Tag Archives: Coping with COVID

The Three-Step Emotional Change Technique

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Newsflash: I’m asking for a favor. UMOnline (of the University of Montana) is partnering with Rita and me to produce the free Happy Habits for Hard Times video series. Yesterday’s episode was “The Three-Step Emotional Change Technique” (described below). In appreciation for their technical and motivational support, I want to push some traffic to UMOnline. Here’s their link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ji_q-T_SwZE and here’s a link to the series:  https://coehs.umt.edu/happy_habits_series_2020/default.php. Please click, like, subscribe, and share. Our main goal is to help people cope effectively during these immensely difficult times.

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When I first started doing counseling and psychotherapy, I planned to do health psychology or behavioral medicine with people suffering from medical problems. I envisioned working with patients with high blood pressure, asthma, pain, and other physical ailments—all of which can be treated through psychological methods.

But life has a funny way of delivering a karate chop to our best laid plans. Instead of medical referrals, a parade of young people arrived in my office in blisteringly bad moods. They told me I was ugly, that I should fuck-off, and that there was no way in hell they would ever talk to me; sometimes they even threatened to destroy my office or physically attack me.

I also got one referral for a guy in his mid-50s who wanted to work on his high blood pressure. Turns out, the blood pressure treatment process was numbingly boring. To my surprise, I much preferred being pelted with insults by the nasty kids.

Early in the process I realized, these weren’t nasty kids, but instead, these were kids in nasty moods because of their difficult life circumstances. None of their insults or anger or sadness were about me, and so I modified Harold Mosak’s (1985) pushbutton technique, turning it into a simple, three-step emotional change technique to help my young clients deal with their bad moods. Using my creative naming skills, I called it the “Three-step emotional change trick.” I ended up liking the technique so well that I did it in my office, with myself, with parents, during professional workshops, and with classrooms full of 4th and 5th graders. Mostly it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. Here’s how it goes.

Introduction

Before teaching the three steps, I introduced the idea that bad moods were normal and offered a taste of emotional education. I asked, “Have you ever been in a bad mood?” Obviously, all the kids nodded, flipped me off, or said things like, “No duh.” My response was something like, “Yeah, me too.”

Then I’d ask, “Have you ever had somebody come up to you and tell you to cheer up?” All the kids said, “Yes!” and then followed up with how stupid they thought it was when someone told them to cheer up. I would agree and commiserate with them on how ridiculous it was for anyone to ever think that saying “Cheer up” would do anything but piss the person off even more.

At some point, I’d say, “I’ll never tell you to cheer up. Don’t worry about that. If you’re in a bad mood, I figure you’ve got a good reason to be in a bad mood, and so I’ll just respect your mood and let it be.”

Then I’d swoop in with my sales pitch. “But hey. Have you ever been in a bad mood and get stuck there and have it last longer than you wanted it to?”

Nearly always there was a head nod; I’d join in and admit to the same. “Damn those bad moods. Sometimes they last and last and hang around way longer than they need to.”

“If it’s okay with you,” I’d say, “I’d like to teach you this thing I call the three-step emotional change trick. It’s a way for you to change your mood, but only when you want to change your mood, and not when somebody tells you to cheer up. This trick is a way for you to be the captain of your own emotional ship.”

Maybe my memory is warped, but I can’t remember any young person ever refusing to let me teach them the three-steps. I think most people find their moods challenging, and so if you’re selling a technique or trick to give them more control, pretty much everyone wants to learn it. That’s why I’m sharing it with you now.

Step one is to feel the feeling. Feelings come around for a reason. Hardly ever do they come out of nowhere. We need to notice them, feel them, and contemplate their meaning. The big questions here are: How can you honor and feel your feelings? What can you do to respect your own feelings and listen to the underlying message? Over the years, I’ve heard many answers. Here are a few. But you can generate your own list.

  • Frowning or crying if you feel sad
  • Grimacing and making various angry faces into a mirror if you feel angry
  • Drawing an angry, ugly picture
  • Punching or kicking a large pillow (no real violence though)
  • Going outside and yelling (or screaming into a pillow)
  • Scribbling on a note pad with a black marker
  • Writing a nasty note to someone (but not delivering it)
  • Using your words, and talking to someone about what you’re feeling

Step two is to think a new thought or do something different. This step is all about intentionally doing or thinking something that might change or improve you mood. The big question here is: What can you think or do that will put you in a better mood?

I discovered that kids and adults have amazing mood-changing strategies. Here’s a sampling:

  • Tell a funny story (for example, yesterday in math, my friend Todd farted)
  • Tell a joke (What do you call it when 100 rabbits standing in a row all take one step backwards? A receding hareline).
  • Tell a better joke (Why did the ant crawl up the elephant’s leg for the second time? It got pissed off the first time.)
  • Get some exercise
  • Smile into a mirror
  • Watch funny internet cat videos
  • Talk to someone you trust
  • Put a cat (or a chicken or a duck) on your head
  • Chew a big wad of gum

I’m sure you get the idea. Nobody knows better than you what might put you in a good mood . . . so, when you’re ready, you should use your own self-knowledge to move into a better mood.

