Take control of the grey matter, and nothing will seem quite so black, says Sue France…
Things happen, things go wrong, mistakes are made, people upset us, we upset ourselves, life can get hard and we feel overwhelmed – and yes we can feel down and sometimes rightly so. However, no matter what happens, you have to be able to pick yourself up and keep moving forward with a positive manner.
We create our own reality with our thoughts and our thoughts are hugely powerful. They will shape our life, our beliefs, our behaviours. Remember though, that you can have total control over your thoughts but to do this you need to understand your brain and be highly self aware. You need to think consciously and realise your potential.
When you feel happy, contented with high levels of positivity, you are more friendly, collaborative, creative, productive and healthy. Staying positive has a profound effect on lifting your own and other people’s moods and therefore you and your team will be more productive, have better relationships and have a greater chance for a successful life and career.
You can’t blame other people for what happens to you, for your happiness and for your success or failure. It starts with you and your brain – you need to take charge and no matter what happens, you need to take control of your brain!
Remember whatever it is you are going through – nothing is ever so bad that it couldn’t get even worse, so feel lucky it’s only as bad as it is!
Having a deep understanding of how your brain works, applying positive psychology and being mindfully aware, in the moment, of how you are feeling, thinking and behaving is paramount to keeping control. Ask yourself, is the way I am thinking, feeling and behaving, serving me well, making me feel good and improving my life? If it is not, then ask yourself what would your best friend tell you right now? What will make sure you do something to turn it around?
Negativity is contagious so make sure you are not the carrier. Colleagues will pick up on any negativity easily and quickly and even from a distance. Negativity can also lead to anxiety which should be avoided at all costs.
The truth is, life and work can be relentless and some stress is inevitable but, how we handle stress is critical. So how can we commit to turning that frown upside down and keeping smiling as best we can, even when we don’t feel like it?
Here are my top tips for resilience, making yourself bounce forward (as opposed to bouncing back as you should not want to be where you were, but be ahead instead):
1 Focus on the positives
Our brains are naturally negative and look for threats. This trait has kept us alive from the days when we lived in caves and had to keep a look-out for dangerous animals and predators. You have to train your brain to shift its focus and look for the positives and focus on them because we get more of what we focus on. If we can’t shift our focus to positivity then we will get stuck in negativity. As soon as you allow your brain to focus on the negatives then you will have what is called an amygdala hijack where your limbic system – the emotional part of your brain – takes over and prevents your logical, rational, thinking part of your brain (Pre Frontal Cortex just behind the forehead) from working properly.
- Reframe a negative thought into a positive thought
To calm yourself down, you need to break the pattern and enable reframing by reflecting on your feelings and giving those feelings a label. Once you have given your thought a label you then re-label the negative label/emotion with a more positive, helpful label/emotion/attitude. This will free up energy and allow your Pre Frontal Cortex to think more clearly.
When a negative thought comes to your mind, realise it and then reframe it. So if you are thinking of something that is making your feel nervous, then reframe it to feeling excited. If you are thinking of something that is making you feel anxious then reframe it to feeling curious. When you are feeling tense change it to feeling alert. If you feel humiliated change it to uncomfortable. If you think you have a problem look at it as an opportunity etc. These simple language changes can change the way you feel.
- Remember the feeling will pass
If you are grieving, it may not seem like it, but this time of feeling down will pass and you will feel better but you do need to take time to grieve. Keep that in mind and stay positive knowing that at some point you will feel better. Remember, no matter what you’re going through, it’s not the end of your world and tomorrow will still come and you will deal with whatever it is. Also remember that when you look back at this time, whether it is six months, a year or more you will realise that you are capable of getting through these times and you will remember the happy and good times – time is a great healer.
For women, you may sometimes also feel down due to hormonal changes – simply remembering that this is the cause for how you feel, can help bring you out of it sooner and know this, too, will pass.
- Be your own best friend
Our internal self-talk can change how we feel, it can make us have limiting beliefs and it can hinder us from stepping out of our comfort zone, progressing and being successful. Learn to banish those negative thoughts by feeling the fear and doing it anyway. As soon as you start doing whatever it is, the fear starts to diminish. So talk positively to yourself, tell yourself you can do anything you set your mind to and believe it – because you can!
