.99% of us) can be a full-on hard-ass all the time! You must have a full-off period, too. You must have physical and mental recovery. And active recovery is not about drinking wine and binging on Netflix, etc.- that’s relaxation, and there’s a place for that too. Developing resilience and mental toughness requires hard work, and not everyone is willing to pay the price. What you accomplish when you’re motivated isn’t important. Everybody’s a champ when they’re motivated. It’s what you accomplish when you’re not motivated that matters! It’s that ability to fall down, get up and get after it that counts. Do today what others won’t, so you can do tomorrow what others can’t. And don’t forget your recovery.