Have you ever been in a situation that you truly disliked? And I mean truly.
Your displeasure can range from mild discomfort to pure agony. Do you hate going to the dentist? Do you have a tight deadline at work? Have you recently experienced a loss?
Today we will discuss how to improve the moment. When we improve the moment, we replace immediate negative events with more positive ones, and make the moment feel positive and easier to tolerate. This skill is particularly helpful when we are feeling overwhelmed in a stressful situation that is likely to last for a little while. To help us remember the steps, we’ll use the acronym I.M.P.R.O.V.E.
I is for Imagery
Do you have a pretty good imagination? You can put it to work by using imagery to create a situation different from reality.
With imagery, you can create a safe or relaxing space for yourself when you’re in a difficult moment. For instance, I have a friend who hates getting shots—and has even passed out at the doctor! They use imagery to imagine themselves on a warm beach whenever the doctor pulls out the needle. They find it helpful for getting through the experience. The trick with imagery is that you should practice it outside of the event so you have greater access to the imaginal experience and get to that safe place more easily.
Imagery can also be used to cope more effectively with crisis events. You can imagine a future event that will likely be highly stressful for you, such as a death in the family or meltdown at work. While imagining the event, you can rehearse how you can respond in ways that are helpful to you and won’t make the situation generate more suffering. For example, I have my patients imagine future conversations that they are worried about. I will have them imagine what the person is likely to say and how they could respond to different scenarios. This helps them feel more confident in the actual moment. It might feel silly to pretend as an adult, but never underestimate how much rehearsal can help you in the long run.
M is for Meaning
Finding or creating meaning helps many people survive tragic and horrific situations. Victor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, an important book about surviving the Nazi concentration camps. It is based on the premise that people need to find or create meaning in their lives to overcome tremendous suffering. This is very similar to making lemonade out of lemons. When we can find meaning in our pain, we can bear it and walk through it more easily.
Now when I say “more easily,” it doesn’t mean easy. It means that it could be harder if we took a different path with our pain. One quote that has helped give me meaning through difficult moments is from Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” It reminds me that I don’t have to be a superhero, and that I can discover goodness and strength in my pain. Other ways to find meaning in your pain is to use that experience to have more empathy for others and to have gratitude for the things that are solid for you in this life.
P is for Prayer
If you’re religious, faithful, or spiritual, prayer can be a powerful tool when you’re going through overwhelming times in your life. It can be a way to open oneself up to the present moment and look for guidance on how to cope with things that feel unbearable. It’s important in this skill that we aren’t doing the “why me” sort of prayers or ones that involve us pleading with our God or Higher Power to take everything away, as this can sometimes have the opposite effect of increasing our suffering. To improve the moment, look for prayer that allows you to work on accepting the current circumstances and seeking realistic ways to get through the moment without making it worse. The Serenity Prayer is a classic example of this.
R is for Relaxing actions
With relaxing actions, we look to explore a wide variety of relaxing things to do. The key here is to select activities that ordinarily have the effect of calming you down. When you are relaxed, it is easier to resist the urge to engage in problematic behaviors. Being relaxed also gives you time to explore the pros and cons of different options for getting through the moment.
Engaging in relaxing actions can also help reduce the likelihood of getting overwhelmed. When I’m going through a stressful time, I will identify my danger zone. The danger zone is an area in which you are starting to lose access to your normal level of functioning. You can use a 10 point scale for yourself to make it easy. For instance, I might say my danger zone is an 8 or above. So, I will check in with myself and when the number is getting too high, like a 7, I will stop and do a relaxing action to bring my number back down.
O is for One thing in the moment
“One thing in the moment” is an aspect of mindfulness. This is where you let go of multitasking and throw yourself totally into one thing at a time. Although it can be very difficult to do, focusing on one thing in the moment can be very helpful in the middle of a crisis, as it can provide time to calm down.
The secret sauce of this skill is to remember that the only pain one has to survive is “just this moment.” Have you ever spent several hours or even days ruminating about future pain you might have to endure? Or spent several weeks or years of your life dwelling on past pains and suffering in the present because of it? Practicing living in the moment can reduce this type of suffering.
I remember when I was learning about this aspect of mindfulness and my teacher told me this story about a monk who lived in a rural area without easy access to medical and dental care. She said that the monk had a tooth that need to be pulled and knew they would need to go to the work shed to get pliers and perform this extraction themselves. The work shed was along this lovely path. As the monk was walking this path, they took in the earth under their feet, the sky, the smell in the air—and then OUCH, they pulled their tooth, and on the way back they took in all the same stimuli while rubbing their jaw.
Now, I want to be clear: it would be difficult for me to have that same level of mindful focus if I had to pull out my own tooth, but I have definitely used this skill and so have my patients and it’s made a big difference.
V is for Vacation
Have you ever wanted a time out from adulthood? Take one! Everyone needs a vacation from adulthood once in a while. Taking a vacation from adulthood is about allowing yourself to be taken care of in the moment. What’s essential here is doing it in a way that doesn’t harm you and making sure the vacation is brief, from a few moments to a day. (If you had a deadline in 2 days, you wouldn’t disappear for 3 days.)
I was impacted by the flooding that happened in NYC the beginning of September which made me behind schedule on several different deadlines. It led to me working through the weekends and—as it would with anyone—that started to deplete my resources. I had a couple instances where others supported me and allowed me to delegate, and I put my pride to the side and yes. One Saturday, I looked around and noticed that I could get away with not doing anything, and I jumped on the opportunity! It was fantastic to be in cozy clothes and not do anything. I strongly encourage it when you get the chance!
E is for Encouragement
Encouragement is being a cheerleader for yourself and reframing situations. The idea is to talk to yourself in the same way that you’d talk to someone you care about, or, in other words, to talk to yourself the way you’d like someone else to talk to you when you are in crisis.
I’m sure many of you have black belts in putting yourself down. This is about lifting yourself up! The same way negative self-talk can push you into a hole, with practice, positive self-talk can help you get through a hard time.
The idea here is to reframe situations when you start telling yourself that things are hopeless, that the pain won’t ever end, or that you don’t have it in you to do what is needed. A classic encouragement is the affirmation, “this too shall pass.” I try to remind myself often that I am a badass, just like when I do intense weight lifting or push myself to run a little further or faster and my body feels broken for a few days. I know that it will grow back stronger if I take care of myself and the same is true for my spirit.
A cheerleader cheers the loudest when the team is losing. Being strong isn’t about being invincible, it’s about showing up for yourself.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.