Author: <span>Michele Engelke</span>

2 simple mindfulness exercises to help you cope with pressure

2 simple mindfulness exercises to help you cope with pressure
Mindfulness can help you feel at one with yourself

Given the hectic pace of modern life, feeling under pressure to live up to everyone’s expectations – including our own – can easily turn into yet another unhealthy habit. Because our lives have never been as monitored or exposed to so much scrutiny as in recent years, it may feel hard to let go of that need to strive for excellence, regardless of the impact that that attitude has on you. In the era of smart phones and social media, not looking “super active” and “always busy” can easily make you feel like a lost soul, a social outcast or, simply put, just not good enough. To live a truly authentic life has become a challenge at a time when just allowing oneself to sit still and do nothing sounds like a great oddity.

Even when you feel easily swayed by perfectionist ideals, you still have a choice. You can surrender to the pressure of being there for everyone and everything but yourself, and keep on struggling to deliver that picture of success and popularity, or take this moment to make it be about you. The real you, that is, the one who like all human beings needs to nurture the connection with his own body in order to feel in harmony with himself and others. Making the time to be about you does not only mean “treating yourself” to something expensive, tasty or new. It also means taking that moment to be there for yourself, to feel what it feels to be you at that moment. All without judgement. All without having to do things a certain way (like having to follow a stereotype of “me time”, as in lying in a hot bath seeping a glass of red wine or eating a huge bar of chocolate while binge watching a TV series on Netflix. If any of those things happen not to be available… well, then you are stuck with that bad feeling!).

Mindfulness can help you feel at one with yourself without having to get out of your way in search of something elaborate to reach that peace of mind. Just taking little time to focus on your breathing can allow you to reconnect with your body, honour that moment and the sensations that make you whole, attending to the whole you. You do not have to be a Buddhist to practice it, or a great connoisseur of Eastern philosophy to master it. Mindfulness in already part of you – that unique ability you already possess to use thought to focus on yourself and observe your own thinking, feelings and behaviours.

If you feel under stress and would like to give mindfulness a try, below you will find 2 simple mindfulness exercises to help you cope with pressure:

1- Grounding yourself

Sitting on a chair in an erect yet comfortable position, take a couple of minutes to bring the focus of your attention to your breathing. Observe how your chest expands at each in breath, filling your whole body with air and, at the out breath, giving that natural feeling of relaxation. When you feel yourself relaxing as the mind reconnects with the body, let go of the chest and bring the focus of your attention to your feet. Attend to the sensations of contact between the soles of your feet and the surface on which they are resting. Feel how the whole you, your legs, torso, arms and head are connected to that surface. Feel yourself as a unit, as a body sitting in that position. Examine the sensations that intensify your perception of what it means to be that body at that moment, like feeling the hard surface of the chair against your skin or noticing feelings of heaviness or lightness in the limbs. Then remind yourself of where you are, what day of the week and time of the day it is. Own that moment by feeling fully there in the present, mind and body, all in one sitting on that chair and just being yourself at that precise time and space.

2- Stress relief

Sitting on a chair in an erect yet comfortable position, take a couple of minutes to bring the focus of your attention to your breathing. Observe how your chest expands at each in breath, filling your whole body with air, and at the out breath, giving that natural feeling of relaxation. When you feel yourself relaxing as the mind reconnects with the body, let go of the chest and bring the focus of your attention to your whole body. As you search for the sensations present in that moment, identify the one that makes you feel crushed. That sensation may be a feeling of pressure around your chest, a tightness of the neck or jaw or feelings of heaviness, pain or pressure in the abdominal area, for instance. As soon as you connect to that part of your body, dedicate a couple of minutes to focus your attention on that region. Take time to attend to the bodily sensations that reflect that negative emotional state. Notice how stress is felt by you in that particular region. Fully attend to the source of your discomfort. As your thinking starts to process those sensations, notice what happens when they start to dissipate into the rest of the body as flowing energy. Feel a shift in those sensations as they disappear from awareness. Enjoy that feeling of relief and reconciliation as your attention claims back your entire body.

Whenever you feel overwhelmed or disconnected, as if you were running on autopilot, take a few minutes to practice one of the above. Both exercises will allow you to feel refreshed and centred. It is vital to your general psychological and emotional wellbeing to attend to those negative feelings as soon as they arise. Letting them build up as if they were not as important as whatever you are doing at that moment has the potential to result in mental health complications later on, such an episode of burnout or depression, or even a full-blown anxiety disorder. Get your priorities right by learning how to love and respect the whole you, body and soul.

