How to Weather the Storm in Your Head
To vanquish negative thoughts, think of yourself on a hero’s journey
I wake up every day now as an underemployed small business owner with virtually no revenue coming in and no clear end in sight. It feels like treading water. How long can I last?
The hope that we would be fully back to “normal” by the summer is now gone. The uncertainty can be unnerving, which is why we need to be good at managing the game inside our heads — our thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Health and psychology writer Ashley Abramson writes,
When you can’t resolve a threat through fight-or-flight or establish a social connection to help calm you, your body sometimes decides it’s better to physically and mentally ‘check out.’ When you’re dissociated, you’ll feel powerless and hopeless, or even depressed — that’s one reason it’s so easy to glue yourself to the couch and go numb after you hear news about the virus.
How cows and buffalo deal with storms
In Colorado, buffalo and cows live relatively close together because of the unique topography. The Rocky Mountains are in the western and middle parts of the state, and vast plains lie to the east.
When a storm rolls in from the west, cows that are grazing run east, with the storm. Cows can run, but not that fast. So, they don’t outrun the bad weather at all. They get stuck in it and maximize the pain, suffering, and agitation of the very thing they are trying to avoid.
Buffalo, however, charge directly into the storm and move through it more quickly, thereby minimizing the amount of time they spend suffering.
So, how do we behave more like a buffalo, moving into and through the storm?
1. See adversity as a challenge
Imagine you’re on a crowded bus or subway. You feel someone standing on your foot. What do you do? You could suffer silently and complain to yourself, or accept the problem is yours and figure out the best way to deal with it.
It’s the same thing with this pandemic. We want our cities and towns opened back up. We want our lives to be the way they were before. We may be angry, frustrated, depressed, worried, financially at risk, or we may just be annoyed and bored.
If we believe there is nothing we can do to improve our situation, then we’ll find ourselves behind an immovable obstacle. We end up being powerless. However, if we see our situation as a challenge, then the game changes. We start to think about what we can do.
Author and psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl, who faced death every day in the Nazi concentration camps during WWII, coined the phrase “tragic optimism,” or “the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.”
I don’t like what is happening right now at all, and I didn’t create it, but its impact on me is my problem. I only have so many breaths left, and I’m not going to waste them complaining and being miserable about what I cannot change.
I’m committed to doing the best that I can in this new world, and I will face the storm like a badass buffalo.
2. Accept you are on a learning journey
There is a very predictable pattern that we go through during a time of change. Understanding this archetypal pattern can help bring meaning to chaos.
The Hero’s Journey, or monomyth, which Joseph Campbell describes in his book, Hero with a Thousand Faces, is a universal pattern of crisis, learning, and transformation. Stories throughout the ages as well as in Hollywood movies like Lord of The Rings, Star Wars, and The Matrix follow this formula.
At the beginning of this year, we were in apparent stability. Then the virus hit, and we entered into chaos, began our journey, and from time to time, we meet a formidable enemy: inner resistance to the new normal.
Think of something you can do easily, but had to learn. Perhaps it was golf, knitting, painting, or playing a musical instrument. It was difficult at first and then became easier.
Right now, we are all learning how to play a new game in our lives. It’s not comfortable.
You are on the Hero’s Journey, whether you know it or not. Understanding it helps you realize that:
- Your experience is universal, and you aren’t alone.
- You are making progress, even if it seems like you aren’t. The destination is learning and growth.
Be patient with yourself and keep making smart choices.
We create our inner world by giving credence to some thoughts and not others. Choose good ones.
3. Reframe negative thoughts
Our thoughts influence our behavior. By paying attention to our inner world — our thoughts, feelings, and emotions — we can choose where we put our focus. For example, I can say that I’m in “lockdown,” another word for jail, or incarceration. The negative implications of that are loss of control, helplessness, removal of dignity, poverty, and more.
Or, I can reframe that statement and the underlying belief: I’m spending more time with my family, or I have a chance to do more research and writing, or I have time now to prepare myself for my next job, or I’m doing my part to keep myself and others safe. Yes, I’m bored, angry, or frustrated, and I’m going to find a way through it.
Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.
Markham Heid writes about the importance of cognitive reframing in his article “How to Take Control When You’re Emotionally Overwhelmed.” He says, “Cognitive reframing is a major component of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) — now widely considered the gold standard in psychotherapy — and it involves challenging and changing the underlying thoughts that give rise to unhelpful emotions.”
We can let go of false stories, assumptions, limiting beliefs, and self-doubt. We create our inner world by giving credence to some thoughts and not others. Choose good ones.
I start every day with at least 20 minutes of quiet meditation. I close my eyes and tune in to my breath, observing it flow in and out. The peace and satisfaction that I so often seek outside of me are within. When so little is in my control around me, having an inner source of tranquility is truly a gift.
There are many excellent and free tools available that can help us meditate. I recommend this 10-minute guided breath meditation video, but there are many online videos, classes, and apps available.
For me, the foundation to manage the inside game is meditation. It’s a proven way to increase focus, gratitude, and resilience. That’s why I’ve been doing it for 48 years.
5. Know what game you’re playing
Here are some of the games I can play: I’m sick and tired of all this bullshit, and I want it over now. I’m in a bad mood, and I’m going to ignore everyone today, or I’m connecting with friends and spreading positive energy. I’m going to find peace in whatever I do today.
Ask yourself right now: What game am I playing, what are the rules, and who wins and loses? You can also use these questions as a check-in with your family, friends, and coworkers. They are a great nonthreatening way to open up a rich conversation.
So, what game are you playing?
You’re in the power-full game if you’re thinking:
- What challenge am I facing?
- What have I learned about myself in the past that can help me now?
- What can I do to respond effectively and achieve what I want?
- How can I deal with this and be proud of my behavior?
You’re in the power-less game if you’re thinking:
- What is being done to me?
- They should not have done this.
- They are wrong and should know better.
- There is nothing I can do now.
It takes courage to face a storm, be power-full, and manage the inside game. You can do this.