Hacking Your Executive Function: Resisting Temptations

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Note: there may be some mention of self harm or other unhealthy coping strategies. It should not be graphic.

Hello and welcome to the least fun part of executive function, resisting temptations (booooo everyone give in to temptations it’s so fun). But in all seriousness, sometimes we do need to have the ability to look at something that could be fun or taste delicious or feel nice and say “nope I gotta do something healthy and responsible today”. We all have to be our own inner parents and force ourselves to eat a vegetable every once in a while.

When I first started researching for this series I didn’t realize that this type of skill was part of executive functioning, but it COULD explain why I consistently eat too much ice cream immediately before doing aerials and even though I know it will make me sick I still can’t make myself stop.

Anyway, the point is that the part of your brain that has to balance what you want and what you need is the same part of your brain that organizes and balances other complex things like schedules and emotions. So we’re going to talk about using some of the same types of strategies that we did for organizing other stuff to organize your needs when you gotta do poopy stuff instead of fun stuff.

The first thing I’d note is that if you want to “resist temptations” (I really need a better way to say this) you need to be aware of what it is you’re trying not to do (eat a bunch of sugar, fall asleep at 3:00 in the afternoon on the couch, play video games all day instead of doing your work) so that you can tailor your strategies to fit that. It’s best to have a clear and defined goal that is reasonable, so instead of saying “I’m not going to eat any sweets ever again” you might say “I’m only going to eat dessert two times a week.”

Sometimes you can prep ahead of time and set yourself up for success, but sometimes things will pop up unexpectedly (a wild cake appeared! What do you do?), so you’ll also want to have some skills that can be deployed at a moment’s notice. Let’s start with planning ahead, then move into reactive strategies.

There are a few tactics that are very similar to ignoring distractions: create an environment where there’s just less temptation. I try not to buy ice cream from the store and keep it at home so that if I want some I have to drive somewhere and get it. Get an app that blocks websites you would RATHER be on if you have to work. Or you may want to create an ideal environment by building up your ability to focus on what you should be doing, like giving yourself a reasonable number of tasks to work on or trying the Pomodoro Technique.

BUT as I mentioned in the previous post, we don’t have unlimited amounts of self control. I personally am a proponent of moving away from black and white thinking when it comes to things that are tempting. You don’t have to give up all sugary desserts, just be reasonable about how often you eat them. When you give yourself a set amount of the thing you’re craving, it gives you something to look forward to and can help you to stop focusing on how bad you want it. I like to build these types of things in as a reward for doing the harder thing and using my willpower. So if I’m trying to spend an afternoon working instead of watching Youtube, I might say that I can have one hour of Youtube once I finish a certain number of tasks. It’s easier to put the temptation away when it has a clear time and place and you feel confident you’ll have it later.

Sometimes though it’s just not possible or healthy to give yourself a small amount of something. One of the things that has required me to resist temptation was overcoming self harm. A great option for resisting temptation in those cases is substitution! What is something that satisfies the same urge but doesn’t have the negative consequences? For me it was getting tattoos! I’ve also found that frozen fruits taste a lot like dessert, that fidgets are a good substitution for picking at my nails, and that dying my hair satisfies the urge for change that sometimes leads me to ghost all of my friends. Isn’t substitution fun?

The challenge here can be figuring out what the underlying need is that you are fulfilling through giving in to the temptation. This is where mindfulness can play a role. When you notice yourself getting pulled towards a particular course of action, it can be very helpful to stop for a moment and take note of what you’re feeling. Notice the sensations of your body. Notice the thoughts that are running through your head. See if you can identify the emotions you are feeling. Notice what you were doing before you started feeling specific urges, or if it has been a long time since you did a particular activity you like.

It’s rare that there is only one specific activity that can meet the need we’ve got. When you look at all of this data you may be able to find the underlying need: so self harm was not what I really needed, what I really needed was an intense physical experience that helped me to release some emotions. You may have to try out a couple of different substitutions to find one that scratches the itch so to speak, so be patient with yourself, and potentially use multiple substitutions if a behavior is satisfying more than one need. For reference, there are some good lists of self-harm alternatives out there.

Another good way to deal with temptation is to distract yourself! You can’t focus on how much you want to punch your annoying coworker if you’re neck deep in a really engaging project. This is where it’s good to have a list of Stuff That Gets Me Interested (just generally a good list if you have trouble with your emotions) so that if you’re feeling the siren call of purging a meal, instead you can look at your list and remember that when you’re reading Harry Potter nothing on this planet will be able to distract you.

