“It was a total disaster!”
How many times have we uttered those words in reply to a question such as “How did the interview go?”, “How was your holiday?”, “Did you see the match?” and so on. “Oh, it was a total disaster!” we exclaim before itemising what went wrong; maybe we were late, or ill-prepared. Maybe our flights were delayed, or we got sick. Maybe our favourite team lost.
Dinner was a disaster!
This is one we hear more at this time of year as we put unrealistic expectations on ourselves to produce TV chef-quality meals for larger than usual numbers of people. This feeling of disaster is amplified if we also expect that alongside the culinary masterpiece, we will provide a setting that a professional interior designer would be proud of.
Imagine the scene, after days of planning and preparation your guests finally arrive only for you to be exhausted and almost wishing it were over already. Your nerves are frazzled and somehow, despite your meticulous 3am planning, you forget to set the timer for the oven. You are alerted by one of your guests asking if something is burning. Dinner is ruined!
How would you feel? What would you do?
Some people can recover fairly quickly, maybe even see the funny side as alternative food is arranged and the burned dinner becomes a talking point rather than a tragedy.
Other people, however, find it much harder to recover from these experiences. They feel a sense of failure, or even worse that the whole world is against them. Thoughts such as, “Why does this always happen to me?”, or “Everything is against me”, or “I’m hopeless,” start to take over and produce a mood that is difficult to shift.
Most of us will have experienced both mindsets depending on our mood, health and well-being at the time. Some days the smallest things can bog us down whereas other days we bounce back with ease.
Why is this?
Well, psychologists tell us that it is to do with our psychological flexibility, another term for emotional resilience. People with greater flexibility can bounce back, or recover, from setbacks more quickly that those with less flexibility.
So how do we get, or improve, this flexibility?
When we feel ok about ourselves and the world we have more chance of being flexible or resilient, so that when setbacks occur we can deal with them effectively and remember that they are not personal to us. Setbacks are a normal part of human experience and being able to reframe these experiences, having realistic expectations, and managing what is within our control and letting go of what isn’t are some of the key skills which both use and develop our resilience.
For example, we all know that weather is just weather. Weather happens outside of our individual control (putting aside the long-term effects of our behaviour on climate). Daily weather happens to us and is the same for all of us within a geographical area.
But how we feel about the weather depends on our mood or expectations on the day. If we wake up and it is pouring with rain and we really need a lazy day at home we might feel cosy inside and quite pleased to have an excuse not to venture out. Farmers and gardeners may be positively gleeful if it follows a dry spell.
If we had been planning an outdoor event however, we might slip into that ‘why me?’ thinking as though the universe has contrived to ruin our day. But the rain is just rain, it is something that happens. How we recover from the disappointment will depend on how resilient or flexible we are at the time. And this will depend on how personally we take the situation.
The good news is that we can consciously develop this resilience through practicing some simple techniques to help us change our habitual thinking patterns. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Acceptance Commitment Therapy and Mindfulness Based Approaches all support the development of reframing skills and psychological flexibility. We can learn to decenter from our thoughts (viewing them more impassively and from a distance) so that we can put them into context within a bigger picture, rather than getting stuck in a thought which becomes a mood.
A study published in The Journal of Contextual Behavioural Science in 2021 looked at perspective-taking practices, such as the ones mentioned, and the effects of this on mood. The researchers concluded that these practices reduced psychological discomfort and increased compassion, the importance of which is discussed below (see An experimental investigation of the effects of perspective-taking on emotional discomfort, cognitive fusion and self-compassion - ScienceDirect).
Remember the Thoughts as Clouds practice? This is a classic method for decentering and seeing the whole picture rather than just getting stuck in one part of it.
Of course, if we can reduce our expectations to something nearer reality, and be emotionally prepared for events to take unexpected turns, we are less likely to be stressed and exhausted and things are not only more likely to go well but we have a chance of enjoying them too!
What about actual disasters?
Disasters and tragic accidents do, sadly, happen but luckily, they are generally uncommon, hence the fact that they are newsworthy when they do. Unfortunately, our poor old human brain struggles to put these events into context and make sense of them without some conscious effort. The neocortex part of the head brain, which is a few hundred thousand years old but new compared with the reptilian or mammalian brain parts, sees these disasters on the news and then the older brain areas react as if there is an imminent threat, they don’t know it is probably happening thousands of miles away and unlikely to affect us personally.
It is very easy to allow ourselves to start to view the world as a dangerous place full of harmful people when in fact data show that the world has generally become safer for humans and people are less warlike than ever before. We become outraged when disasters happen, and this motivates us to do whatever we can to ameliorate the effects and ensure that we reduce the risks of it happening again as much as possible.
If we are able to decenter we can take a step back and put the event into context. We can take a mindful breath and ask what we can do in response, acknowledging that there are some things we cannot influence, and we must learn to be with these as best we can. The RAIN meditation is particularly helpful here, Recognise our thoughts and feelings, Allow these to be present as they are simply normal human reactions, Investigate how we feel about them right now, and then Nurture ourselves and others by doing whatever needs to be done, which could be as simple as letting someone know they are heard and acknowledging ourselves with compassion.
Compassion releases Oxytocin which not only makes us feel better by reducing fear and negative thinking, but also encourages us to work with others for the common good; it is the co-operation hormone and neurotransmitter which allows us to soothe and be soothed. Practicing a Loving Kindness Meditation (or Metta practice) has been clinically demonstrated to release Oxytocin, lift the mood and facilitate group cohesion. This is important since who can we help by sitting around being morose?
Interestingly, recent research has shown that reading about news stories causes more long-term anxiety than is experienced by those involved in the disaster themselves. It seems that when we observe these events without being able to do anything for those involved, we are likely to ruminate and hold onto the stress reaction for longer than those who felt afterwards that they did something directly helpful at the time. If we get caught in ‘doom scrolling’ we simply keep increasing our anxiety levels.
So, if you find yourself getting bogged down in unhelpful thoughts about yourself or the world over this festive period, remember that thoughts are not facts and when we choose to change our thinking we really can change the world.
I wish you and your loved ones a truly joyful Christmas and New Year in the traditional sense of the word which means ‘choosing to respond to external circumstances with inner contentment and satisfaction’. And in case this is really difficult I have included a link below to some top tips from Mindful Magazine!