Mind and Heart Coaching

Staying Positive Through The Storms Of Life by Sherry Kelly, PhD

How does a psychologist and avid golfer weather a hurricane? I have been golfing longer than practicing psychology. I have weathered a few hurricanes, including the “big one”, Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Over the summer, I completed a week-long intensive on Positive Psychology through the Whole Being Institute. The experience ignited inner resources long buried in dust from having placed my professional life “on the shelf” for full-time motherhood. The WBI intensive awoke in me a new passion for tapping into the coping resources within my “inner golf bag”. My training as a psychologist and my coaching as a golfer proved positively to me that one can “shoot par” even in the worst of storms.

Since Hurricane Irma hit our area a couple of weeks ago, several people have asked me about the Positive Psychology strategies I used with my family. Twenty-five years ago, while in graduate school in New York, a brilliant professor, Shlomo Breznitz, PhD, gave a lecture on the stress of hurricane preparedness. Dr. Breznitz had published research on the psychology of preparedness and desensitization. Ironically, a few months after graduating from the program, I was with family in Miami preparing for a major event known as Hurricane Andrew. Of course, as a golfer, I found myself taking advantage of the breezy conditions that heralded the oncoming hurricane. While some neighbors anxiously filled up their gas tanks and grocery carts, others ineffectively anticipated the storm in a motionless state of anxiety. Thanks to Dr. Breznitz’ lecture (see also “Cry Wolf: The psychology of false alarms”, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1984), I took heed of the warnings and was grateful for having a few days to prepare for the hurricane’s arrival. Instead of over-preparing the day before the storm, my cousins and I enjoyed a stress-busting round of golf in 25 mph gusts that propelled my ball further than it had ever gone. My cousins and I made more pars that pre-Andrew day than ever before, or ever since. Do I remember how bad Hurricane Andrew was? Yes. Do I feel sorrow for the loss and destruction of a beloved town? Yes. Even though my cousins lost their house in the hurricane, we still smile about the day we shared together before it hit, defying Andrew’s wrath by being happy.

In life we face many types of storms. There are some storms we will have to endure where we have little or no control about what we must face. However, we do have control over how we prepare, react-accommodate to, and re-frame the circumstances of the storm. I call this “shooting PAR” and it represents three phases of utilizing Positive Psychology: Prepare, Accommodate, and Reframe (PAR).

Often, the field of Psychology focuses on the emotional “clean up” effort from a lifetime of storms. In the past, the disease model of psychology was the focus of study and practice. This model emphasized what was “wrong” and the negative aspects of life that impacted functioning. Instead, I believe in the framework of Positive Psychology that focuses on “what works” and what is most useful in helping people prepare for the inevitable storms of life.

PREPARE:

Identify the storm, the stressor, or the situation that’s ahead of you. Anticipate and prepare by shielding yourself with the armor of Positive Psychology. Decide before the crisis how to prepare physically and emotionally for the situation. Be mindful of your needs, but also of your goals. Prepare with a purpose, thinking about “how might I want to come out of this situation?” Set goals for how you would like to manage situations of stress, not simply react to them. Decide before the crisis what steps you can take to prepare for and ultimately manage the negative feelings of fear, doubt, and anger. Prepare for emotional set backs and how you can best overcome negative self-talk, as well as criticism of others coping with the stress. We also talked about feelings of fear and what we would do if we needed to evacuate, or even change plans.

One positive strategy is to get yourself and family members involved in concrete tasks to feel more prepared and, also, in control. In our “storm situation”, we had each family member assigned to getting specific supplies and preparing the house. Teach practical skills that can be used through the lifespan such as organizing your important documents, placing photo albums in plastic bins, packing a first-aid kit, securing supplies in water-proof bags, and loading up buckets of fresh water. Make preparation fun and positive, but keep moving forward.

Prepare with a purpose and don’t only focus on yourself. Take the “I”, the “Me”, and the “Mine” out of the situation by focusing on goals. One important purpose I had was to model positive behavior in a crisis situation, as well as to teach my daughter how to prepare in practical ways for a hurricane. I believe that the modeled coping strategies and behaviors would pay off years ahead in future situations. Acknowledge and appreciate the life lesson about preparing and coping to be shared with someone younger than yourself. An effective strategy was to engage in activities that would help others prepare and to be a positive light for others. For example, our family helped evacuate some elderly friends to hotels before the storm. We also checked on the homes of neighbors who were forced to evacuate.

ACCOMMODATE:

We live in a world where we are bombarded with negativity, but how we perceive our experiences and compartmentalize events can help us manage life’s stressors. Ask yourself what about the situation (in my case the storm) you may be resisting. A wise man at Kripalu once taught me that stress is resistance to “what is”. Ask yourself what you may be resisting. Is it the stress of not making a right decision or not preparing in advance? Don’t look back or dwell on past experiences while in the midst of your storm. Instead, be in the present and don’t focus on what you could have done or should have done. Imagine yourself moving forward through the experience. Stay in the present and don’t place emotions and other life frustrations in the “storm drain”. Don’t blame those around you. Cloak yourself with a shield of positivity. Try to find bits of gratitude for each step forward you take through the storm. Try to do something positive for someone else. Always breathe!

REFRAME:

How we process a situation, even a stressful one, will ultimately shape our memory of it. This is how the previous two steps in PAR, preparation and accommodation, will “tee you up” for positive reframing. In your mind build a positive “frame” around the experience. Deciding to positively rethink and reframe an event will propel you forward and upward. Do net dwell on the negative. Instead, actively think about the situation in a positive way. What did you do right? What did you learn? How did you model positive behaviors for others? Think of your mind as a giant file cabinet. How you file information will later dictate how you find it. Positively reframing situations takes practice. Remember that resiliency builds upon self-efficacy. Enhance the reframing stage with some gratitude and thanks. Find a pebble of positivity in every situation and a mountain of possibilities will emerge on your horizon.

Parting golf tip for positivity: It’s not about your last shot, it’s about your NEXT shot!

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