- Be grateful
Stop and reflect on what you have to be grateful for. Each day think of three things that you are feeling grateful for. It can be things like your good health or the good health of a child or pet. You could be grateful because your boss said thank you for a piece of work well done. It could be that you are able to keep a roof over your head and food on the table. It could be that you have just successfully mentored someone, it could be that you are grateful for reading this article or a trillion other things. They don’t have to be huge but just feeling grateful can produce feelgood hormones and make you feel even better. There are neuroimaging studies that show it’s almost impossible to be in a negative depressed state and grateful at the same time. You can simply think of it in your head or write it down or share it with people. You may be surprised at the amount of things you could be grateful for once you focus on it.
- Keep your self esteem and confidence
Remember that your brain listens to your body, so if you put your body into a confidence stance, whatever that is for you, your brain will say, he or she is confident and then you will feel confident which in turn puts your body into a confident stance.
Keep a confidence file where you keep all your goals that you have reached, all the thank you emails for a job well done, all the positive differences and achievements you have made in your role. Keep everything in there to remind you of how good you are and whenever you are feeling you need to, read them and give yourself a confidence boost and put a smile on your face.
- Look at each day as starting afresh
Each day offers you an opportunity to start again with a fresh mind so make sure you have plenty of sleep and that you feel invigorated and ready to tackle whatever the day holds for you. When sleeping your brain gets rid of toxins, consolidates your ideas, puts short-term memory into long term and works on finding solutions.
If you have a particular job to do that you have been putting off then get this done and out of the way first thing. At least break it down into chunks and do the first chunk. When you have something you do not feel like doing, the area of your brain that is lit up is the same area that lights up when you are in pain. As soon as you start the job the “pain” goes away.
- Be empowered
Volunteer to take on a challenge such as committing to taking minutes in the leadership meetings (then you will be aware of everything going on in the organisation), setting up and chairing internal PA networking meetings, taking on a work project that you are accountable for, organising a social or team building event or taking part in corporate social responsibility events such as charitable work. When you volunteer for something give it your all, focus on succeeding and aim high. When you are positively thinking about succeeding at a project it prevents you from feeling negative – think of the satisfaction you will feel when it’s accomplished.
- Solutions not problems
It’s not problems that are the issue, it’s how you perceive them and deal with them that makes the difference. Think of them as challenges and opportunites for change for the better. Look for solutions and to the future, and not backward and at who is to blame.
The brain likes to incubate so if you have a challenge and you are looking for a solution and are stuck, write it down and leave it – go and do something else. Take a walk, go and have lunch, do something different and allow your subconscious mind to work for you. When you come back you will probably come up with ideas and know the way forward.
- Know your stress triggers
Know and understand yourself, and learn to recognise the signs of stress for you. We all have different levels of stress and some people cope better than others. We all need some pressure to get us motivated but when we have too much pressure and we are not able to cope then it becomes stress. We produce cortisol to help us get up in the morning and get moving but having too much prolonged cortisol can be extremely debilitating and even cause diseases so we need to reduce the stress before that happens.
Stop regularly and check your emotional state as well as your behaviour. Perhaps you are snapping at people, maybe you have a headache, maybe you are feeling anxious and breathing shallowly. It is important to name what’s going on and understand why you may be feeling negative and upset, and be specific. Think what is making you feel like this? Is it something external or internal? Is it something you have some control over? Having a concrete reason for your negativity gives you something to work on. Learn to recognize the triggers that cause you stress and figure out how to remove them or deal with them.
- Talk buddy
Buddy up with a colleague and agree to be “talk buddies” for each other – someone you can share your feelings with or let off steam in confidence. Maybe you could walk around the block outside while you do this, or have a coffee together but do not dwell on the issue too long, get it out of your system, be listened to and then get back to work feeling ready to handle anything. It is not good for you to keep emotions bottled up. You have to let go of the negativity and give yourself a chance to be free from the things that are making you upset. Once you talk about your feelings you will feel much better.
- Mindfulness and breathing exercises
Mindfulness is very effective. It is free, you can do it yourself and you don’t need medication! If you would like to receive mindfulness techniques then please visit suefrance.com and download Appendix 8 that is a resource for the 3rd edition of The Definitive Personal Assistant & Secretarial Handbook. You can also download my “U-SOFAR” technique from here which is a technique to diminish negative thoughts and helps you to respond rather than react.
Breathing exercises are extremely useful and it’s about taking slow rhythmic abdominal breaths, so you breathe in, say, for five seconds and breathe out for five seconds and concentrate on your breathing which means you cannot think negatively at the same time. It is best practice to put a hand on your abdomen at the same time so you can feel your abdomen going up and down as you breathe in and out. When negative thoughts pop in to your mind, acknowledge them and then let them float on by. It is important to acknowledge them because trying to supress them makes your brain focus on them even more.
