As a child, I loved reading the “choose your own adventure” books. The reader gets to make choices that determine the main character’s action and the story’s outcome. I have always liked the idea that we have choice in any given situation. It is a concept that I utilize regularly in my counseling sessions.
Recognizing the choices that we have is incredibly empowering. When plagued by unwanted thoughts and distressing moods, people may have difficulty seeing the options they do have. Sometimes people feel stuck, or turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms and behaviors to mitigate their experience.
Here is a foundation of habits to help promote the mindset and mood state you desire, to choose your own emotions and shape your own adventure!
Be purposeful: choose your thoughts
The “choose your own adventure” stories always present a reader with a choice. It lets you know what may happen based on which path you choose on your journey.
Our thoughts are just the same – they determine the path we take. The problem becomes when we are passive in our thinking, when we allow our thoughts to run free without purposeful supervision; then they get into trouble, much like an unsupervised toddler!
Let’s choose our thoughts carefully so we determine where we end up. Calm thoughts create calm states. Think the thoughts you want to think, to generate the mood you seek. At this point, you may be thinking, “but that’s hard!” And if you are thinking that, I understand why. Anything we first approach is hardest in the beginning. But I would also offer that staying with unpleasant thoughts and emotions is even harder. And if you’re thinking, “it’s not that easy,” here is your first place to purposefully try a different thought.
Worrying can become a habit. Often when we resolve one worry, our mind just jumps to the next thing to worry about. Our brain has a negative bias and will gravitate towards our worries when not otherwise directed. We can compensate for this bias by purposefully choosing that what we want to reflect on and give attention to. Think about thoughts like a garden. The ones you nurture are the ones that will grow strongest and tallest.
Being purposefully with our thoughts can be as simple as, “what do I want to give my attention to?” The thoughts you give the most time, will have the greatest contribution to your mood and emotional state.
Acknowledge and give attention to the distressing thoughts and emotions
A knee jerk reaction to something that causes us distress is to make it go away. When a thought is bothering us, we may choose a form of distraction to try to not think about it. People who love us may give us exactly that advice, “just don’t think about it!” We all know how effective (not!) that is.
For starters, while it generally is impossible to forget about it for long, it also does nothing to address the problem. Nothing changes. We need to give attention – not ignore – the thoughts that cause us distress. We just have to be purposeful in this attention.
We are going to set some boundaries and parameters for our worries. One, we choose when it get’s attention (hint, the answer is NOT BEDTIME!). If worries plague you at bedtime – or another inopportune point of the day - keep a notepad at your bedside (side note, that means paper, not your phone! We don’t want you getting distracted by your phone at bedtime). Write down the thought that comes to you. Bedtime is often the first quiet we have of the day; the first time when we are not distracted from our thoughts by our busyness. In the light of day, decide what attention that thought needs. For example, who are you going to share it with? Does it need concrete action taken to alleviate it? Who can help you problem solve?
Be aware of how you are feeling
Try this simple habit. Ask yourself throughout the day:
How does my body feel physically?
How am I feeling emotionally?
Where are my thoughts today?
And based on those answers, what do I need?
Stress and anxiety are uncomfortable emotions most people try to avoid. However, we need to recognize them as important alarm bells to which we must respond. When we are feeling stressed physically or anxious mentally, it’s our way of calling attention to a need. The problem occurs when we ignore the alarms. It is like staying put in a burning building. When these alarm bells go off, recognize the choices you have and what you can do to take care of yourself.
Like anything new, these new habits might be hard in the beginning. But you want a change, right? So it’s more difficult to keep doing the same thing. Practice. Try again. You’re tapping into the neuroplasticity of your brain (it’s ability to rewire itself). The more you do it, the more established these habits will become.
I'm a mom of four children, a wife, and a Licensed Professional Counselor. My parenting life helps me be a better counselor, and my professional experience helps me be a better mom. Both allow me to be creative, to learn and grow, to make mistakes, and to rarely sleep. I love the beach and gardening, reading if I can stay awake, running (which these days is after my kids and not much else), and using humor through it all!
DISCLAIMER: This site is designed for educational purposes only and is not engaged in rendering medical advice, legal advice, or professional services. If you feel that you have a medical problem, you should seek the advice of your physician or health care practitioner.