Finally, you may also want to focus on WHY you shouldn’t be doing the thing you want to do. If logic is your jam, you can give yourself reasons that it’s a bad idea (I should not eat all this ice cream because I will feel horrible), remind yourself of your long term goal (I want to build up my muscles so I should go to the gym instead of taking a nap), or write out a pro and con list of doing or not doing the thing. Even just taking the time to think through your choice is sometimes enough to get past the urge.

Choosing not to do something that sounds appealing in the moment is a big skill. It can range from making long term healthier choices to deciding not to do something really awfully impulsive and dangerous. While we often think about resisting temptations as something our parents or authority figures force on us, it’s actually really important that we have some level of control over our behaviors so that we can choose not to do something that is dangerous, unhealthy, or mean if we want to. Good luck resisting my friends!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Ignoring Distractions and Controlling Attention

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Welcome to part 2 of Inhibition! we’re going to be talking quite a bit about focus today: how to decide what you’re going to focus on and how NOT to focus on the things you don’t want to focus on. Ignoring distractions and keeping your attention on the project or activity at hand. This is one that many people struggle with, especially since many of our lifestyles are set up with oodles of delightful distractions that seem far more appealing than writing a report or cleaning the kitchen. I’m going to be upfront here: sometimes these strategies won’t work. You will get distracted sometimes. But hopefully this can help you set up your life and environment with minimal distractions and improve your ability to get stuff done when you want to.

So the first thing I’m going to suggest for ignoring distractions is going to seem super obvious but sometimes we forget about it, so it’s a good place to start: set up your environment so that you don’t have as many distractions. This might mean your physical environment, so if your pets will get up in your business when you try to work at home you could go to the library instead, or it might mean a digital environment. There are lots of apps out there that will block the internet or certain sites or apps to keep you focused. Maybe you want to keep your phone out of reach so that you can’t text or play games. Maybe you write things out long hand first so that you don’t have any temptations at all (madness I know).

This might also mean lowering the number of sensory distractions. If noise really gets to you, try to find someplace quiet, or potentially use a white noise machine to drown out specific sounds. You can lower the shades so it isn’t too light. Noise cancelling headphones, sunglasses, earplugs, or comfortable clothes are great mobile options. Make the space comfortable and have all that you might need (water, a snack) right there so you don’t have to get up and go get things. When you can keep your body focused in a single place it can sometimes help your mind focus in a single place.

Sometimes that may mean naming a distraction and asking for a change. It’s easy enough to set up your environment well if you’re talking about your own space, but what if you’re sharing an environment with coworkers and they microwaved fish (this is obviously an exaggeration no reasonable or good or acceptable human would do that in shared spaces)? You may have to let them know that a specific behavior is super distracting to you and ask them to change it or offer an alternative. This is also an important thing to remember if a person keeps distracting you, e.g. if you’re trying to work and they keep wanting to talk to you. You can always offer a later time to engage with them, but be firm about needing your own time. If you’re interested in resources about setting boundaries, I highly recommend Captain Awkward.

Once you’ve created an environment that is conducive to focus (and it will look different for everyone, so again, data is great! Figure out how you focus best), you may need to turn inward a bit more. When you can’t focus it’s not because you’re lazy or weak. There’s likely something that your mind and emotions want to pay attention to. One option is to meet that need. I’ve seen some people use “morning pages” where they give themselves 15 or 20 minutes at the beginning of each day to just let out all of their thoughts. Once those thoughts are out and written down they don’t feel like they have to focus on them anymore.

You may also be having a difficult time focusing because there’s a need that’s not being met: if you’re sad or just had a fight with a friend or are really irritated about a Facebook post that someone made, you may need to give yourself a set amount of time to address what’s bothering you before you can really move on. You get 30 minutes to focus on the issue, and then you have to move to the next thing. Visualization can help when you need to be done with that topic, so for example imagining putting it in a box, sealing it, then sticking that box in a closet.

One thing that’s good to remember (and that will come up in other parts of this series) is that willpower is a finite resource. If you continually need to use it, you’ll run out during the day. That’s why it can be great to plan ahead. Do the hardest thing you have during the day first, that way it’s easier to focus on everything else without the Big Bad Scary Thing looming over you. You may also find it easier to focus if you put similar tasks together and do them all at once, like all of your running errands at once, and all of your reading at once, or everything related to your pets at once.

I like to always have my planner open and sitting next to me so that if I do get a bit distracted all I have to do is look down and I can see what I was supposed to be working on. It makes it easier for me to refocus (which is also an important skill).

It’s easy to get overwhelmed and want to distract if you look at your to do list or plan for the day and see a million things to do. I recommend setting realistic goals: pick 3 major things you’re going to accomplish each day. It makes it easier to get through them. Make sure you’re also rewarding yourself with rest time and fun activities after you finish focusing (I always work before play or it will be impossible to shift back into work, but maybe for you it’s easier to give yourself a dose of fun to kickstart the day). I also like to notice if something is EXTREMELY difficult (like more difficult than it normally would be) and just skip it for something that feels easier in the moment. I can always come back to it later, but if my brain does not want to focus on this particular task it is not going to help to use all my willpower and executive function to force myself into working on it. Work with your brain!