Step three is to spread the good mood. Spreading the good mood is based on the fact that moods are contagious. In fact, although COVID-19 is very contagious, moods might be even more contagious. I’d say things like this to my young clients:

“I want to tell you another interesting thing about moods. They’re contagious. Do you know what contagious means? It means you can catch them from being around other people who are in bad moods or good moods. Like when you got here. I noticed your mom was in a bad mood too. It made me wonder, did you catch the bad mood from her or did she catch it from you? Anyway, now you seem to be in a much better mood. And so I was wondering, do you think you can make your mom “catch” your good mood?”

How do you share good moods? Keep in mind that saying “Cheer up” is off-limits. Here’s a short list of what I’ve heard from kids and adults.

  • Do someone a favor
  • Smile
  • Hold the door for a stranger
  • Offer a random act of kindness
  • Offer a real or virtual hug
  • Listen to someone who wants or needs to talk
  • Tell someone, “I love you” (you can even do this while social distancing)

Step four might be the best and most important step in the three-step emotional change trick. With kids, when I move on to step four, they always interrupt:

“Wait. You said there were only three steps!”

“Yes. That’s true. That’s what I said. What’s interesting about the three-step emotional change trick is that it has four steps. It has for steps because emotions are complicated and surprising. And so there are four steps. This last step is for you to teach someone else the three steps.”

The other surprising thing about the three-step emotional change trick is that nobody ever complains that it has four steps. For whatever reason, the complexity of emotions seems to overshadow the need to count accurately. In fact, as you read this, you may have discovered an additional step. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that the three-step emotional change trick actually has five steps. If you’ve got a fifth step, please share!

 

Introducing the Happy Habits for Hard Times Video and Resource Series

John and Rita in Field

I know lots of you think of Rita and I as sophisticated intellectual types.

Okay, maybe not. But if you ever did think of us as sophisticates, our new video series, offered in collaboration with the University of Montana College of Education and UMOnline, will help extinguish those thoughts.

Not long ago, our Dean asked us if we could regularly share some insights on Coping with COVID-19 with the College of Education. Around the same time, a long-time friend asked if we could create brief written materials, and possibly videos, to support and educate nursing home staff. Because we were hoping to find a way to contribute in a positive way to counter the adverse psychological effects of the pandemic, we said yes. Rita and I are now working with some very cool people at the University of Montana (UMOnline) to create video and written educational materials.

You should be forewarned, these educational materials ARE NOT sophisticated. They’re home-made, sometimes goofy, and often embarrassing efforts to share basic information on how to cope with pandemic-distress through evidence-based “happiness” strategies.

To stay with the theme of things not being exactly as they seem, not only are Rita and I shockingly unsophisticated, the evidence-based happiness strategies we’re sharing aren’t really about the emotional state of happiness. In fact, IMHO, the whole “happiness” movement in psychology and in the U.S., is basically a bait and switch program, because happiness sounds way sexier than what we’re really promoting: well-being through intelligent and virtuous living. As Rita has been known to say—embarrassingly and in front of entire classrooms—well-being through intelligent and virtuous living makes you think you, “don’t get to have any sex or fun.” She’s right, we’re not advocating abstinence. Instead, we’re trying to convince people that well-being through intelligent and virtuous living is totally hot. You can guess how that’s going.

In the end, if you tune into the videos or read our materials, you’ll find home-made, blue collar, salt of the Earth, pull yourself up by your bootstraps stuff. As our Montana rancher friends might say, “It ain’t young and pretty.” But then again, neither are we, and neither is COVID-19.

If you know someone who might benefit from viewing the videos or reading the materials, please share. They’re free. They’re designed exclusively as an effort to be helpful.

On this blog, I’ll be posting twice-weekly sneak-peeks for each happy habit module, but the main easy-access staging page for the whole series is here:

https://staging.coehs.umt.edu/happy_habits_series_2020/default.php

I’m wishing you all the best as you cope with this historical time and the unique challenges we’re all facing.

 

 

 

Happy Habits, Episode 2: Wash Your Hands and Scrub Your Brain

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**To watch the accompanying video, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFWdcyY1rWU

Humans are thinking beings. You can try arguing the opposite, but that would require thinking, and you’d lose the argument. Sometime around 1637, René Descartes said, “Cogito, ergo sum.” The English translation, “I think, therefore I am.” After several decades of studying psychological theory, and now assisted by Google translator, we’re ready to offer an expanded version of Decartes maxim: “Cogito ergo sum ego possit cogitare et in tempore angustiae triumphi.”

Or, in English, “I think therefore I am able to think myself into trouble or triumph.”

We all have a few mental habits that don’t contribute to happiness or well-lived lives. We can overthink, underthink, make up excuses, feed our paranoia, gather false evidence to bolster our irrationality, and fail to consider authentic evidence that contradicts our perspective. We can dwell on and inflate the negative and literally worry ourselves sick. There are endless lists of thinking errors. If you want to make yourself miserable, you could diagnose yourself by doing an internet search for your particular irrational ways of being. But for now, we hope you’ll put your brain to work on these Happy Habits instead.