Questions to ask yourself when worrying excessively

Excessive worrying feels very debilitating since it gets you stuck in rumination mode. Going over the same thought without dealing with it productively can be a mood killer. The best way forward for those who often find themselves struggling to let go of negative thoughts is through self-awareness. Start actively monitoring your thoughts. More importantly, begin to challenge them whenever they fail to lead you to any useful or creative solutions. Then, if you are new to CBT, use the questions below to help you problem-solve.

Here is a list of questions to ask yourself when worrying excessively:

Does my thought make sense from a realistic perspective?

Would this thought be considered logical?

What is the evidence for my thought/belief/evaluation?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of believing in this thought?

Would the intelligent and mature people I know agree with my thought? Why?

Am I am being too hard on myself?

Would I think/say the same about/to my best friend?

Am I being reasonable?

Is this situation as bad as I am portraying?

Are people as judgemental as I am imagining them to be?

Am I equating my thought with a fact?

How would I evaluate this situation 2 months from now?

Is this going to matter to me tomorrow?

Is this worry productive?

Is this criticism constructive? What – if anything – have I learned from it?

Am I only focusing on the negative?

Am I basing my thoughts on mind reading?

Am I exaggerating the relevance of this thought?

What is the worst-case scenario? What is the best-case scenario? What is the most likely outcome?

How is this thought affecting my mood?

Is it guiding me towards my goals or is it distracting me from them?

Am I using labels to define the situation in a way that does not do it justice?

Am I being overcritical?

Am I being fair?

Am I problem solving in an objective way?

How could I consider this problem more objectively?

Am I blaming others or myself for things that are – realistically – out of our control?

Have I considered all the facts before jumping to conclusions?

Am I taking things too personally?

How am I assessing my/others’ ability to handle this particular problem? Am I overreacting or being too negative?

It is worth reminding yourself that thoughts are just thoughts, not facts. As we tend to negotiate meaning via our internal dialogue, make it work for and not against you. If you display a biased inclination towards perfectionism and self-criticism, for instance, expand your perception investing in a more flexible attitude. Restructure your rigid beliefs so that they reflect a more compassionate and forgiving outlook. Use metacognition as a tool against automatic thinking and learn how to gain more control over negative emotions.

questions to ask yourself when worrying excessively
Challenging negative thinking is a great way to deal with unproductive worrying

3 relaxation techniques for excessive worrying and anxiety

3 Relaxation techniques for excessive worrying and anxiety
Relaxation exercises help you manage stress and deal with anxiety

If you struggle to handle excessive worrying or fear that you might suffer from anxiety, there is a lot you can do to help yourself. There are many ways to manage stress, be it through regular physical exercise, eating healthily, maintaining a sensible work and life balance and/or seeking support from a qualified counsellor. Incorporating relaxation exercises into your daily routine gives you some time to recharge, feel grounded and in control of yourself. It is an excellent strategy to prevent stress-related problems such as burnout, as well as to manage panic attacks.

The best relaxation practice is the one with which you identify the most. Below I suggest 3 techniques I usually recommend to my clients. To find out what works for you, test them out for free on YouTube. You can also purchase some very good audio CD’s at amazon and listen to them on your mp3 player. Make sure you do your relaxation exercises at least 5 days/week. The more committed you are to keeping a relaxation routine, the quicker you will enjoy its benefits.

Here are 3 relaxation techniques for excessive worrying and anxiety:

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

PMR focuses on the relaxation of muscle groups, one by one, starting on your toes and working your way up to your face and jaw muscles.

How it works: Contract a group muscle for 5 seconds and then release for 30 seconds while fully enjoying that feeling of relaxation.

Resources: if you prefer guided PMR exercises, I recommend the following:

Audio CD:

Progressive Muscle Relaxation after E. Jacobson: Exercises for Deep Holistic Relaxation, by Carola Riss-Tafiilaj

On YouTube:

Progressive muscle relaxation (WITH music), by Relax For A While

Relaxation Response

The Relaxation Response is a meditation modality that concentrates on breathing, relaxation of the muscles and management of distractive/negative thoughts.

How it works: follow the steps below:

1- Find a comfortable position in a quiet environment.

2- Close your eyes.

3- Relax all muscles starting on your face and moving all the way down to your toes.

4- Focus on you breathing and say “one” in your mind when breathing out.

5- When a thought races through your mind, say “one” in your mind again.

Continue doing that for 10 to 20 minutes.

