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  • Kevin Patton

The Chain

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

In my last blog, I said we would look at when the Fear stuff just keeps coming. FEAR stuff can come in two’s, three’s, fours and fives… just like buses. When this happens each FEAR thing will reinforce your belief that you need to do something to escape. So be aware of the decisions you make with each FEAR event…....

The quicker you can spot the FEAR stuff the better.

1: Nothing to do, bored and restless

2: Feeling that you need to do something

3: Deciding to visit a friend in your old neighbourhood

4: Bump in to a friend you haven’t seen for a while

5: Talk about old times

When we are caught up with FEAR stuff, we normally react automatically, without thinking about the consequences, and we can often get into the habit of using unhelpful and often self-destructive behaviours to help us cope. These may include:

Self-harm (cutting or taking over-doses)

Under or over-eating

Using or relying on drugs and alcohol

Depending on physical exercise

Stop weighing yourself down with chains

and start building ladders to the person you want to be!

1: Nothing to do, bored and restless

2: Feeling that you need to do something

3: STOP!

Stop – Step back from the feeling

Take 10 Breaths – Slow your heart, oxygenate your blood

Observe – How is your monkey brain trying to hook you in?

Proceed – What would be a forward move just now?

4: Refocus and Commit to doing that thing

5: Reflect on what you did and give yourself some credit.

In the Lower right-hand corner of the Matrix we have what’s important to us. In the Lower Left-hand corner we have all the pain and bad feelings that make our lives miserable and stop us looking after what’s important. In the Top Left-hand corner there’s all the stuff we do in order not to feel the bad stuff and in the top Right-hand corner there’s what we could do to bring some of the good stuff into our lives.

The stuff on the left moves us away from the life we want (What’s Important) and the stuff on the right moves us towards it. When we’re deciding what to do, it’s a good idea to think about whether it moves us towards the life we want or away from it.



Usually engaging in activities is the last thing one wants to do when FEAR comes knocking. Making the choice to simply get moving and engage in simple tasks around the house that need to get done (e.g., vacuuming, doing laundry, organizing the closet) is an effective (and non-destructive) way to refocus away from temporary intense distress on to behaviour that moves you towards the person you want to be.


FEAR stuff often gets us wrapped up in our own internal dramas to the point that we forget that there is a world outside of ourselves. One way to stop being controlled by our thoughts and feelings is to move away from the potential self-absorption involved in intense emotions by contributing to something outside of yourself. This does not invalidate the pain and distress that is being experienced, but simply redirects self-destructive energy in a healthy direction. Getting involved with others and contributing to external causes can help one regain perspective when it seems like intense distress will never end.


Take a moment to reflect on how the life you want is different from the life you are living. During intense distress, it is easy to lose track of who we really are. Your values are the mirror of your personality and are central to defining who you are as a person. While your knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs strongly influence who you are and paint a picture of you for others, it is your values that are the foundation on which those other facets are built. How would the person you want to be (and, deep down, really are) respond to these feelings? It’s not easy, but it is what it is. Focus on living your life the way you want to live it, and it will pass.

Opposite Emotions

Acting opposite to what we feel the urge to do is a powerful tool to use in the moment when the FEAR stuff seems too overwhelming to bear. Some examples of using opposite to emotion action include feeling tired/sluggish, but deciding to walk out of the front door and take a walk around the block, or feeling bored/lethargic and choosing to watch a funny movie or dance to your favourite song. The idea behind opposite action is not only to actively shift your current affective state, but also to act as a reminder that all emotional states are temporary. Intense pain, as well as intense joy, are not permanent. We shift in and out of emotional states. Remember to use opposite action when feeling intense discomfort.

Pushing Back

This technique encourages us to visualize the FEAR stuff as shifting. If you are feeling small and powerless, pushed around by your emotions, push back, tell your feeling that you know they’re there but, just now, you are busy doing something more important – getting on with your life. Visualise yourself getting stronger and more powerful and visualize those feelings that were hijacking your mind as shrinking away. Remember that none of these techniques are designed to invalidate or deny your current emotional experience, simply to process them more effectively.


When in an intense emotional state, use your cognitive abilities to provide a temporary respite from the intense emotions. This is a time when moving into the world of thinking is your friend. When emotions seem unbearable and overpowering, we are being controlled by FEAR stuff To help us develop the psychological flexibility to free ourselves from the cycle of avoidance, we use our defusion skills. Start reading a book (that is not emotionally evocative) and consciously shift your full attention to each word on the page. Notice how consciously shifting away from the FEAR stuff when in an intense affective state provides a noticeable internal shift.


