4 Ways to Deal with Overwhelming Life Challenges

Facing up to a new challenge can be overwhelming especially when it seems like totally unchartered territory. Sometimes we doubt ourselves and overlook our past experiences and transferable skills. This leads to a dip in self-confidence. However, often, the only difference between a new challenge and an old challenge is perception. If we perceive something as novel then we might assume that it needs a novel approach whereas what it needs is an application of what we already know. We tend to process information by making connections and create scripts or templates that help us to cut down on the amount of novel information we need to process. It’s a form of cognitive economy.  When faced with a problem or a challenge, we don’t start with a blank slate. We attempt to fit new experiences into old scripts. However when under stress we often don’t make important connections with our life experiences. This means that self-doubt overshadows self-assurance.

Changing Attitudes – Changing Perceptions

We make sense of the world through out attitudes. By changing our attitude we gain a different perspective. This is at the heart of my approach to (life) coaching. My first foray into coaching was as a teaching fellow at my first university job. My open door policy meant that students often dropped in for a chat. Often conversations were about feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of studying. My job was to work out whether I could help or whether I needed to refer the students on. Often, a chat was enough.

I adopted this approach long before I had any formal coaching training and I still use the approach today. It is based on four principles: relax, consider choice, evaluate past experiences, and goal-setting.

  1. Relax. Stress has the effect of reducing our options. It throws us into survival mode where the main choices are fight or flight. However this means that other important options and connections can get overlooked. By taking a few long, slow deep breaths we short-circuit the stress response so that we are able to explore a range of responses. This is known as the Broaden and Build approach to personal development.
  2. Consider choices. Sometimes challenges seem to offer no choice. We feel forced or pressured with no control over our circumstances. I’ve lost count in my own life when I faced challenges that seemed too overwhelming that I wanted to give up. This is especially true of just about any course or path of study I have undertaken. However, this is perfectly normal. It acts like a safety valve to know that giving up is an option. The first time I used this technique was with a student who arrived at my office door quite distraught. She said that she couldn’t cope with the pressure and just wanted to go down to the coach station, get on a bus and get away from it. I took a risk and asked ‘where would you go?’ This took her aback and she replied ‘I don’t know. Blackpool? Anywhere’. I simply pointed out that it was an option. She could not bother with forthcoming exam and just go to Blackpool (an English seaside town) instead. She then started to ask questions about her future to which I replied ‘Well, you’re going to have to come up with some different plans, it’s up to you’. It was then that she realised that she was choosing to put herself through the ‘ordeal’ of examinations. It wasn’t long before she decided she needed to ‘take her leave’ (but not to Blackpool). She said ‘I can’t hang around all day chatting, I’ve got an exam to revise for’. Realising that it was a choice altered her perception of the challenge.
  3. Past successes – Make a list of occasions where you felt overwhelmed in the past and how you managed to get through it. How did you do it? What skills or personal qualities did you use? This will help you to put the new challenge into context. Start with a few long slow deep breaths and get as much down on paper as you can. Take time to add to the list. In my coaching I often follow up a question with ‘anything else?’ I’ll do this several times. This prompt invariably inspires more thoughts and insights. Sometimes during a coaching session a client will think of something else they have forgotten. It’s also true that insights often occur right at the end of a session. Reviewing past successes and skills is a key way to boost self-efficacy, our sense that we are effective agents in the world and not passive victims.
  4. Goal-setting. It’s a core principle of goal-setting to break bigger goals into smaller milestones. A longer term goal comprises a series of shorter term goals. There’s no such thing as a insignificant first step. Simply by making a start you alter your perception of a goal. Once you have tackled the first step, the second step becomes clearer. Also, sometimes chipping away at a problem from a few different angles can help to highlight the ‘vulnerabilities’ of a seemingly impenetrable challenge. Making a start before you can see all the way ahead begins to create a path.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodThese four strategies are key to coping with challenges and building confidence, self-efficacy and esteem. Together they form a solution-focused, skills-oriented approach that has the effect of changing attitudes and therefore altering perceptions.It is through this different set of lenses that we are able to access our core strengths, transferable skills and personal experiences.

For further information see Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary Wood.

If you found this blog post useful please share it with others using the buttons below.

 For similarly themed blog posts by Gary Wood see:

Advertisements

Coping with Challenges and Change – How Do You Do It?

Taking Stock of Transferable Skills

Working as a psychology lecturer I routinely encounter students who don’t make connections between different aspects of psychology. Working as a (life) coach I often encounter clients who don’t take stock of their transferable skills. Now, the first time I attended a meeting of the Professional Speakers Association I was asked ‘Have you done any public speaking?’ My knee-jerk reaction was to say ‘no’. At the time I had over ten years experience in teaching, I’d fronted media campaigns, appeared on radio and television and yet I still said ‘no’. In my mind I obviously didn’t class any of this experience as public speaking.  Sometimes we keep aspects of our life and experience in discrete ‘little boxes’. This may have an impact on how we view change and new challenges and our ability to cope.

How to You Deal With Change?

Consider the following questions relating to how you made previous changes in your life. Get a sheet of paper and write down your answers.

  • Knowing yourself as you do, what pattern, routine or process do you usually go through to make changes in your life?
  • What are the steps you go through in your decision making process?
  • With whom would you normally confide when considering making changes?
  • What things would you discuss with them when considering making a change?
  • What considering change, what attitudes did you have that helped make it happen?
  • Of all the strategies you have used in the past to make changes, what do you think might be the most helpful in handling the situation now?

Take time to answer them fully. It doesn’t have to be a major change, in fact, think of all types of change from switching brands of fruit juice to changing jobs.

How to Cope with Challenges?

Now spend some time considering previous challenges and successes and answer the following questions. Again take time to consider the questions fully and write down your answers.

  • Despite the challenges you encountered, how did you manage to persevere? How did you cope?
  • Where do you get the determination when others might have given up?
  • Knowing yourself as you do, what attitude to previous challenges did you have that helped make it through?
  • Considering a previous success, despite the challenge and the circumstances, how did you manage to succeed?
  • What is it that enables you to get through challenges and succeed?
  • What personal qualities, strengths and skills enable you to get challenging times?
  • What would a supportive close friend, partner or family member say are your qualities that help you get through challenges?

Solution-Focused Thinking for Challenges and Change

Making an inventory is a key strategy in solution-focused thinking and one of the things I work with clients to do in (life) coaching. When we become stressed we go into survival mode – fight or flight – which limits our perception of the options available to us. Considering our options and writing down the answers means it is more likely we will recall how we coped with past challenges and how we dealt with change. It is a key confidence building strategy.

Whenever you are faced with challenge and change, it helps if you begin by taking a few long slow deep breaths to lower your stress levels. You are then better placed to take a broader view and consider your transferable skills, strengths, skills, coping mechanisms and past successes.

Links: