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From Breakdown to Breakthrough… And Here’s How

If you are anything like me, you have had periods in your life that were so full of overwhelming chaos and tragedy that you honestly didn’t know if you would ever be able to fully recover. Times when you passed every day feeling blue or sad and eventually graduated to suffocating, full-blown depression—the kind that left you empty and hurting all at the same time.

What I’ve noticed (and maybe you have too) is that during these episodes of my life, I tend to have very similar habits, one being procrastination. I would feel so focused on being overwhelmed that I was completely stuck and would simply do nothing. Having insurmountable problems can quickly overwhelm you and there’s plenty of research to explain why stress causes us to “freeze” and avoid taking action.

I finally decided enough was enough! I was ready to break these patterns and commit to breaking through my break-points to turn them into growth opportunities. I think you must be too or you wouldn’t be here right now. The great news is I’m going to share with you the 5 proven steps (backed by science), that took me From Breakdown to Breakthrough and I’ll show you how you can easily take them too.

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Over the course of completing these steps, you are going to drag your bad habits into the light and chop them into easily digestible, bite-sized pieces. When you’re done, you will have created a workable solution customized to your personal situation. That way, when you’re ready, you’ll be able to move forward in a new direction towards the life you’ve always wanted.

Step One: The Problem List – Start by making a list of every problem in your life.

About a year ago, I felt like I was getting depressed. It was winter and I could feel the vitamin D deficiency in my body due to lack of sunshine, but something felt different from typical seasonal depression. I felt overwhelmed with life, my overall energy was noticeably lower, and I was depleted in every way. After a few weeks of this not only persisting but worsening, I noticed that it was a deep sadness, and I feared it was becoming a more serious problem. It was beginning to affect my ability to work. All I looked forward to was my cozy bed, and I was in a constant state of guilt and worry. I felt like I was in a hole. It was dark and scary and somehow, I just knew: this is depression.

 

That’s when I decided to make a list of everything that was bothering me. Miraculously, the moment I began labeling and naming what was going on in my life, I began to feel the shift. I still call it a miracle, even though neuroscience backs this activity as a reliable way to shift a person’s mindset about a problem. In a cleverly titled study “Putting Feelings into Words” Matthew Lieberman, a professor at UCLA, revealed that just the act of labeling negative emotions such as anger, sadness and anxiety decreased participants’ negative response. Similarly, labeling your problems will help you feel better about them because even just a few words about your issue activates the prefrontal cortex to reduce the dark emotions while stimulating the problem-solving area of your brain.

It actually worked! Making this list was powerful because it felt like someone had tossed me a flashlight, and even though I was still in the hole, now at least I could see.

Step Two: Forgive Yourself – Take time to acknowledge what you’re feeling is normal and it’s ok to feel this way.

As I looked at the list of things troubling me, I had an epiphany. Anyone would be overwhelmed and depressed with this list of trials going on in their life at one time. For example, one of the issues was a large, unexpected expense, equivalent to one year’s salary. I was devastated about it. And as if the dominoes were lined up perfectly, at the exact time of my unexpected expense, I also lost a significant amount of money on a bad investment. These were just two of the items on my list. That dreadful list went on and on.

As terrible as that list was, it helped me understand that my feelings of depression were normal, which in itself was a major turning point that led to having some self-compassion and feeling a little bit better than before. This simple activity, that promotes a positive state of mind, works because there is a neurobiological link between love and compassion.

What this means is that in addition to the dopamine and serotonin (the feel-good hormones) that you have already increased in step one, you are now adding oxytocin and vasopressin (the love hormones) to the mix. Resulting in stimulation in the brain’s motivation and reward circuits which are highly effective in stress reduction and overall health.

Step Three: Separate Fact from Fiction – Separate your list into events and emotions.

Now that I had a flashlight and the ability to look at all of my issues in one place I knew it was time to separate fact from fiction. I divided each item on the list by which ones were actual events and which ones were perceived threats, fears, and worries. I did this by looking at each problem and asking, “Is this an event that took place or is it an emotion?” Here’s a real-life example: In the events list I put a long-term employee resigned and on the emotions list was fear of more employees leaving.

I had 2 lists, one with actual events and one with emotions triggered by the events. This step is important because I instantly cut my list in half (a sigh of relief) and I could see how much my catastrophizing was feeding my despair. I could see what needed action and I could see what needed emotional processing, it felt like someone had tossed a rope ladder into the deep hole I was in.

Step Four: Celebrate Past Wins – Make a list of past triumphs.

It was now time to set the lists aside and remind myself of all of my past wins. I will need the strength and courage to climb up that rope ladder. Celebrating my past triumphs, like getting past my divorce and rebounding my business, helped me see that I had beaten the odds time and time again and there was a no reason to believe that I wouldn’t continue to persevere through this as well.

 

This will allow you to give more rewards to your brain. Whenever you remember a past event, your nervous system begins to produce the same hormonal recipe as when the memory occurred. So, by remembering a past win you will get juiced with all the same celebratory, feel-great hormones. Additionally, dopamine reinforces memories of actions, instead of episodes. This way, when something good happens, it not only strengthens memory for what happened but also reinforces the action that led to it. If a particular action (opening the cookie jar) repeatedly leads to a good outcome (enjoying the cookie), the repeated reinforcement trains our brain to take that same action again next time.

Step Five: Make a Plan – Create a plan and take action!

Now that I have actual historical evidence that I can conquer my issues, it’s time to take action. While taking action can often be the scariest part, researchers have discovered what they call activation energy. This is exactly what it sounds like: it takes more energy to start a project than it does to keep it going. Once you have something in motion it’s easier to stay in motion. You will also be happy to hear that just writing a plan exponentially increases the likelihood of success, and actually starting it delivers a punch of happy hormones. It keeps getting better and better because the more you get done and each time you check something off your list the reward centers of your brain are stimulated and the more hits of happiness you get.

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You’re probably thinking, there’s no way it can be this easy and I assure you that it is. Will you still encounter sadness and dark times? Definitely. This is real life. But now you have a solid plan to help you climb out of the hole you sometimes find yourself in.

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