I also try to be aware of what useful tasks my brain wants to do at any given moment. If I had planned to do work when I get home, but I’m feeling antsy and don’t want to sit down anymore, maybe I’ll clean instead because that’s easier in the moment.

Last but not least, don’t expect the impossible of yourself. Give yourself a reasonable amount of timeĀ  to stay focused on something without distractions, then a break! You can use the Pomodoro Technique, which is a more formalized way of doing this, or you can just say work 30 minutes, break for 10! It’s always great to get up and move your body during those breaks as well, or you will get groggy and sore and achy.

If you have any tips for staying focused and ignoring distractions, drop them in the comments!

One thing that I want to note here, possibly just for myself but also possibly for you is that many of these things aren’t ground breaking new suggestions. For people who don’t have issues with executive function, these are things that their brain does automatically and unconsciously. When your executive function isn’t quite up to par you have to intentionally and consciously remember to do all of them. Hopefully that’s where some of these reminders can come in handy, even if it’s just writing them down and keeping them somewhere you can look at them.

Hacking Your Executive Function: What the Heck is Inhibition?

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Welcome to part two of Hacking Your Executive Function! This week we’re going to be talking about something that’s relatively new to me: inhibition! I’m so excited to jump in and explore. Similar to Emotion Regulation, we’re going to start with an overview of what this is, why we might want to practice it, how it’s related to executive function, and what the skill does for us.

At its most basic, inhibition is the ability to decide what you do and don’t want to do. It means controlling your automatic or impulsive behaviors and creating behaviors that you want through attention and reasoning. That can be a lot of things: the ability to focus your thoughts and attention on specific things and ignore distractions; or motor control that keeps you from bouncing your leg when bored and anxious; or on a behavioral level choosing not to yell when you’re frustrated. Inhibition is also closely related to building and breaking habits. It’s what allows us to break habits we don’t like and helps us build the habits we do want. It is resisting temptations and ignoring distractions.

Inhibition is one of the very basic forms of executive function. It involves noticing the behaviors and thoughts that you’re having, connecting them to your values and long term goals, and then making plans and initiating the course of action that you do want. There’s a lot contained there, so part of these posts will be breaking down inhibition into different components and finding ways to notice where you’re struggling.

One thing that I want to make super clear is that the type of inhibition that I’m talking about here is an internal skill that someone chooses to engage in. Especially when it comes to autism, ADHD, or other neurodivergences, it is incredibly common for parents, caregivers, teachers, and other authority figures to demand that an individual change or give up certain behaviors. That is NOT what I am promoting here. Instead, what I would like to focus on is skills that will help an individual achieve their own goals, diminish the stress of feeling distracted or out of control, and give an individual the option to choose behaviors that they want.

So we are NOT talking about stamping out your stims but we ARE talking about learning how to better ignore that annoying buzz from the radiator. Sometimes this does mean not doing something that is super fun and choosing to do something less fun, but it’s always to reach the goal that you want to achieve.

I like to think of inhibitory control as your inner parent. This is the part of your brain that helps you balance what you want with what you need, and gives you rules and schedules to keep you on track. It’s the part of you that says “yeah, ice cream for dinner might feel nice now but when you get sick to your stomach in two hours it won’t be so great.” Sometimes it can help to imagine or visualize this part of yourself so that you can have a specific voice or face that acts as the parent. I also like to visualize the more childlike parts of myself so that I can understand what I WANT as well as what I should be doing.

So for example I imagine my child self. This is the part of me that wants to explore, have fun, try new things, be colorful, be loud, and act impulsively. There are elements of this that are very important, and that child self can give me important information when I feel as if I need to be taken care of.

I also imagine that I’ve got a more teenaged self. This is someone who is driven and wants to accomplish, be recognized, be perfect, and fit in. This version of me has a great deal of anxiety and is often too hard on myself, convinced that any rest is bad.

My parent self is the one who balances those two and adds in my long term values, pays attention to emotions, notices what other people are feeling and what they need, and tries to find solutions that will balance all of this. It’s the one that can tell my child self “we’ll do that later but right now we need to take care of work”. It’s also the part of me that can break down any act of inhibition to notice where I’m struggling.

The final section of this blog post will give you an outline of the steps it takes to inhibit a behavior and thus the different places that it can go wrong.