Resources: if you prefer guided Relaxation Response exercises, I recommend the following:

Audio CD:

Ten Minutes To Relax – Living the Love Response, by Eva Selhub

On YouTube:

Relaxation Response Video Exercise: Meditate with Peg Baim, MS, NP

Visualisation

Visualisation is the practice of using the mind to picture oneself in a calm and safe place. Imagining yourself in a tranquil and pleasant environment helps you relax body and mind, while distracts you from negative and often unproductive thoughts.

How it works: Seat comfortably somewhere quiet. Close your eyes and mentally choose a safe, relaxing place as somewhere clean and calming. Imagine yourself in that place; enjoying everything it has to offer in a serene, tranquil and untroubled way. Feel your body and mind relax while you immerse yourself in that environment.

Resources: if you prefer guided Visualisation exercises, I recommend the following:

Audio CD:

Beginner’s Guide to Meditation & Visualisation, by Sally-Ann Taylor

On YouTube:

Ocean Escape (with music): Walk Along the Beach Guided Meditation and Visualization, by Relax For A While

Self-esteem in practical terms

While we have an intuitive knowledge of what it means to love and accept oneself, it is sometimes a challenge to define self-esteem in practical terms. Naturally, it is a tough concept to pin down without sounding too abstract, to the point that some psychologists, such as Albert Ellis (2005) – also writer and founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy – have questioned its relevance. Even if we do not agree on the power of self-esteem, we are still able to recognize the behaviours that make us “feel good”, confident and in harmony with ourselves.

As it is not my intention to add to the debate or bore you with a long list of synonyms, I have gathered 5 concepts that I consider the pillars of a healthy self-esteem. My goal is to explain self-esteem in practical terms, so that you are able to develop a clearer map of what it entails.

Here is self-esteem in practical terms:

IDENTITY: my self-esteem is high when I know who I am and what I want, my likes and dislikes. Good self-esteem is reflective of my ability to identify with whom I am. My sense of identity allows me to live in accordance with what enhances my character and personality. It also connects me to the here and now and guides me where I genuinely want to be. It makes me feel whole and congruent.

Strengths associated with a good sense of identity: confidence, self-assurance, congruence, autonomy, integrity

BOUNDARIES: my personal boundaries, when safe and active, give me a sense of control and autonomy over myself. When I am able to say “no” to what does not suit me, I prioritise my well-being against harmful interference. My limits also protect my integrity and preserve my wholeness. By honouring my feelings and respecting my boundaries, I confirm myself through my own actions and behaviours.

Strengths associated with healthy personal boundaries: assertiveness, self-respect, independence, reliability

FLEXIBLE VALUES: good self-esteem also relies on my ability to restructure my beliefs to suit my identity. Healthy values adjust to my needs and personal circumstances. When what I believe in is line with whom I am and the choices I make, I am at one with myself. My value are not stagnant or meant to transcend time, but develop along with my own process of change and personal growth.

Strengths associated with flexible values: flexibility, tolerance, kindness, empathy, spontaneity, creativity, open-mindedness, compassion

POSITIVE ATTRIBUTES & VULNERABILITIES: those with a healthy self-esteem are able to recognize their qualities and live at peace with their weaknesses. They display a high level of self-awareness by taking into consideration every single aspect that makes them unique. Above all, they do so without exaggerations and in an unbiased manner.

Strengths associated with positive attributes and vulnerabilities: objectivity, impartiality, maturity, honesty, levelheadedness, self-acceptance

BALANCED JUDGEMENT: the ability to separate from my own thoughts and behaviours and analyse them from a realistic perspective is one of the best ways to show love and respect for myself. Your self-esteem receives a lasting boost when you are able not to equate your worth solely to the quality of your actions, but value yourself regardless of the outcome.

Strengths associated with a balanced judgment: sensibility, clarity, intelligence, rationality, precision, reliability

Depending on your upbringing and cognitive profile, you may struggle to keep the above pillars erect. If you are in need of some support, check my recommended reading on the topic of self-esteem. For professional help, you can contact me to find out how I can help you raise self-esteem with CBT.

Self-esteem in practical terms

Reference:

Ellis, Albert (2005). The Myth of Self-esteem: How Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Can Change Your Life Forever. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

How to do a DRDT

how to do a DRDT
It only takes a few minutes to fill in a DRDT.

A DRDT, or a Daily Record of Dysfunctional Thoughts, is a very useful CBT task designed to uncover and challenge automatic/negative thoughts.

The main goals of a DRDT are:

1- To help the client gain greater insight on what is motivating their negative feelings, such as those commonly related to low self-worth and/or anxiety, as well as unproductive behaviours.

