I don’t know if this ever happens to you but there are times that my brain just seems to freeze up. I have so many thoughts swirling through my head that I get overwhelmed. We have 40,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. Some just pass right on through without notice and others are more intrusive. Some thoughts are helpful. And others are negative and critical.
A thought download is a way to take the thoughts from your head and get them on paper. It can also be called a brain dump. It’s a helpful habit to do once or twice a day. Doing them in the morning can help you get clarity for the day ahead. Doing it at night can help empty out all the thoughts from the day and allows for a better night’s sleep. I am working on a practice where I also do it when I’m feeling overwhelmed.
Three times to do a thought download
First thing in the morning – this is a great way to clean out your mind and gain clarity for you day. You can start with just writing whatever comes to mind – plans for the day, thoughts that you woke up with things you’re working on today, etc. If you get stuck you can start with a journal prompt to get your thoughts rolling. Just write, don’t edit. Let it be messy.
At the end of the day – dump out all the thoughts that have been bombarding your brain all day. Put anything down that’s on your mind. Again, let it be messy. Any successes you had today, anything you learned, anything that’s bothering you.
When feeling overwhelmed – a great way to unravel all the stuff running through your brain to sort out what’s important now and what you can just put down on paper and let go.
Many times, simply doing this will be enough. It clears out your head and tells your brain that you’ve “dealt with” many of the thoughts it was trying to remind you of. Sometimes you may be surprised at the things you wrote down. Things that you didn’t even realize you were thinking. It’s like being able to be on the outside and view your own thinking. And you may decide that some of those thoughts are things you want to keep thinking. But some of them are maybe thoughts you want to question. They may be thoughts you want to do some mindset work on. You can do this by putting it through a process like the self-coaching model. You can learn more about doing that on my post The Ultimate Practice to Boost Your Mental Wellness.
My recent cancer journey coincided with reading a book called Chosen Suffering. It was a book that one of my church pastors quoted from and I was intrigued. It was been a timely read in the midst of what I was going through. The book is written as a leadership book by Tom Ryan who is a college wrestling coach. He talks about chosen suffering as in the suffering an athlete chooses in order to become elite. Unchosen suffering enters his life with the sudden, unexpected death of one of his young children.
What about unchosen suffering?
Reading the book helped me reframe what I was going through. The cancer diagnosis itself is unchosen suffering. I did not choose it or ask for it. But I have choices following that diagnosis. And that has given me a new mindset. My surgeon, oncologist, and radiologist recommend treatments based on their knowledge and I had the option of choosing to take those actions or pursuing other treatments. When I have side effects from treatments, I can dwell on the suffering that I’m currently feeling, or I can remember that I chose this option. I can spend my mental energy on getting through the challenges in the best way possible. Or I can be the best I can be with the circumstances that were outside my control. We can’t control other people or many of the things that happen to us, but we can control our responses to those things.
“Pain is the feeling. Suffering is the effect the pain inflicts. If one can endure pain, one can live without suffering. If one can withstand pain, one can withstand anything. If one can learn to control pain, one can learn to control oneself. ” ― James Frey, My Friend Leonard
I have a choice in how I walk through unchosen suffering. Choosing to add more suffering on top of that is never going to be the best option. There is a Buddhist parable about this. Imagine walking through a forest and getting hit by an arrow. There is pain and probably fear as a result of getting struck by an arrow. The second arrow refers to your emotional reaction to getting hit by that first arrow.
When I finished my 12 weeks of chemotherapy I was looking forward to 30 days of recovery before having to start radiation. I was looking forward to rebuilding my stamina. I couldn’t wait for food to taste good again. Two weeks into this recovery period I got COVID. I was sick, exhausted, and lost my sense of taste and smell. Unchosen suffering. The first arrow.
And then I added on the second arrow. I got angry, disappointed, and frustrated. I wallowed in, “It’s not fair.” I whined and complained. Thankfully, I didn’t stay in that emotional funk for too long. But I didn’t have to add on all that extra uncessesary chosen suffering. I ultimately focused on the things that I was grateful for, despite my circumstances as in one of my favorite Bible verses:
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned[e] and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Do you believe that stress is harmful to your health?
I have always been taught that this was the case. But, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist reveals some very interesting findings in the TED talk I will post below. I’ll jot some highlights down in case you don’t want to take the time to watch it.
In a study that tracked 30,000 U.S. adults over 8 years it was found that people that had high stress AND believed that stress was harmful for their health had a 43% risk of dying. On the flip side, people that had high stress and believed that it was not harmful for them had a lower risk of dying – even lower than those who had very little stress. Crazy!
