(image credit: Karolina Grabowska)

We all know what it’s like to feel down at times, but it can be sobering to know the statistics around depression itself. In the past year, 17 million U.S. adults experienced a clinical depression yet 35% of us received no treatment. Suicide is one of the top ten causes of death in this country. From the economic side, depression is estimated to cost $210 billion annually, with fifty percent of the cost related to workplace issues like absenteeism or “presenteeism” – being there but not being there fully.

So what can we do?

Here are four steps that each of us can take to help our “operating systems” run at their best. I use them with my executive coaching and counseling clients, and call these steps LIFT.

L: Learn what your inner voice is saying

First, track when your difficult emotions are at a peak, and see how those strong emotions connect to specific situations. Then identify what thoughts prevail in those situations. For example:

  • Emotion: I felt very down this past Monday.
  • Situation: My colleague at work dismissed my project, even though I put a lot of time into it
  • Thought: No one respects me, I’ll never be good at what I do.

The goal here is to learn what specific thoughts get most under your skin. This is easier to manage than a free floating, undefinable emotional state.

I: Identify what you are experiencing

Next, allow yourself to be curious about what’s happening within yourself without trying to “fix” anything just yet. Rather than trying to solve the emotion or experience, just sit with it for awhile. We often expend a lot of energy trying to deny or suppress that we are having a tough time – which essentially ends up doubling our work. 

For example, try to rate the intensity of emotion on a scale of zero to five. You can also identify where the emotion shows up in your body or in the way you breathe. Can you note how long the emotion tends to last? What makes it more or less intense?

Being able to specifically identify or describe what we experience can calm our emotional reactivity and allow our brains to problem solve more effectively around it. The scientific term for this is affect labelling.

F:  Fact check your thoughts.

After awhile, you’ll likely discover that there are a few key, repeated inner dialogs (clinically, we call these automatic thoughts) linked to your toughest emotions.  Fact check the truth behind those thoughts. From our example above:

  • What percent of people at work actually dismiss my work? Is it 10%? 50% 100%? Is it some of the time or all the time?
  • What is the proof for or against my theory?
  • Does my colleague being dismissive signal lack of respect, or could she have been distracted about something totally unrelated to me?

And so on with layered levels of challenging the inner dialog. Here’s where a skilled therapist can help you further refine the “thoughts behind the thoughts.” Often automatic thoughts tend to be filtered through specific life experiences (cognitive filters), which a therapist can help you spot.

T: Take a step back. 

Here, you can use your ability to be intentional with attention and take a step away from your strong emotions. Remember that strong feelings about a situation doesn’t necessarily make it true. You can choose to disengage and view emotions from a distance – giving yourself precious needed time and space to recoup. In a calmer frame of mind, you are actually better able to problem solve.  For example instead of saying  “I am a failure at this project,”  you can say “I am having a thought about failing.”

You can also visualize the thought as a co-passenger on a train. At the station, you get off the train, and the thought continues on without you. By taking a step away from our thoughts and recognizing them as separate from ourselves, we can disarm difficult emotions and free up more channels of creativity with which to approach the situation at hand.

In summary: Life’s challenges and the ensuing feelings will always be there, but you can change the way you relate to those challenges. We have the amazing ability to think about our own thoughts! LIFT gives you scientifically sound ways to address those thoughts. With practice, you can transform your inner dialog and be more resilient when difficult emotions come knocking at the door.