The first step of inhibition is noticing a behavior or thought that you don’t want. Sometimes you’ll notice later that you did something you didn’t want to do (like if you reacted with extreme anger to someone and later feel remorse about it) whereas other times you’ll know in the moment (when you look at the chocolate cake and think “hey, I’m trying not to eat so much sugar” and then you eat it anyway). In both cases it can be beneficial to try to give yourself some time in the moment to not just be aware of the behavior or thought but to take time to consider your options.

The next step would be to gather data. What are your long term goals and what action in the moment will help you achieve them (your shoulds). What do you want to do (your wants). What would be the impact of doing what you want vs. what you should? Will other people be impacted? Will it have negative consequences for you down the line?

Then you can brainstorm solutions. That might be finding a course of action that satisfies should and want. It might be giving yourself a time to fulfill your wants later but doing the shoulds right now. Or maybe you decide that you’ve been doing a lot of should and right now want will be better for you.

Finally you can go ahead and do the thing!

In the next few days I’ll be talking through how you can get better at each of these steps, whether that’s identifying problems, making a decision in the moment, or finding the motivation to do the should when you’d rather do the want. Join me!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Emotion Regulation From the Outside

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Welcome to the end of our section on emotion regulation! We’ve talked through what emotion regulation is, how it’s related to executive function, using DBT skills, relying on logic, and the basics of self-care. You might notice that almost all of these are things that an individual can do pretty much on their own. So now we’re going to talk about external things: what objects you can use to help your emotion regulation and how other people can help you.

I’m going to start with objects because they’re easier than people (ahahahahaha). The first type of objects I’m going to talk about are things that are comforting or helpful for just making you feel better. I can highly recommend weighted blankets if you have anxiety or crave deep pressure, and I also highly recommend finding some fidgets that feel good to you if you’re a fidgeter. Sometimes it takes a bit of work and pickiness to find objects that feel right to you, whether that’s a pillow that’s truly comfortable or a kettle that allows you to make comforting, delicious tea with ease. Don’t be afraid to invest a little bit (as you’re able) in some things that will improve your quality of life in little ways. For me, fuzzy socks and footie pajamas are big, plus absurdly colorful makeup that I can play with if I get bored and antsy at the same time.

You can also use objects to cue other behaviors. If I’m having a particularly hard time, I’ll tape a list of people I can rely on to my bedroom wall. I don’t often have to call those people, but it reminds me that I’ve got a support network. I might also leave my towel on my bed to remind myself to take a bath. It’s easy to brush off self care or forget about it, so I like to make it visible and in my face. Put glitter on my bathroom sink so that I remember to put it on every morning and sparkle.

I also will often put a lot of emotional meaning into objects: there’s a particular blanket that my parents gave me for Christmas when I was very unwell together with a note that said if they weren’t there, imagine that the blanket was them giving me a hug. That blanket always means just a little bit more to me than one that just keeps me warm. There are some objects that might go the opposite direction: I strongly recommend getting rid of objects that remind you of your nasty ex or that you’re only keeping out of obligation to that one aunt you don’t like too much. But if you like solid reminders of the people who love you, it can be lovely to exchange gifts, make each other artwork, or find other physical reminders.

Speaking of people, let’s talk about social elements of emotion regulation because boy howdy there is a lot there. I can’t go into every element of this, because stuff like social anxiety or abuse or healthy boundaries could take up whole books of their own, but what I’d like to focus on here is how you can ask for help and support in your emotion regulation from other people.

My first suggestion is to find some people you don’t have to mask around at all. People you can be completely yourself. That is a tall order, but the payoff is huge. Where you find these people will vary, but I recommend looking into your special interests, or finding one awesome person who is reasonably social and likes you then getting them to introduce you to everyone else they know. Being able to socialize without the anxiety of masking reduces emotional load significantly.

I also like to have friends who will check in on me in a real way. I don’t mean asking ‘hey how are you?” I mean people who know me well enough to notice when my behavior changes, people who know my specific challenges and can ask about them, people who I trust to be honest with them. Sometimes I will specifically ask for things: hey can you text me around noon each day to make sure I’ve eaten something? Other times I just try to see the same people at about the same time each day/week/month so that if things get missed they’ll check in with me.

Friends can also be very helpful for motivation. When you’re struggling to clean your house you can ask someone else to come over and just be your cleaning buddy: they don’t have to help, but you know they’ll show up on this day expecting you to clean and it will help motivate you.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Sometimes I can’t cook for myself and I’ll mention either to specific friends or on Facebook that I need help. I try to be specific in what I ask for in support, e.g. ‘it’s helpful to me if you ask me to go out to dinner or bring me frozen meals” or “it’s helpful to me if you remind me of something you like about me as a person.” That means doing enough work up front that you can at least point someone in the direction of how to help you. Sometimes that means saying “please don’t give advice. I’m not sure what would help, but not that.” When I’m in a particularly bad place I headbutt my husband and tell him “I need help but I don’t know what I need. Can you just make a decision for me?” because I tend towards decision fatigue in a big way.

