Mental Health Monday: Gottman’s Tasks

I don’t know much about Gottman, but I know he came up with some pretty good tasks! I first learned about them in hospital last year, when I attended a workshop called ‘Taking Control’. It was all about distress and how to manage it. Distress manifests in different ways in different people, but it basically impacts us in three areas: our minds, our bodies, our actions. When I’m distressed, I find my thoughts racing and becoming more irrational; I can’t concentrate; I struggle to make decisions; I’m self-critical, and I could ruminate for England! My heart-rate goes up, my blood runs cold, my face flushes; I have palpitations and become short of breath; My hands shake and my tummy does somersaults. My actions speed up too; I pace and fidget, and I withdraw from whatever is causing my distress. At my most ill, I was suicidal – the ultimate withdrawal.

When we are distressed, it can be difficult to make effective or helpful decisions. Our Emotional Mind can take over. We find ourselves in a maelstrom of explosive feelings, and end up trying to manage those feelings by doing things that are ultimately harmful to us (and sometimes others). Sometimes, though, we can retreat into our Rational Mind – where we don’t feel emotion; we process everything factually and logically. It’s an avoidance strategy that blocks out feelings to help us cope. Sometimes this is useful – it helps us keep a clear head in an emergency – but as a long-term coping mechanism, it too is ultimately unhelpful as we become like robots. So what else is there? Well, there is our Wise Mind, where our Emotional Mind and Rational Mind overlap. When we think with our Wise Mind we can experience emotions without being overwhelmed by them, and we are able to respond appropriately and make good decisions. Gottman’s Tasks help us to move from the extremes of our minds into a place of balance and wisdom.

Gottman’s Tasks have helped me learn to respond with my Wise Mind, rather than with my Emotional Mind. They’ve helped me establish a plan of what to do when I’m faced with stresses and triggers. (In fact, I’ve stopped calling triggers ‘triggers.’ I now call them ‘challenges’ as I feel the word gives me a greater sense of agency and empowerment, but that’s another post.) It wasn’t easy to integrate these tasks into my life, but I regularly remind myself of them and review them, so they’re there when I need them. As with a lot of wellness strategies, Gottman’s Tasks are habits that are best formed when we are calm. When we are in a place of distress and desperation, it’s really hard to learn new skills, so it’s really important to get support while we try to do so. I’m not a psychologist; I’m just sharing my experience, so if you want to try these tasks, seek advice and help from someone who can support you.

Gottman’s Tasks:

Step One: Calm the Body – because distress effects our body, it’s helpful to start by calming your physical response. You can relax tensed muscles by doing Progressive Muscle Relaxation. You can steady your breath by breathing out for longer than you breathe in. If you feel hot, take a cold drink or splash some water on your face. Burn off some energy by going for a brisk walk. Calming the body, helps to calm the mind.

Step Two: Distract the Mind – just as calming the body helps to calm the mind, distracting the mind, helps to calm the body. Try naming five things that you can see/hear/touch. Count backwards from 1000. Think of animals whose names begin with every letter of the alphabet. Do something from your To Do list. Sing along to music. It just needs to be something that is not too complicated, but that will actively occupy your mind.

Step Three: Block Unhelpful Behaviours – this is about consciously stopping yourself acting in destructive ways. Whatever your destructive urge is, do the opposite. If you want to shout, sing. If you want to hit something, stroke something gently. If you want to give up, persevere. This is very challenging – simple is not the same as easy. You might need a lot of support with this, but that’s okay.

Step Four: Do What’s Helpful In the Long-Term – move yourself forward in a positive direction. Once you are calmer, think about what you need to do to make the best out of the current situation. Engage your wise mind. You might need to talk things through with someone. You might need to make a written plan about something. You might need to encourage yourself with some positive self-talk. You might need to make some progress toward a goal. You might need to do something that is good for you.

As I said above, these habits are best formed when we are calm. It’s virtually impossible to think of these things when you’re in a state of distress. Maybe make yourself a hot drink, sit down with pen and paper and write out a list of things you could do for each step and then keep the sheet somewhere where it will be easy to find when you need it: on the fridge or noticeboard, in your diary or bag, even as a photo on your phone. Regularly revisit the list and tweak so that it accurately serves your needs.

So now it’s over to you? Have you found any helpful strategies for managing distress? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading! See you soon. xxx

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