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Live Well: Happiness in times of trouble

Times like these are tough for everyone. Getting through them without slipping into negativity takes discipline and effort. ~ Paul McIsaac
Happiness, they say, is as elusive as a butterfly. The harder you try to capture it, the more it escapes.

This is abundantly clear at a time when issues like COVID-19, climate crises and social unrest seem to be teaming up to drive us down into depression and keep us there. Is there anything we can do about it? As it turns out, there is, if we are only prepared to change some of our thinking and behaviours and to do it now.

As a counsellor, I work with many clients who are experiencing the effects of these issues - some great, some small, but all negative. Although I might never say it to them directly, they would benefit from simply not feeling sorry for themselves.

We may not like what these issues mean to our lives, but that does not mean we have to focus on the downside. This problem often stems from our inability to distinguish between rumination and self-reflection.

Rumination refers to the process of constantly going over the same thoughts without trying to introduce new knowledge that might change your perspective. If you want to change your attitude and move on, you need to start accessing new information and formulating new ideas. This is where self-reflection comes in.

Rather than fixating on the same thoughts, you examine your actual thinking process and see how it gets trapped in endless, negative loops. You learn how your emotions overcome the rational part of your mind and keep you stuck there like a truck spinning its wheels. However, self-reflection by itself is not the answer, you need concrete action to escape the rumination trap.

In my practice, I often suggest clients journal their negative thoughts in a notebook. Thinking about them is not enough. The act of writing them down not only ensures they are all considered but actually taps into the subconscious, which allows the client to explore and experience deeper feelings about the negative thoughts.

Once the list is complete, it is time to return to each item and generate neutral, even positive alternatives. Then, the client uses this list of alternatives to actually displace the negative thoughts from rumination. Of course, this takes practice but, over time, it does work for many people.

One trick is to wear an elastic band on your wrist and to snap it whenever you find yourself ruminating. Immediately replace the negative thought with a neutral or, hopefully, positive one. This takes time and effort, but it does work for many people.

People suffering depression often say it is worse in the morning and improves later in the day. Lying in bed once you are awake is fertile ground for rumination. Although your body may feel warm and comfortable, your mind is vacant and ready to be filled by negative thoughts. The longer you lie in bed, the more thoughts you have and the more negative they become.

Prepare a plan

To counter this, I suggest clients prepare a daily action plan the night before. It will be much easier to get up and out of bed if you have something planned.

Often, I suggest exercise first thing in the morning. With clothes laid out and activities scheduled, clients usually find themselves well into their day before they even have time to start ruminating.

Times like these are tough for everyone. Getting through them without slipping into negativity takes discipline and effort. One complaint I hear frequently from clients is that they lack motivation; they just do not seem to have the energy to do the things they know they should do to get rid of negative thoughts.

I suggest they create more structure for their lives. This includes an actual schedule for getting things done.

Try sectioning each day into three periods: morning, afternoon and evening. Then, make two lists, one with the things you have to do and the other with the things you want to do. Then fill the 21 periods of your week with a balance of items from these two lists. Do the things you have to do but remember to include enough things you want to do, as well.

Even though we may not know when these times will change, techniques like these can and do help people move on from being stuck in their negative thoughts and, yes, be happier.

Paul McIsaac is a registered clinical counsellor practicing in Powell River, and via telephone and internet across Canada.