When anxious you may breathe shallowly and rapidly and can even have a panic attack. This means you are breathing too shallowly and breathing out too much carbon dioxide which gives you the physical symptoms of the tingling hands and chest pain which is why you need to breathe into a paper bag and re-inhale the carbon dioxide when having a panic attack. Heart attacks can be brought on when hyperventilating so it is important to recognise the symptoms and prevent them escalating.
Abdominal breathing exercises can be done before an important meeting or difficult conversation or telephone call to calm yourself down and be in control.
- Turn off your devices
Give yourself a brain break from constant connection to help reduce stress. In the last 20 years, technology has changed the world massively and unfortunately our brains have not evolved to the extent we need them in order to cope with technology, the amount we have to learn and the fast past of life. We expect immediate replies from others and also endeavour to reply immediately. We are in a world of constant connectivity, wanting everything, doing everything and in danger of burn out.
When you need to concentrate on a piece of work, put your phones through to someone else, turn off emails, messenger, mobile phones, tablets etc and give yourself 25 minutes to work on a project without interruption. This is the way your brain likes to work.
- Taking action towards your goals
Goals can be motivating and keep you focussed on the positive outcomes. Having something to aim for, especially when it is aligned with your boss’s goals and the organisation’s goals, gives you clarity of mind. Visualise yourself in the future having already achieved your goals as your subconscious mind does not know the difference between a lie and the truth and it will think you have already achieved it. When your brain thinks it has already achieved something then it makes it easier for you to actually achieve it. Take a single concrete action towards a goal or something on your “to-do” list. Make a phone call you’ve been dreading or start that project you have been putting off. You will release feelgood hormones in your brain as soon as you do.
- Make the right choice
When you wake up in the morning you can choose to feel positive and happy. You can put a smile on your face at the same time as looking up to the ceiling – it is impossible to feel sad when using this body language as your brain listens to your body language.
- Keep your power
Remember to keep your power by not allowing criticisms and negative opinions of others to send you into negativity. Stand tall with head held high and shoulders back and believe in yourself. If you have made a mistake own up to it, apologise and learn form it and move on feeling positive about your next project or challenge. If you have not done anything wrong then maybe their reaction is a projection of what is going on in their world and you may need to sit down and have an adult to adult conversation.
- Changing your mood
When you remember good times or listen to music that reminds you of good times it can change your mood and make you feel happy and positive. Some people like to watch films or funny videos and it can be the same one over and over again. If it makes you laugh, why not?
- Keep healthy
We need to make sure we eat the right food, exercise and look after our bodies as well as our brains in order to keep positive. Exercise produces endorphins and dopamine which are feelgood hormones and reduces the cortisol which in large, ongoing doses can be extremely harmful. You should also have your workspace ergonomically tested for correct placement of desk, chairs and equipment. You should do ergonomic exercises at your desk to prevent aches and pains, swollen ankles and embolism! You can find these exercises in The Definitive Personal Assistant & Secretarial Handbook. You also need brain breaks away from focused work and staring at your screen for hours to reinvigorate and introduce energy back into your brain.
- Build relationships
We all feel better when we have supportive people around us, we feel better when we are getting on well with others, we feel better when we know people like us. It is important to build rapport with those around you so that you support each other. When we bond with other people we produce a feelgood hormone called oxytocin – known as the bonding hormone. It gives you a warm glow inside and it cements your relationships more. Make sure that you include people in what you do, empathise and listen to them, help them when you can and the law of reciprocation will come into play. Matching and mirroring body language can also help build rapport which we do naturally when we are getting on well with someone. Remember to maintain your relationships by being self aware and aware of others.
Laughter really is the best medicine which is why there are now laughter yoga classes. Laughter is infectious and when shared it encourages bonding and increases happiness.
Even if you fake your laughter your brain acts as if it is true laughter and produces feelgood hormones such as endorphins. Endorphins promote an overall sense of wellbeing and can even temporarily relieve pain. It can strengthen your immune system, protect you from feeling stressed and prevents negativity. Practise now and say out loud with a smile on your face: “ha ha ha, he he he, tee hee, tee hee, tee hee, ha ha ha, he he he, tee hee tee hee, ha ha ha…!”
Remember you are not victims of circumstance and you choose whether to be negative or positive. Try all of the above strategies and make a note of what works for you and what doesn’t. You may need different strategies for different situations but be assured that you can take control of your brain. Remember, scientists have proved that our brains have neuroplasticity which means they can change until the day we die.
I hope to see you at one of my public workshops soon. With best wishes for a positive, happy and healthy brain and body, and a successful life and career.