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  • Writer's pictureElfreda Manahan-Vaughan

Staying Focused in Challenging Situations

I recently posted a question to my Facebook page asking if anyone had anything they’d like my help with or opinion on. One of the questions posed was ‘staying focused on the moment in challenging situations’. I promised I’d write a blog post on this and here it is.

There is so much I can say about this topic that I am going to try to keep it concise with five specific tips you can use, but before I do there is a little I want to say about what we need to do to be aware first, when it comes to our challenges.

In my online course From Competence to Confidence I devote a whole section to ‘Identity Beliefs’. Charles H. Cooley calls this the ‘Looking Glass Self-Theory’. In this theory Cooley believes we construct our identity based on what we imagine others expect us to be.

‘I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am’ C. H. Cooley.

When it comes to situations we find stressful it is important to realise the stress comes from our beliefs around who we think we are, what we imagine others expect from us and how we feel about our potential failure or success. The stress is all our own making and because of this fact we also have the power to change it.

Here are my Five Strategies for Staying in the Moment in Challenging Situations.

1. Notice Your Thoughts

When we become overwhelmed or find our mind wandering, when we need to stay focused, it is usually because our mind has drifted into the past or future, thinking how things went wrong before or, more often, what could go wrong in the future. It’s important that we notice what we are thinking, the types of thoughts we have and what beliefs we have about ourselves and the situation we are in. When we begin to notice our thoughts then we have the power to challenge or change them, which is fundamental to moving away from learned helplessness. You can find out about this in the work of Martin Seligman and his book Flourish. When we identify our thoughts then we can begin to examine our explanatory style, which leads me to my next strategy.

2. What is your Explanatory Style?

Martin Seligman’s research has shown that pessimism is a precursor to depression and to catastrophising and rumination. When we explain our circumstance in a negative way we can usually find that the language we use is pessimistic. This means we describe things as personal ‘it’s all my fault’, permanent ‘this always happens’ and pervasive ‘what if I lose my job and can’t pay my bills and everything goes wrong’. What we say to ourselves and how we explain our beliefs about the world tells us a lot about how we will feel in times of stress. If we believe these things are transient, isolated and not personal then it is easier to move on and let go when things don’t go as planned. If you want to find your Explanatory Style there are several tests on the Penn State website here

3. Create an Anchor

In NLP we often talk about anchors and how certain experiences have memories and associations attached. I am sure you have certain smells that remind you of your childhood or foods that you associate with feeling unwell which make you not want to eat them. I ate a tube of Pringles once, in one sitting, and I am quite slow to eat Pringles now, as the memory of feeling unwell is well embedded into my mind. This a negative anchor but we can also create a positive one or one to stop us doing something in the moment. Richard Bandler uses one where he stops repetitive thinking by saying ‘Shut the F*@K Up’ in his mind. Martin Seligman recommends an elastic band, to snap, on the wrist and saying ‘Stop’ loudly in our mind. This can stop our thoughts from racing away. In Mindfulness a Mindfulness bell is often used as reminder to stay in the moment or placing stickers around our home or office to remind us to stay present every time we see one. These are useful in the moment if things have already started to derail. However, being prepared in advance is even better.

4. Practice How You Want to Feel

One of the most powerful NLP exercise we can learn is building a powerful state. What this means is creating a set of feelings and behaviours in advance of a situation, that could be potentially stressful, so that you are already ready to deal with it. This can be creating a state of calm by thinking about what we see, hear and feel when we are calm and creating an anchor to fire off in the moment to trigger it, when we are feeling overwhelmed. My own personal one is a deep breath and shoulder roll. This action triggers confidence, calm and mindful awareness for me. I’ve practiced it so many times now that it happens instantaneously and because I am aware of the thoughts that trigger my stress I just fire it off as soon as I need to. Knowing when you need it is vital, which leads to my last strategy.

5. Practice Mindfulness

I know for those of you who read my posts regularly you might think I am broken record, but I can’t impress on you enough how important it is to practice Mindfulness, if you want things to change. The brain works through repetition so, in order for us to learn something we need to do it over and over again. Noticing your thoughts, knowing your explanatory style and catching yourself when you slip into negativity comes from being aware in the moment and the one sure fire way of achieving this is Mindfulness. We live in a world of quick fixes and so we assume a ‘just do this’ attitude and hope things will change but if you want to stay focused in the moment in a challenging situation then you must practice being present, and the research says that can only happen through repeated meditation. It’s not the amount but the frequency and as Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson say in their book Altered Traits ‘after is the before of the next during’. The effects of Mindfulness are accumulative and if you want to stay in the present moment you need to practice daily.

I hope you found this useful. If you have any questions or anything I can help you with, please get in touch.

I hope our paths cross again in future.


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