In the post-talk interview, Kelly says, “Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort.” And she gives the advice to,
“Goafter what it is that creates meaning inyour life and then trust yourself to handle the discomfort that follows.”
The bottom line is, your belief about stress can make a difference in your life expectancy!
Would you describe yourself as burned out or flourishing?
How do you describe your current level of mental wellness?
There are times in life when we are disillusioned with where we are in our jobs, our families, our lives. Times when we are ready for change. If that is you then keep reading. My mission is to help nurses go from frustration, burnout, and stagnation to flourishing. According to Dr. Lynn Soots, “Flourishing is the product of the pursuit and engagement of an authentic life that brings inner joy and happiness through meeting goals, being connected with life, passions, and relishing in accomplishments through the peaks and valleys of life.” The opposite of flourishing is stagnation, languishing, feeling stuck. It’s when the comfort zone just starts to feel like a rut.
One thing we are not taught while growing up is how to take care of our own mental wellness. Then, we go into healthcare and have to deal with some of the most difficult parts of the human condition. Dying patients, neglect, abuse, horrific trauma, and more. We work with people on the most difficult days of their lives. And we are on our own to figure out how to cope with it all. Me? I just shoved it all down. Stayed numb. But you can only do that for so long. It’s like holding a large beach ball under water. Eventually it pops up through the surface.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a flourishing nurse is content and satisfied. She feels like her life and her job have purpose. She is engaged in her life and is accepting of all parts of herself. She has a sense of personal growth and works on her mental wellbeing and spiritual health.It is a state of being. It’s a process that takes effort and attention.
It does not mean you are always happy or that you only feel positive emotions. But it means you can feel a full range of emotions and you don’t have to hide from them or stuff them down in order to function.
Personally, I want to be a Flourishing Nurse. I want to understand that I can be happy despite my circumstances. I want to be a person who is ok with feeling discomfort – whether that means nervousness, sadness, grief, fear, or anxiety. I want to know just what to do when I feel these feelings. I want to have a self-care routine that takes care of my physical, emotional, and spiritual health on a daily basis. I want to know how to seek help when my own routines are not enough and I want to be unashamed to do so. I want to take responsibility for the things I can control – my own thoughts, feelings, and actions. I want to stop trying to bear the burden for the things I can’t control – these include other people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors – they are not my responsibility.
If you’ve read this far I want to give you some practical information that you can begin to implement today to get you closer to the person you want to be. A tool called the self-coaching model has been such a valuable practice in managing my own mental wellness, dealing with adversity, and consistently moving towards my goals and dreams. This is a long post packed with information. I also created a summary ebook with a self-coaching checklist for you to download if you’d like. CLICK HERE and I’ll send it over to your email inbox.
The Self-Coaching Model
I use a concept called the self-coaching model in my own daily practice and in my coaching. The Model is a way of describing how we function in the world. When we are going through our days we don’t really realize that this process is happening. It is very automated.
This particular way of describing how we think, feel, and act was developed by Brooke Castillo of The Life Coach School, one of my mentors. You can learn more about Brooke and her work at The Life Coach School. If you study psychology you will see these principles worded many different ways. It’s not a new concept. For our purposes, we will use the term “the model.” We dig deep into how the model plays out in your specific circumstances in my Flourishing Nurses program. But for now I want to give you an idea of how it’s playing out in your life and how you can intervene to create better results.
When studying the Bible I read things like “renew your mind” or “transform your mind.” I’ve always desired to do this but I didn’t really know what steps I should take to accomplish this. I had the desire to do it but I couldn’t figure out “the how.” My brain just seems to keep offering up my usual negative way of thinking. The framework of the model helps me to understand this transformation in a way I can understand and gives me the clarity I need to take action. Self-coaching is the term I use for the daily process of recognizing my current thinking, gaining understanding on how it’s affecting my results, and tweaking it to bring about the results I want in my life.
The Unintentional Model
The term “unintentional model” is what is already happening in our brains without being conscious of it. Author Jon Acuff describes these unintentional thoughts as the soundtracks of our lives. They are the thoughts that just play in the background without conscious thought or effort. Many of these thoughts are negative. Thoughts like, “I’ll never lose weight,” or, “This relationship was a mistake,” or “I’m never going to figure this out.” Thinking thoughts like this over and over become beliefs for us. And your brain works really hard to prove those beliefs true.
The Intentional Model to Take Action Towards Better Mental Wellness
Once we recognize this unintentional process and what it’s creating in our lives, we can create an “intentional model” and put it to work to create our desired goals. But first we have to acknowledge that our current way of thinking, feeling, and acting is what is getting us the results we have now in our jobs, our relationships, our health, etc. We have to stop blaming things or people outside our control. The blame game just keeps us stuck as victims of our circumstances. Let me explain more.
