Establishing an upward cycle during challenging times  

Our brains like to plan and are wired to see uncertainty and change as a risk/ threat. As human beings we crave routine, certainty, and predictability, so when faced with an unfamiliar situation our brain defaults to survival mode. Heightened levels of stress and uncertainty triggers our flight or fight response and releases hormones including cortisol and adrenaline to help us deal with the perceived threat. Repeated activation of the stress response, especially for prolonged periods is quite exhausting for us. Our immunity is supressed, our levels of motivation plummet, and we start to feel an overwhelming sense of fatigue. 

Living through a global pandemic for the past two years, we’re sure many have endured the stress of uncertainty and change which has taken a toll on our mental health. 

So, what are some the psychological impacts of uncertainty and change? 

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion 
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job and life goals 
  • Feeling a sense of increased resistance to more change 
  • Increased anxiety 
  • Feelings of negativity or cynicism 
  • Memory lapses, lack of focus or ability to concentrate 
  • Feeling numb 
  • Headaches or insomnia 
  • Heightened emotionality: tearful, angry 
  • Loss of confidence 

Constant change / transitional periods, and uncertainty over a prolonged period causes our stress response to continuously re-activate, leading to emotional exhaustion and draining our already low energy reserves. This can lead to fatigue and burnout sending us into a downward spiral and creating negative pressure on motivation. Motivation sits in prefrontal cortex which requires quite a bit of fuel to function at optimum, also when we are experiencing burn out, we are more short term in our thinking (looking for short term reward and comfort) as opposed to working towards longer term goals.  

So, what can we do? 

1. Implementing an Emergency Relief Kit 

We all encounter challenging times at some point in our lives, and each of us cope in different ways. Figuring out our own positive strategies (“our emergency relief kit”) to readily draw upon during tough times can boost our wellbeing and circuit break a downward spiral. Our emergency relief kit are the strategies we have built overtime to help us cope. For some of us, this may be mini mindfulness minutes throughout the day, listening to our favourite upbeat song, going for a walk, journaling, or getting a hit of sunshine. However, for others we may turn to strategies such as alcohol, drugs, or avoiding friends and family. This can be a temporary distraction, but often leaves us feeling worse and sending us further into a downward spiral. It’s important that we learn to cope in positive ways that support our mental health and wellbeing. Building self-awareness on how we cope during challenging times and reflecting on whether these are helpful can help us to choose a positive coping mechanism to boost our wellbeing and establish an upward cycle.  

2. The Role of Self Talk and Mindset 

Uncertainty and change are an inevitable part of life, and whilst these are out of our control, positive self-talk, and mindset play an important role in nurturing our resilience to tackle the unknown and pull us out of a downward spiral. Self-talk influences the way we see and perceive ourselves. If we have negative self-talk, it can increase our stress, and undermine our confidence. Negative self-talk has been associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms and lower levels of self-esteem. On the other hand, positive self-talk can correct the biases towards our negative thoughts and change our entire mindset. People who engage in positive self-talk can feel like they have more control over their lives, which can enhance their coping skills in times of need. So, how can we stop negative self-talk and shift to positive self-talk? 

  • Identify negative thoughts 

It’s important to try and recognise when we are experiencing a negative thought. We can do this by paying close attention to our emotions. When we feel a negative emotion, such as feeling sad, angry, or frustrated, we can identify the thought that caused us to experience these unpleasant feelings. 

  • Challenge negative thoughts 

A great way we can challenge our negative thoughts is to write them down. When we write down our thoughts, we can express how we are feeling and can better understand our emotions by re-reading our thoughts back to us. Challenging our thoughts is about thinking positively in a negative situation. So, try to write down something positive or ask yourself, “what can I learn from this?”. This can help to boost our gratitude mindset which can help to embrace obstacles and persist in the face of challenges that we may encounter. 

  • Replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk 

Replacing our negative self-talk with positive self-talk is a challenge and requires constant practice. Next time, we see ourselves talking negatively, stop, take a deep breath in, engage in our senses, and try to choose a different mindset. 

3.     Values, Meaning, Connections 

In uncertain times, connecting with our values can help give us back a sense of control. When we fail to connect to our values, we often find ourselves stuck, and struggling to find purpose or fulfilment. Determining what we value is the first step to building meaning in our lives and is a powerful tool to navigate uncertainty and establish an upward cycle. To identify our values, we can start by understanding what is important to us and why. By acting in accordance with our values we are less likely to feel overwhelmed during difficult times. Social connections are also important in establishing an upward cycle during challenging times. The pandemic caused a time of disconnection and isolation for many of us and, whilst loneliness is on the rise, lack of human connections can be harmful to our mental health and wellbeing. Loneliness can increase activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our flight or fight response. Building meaningful connections and social supports can help to reduce stress and build our resilience. Several pieces of research highlight that, social connections can reduce anxiety, and depression. Social connectivity releases oxytocin making us feel happy and loved, and as human beings they are a fundamental need. 

Webinar: Establishing an upward cycle during challenging times 

Our most recent webinar, leverages the neuroscience and best practice principals to provide you with strategies to support “an upward cycle” and sustained wellbeing.  

For more information visit, https://cfch.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Webinar_Establishing-an-upward-cycle-during-challenging-times.pdf, or contact us at learningandwellbeing@cfch.com.au or on 02 8243 1500