People are also really good for bouncing ideas off of. I tend to overload myself, hold myself to perfectionistic standards, and work too hard. When I’m feeling overwhelmed I’ll tell a trusted person what’s overwhelming me and propose what I’d LIKE to do instead of all the work. I’ll ask them if it sounds reasonable. Sometimes it helps to have someone else give you permission to do what you should be doing.

Especially if you’re the type of person whose brain tends anxious or depressed, it’s good to have some people who can remind you of what’s reasonable. All of us need that person who will say “what the fuck are you talking about” when we tell them “I suck and everything I do sucks”.

Last but not least, venting to other people can do wonders. Just talking through how you’re feeling to figure it out for yourself, get some feedback on the situation, and have someone say “you’re right that is awful” can go a long way. Don’t forget to include these types of interactions in your self-care schedule, or have people available for unexpected shit days. Building up a network of friends and letting go of people who stress you the hell out can do wonders for your emotion regulation. I highly recommend it.

Next week get ready to dive into inhibition! It’s gonna get wild.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Emotion Regulation and Self Care

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Welcome back to the Emotion Regulation section of our Executive Function series! I hope that you’re not surprised to see the term self care cropping up here, because it’s a very popular concept right now, and I think it’s one that’s often misunderstood so we’re going to dive into how you can use self care concepts to keep your mood in a good place and to manage bad moods.

Self care includes any and all actions that take care of yourself. Duh. Obvious (so many of our emotion regulation things are). But that means it’s not always things that feel good. Self care is all about balance: doing things that will help you feel better in the future because you’re healthy and housed and so on, as well as things that help to fill you up in the moment.

Let’s start with the hard bits of self care. The first thing I’d note on this list is that if you’re going to prioritize self care (which you’ll want to do if you want your emotions to be reasonably stable and not overwhelming), you have to take care of your health. That means making doctors appointments on the regs, getting in to the dentist, going to the grocery store so that you have decent food to eat, getting up and moving around on a regular basis, taking time off when you’re sick, getting vaccines, and so on. This is your long term self care plan.

These are hard things to do. We’ll get into some strategies for how to plan for them as we dive deeper into executive function, but one thing that I want to note is that there’s a kind of chicken and egg situation with executive function: the more you get on top of your ongoing adulting type tasks, the more your emotions will stay up, and the easier it will feel to keep doing those tasks. Even if you can add one of these types of tasks to your regular schedule, it should start building on itself.

I’d recommend having a journal or notebook where you can write down things like your last dentist appointment, your last physical, tracking your sleep, all those basic things that keep your body going strong and keep you from getting behind on important things (like bills, cleaning your home, etc.).

An important element of these types of self care is remembering to say no sometimes. That means saying no to new projects or opportunities when you don’t have time, saying no to fun stuff if you need to get other things done, saying no to people asking you to do things even if you could or you feel obligated. You don’t have to do everything and you can’t do everything. You will be far more capable of “adulting” if you say no some of the optional things in life and dedicate some of that time to managing finance, logistics, and health.

It’s easy enough to say “oh do all the adult things that you’re supposed to do because it will make you feel better” but it’s significantly harder to actually go ahead and figure out how to do those things. Maintaining a house, keeping up on insurance and healthcare and pet visits and car maintenance and when did I get a new IUD last? It’s a lot. We’ll be getting in to some methods for planning and organization later in this series (in fact I’ve got a whole section planned for that), but for now I’m going to give some brief hints that have helped me manage some of these things.

The biggest thing I do is use external scheduling reminders and consistent routines to keep up adult tasks. There are two general types of things that I have to manage: things that are periodic, like getting the oil changed in my car or going to the dentist, or regular things like cleaning the litter boxes or depositing my paycheck. I automate as many of these things as humanly possible (all bills and financial things) which cuts down on quite a bit.

For periodic things, I try to add reminders in multiple places. My phone and my planner are the most common. I also like to set up the next appointment as soon as I do this one, so that I don’t have to remember to make an appointment, just show up (and many if not most places will send you reminders). Consistency is key here. I like to go to the same place every time for something, as that makes it that much easier. We’ll talk more about memory and planners later, but whatever system you end up using, make sure you have the ability to make notes for the future.

