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Making change possible

Making change possible: Tony Bates
23 01 2007 Irish Times by kind permission
Mind Moves: I want to unfold. I don't want to stay folded anywhere, because where I am folded, there I am untrue - (Rilke)
Forgive me if I revisit the theme of change this month. Perhaps it is because we are taking our first steps together into the new year, a time when our desire to change and unfold in those places we feel stuck, runs headlong into our awareness of how difficult it can be to do so.
Psychology has said a lot about this basic human conundrum. Different writers have offered their particular insights about what makes change so elusive and what seems to make it possible.
Tom Borkovek is a psychologist who has spent years studying how people free themselves from negative patterns of behaviour. He is not a household name - he has confined himself to hard-nosed research rather than popular literature - but his insights and findings have radically influenced the way psychotherapists in the cognitive and behavioural traditions work with people who feel afraid a lot of the time, ie people with anxiety disorders.
In the next few columns I would like to share with you some of the core principles of becoming unstuck that Borkovek has distilled from four decades of psychological research.
The most basic discipline for changing how we feel is what behaviourists have called self-monitoring. This simply means that you deliberately pay attention to what happens within you as you find yourself running up against familiar experiences of becoming tense, fearful or gloomy.
Initially it may be helpful to write down what you see happening in your mind and in your body. Writing things down helps you to stand back from your experiences and appreciate what is happening more objectively.
It can be easier to snare your thoughts on paper rather than have them buzzing around inside your head like wild bees.
What you will discover when you take time to monitor your moments of difficulty is that much of your distress is being created by the preconceptions and negative expectations you bring to challenging situations rather than the situation itself.
When we react negatively to stressful situations, our reactions are stored in memory and strengthened, making it much more likely to happen again. When it happens often enough, our reactions begin to feel as familiar as an old pair of shoes; your stress begins to feel like the real you. And because it keeps happening, you conclude that you can't change. So everything stays the same and you feel stuck.
This problem arises because your expectations of the world are out of tune with what is actually going on in your present moment environment. You are like someone who insists on trying to navigate their way through new unchartered terrain with an out-of-date map.
Self-monitoring creates an opportunity for you to see that you are much more in charge of your life than you might realise. As you observe your familiar negative reactions, you see that your negative feelings arise less from outside, ie the challenges that confront you, and more from inside, ie your own internal dialogue about what's happening.
For example, when you encounter a problem at work, your stress level rises, not so much because of the problems you face, but because you assume you will be blamed for whatever has gone wrong.
Suddenly your imagination becomes gripped by an internal drama where you see yourself being accused of being irresponsible and your thoughts become caught up in the fantasy of defending yourself. Naturally this internal drama does little to resolve the problems at hand.
Being able to notice these familiar patterns as they become activated opens up possibilities of real choice; you can go down that well-worn path, and you may find it hard not to, but eventually you begin to see that you don't have to.
Relaxation training is a second core principle of becoming unstuck that can help you to change. There are many forms of relaxation and part of taking care of your mental health is knowing what works for you. It's good to have a strategy that you can call on when you notice familiar patterns of stress.
Counting backwards from five, linking each number to your outbreath until you reach one - and repeating this as often as you need - is a simple and effective technique. As you relax and find some tranquillity it becomes easier to let go the grip of your defensive thinking, to open yourself to the present moment and engage with the nit and grit of what is actually happening now in your life.
Change becomes easier when you see that you are far more than your habitual reactions and when you learn to connect with what it is that you care most about and want to bring into your life.
But enough for now. We'll pick this up again in two weeks' time and look at how our emotions and deeper values can allow us to unfold in places where we feel stuck.

Tony Bates is a clinical psychologist and chief executive of Headstrong - The National Centre for Youth Mental Health.

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