2- To challenge negative and biased thinking.

It is quite common not to be aware of the reasons why you feel “so bad” or demotivated, for instance. With the help of a DRDT, you can target errors in thinking that are fuelling your emotional discomfort. Biased and distorted thoughts are analysed objectively, allowing you to problem-solve more confidently, while adopting a more productive attitude.

Step 1: Create a DRDT

A DRDT or Thought Journal/Record traditionally comes in 6 columns: “Date”, “Situation”, “Feelings”, “Automatic Thoughts”, “Alternative Responses” and “Outcome”. As a DRDT is used to monitor your thoughts on a regular basis, it is worth keeping it light and small so you can carry it around with you.

Step 2: Fill in a DRDT

A DRDT is to be filled in when you notice a change in your mood. If you are watching TV and suddenly start feeling a bit low, get your DRDT out and start filling in the 6 columns with the appropriate information asap. The later you write down your thoughts from the moment you have them, the more likely you are to forget all those important details. It takes little time to do it, not more than a few minutes.

Date: write down the exact date of you thought.

Situation: describe where you were and what was happening/what you were doing when you had your thought.

Feelings: record your emotions, rating them from 0 to 100%.

Automatic Thoughts: write exactly what you were thinking, word by word. If your thought was an image, describe it in detail.

Alternative Responses: add an objective response that challenges the veracity of your automatic thought. The alternative response represents the more rational you, the person you are when you react in a sensible, logical and reasonable manner.

Outcome: detail how you felt and what you did after identifying and challenging your automatic thought.

Step 3: Analyse your DRDT

After you have a completed a Daily Record of Dysfunctional Thoughts for 7 days, sit down and take some time to read through all your automatic thoughts.

Are you able to find a common theme?

What cognitive errors can you identify?

What do your automatic thoughts say about you?

Which automatic thoughts affected you the most? 

Which alternative responses caused the greatest change in your feelings and behaviours?

 

For a free DRDT sample, click here

List of cognitive errors

cognitive errors
Learn how to identify cognitive errors in your thinking.

Identifying cognitive errors can help you improve your mood.

In CBT, your thoughts are approached from an objective perspective to enable you to feel more empowered and in control of your moods. Because thoughts are “just thoughts” and not facts, in therapy they are dealt as abstract and subjective entities that may not necessarily reflect the truth.

Here are the 11 most common cognitive errors:

1- All-or-nothing thinking: you see the world in black and white and ignore numerous shades of grey.

Ex.: If this project doesn’t go well, it will be a total disaster.

2- Catastrophizing: you think the worst is somehow bound to happen, again ignoring variations as the possibility of positive outcomes.

Ex.: If I don’t get this job, I won’t be able to recover financially.

3- Disqualifying or discounting the positive: you overlook or dismiss the importance of your achievements as well as small victories as if they were to be expected and not celebrated or taken into consideration.

Ex. So what if I was promoted? It happens to people my age.

4- Emotional reasoning: your evaluations are based on your personal feelings and not on objective reason.

Ex.: If I feel incompetent, it means I can’t do anything right.

5- Labelling: you use a term of negative connotation to describe yourself, a situation or other people as if it were a faithful representation of the whole picture, without proof or analysis of any further considerations.

Ex.: I am an idiot, she’s a gold-digger and our marriage is a farce.

6- Magnification/minimisation: you judge yourself, others and the world around you emphasising the negative and reducing or ignoring the value of anything positive.

Ex.: Getting a promotion is what is expected of someone my age, while doing the same job for years means I am incompetent.

7- Mental filter: you focus on a negative aspect to formulate judgement.

Ex.: Dinner was mediocre, because my chocolate mousse didn’t rise.

8- Mind reading: you think you know what goes through other people’s minds without talking to them first.

Ex.: She thinks I am unsuitable to lead the team.

9- Overgeneralization: your interpretation is based on a broad and simplistic evaluation that exceeds the scope of the matter.

Ex.: (Because she is not interested in me) I will never date anyone I like.

10- Personalisation: you think other people’s negative behaviours are related to you.

Ex.: He left the pub early because he finds me boring.

11- “Should” and “must” statements: you have prescribed and inflexible views of yourself and others and exaggerate the importance of your own expectations.

Ex.: I’ve made a silly comment in today’s meeting. I should never open my mouth without being sure of what I am about to say.

Reference:

Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive behaviour therapy, basics and beyond (2nd ed.) New York, NY: The Guilford Press.