Over the past few weeks, I’ve talked about different approaches to positivity. But as we all know, life can be harsh, often repeatedly so. When that happens, when you take hit after hit, what do you do? How do you keep a positive outlook, or even just keep going?
In the book Big Potential, Shawn Achor suggests the idea of building a mental stronghold. The idea is that this is a “stockpile of mental reserves you can always fall back on in challenging circumstances.” (p. 160)
Admittedly, this is something you would ideally do before things get critically bad. But some of these activities could still be useful even if you’re already in the thick of these difficult times. Then when things are better, you can focus on building this up more.
How do you create mental reserves?
Achor has some suggestions for setting up your mental stronghold, and I also have a few of my own. Some of these might be easier than others, especially depending on your circumstances and personality. So start with what works best for you based on where you’re at.
1. Gratitude: I’ve written about gratitude before, both about how to go deeper with it and ways to feel grateful for food, so I won’t say too much more here. But Achor suggests keeping a list of things you’re grateful for as a way to prime your brain for optimism. This goes along with last week’s post about creating a Positive Tetris Effect. If you’re looking for things to be grateful for, you’re more likely to find them, and less likely to focus on negative things.
2. Neutralize negative effects: If you’re around someone who sets a bad tone, it’s very easy to join in. You’ll likely feel the temptation to follow down that path, to focus on the bad things and complain about what’s going on. Or maybe you find yourself starting conversations that way. Achor suggests a couple of ways to handle this:
If you’re around someone else who starts off on a negative tone, you don’t have to continue. You can respond in a more positive way, but just make sure this is authentic. It’s not about putting a false happy face on things – it’s about finding genuine things to be happy about. It could be simple, like the sun is shining. Or here in the north during winter months, maybe you’ve noticed the increasing daylight. It could be something cute your kid or pet did. Or you can go bigger, but don’t feel pressured to.
If you’re the one starting the conversation, resist the urge to complain. Instead, start with something positive. Even if something bad has happened, see if you can find the silver lining in it, or something to be grateful for. Achor used the example of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and how the staff at Orlando Health responded. Not only were they trained, but as Achor notes, “they were mentallyand emotionally prepared, because they had developed a mental practice to help them remain calm, on task, and hopeful in the face of immeasurable stress and sadness.” (p. 159) Turns out that two years before, they had started working on positive habit interventions, including finding ways to be grateful. And after the shooting, they still found their way to gratitude. “Gratitude for having been there to help, gratitude for the outpouring of love from across the country, gratitude for shoulders to cry on…. [Gratitude] kept them together.” (p. 159)
3. Slow down and be mindful: I’ve written a lot about mindfulness, and that does involve slowing down, or at least not trying to cram multiple things into the same time period. It can be hard to resist the pull of doing that when you have a lot going on. But it makes a difference to just focus on one thing at a time and give yourself some breathing room. And Achor has this interesting analogy: “mindfulness is a credit card for resilience; the more you spend, the more rewards you get at the end of the month.” (p. 163)
Some of my own findings
I like Achor’s suggestions, but I’ve also found some other things that help me regroup and gather strength in difficult times.
1. Be prepared. It’s a Boy Scout motto, but it’s important for all of us. As noted about Orlando Health, the main reason they were able to respond as well as they could to the Pulse shootings was because they’d prepared themselves in every way. (You can see a video about Orlando Health here.)
This includes having a plan. You don’t have to go crazy with it, but mentally rehearse what you can do if something bad happens. It could even be as simple as a list of people you want to call to talk it over with. Or taking a few deep breaths. Or looking for those things to be grateful for. The more you go over this ahead of time, the more it will come naturally when you need it.
2. Take action. One of the best ways for me to handle negative situations is to find something to do. It’s not always easy, and if something personally is difficult for me (as opposed to the broader world), I may have limited options. But taking action doesn’t have to be something physical. It can be an internal decision to let go of anger, resentment, fear, and move towards something better.
3. Support from others. Many of us like to be strong and independent, including myself. But we do need each other, and if you have a support network, that will help in both good and bad times. For example, at my church we light candles of joy or sorrow, so that all might join in the celebration, or help carry the burden. Even if you don’t call on your group often, simply knowing someone has your back makes a big difference.
Mindful eating and mental strongholds
Some of this is very easy to relate to mindful eating – after all, mindfulness is part of it!
But more generally, if you’re trying to eat mindfully, it can often feel like you’re under siege. So much around you encourages you NOT to be mindful… to just eat what’s quickest and most convenient and cheapest and most sugary or fatty.
Especially when you’re starting out, it can feel like you need to retreat to a mental stronghold on a regular basis.
This is where it can be very helpful to have a plan. This could just be a plan to slow down and consider your options. Yes, that food may be the most convenient, but will it really make you feel good? Will it help you get through your day in an hour, or even half an hour, from now?
Gratitude can also help here. Maybe you can pause to be grateful for all the food choices you have, to live in such a place of abundance. But to also feel grateful that you’re in a position where you CAN choose your food, and you can make a decision that works for you and your body.
Having a support network is a plus, too. Knowing that others are going through something similar, and they’ll help you when you need it, is so important when making changes in our lives. On the other hand, if you constantly have someone undermining you, it’s going to erode that mental stronghold and make it much harder to keep going, so consider who and what is influencing you.
What I’ve noticed
I’ve been mostly focusing on a couple of these things the past week, and it’s been interesting to see how it goes.
One is trying not to start by complaining about something. That’s been harder than I expected. In the past, I’ve always taken the approach of bad news first, then good news, to end on a high note. Although sometimes, I get caught up in complaining and never make it to the good parts.
So it’s been a switch to try to think of good things to say first, instead of starting out on a negative front. I’m still getting used to it, and I don’t do it all the time, but it does make a difference in my mental state.
Then there’s the slowing down. It’s been good timing for this, since with my cat Osiris being on the mend, I’ve been having to slow down a little to keep an eye on him. And he’s good at relaxing, as you can see here.
Part of the slowing down is also taking the time to do things one at a time, instead of getting distracted by multiple things. It feels like it’s less efficient, although in reality it’s the opposite. For instance, I tried to multi-task on something at work, and I ended up just having to go back and do one of the things all over again because I didn’t do it well the first time. It’s a good reminder that being slow doesn’t necessarily mean being inefficient.
What about you? Do you have ways that you build up your mental stronghold to help in tough times? I’d love to hear about them.
In the meantime, I’m going to continue working on opening with the positive, and slowing down – I have a feeling the cats will continue to help with that.