The other thing I like to set up is routines! These are great for those regular tasks that always need to get done. Whenever possible I like to include another person in my routine to keep me accountable (this is why my workouts are in a class format), and do a little bit of data collection to find out when I’m most motivated for a given task. I also try not to set expectations too high for myself. Most people consider it disgusting if you don’t clean the litter boxes every day. I do it every three days. But my cats don’t care and I can’t smell it so it’s fine. I keep it realistic because when I make the goal to do it every day I get discouraged and end up doing it less often.

On the other hand, sometimes it feels real frickin’ good to do things that aren’t responsible. I like to schedule at least one day a week during which I do nothing of use. I relax. I drink tea. I eat chocolate. I do the things that let my mind melt. It’s important to have time for just plain old fun and relaxation.

A few notes here: after many years of trying to find the balance of relaxation and work, I’ve come to find that for me it’s a little more complex than that. The indulgent side of self care actually has two components: fun and exciting things that most often happen with friends, and relaxing and quiet things that let my mind and body rest. I need both of these. Spend some time noticing the different needs that you have and figuring out what helps for each one. You may have some self care that looks very traditional (I’m way into baths) and some that doesn’t (self care for me also includes insisting that my weekly Dungeons and Dragons sessions don’t get cancelled too often). You may have to research what self care works for you! There are tons and tons of Googleable lists out there of self care suggestions, so take a look and see what resonates.

A few suggestions: learning a bit about mindfulness is great for some of the relaxation type self care. You may not love it (and that’s ok), but it’s good to have the ability to be somewhat still and learn how to untense your body at least a touch. For those who like meditation or yoga those are great options!

If you are on the autism spectrum or have other sensory processing issues, this is where you want to pay very close attention to your sensory needs. If you’re trying to relax but there’s a fluorescent light that gives you a headache, it’s not going to work. Notice what you’re hyper sensitive to so that you can drown it out when you want your mind to chill out. On the other hand, notice what sensory activities you seek out. My self care goes all off kilter if I don’t get to climb something or swing on something or go whoosh at least a little bit each week. You may be able to incorporate a little bit of self care each day by having a particularly satisfying fidget on your desk.

Speaking of fidgeting, stimming is also something to pay attention to when building your self care routine. If you need to mask your stims while at work or out in public, make sure you’ve got some places to safely and comfortably stim in a way that feels good to you. A space for not pretending is the best self care I know.

Go out and be good to yourselves my friends.

Hacking Your Executive Function: The Logic of Emotion Regulation

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One of the things that I hear often is that emotions and logic are opposites. If you would like to irritate me into a blind rage, say that to me a lot. What we’re going to be talking about today is how to use logic and emotions in tandem, specifically ways that you can use logic to regulate your emotions. Your mileage may vary on these skills (I personally don’t find it useful to try to think my way out of situations because I can argue myself into or out of anything), but for those that find it helpful these seem to be life changing skills.

The first thing that you can do to marry logic and emotions is to spend some time understanding emotions. Turns out that these feelings we’ve got actually tend to follow reasonably predictable patterns. On a very basic level, feelings are information. They tell you something about what is going on around you. Sadness indicates that you’ve lost something or someone. Fear tells you that you’re in danger. Anger tells you that someone has violated your boundaries or done something you find unacceptable. Taking the time to learn what each emotion has to offer you is important, because then in the moment you can respond to the emotion with curiosity: what does this emotion tell me? Can I do what that emotion is asking of me? Am I reacting in a way that matches the intensity of the situation? You can read more about the purposes of emotions in a bunch of places.

Once you’ve done that up front work of figuring out what your emotions do for you, you can do some work that will help you to actually identify individual feelings. Yes, that is work and yes sometimes it is hard, especially when your emotions are particularly strong or you’re having quite a few at once. But knowing what it is you’re feeling and why can give you some helpful information about how to respond.

One place to start is just by having a big ol’ list of emotions handy to help you name what you’re feeling. There are a LOT of feelings words out there and sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on it until you see it in front of you. You may prefer to write about your emotions, or simply spend some quiet time thinking about your emotions. Some people I know like to assign a color to different emotions as it’s easier for them to think that way. You may want to have a professional therapist help you with the process of naming and identifying your emotions if you’re really feeling stuck. In tandem with identifying the emotion, some people like to identify its intensity with a number or color to help them see how to respond.

Another method is to look at what your body is actually doing in any given moment to help you figure out what you’re feeling. I try to notice my physical sensations: is there tightness in my chest? That usually means anxiety. I’ve noticed that when I’m hitting a really low depressive state I feel shooting pains down my right arm. If I’m clenching my fists I am probably angry. For us autistics, we can also look at our stims. If they’re getting super intense, you may be feeling some anxiety. If you’re flapping a lot, maybe you’re excited.

