Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Double Your Problems!!


Why would a therapist write about doubling your problems? Just to call your attention to the very common ways we double, even triple, our life problems. Read on to consider ways to deal with your problems without multiplying your difficulties.

We all know that life throws roadblocks at us with some regularity in between more pleasant experiences. Often we just accept the positives without contemplation but lament the problems which then begin to loom larger and larger in our personal life space. Eventually the issues we are facing start to cause additional distress in the form of depression and anxiety. My point is that we can take active steps to keep from exacerbating our problems in this way. While the original life problem is "out there" in our life space, our own thinking about the problem may cause added stress inside. After all, depression consists of sad and hopeless thoughts, while anxiety consists of worry thoughts. In most cases our thoughts control our moods, not vice versa. We can even triple our difficulties by adding dysfunctional behaviors such as anger problems or addictions. The original life problem may be anything: a money problem, health crisis, job stress, parenting problem. When we start to worry or ruminate about the difficulty, feel down about the issue, spend sleepless nights processing the problem, we will effectively be adding additional stress which can become even more problematic when we fight about the issue or drown our sorrows with alcohol or drugs.

You may be thinking: good point, I don't want to double or triple my problems, but how do I manage my difficulties without stressing out about them? Of course you must process the life issue enough to find a solution, but you can also learn to set the issues aside so that they don't weigh heavily on you and affect your life in areas beyond the initial difficulty. The best problem-solving time is when you are reflective and rational, not when you are worried and distressed and certainly not in the middle of the night. Find a time to problem-solve your issue, either by yourself or with family or advisers. If the problem can be solved immediately, go for it, and then feel good that the problem is behind you. In many cases, however, the problem must be deferred due to time constraints. Assign a time and place to the problem and then do your best to let it go from your immediate mindset. For example, your car may develop a problem late in the day and you begin to worry about how to pay for the repair. Rather then worry throughout dinner and then into sleep, plan to work on the issue in the morning when you can call your repair shop and begin your creative financing with your checkbook. If you have a few thoughts about the matter, jot them down but then put the notes aside.

Now you're asking: how do I stop the worry and put the problem aside? There are a number of cognitive-behavioral skills which can be learned to stop negative thoughts, but they also must be replaced with more positive substitutes. Distraction helps temporarily. You can also learn simple stop behaviors (imagine the details of a big red stop sign to interrupt negative thoughts) or "grounding" (actively involve your mind in processing the immediate sensory stimulations of your environment to pull your mind away from the disturbing concepts.) Most important, you can learn positive life skills to create and maintain happiness and optimism. The Reading Room of my website describes skills for positive living, and the articles on sleeping and dreaming describe ways to cope with nocturnal distress so that put-aside problems can be dealt with at a later time.

I will leave you with one simple but powerful technique to create more positive thinking and moods. This technique has research support as an effective tool to counter depression and anxiety. At the end of the day, instead of worrying about your problems, sit down and make a written or mental list of things in your life you are grateful for. Spend a moment relaxing, contemplating these positives in your life in as much detail as possible. Allow your mind and body to be filled with peace and contentment, and let the power of these positive images linger with you. If you tend to wake up in a sour mood, post your thoughts of gratitude by the mirror so that you will remember and can return to your positive state. Keep doing this, and you will find your habits of depression and anxiety slowly being replaced by habits of more positive thinking. You'll find you have more energy, motivation and optimism when you return to solve your original life problem.