Our choices are the result of our thinking patterns. So, to change our outcomes and circumstances, we have to change our thinking. Albert Einstein said it well, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Here are four techniques to try which can help you reframe your thinking and approach when faced with challenging situations:
1. Remember to W.A.I.T – when people feel threatened (regardless as to whether it is real or perceived), their automatic response will be ‘fight, flight or freeze’. The key is to recognise when you or another person is in this mode and to slow down your response to the situation. Remember to W.A.I.T. being a useful tripwire as it stands for ‘What am I thinking? Why am I talking? This approach brings awareness to your present state of mind and allows you to decide if what you are about to say or do will help or hinder a more productive outcome.
2. Try Box Breathing – breath into the moment when you feel most like jumping in. Try breathing in slowly counting to 4, hold for 4 and out for 4 (at least twice). Called Box Breathing, it is used by many, including the military and emergency services as a way of calming down the stress response. Spend a minute Box Breathing before any activity that you think might be difficult for you. You can also use it during to centre yourself and avoid merely reacting.
3. Do a Mind Scan – Another way of calming the mind is to take time to notice the emotion and depersonalise it. For example, replacing ‘I feel anxious’ with ‘There’s anxiety’. Mind Scanning is a useful and straightforward technique to learn. It can be applied at any time. Just find a quiet and private place. Close your eyes and spend a few minutes tuning into your thoughts, notice them objectively then let them go without judgement or self-criticism. Now open your eyes. Reflect on what you have observed. If possible, write down what you have noticed. Is it useful to you? What might be a better emotion? Gently lead your mind in this direction.
It is not about suppressing or punishing yourself – it is a self-compassionate way of acknowledging that all our feelings are valid, but some are not helpful. You can choose how you respond in any given situation. It takes courage and practice so be patient with yourself.
4. Make ‘If-then’ Plans – this is a simple yet effective way to choose a response that will enable a better outcome. If-then plans take the form: “If X happens, then I will do Y.” It works because the human brain is good at thinking in the language of contingencies. Once you’ve formulated your if-then plan, your unconscious brain will remember what you decided you would do and be ready to respond accordingly.
It also boosts self-confidence in handling known tricky situations if they arise because you have thought through in advance how you can respond. This approach helps calm the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ part of the brain, which otherwise can tip you into automatic pilot. Thinking through in advance activates the rational part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) where the working memory is held. Then you can choose the response that best serves you in the circumstances rather than just reacting at the moment.
Here is how to get started. Make two columns headed ‘If’ and ‘then’. Set out each difficult or challenging ‘If’ scenario followed by one or more options for how you can choose to respond – ‘then I will ….’. Step back and ask yourself ‘what else’ so that you can dig a little deeper. Write down what comes to mind. Then review and decide which ‘If-then’ strategies will be useful and rehearse these in your mind. Writing down your chosen strategy in a journal can reinforce the benefits of this technique.
Creating awareness by learning how to W.A.I.T. and’ press pause’ by Box Breathing and using Mind Scanning can help you avoid instantly reacting to someone’s attitude or comment. It gives you time for a considered response. You can also use ‘If-then’ planning to help you work through your options if you anticipate these in advance. These are useful self-management skills and can help increase your influence and impact through having a calm measured response to stressful situations.