This is one of those places where data can be incredibly helpful, so I personally like to track my emotions each day. It gives me some practice with identifying what I’m feeling, can help me to see what I did when I felt each emotion, and gives me some data about long term patterns. It can also help me to see whether the things I’m doing to improve or change my moods are effective.

What do I mean by that?

Well, sometimes our feelings are out of synch with what’s happening around us or they’re just not helpful. Sometimes I get overwhelmingly angry because someone is chewing loudly in the same room as me. They have not actually violated any boundaries, but because I have sensory sensitivities, the sound is overwhelming and I’m angry. When I stop for a minute and think about it I realize that it’s on me to deal with this situation because they are not doing anything wrong.

I have a few options here: I can continue to be upset, I can try to change the situation, or I can try to accept the situation and see if I can change the emotion.

I just want to stress that sentence because these are the options we have in any circumstance that we don’t like. Any time you are deciding what to do in a given situation you are looking at these three options. It can help to put them into a clear and consistent framework and realize that even if you don’t like “change the situation” or “change the emotion” you’re still making a choice, which is continuing to feel awful.

Ok so you’ve identified an emotion, you’re like “hey I’m pretty distressed about this” and you want to figure out what to do. My first step would be to check the facts: take some time to see if you can describe the situation without emotions and determine if the emotions you’re having make sense and fit in intensity. I often do this by writing things down, or talking through them with another person to see if my perception is reasonable and relatively objective. When you describe the situation try to do it in as neutral of terms as possible: they weren’t making an angry face. Their face was scrunched up, or their jaw was clenched.

This is where you’ll want to rely on your understanding of the purpose of emotions. Let’s say I ask a friend to go to a movie and they say they’re busy. Maybe I feel angry because I feel as if they’re blowing me off. Checking the facts, I don’t have any information about their motive or if they like me. I can ask them more to find out what’s up with them, or if we can go a different time. Maybe I check the facts and realize that they have said no every time I’ve asked them to do something for the last few months. I can probably draw the conclusion that they don’t want to be around me, and I might feel sad or angry.

One thing to note: this is the step where it’s easy to fall prey to cognitive distortions or include your own opinion as fact. Do your best to just describe exactly what happened: “I called my friend. I asked them to the movie. They said no.” Drawing conclusions is separate from the facts. Sometimes you have to do it because you don’t have all the information, but try to be aware when you’re adding in opinions or guesswork. The other person’s emotions, unless they have told you, are not facts.

So now that you have the basic information, you can make some decisions about which course of action to take. If your emotion doesn’t make any sense in the context, you may want to do some work to change the emotion (through self soothing, distraction, self care, etc.). If your emotion does make sense, you may want to try to change the situation in some fashion. There are some times where your emotion does make sense but there isn’t anything you can do about the situation. Those are the shitty times when you just have to accept the way the world is and do your best to manage the emotions.

When I’m choosing what to do to try to adjust an emotion or change a situation, I like to use pro/con lists. I’ll brainstorm a couple possible courses of action (confront my friend, stop asking my friend to go to things, ask a different friend to the movie), and then look at the pros and cons of each one. Write out what would happen if you did that action. Write out what would happen if you didn’t. Think it through to its conclusion!

This is another great place for that data I was talking about earlier! Let’s say you have a distressing situation and you go through all these steps then choose a course of action. If afterwards you continue to feel shitty, then that’s data for the next time you have a similar situation.

Last but not least, some people like to use logic to directly confront their brain’s clear lies. If you’re struggling with emotion regulation, chances are that you’ve got a few myths living in your brain, like “if I can’t please everyone I’m a bad person” or “being skinny reflects my goodness as a person”. Once you identify those myths you can start directly addressing them with facts and logic. If that doesn’t work, I sometimes will imagine them in Donald Trump’s voice because everything he says is trash.

You can check out some other tactics for fighting brain lies over at Captain Awkward, or you can be like me and get a tattoo whenever you feel like you’re forgetting what’s true. Anything to ground you in reality.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Emotion Regulation Skills from DBT

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Hello and welcome to day two of Emotion Regulation week, the week where we talk about finding healthy ways to deal with feelings (I swear it’s more fun than it sounds like). In this section I’m going to focus on skills that I learned in Dialectical Behavior Therapy, because DBT has a whole section on emotion regulation that breaks things down into clear and easy to understand skills, and also because it was the first time that I heard the term emotion regulation or got any education in this realm.

The first skill we’re going to talk about might seem silly when we’re talking about keeping our emotions managed, but sometimes we forget about it: do things that feel good. In DBT speak we call this “accumulate positive experiences” but basically it just means schedule time in your life to do things that you enjoy doing and that make you feel good.