Where are you now?
Before we dig into the model itself I want to take you through an exercise. Think about a goal you want to achieve. It can be a big goal or even just one step of a larger goal. Grab a sheet of paper and write down your goal. It can be any goal. Some examples:
Clean out my closet
Lose 50 pounds
Obtain my Bachelor’s degree
Run a 5k in under 30 minutes
Become a Nurse Practitioner
Clean out my email inbox
Take a new job or switch departments
…any size goal will do for this exercise.
Now write down where you are now in relation to this goal. What is your current situation? Write as much detail as possible. How do you feel when you think about it?
For example if you had a weight loss goal you might write:
I weigh ___ pounds. I am out of breath when I go up stairs or play with my children. I am reluctant to play on the floor with my kids because I struggle to get up again. I have aches and pains that I never used to have. I avoid certain activities (get specific) that I used to enjoy because my weight causes a problem. Riding on amusement park rides are uncomfortable because of my size. I eat until I’m uncomfortable sometimes. I can’t stick to my diet. I am frequently disappointed in myself. I don’t tell my friends I’m on a diet because I’ve failed so many of them before. Etc., etc., etc.
Write as much as you can about where your starting line is.
Where do you want to be?
Then, brainstorm how it would look if you achieved your goal. What does that look like to you? What are the actions you take? What do you think? How do you feel? What kind of person have you become by achieving?
Continuing on with the weight loss example I might write this:
When I achieve my goal I will be able to fly on an airplane without a seat belt extender. My blood sugar levels will be in the normal range. I will be able to play with my children without getting short of breath. My feet and knees won’t hurt anymore. I will be able to enjoy hiking with my family. I will be a good example of healthful eating and taking care of my body. I enjoy delicious foods but I don’t overeat. I have learned that I can do difficult things and I take the things I learned in my weight loss journey and apply them to other goals. I am proud of myself.
Keep writing…as much as you can think of.
Brainstorm Your Obstacles
The next step is to brainstorm all the obstacles that are in your way of achieving that goal.
I don’t know what to eat to lose weight.
I can’t exercise because my knees hurt.
My doctor says I need medication to lower my blood sugar.
My family keeps junk food in the house.
I’m addicted to junk food.
I eat when I’m stressed and I’m under a lot of stress right now.
Think of every obstacle in your way.
Now set your paper aside. We’re going to dig into some detail about the model and then we’ll come back to this exercise and plan your strategies.
Overview of The Model
The beauty of the model is that we can use it to solve ANY problem. Isn’t that amazing? We abbreviate the model with the acronym CTFAR.
Your result always ties back to the original thought that drove this whole model.
Let’s dig in a little deeper
Circumstances are neutral Just the facts. (C) •
Circumstances are things that happen in the world. Things outside of our control. This can be a diagnosis, something someone said to you, something that happened to you, or anything really. It is a fact, provable in a court of law. Everyone would agree. Your weight on a scale is a fact. We could all look at it and see the same number. The judgement, “I am fat” is not a fact. That is your thought about the number on a scale. When you write a circumstance there should be no adjectives. It’s very plain, boring, “fact-y.” We tend to think that these circumstances are to blame for how we feel, act, or for what results we’re seeing. But…
The reality is thoughts are always the problem (T) •
Our thoughts are just sentences inside our brains. It is estimated that we think 40,000 – 60,000 thoughts every day. Most of those thoughts we are not even aware of. We accept most of these thoughts as true even though many (most?) are not true. Thoughts are not facts. They are thoughts. We know this because 5 people could see the same thing and have 5 different thoughts. Maybe you see someone dancing around on the sidewalk in front of a store.
You might think:
“He’s on drugs.”
Someone else might think,
“He sure looks happy.”
“This is embarrassing.”
“I wish I felt so free and wasn’t worried about what other people thought.”
“I wonder if he needs help.”
Same circumstance – man dancing. 5 different thoughts.
Your Thoughts Create Your Feelings (F) •
Once you have a thought in the mind, your body reacts with a feeling/emotion. This can happen in an instant. Often so fast that we don’t connect the thought to the emotion. Many times we think that the circumstance created the feeling. As in, “He yelled at me and made me so mad!” Really he yelled at you and you had a thought that made you mad. The thought was probably something like, “He shouldn’t yell,” or “I hate it when he yells at me,” or “Oh, snap! Now it’s on!” That thought unleashed the emotion of anger.