Physical sensations can provide powerful means of refocussing from intense negative emotional states. This is partially why some individuals with difficulty regulating emotions engage in self-harm (e.g., cutting). Use the power of physical sensations to your advantage – not to further harm yourself. Consciously decide to take a hot bath/shower, hold ice cubes in your hands, smell your favourite perfume, eat a bit (i.e., not overindulge) in your favourite food or non-alcoholic beverage. Notice how experiencing pleasant physical sensations can shift your experience from intense negative emotional states.

IMPROVE the Moment

Many of us have distress and frustration in our lives. Your car keys are lost. You don’t have enough money to pay the bills. A friend rejects you when you ask to go out on Saturday night. You get a flat tire on the way to a big meeting. Stuff happens in life. Sometimes you can do something about it. Sometimes you can’t.

The IMPROVE skill is for when you have to tolerate the distress or frustration that you’re facing. It’s for those times when you can’t do anything about the crisis at hand or can’t do anything right away to solve the problem. When there is no immediate solution to a problem, you can improve your mental and emotional situation using the IMPROVE skill. Like many skills, IMPROVE is an acronym. It stands for:

  • Imagery

  • Meaning

  • Prayer

  • Relaxation

  • One thing in the moment

  • Vacation

  • Encouragement


Use your imagination to image the better situation that you want to be in. What is the quality of your life that you want to move towards? How would you be behaving differently in that situation? Go within yourself and imagine a time in which you were not in crisis or a time in which you used your skills to get through a crisis successfully, what did you do?


Sometimes old crises can provide meaning to new ones. What meaning did you find in getting through other previous trials? What is the narrative of this story? How does it fit in with how you define your identity?

You can ask yourself “How can I grow?” or “How can I prove to myself that I can get through hard situations?”


At Living Well, we only look at strategies for which there is a strong evidence base. Prayer is a considerably more complex subject than the stereotypic image we tend to have of the ardent believer, fervently casting forth pleas for help, forgiveness or some other momentarily pressing need. Prayer is not just a going out, but also a going in, and it is a practice woven deeply into the fabric of global culture.

Our brains generate thousands of thoughts every second, and we focus on just a few of these. Prayer has been used for centuries to access polyphony, tuning in to those thoughts and perspectives that we don’t usually pay attention to. It can be opening yourself up and accepting the situation as is. It can be asking for guidance from your better self.

Prayer, like meditation, influences our state of mind, which, in turn, influences our "state of body". It reduces the experience of anxiety, elevates a depressed mood, lowers blood pressure, stabilizes sleep patterns and impacts autonomic functions like digestion and breathing. Further, in influencing our state of body-mind, prayer and meditation also influence our thinking. This prompts a shift in the habits of the mind, and, subsequently, patterns of behaviour. These changes, in turn and over time, induce changes in the brain, further influencing our subjective and objective experience of the world and how we participate in it.

Does all of this sound familiar? It should, because what we're really talking about here is neuroplasticity, a topic that spiritual teachers like Thomas Merton, Baal Shem Tov and Paramahansa Yogananda expounded upon extensively in their discussions of prayer and meditation long before we had the language to describe it.


Do you tighten your muscles in a crisis? Many people do. The physical pain and exhaustion that this causes can worsen a crisis. Relax you muscles. Breathe. My dentist or doctor tells me that it will hurt less if I relax my muscles. Tense your muscles and then release the tension. Breathe in and out slowly and deliberately.

One Thing in the Moment

If you bring old emotional issues into the situation, you’re likely to make things worse. If you say, “This always happens to me!” or “Why do bad things continually happen to me?” This compounds the issue. Focus on this moment, this issue. Do what you can do to focus on the now and not bring in old problems. If you’re suffering in the moment, adding old suffering just throws fuel on the fire. Stay in the moment.


Have you ever said to yourself, “I need a vacation from all of this!” Well, take one, however brief. It doesn’t have to be in Hawaii or in a far-flung place. You can take a brief vacation at home, doing something you enjoy. Don’t take a mind vacation though. Drugs and alcohol, for example, will likely make any problem worse. Sometimes a vacation can be a walk around the block. A vacation can be stepping back from the difficult task at hand and gaining some perspective, but it shouldn’t be a complete avoidance. It shouldn’t be a permanent vacation.


Remind yourself that you can do and face hard things every day. Come up with examples of when you’ve acted effectively in the face of a difficult situation. Validate yourself and your abilities.

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