Happy Habit #3: Three Good Things

One of the most well-known evidence-based happiness assignments is Martin Seligman’s Three Good Things activity. Here’s what to do: Every night, for at least a week, before you go to sleep, identify and write down three things that went well for you during the day. Then take a minute or two and reflect on why they went well. Seligman doesn’t say this, but we think it might be a good idea to then fold the paper, give it a little kiss, and tuck it under your pillow. That’s where the tooth fairy left you money, right? Who knows what magic lurks under there?

Just in case you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, here’s a one-minute video of Seligman describing the activity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOGAp9dw8Ac .

Seligman claims that after doing this for a week, most people just keep doing the three good things activity it because it’s a positive experience that reorients the brain toward wellness. We hope this is true. We suspect it requires self-discipline. Let us know!

Happy Habit #4: Create an Alternative Reality

As we noted in a previous post, our surroundings aren’t always comforting. In fact, sometimes they’re obnoxious, boring, frightening, threatening, or disgusting. The sad truth is you cannot always go Forest Bathing and you can’t listen to music 24/7. But you live in your brain, no matter what. You can use your imagination to change your focus and reduce the impact of the less desirable aspects of your surroundings.

The first thing to do is build up your supply of mental happy places. The goal is to create or remember a beautiful, relaxing scene or two—imagined or real surroundings that you personally find awesome. It can involve a river, a mountain-top, a sandy beach, or a lovely garden. It can be your bed, all warm and comfy. It can be your favorite pub, with your favorite drink in front of you and your friends all around. It can be church, with everyone singing. It can be a basketball game, a concert, a museum. Build these scenes in your mind to fit your definition of safe, relaxing, happy places.

Don’t worry about what “should” be your happy places. The important thing is to elaborate your visions. Add in all the details (sights, smells, sounds, and physical sensations). And then practice going there. This is one way some people survive trauma, combat, abuse, or unthinkable deprivation. They use their minds to go elsewhere. It’s an amazing human ability, and can be helpful in situations far less compelling than traumatic ones. You can use your happy places to disrupt the drag of daily life.

Got a dirty diaper to change? Imagine the soft breeze and the light green grass. Got someone in need of you sitting by their bedside? Hold their hands and drift back to that concert you attended. Smile with your eyes. Got people who need you to feed them? Remember the cheese dogs at the fair. Have an impossible amount of internet work to do? Take five-second breaks and imagine that spectacular three-pointer that won the game last year. To keep these places fresh and available, tell someone about them, or write them down, or sketch them. You can also boost their power if you take a minute and consider what makes them safe and happy. These are sanctuaries of your own making. Use them, not to avoid life, but to provide yourself with pleasant breaks from challenging times.

There are many sites devoted to using imagery. Two examples include: https://www.mentalhelp.net/stress/visualization-and-guided-imagery-techniques-for-stress-reduction/

https://www.wikihow.com/Be-in-Your-Happy-Place

Happy Habit #5: Meditation and Relaxation

In 1975, Herbert Benson of Harvard University published a ground-breaking book titled, The Relaxation Response. Now, thousands of publications and websites are available to help you relax your mind and body. Some resources advocate mindfulness meditations. Others focus on physical relaxation. We’re big fans of relaxing, especially in stressful times. Stress depletes your immune system. Relaxing builds it back up.

For some people, trying to relax triggers anxiety. This could stem from self-consciousness or performance anxiety. It can also be hard for people with trauma histories to relax. If this is true for you, take it slowly. Be patient with yourself, involve a support person if that helps, and realize that time and practice will help overcome your obstacles. Finally, remember all Happy Habits are about self-care. You get to be the judge of which ones work for you. Don’t take our word or anyone else’s word for what should work for you without testing and practicing it yourself.

Here’s a simple relaxation guide, similar to what Benson wrote about:

  1. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Relax your muscles, beginning with your toes, progressing up to the top of your head. As you move through your muscle groups, try to keep everything relaxed.
  4. Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, you might choose to say a simple word or count your breaths up to four. There are differing opinions on this. Breathe easily and naturally. If your mind wanders, come back to your breath.
  5. Try to set aside at least 10 minutes. More is better; less is acceptable if that’s all you have. If you need to be precise with your time, set your phone alarm, but only with a very gentle, pleasant sound. Leave a few minutes to just sit and mentally return to the here and now. Don’t rush back into your hectic life if you can help it.
  6. Accept yourself. Don’t judge. Try to have a passive attitude. Watch yourself relax. Let thoughts come and go. No scolding! Offer yourself mindful and nonjudgmental acceptance for your efforts.
  7. Practice this as often as you can. Daily practice can make a huge difference in your stress level. You’re teaching your mind and body that it is possible to chill, let go, and relax.

Here’s a 20 minute guided practice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIr3RsUWrdo

Roughly 2000 years ago, the philosopher Seneca wrote, “There are more things to alarm us than to harm us, and we suffer more often in apprehension than reality.”

It’s your mind. Give it a good scrub. And then use it to stay healthy.

Here’s the Rita and John video that goes with this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFWdcyY1rWU