Here’s the thing, if you think that your feelings come from things outside of yourself (what other people say, what they think about you, your situation at work, a diagnosis, etc.), then you have to either control the world or feel really crummy about yourself and your situation when you can’t control it.
Recognizing how your thoughts and feelings work together is the key to taking action towards your goal of improved mental wellness. (A) •
It’s also the key to understanding how you are getting the undesired results you are currently facing in your life.
We take action FROM our feelings. When we are feeling angry we do different things than when we are feeling curious. When we are feeling motivated we take different action than when we are feeling shame. Feelings are the fuel. If you want different results, you need the right fuel. You get the fuel by managing your thoughts. See how it’s all coming together?
Your actions create your results (R) •
Usually, we try to accomplish things in our lives by changing our actions. Often, we fail over time because we don’t know how to consistently maintain those actions. Using the weight loss example, you might try to lose weight by doing a super restrictive diet and increasing exercise. It works for a while…days, weeks, maybe even months. But then you fall off the wagon and it all goes wrong. Likely you were taking that action from a place of shame, dissatisfaction, frustration, or other negative emotions that got you started on your journey. Unfortunately, those emotions are not emotions that fuel consistent action.
Let’s put it all together
A thought download, or brain dump, is the one of the most effective ways to getting to your thoughts so that you can apply the self-coaching model. If you did the exercise at the beginning of this post about where you were, where you want to be, and the obstacles in your way, you already did a version of a thought download. That was kind of a guided, more organized thought download.
Thought downloads are often disorganized, messy, and all over the place. Because that’s how our brains are! We have 40,000 – 60,000 thoughts a day. Thought downloads help us pull some of those thoughts out so you can see them, decide if they are helpful thoughts, recognize what those thoughts are creating for you, and then decide if they are thoughts you want to keep. I recommend you do a thought download at least once a day to uncover your thoughts and apply the model.
Go back to the exercise you did at the beginning of this post. Write CTFAR down the left hand side of the page. Look at the sentences you wrote in the “where are you now” section. What part of those sentences are facts and what part are thoughts? Put one fact in the C (circumstance) line and your thought about that circumstance in the T (thought) line. In the F (feeling) line, write how that thought makes you feel. Then, next to the A (actions) list all the actions you take or the actions you avoid when you are feeling that way. And lastly, next to the R (results) write the result those actions are creating.
f I go back to my weight loss example I could write the following model:
C – I weight ___ pounds
T – I can’t stick to my diet
F – discouraged
A – deprive myself then comfort myself with food, give up, beat myself up emotionally,
R – I don’t stick to my diet
Can you see how, in this example, my thoughts are leading me to the very result I don’t want? When I take action from a place of discouragement I am never going to find sustainable actions.
Now write CTFAR down the page again.
The C will be the same as the previous model. I weigh ___ pounds.
For the T line, choose a thought from the things you wrote in the “Where I want to be” section above. For my example I chose:
T – I enjoy delicious foods but I don’t overeat
F – encouraged
A – I plan realistic foods, I plan for delicious foods, I stop eating when I’m satisfied because I know I can have this food again, I don’t tell myself I’m deprived, I don’t tell myself I’m restricted, I evaluate when I do have times when I eat too much so I can learn, I don’t beat myself up about any overeats
R – I am able to enjoy foods I love and still lose weight
So, with this model you can start to see how thinking about the situation (my weight) a bit differently, I generate a feeling that helps me institute activites that move me towards my goal instead of sabotaging myself with the previous thought of, “I can’t stick to my diet.”
Changing thoughts doesn’t just happen in an instant. Your brain has had a lot of practice thinking the old thoughts. It takes practice. You can apply this process to anything you want. You look at how your current thinking is producing your current results. And then you play around with thoughts that could lead you closer to your goal until you find a thought (or several thoughts) that actually lead you closer to where you want to be.
Go back through the obstacles you listed in the exercise above. Put some of those obstacles in the model and see if you can put them in the model and come up with some solutions to get you to your goal. Reach out to me if you need help with this.
Your Current Level of Mental Wellness
Your current mental wellness is a measure of the quality of your thoughts. We all have times when our circumstances seem to drive how we feel. But in reality, it’s our thought life that has the power to do that. That is such good news! Because we don’t always have the power to change our circumstance. But we always have the power to change our own thoughts.
This doesn’t mean that we will always have positive feelings. Throughout life there are times where we do want to feel sad, or disappointed, or angry. But you can decide the feelings you want to feel on purpose and know that they don’t just happen to you.
Again, if you’d like a summary of self-coaching with a reminder checklist you can CLICK HERE and I’ll send it over to your email inbox.