Seems easy right? Sometimes this requires actually doing some work. You may have to try a few different things to see what actually leaves you feeling more positive than when you started. Gather some data! Write down how you feel before you do something “fun” and how you feel after to see if it actually improved your mood. Do some work to see which things affect which moods (for example I tend to find that aerials makes me feel much better when I’m angry or overwhelmed, but is much harder when I’m at a low/sad/down mood). For some people this is the typical “self care” type things like taking a bath, deep breathing, or manicures, but for others it’s playing Dungeons and Dragons or going for a run or volunteering.

The other element that’s important is prioritizing fun and enjoyable things. It’s easy to let fun fall by the wayside when we get busy, but having regular activities that feel good makes us more capable of facing work and hard situations. Maybe you want to have a weekly activity that you never miss, or maybe you track your socializing or relaxation time in an app or journal.

One note here: this is all about balance! Positive experiences aren’t just sitting around on your computer all day every day, because eventually that stops feeling great. I would also suggest that for things that allow you to zone out or not think you spend some time determining if you actually feel better afterwards. There are certain things I used to do to “relax” (candy crush) that over time I realized weren’t actually that enjoyable, they were just easy and mindless. Pay attention to whether you actually like what you’re doing.

Skill two is called build mastery, but basically it’s doing things that make you feel competent and accomplished. This can be something very very small: if you’re feeling overwhelmed by negative feelings, getting up and taking a shower can give you a first shot of confidence that helps you move on to something bigger. I like to think of it in larger terms too though.

For me, building mastery is often about regularly trying new things so that I can see improvement. That ability to see improvement is incredibly important to me because it makes me feel competent and able. It’s surprising how long that feeling of success lasts when you notice that you’ve improved at something. It carries through into many other areas of your life and helps you to feel in control.

So from little things that allow you to feel like your life is in control (cleaning the bathroom) to big things that allow you to feel in control of your own growth (seeing progress in your career), incorporating elements into your life that give you a sense of control and improvement will help to keep your mood up.

You may have noticed that our first two skills have to do with ongoing emotional regulation. They are things you can incorporate throughout your life that should help to keep your mood from dipping too low. The next two skills are going to be about reacting to difficult experiences.

So skill number three is called cope ahead. Sometimes we can anticipate that a particular situation or experience will be difficult. If you’re planning to break up with someone, or if you’ve got a performance review coming up, you can anticipate that you might have some big and challenging emotions around the situation. Cope ahead is essentially identifying situations that are likely to be challenging and then thinking of what you can do to make it better.

What might that look like?

The first step is being somewhat mindful about potentially nasty situations. A lot of the time we can identify them by noticing if we’re feeling anxious, afraid, or angry about an upcoming situation. Other times it’s super obvious! A big test or a presentation at work is likely to cause a lot of stress. If you are thinking a lot about something or sinking a ton of time into it, practicing a little bit of cope ahead can be great!

Once you’ve figured out what the difficult situation might be, how do you plan for it? You might start by imagining how you want the situation to go, practicing scripts, or imagining where your boundaries are. You can also set up the time before and after the situation to focus on self care. You might make sure you get good sleep and a good meal ahead of time, or spend some time with a person that makes you feel good. I also highly recommend having your emotional emergency kit ready to go afterwards, whatever that might look like for you: for me I like to have my footie pajamas, some chocolate, a good movie, and someone that I can vent to.

One example of this is that I always schedule aerials class for after therapy because I know that I’ll have a lot of emotions and a good workout helps me to feel more relaxed again.

In some cases you may also be able to include some self care in the moment. I like to have a fidget with me during stressful situations, which is a small way to plan for a stressful situation.

Speaking of in the moment, let’s head on to our fourth skill for this post: improve the moment!

You might be surprised that improve is actually an acronym in this case. The skill is exactly what it sounds like: ways that you can try to make yourself feel better when a moment is unpleasant. The acronym is all the different options.

Imagery
Meaning
Prayer
Relaxation
One thing in the moment
Vacation
Encouragement

You can check out all these different definitions here, but what I would focus on for this is finding what works for you. Does it make you feel better to turn to a higher power and pray? Does it make you feel better to take a half hour out of your day and completely zone out without worrying? I like to keep a list of things that help me feel better or at least keep my mood from getting worse when I’m having a bad day. That list has lived in multiple places over time: on my wall in my room, in my journal that I keep with me all the time, on my computer.

You can do a combo pack of cope ahead and improve the moment by writing up that list and putting it in an easily accessible place so that you’ve got the tools you need if something crops up unexpectedly.

This is another area where experimentation can be good. Every time you have a bad day, try something new and see if your mood stays the same, gets worse, or gets better. Write down the ones that works and go from there!

There are tons of great lists of self care options out there that can help give you ideas of what might improve your mood. Check them out and see what you like the best, then practice your emotion regulation skills.