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How to Replace Critical Self-Talk with Affirmations

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Going through tough times can be discouraging. You find yourself becoming more and more critical of yourself and others. While each day offers an opportunity to work towards new solutions, our self-talk can become a major stumbling block.

Your Internal Critic

When negative thoughts and self-imposed judgments are constantly repeated, they become an ongoing internal dialogue, like a recording set on auto-replay.

This recording only contains our failures, the times we have been disappointed or rejected. I call this on-going recording your “internal critic.”

These messages have been around so long that anything positive is dismissed, and everything negative is magnified. It is so pervasive that we are often unaware of its influence on us. When activated, we are flooded with self-doubts and feelings of defeat.

Repetitive, critical messages program us to behave and act in predictable ways.

They always include a judgment of ourselves or others and predict a negative outcome to whatever we choose to do. Often, a label is attached. These judgmental reminders activate our first responses to whatever is happening. They become an internal critic whose only job is to continually remind us of how bad and incompetent we are.

Once we become aware that this is happening, however, we can stop these automatic responses and replace them with a new constructive dialogue.

This is not the same as “critical thinking.”

  • With “critical thinking” you question and evaluate the pros and cons of different options.
  • With “critical thinking,” you develop discernment, the ability to evaluate what works and what doesn’t work.

The difference between a critic and critical thinking is that with an internal critic you immediately believe you are a failure, and nothing can change that.

Devaluing statements and critical messages repeated consciously or unconsciously, form a self-fulfilling prophecy. They draw you towards that outcome.

When you put a stop to this repetition, you can think rationally about problems and make informed decisions based on the here and now. You can say to yourself, “Okay, I may have made mistakes and some bad choices in the past, but here is what I can do now.”

finger pushing "play" button

Persistent critical self-talk can sabotage our efforts to believe we can make it.

There is nothing positive or instructional in it. By challenging, we are rejecting that definition of who we are supposed to be and choose instead a mindset that believes in our ability to find constructive alternatives. We may not have had a voice as a kid, but we do as an adult.

Challenge critical self-talk and replace with affirming statements.

  • Affirmations declare we have worth and value. They become a direct antidote to repetitive negative thinking and self-talk.
  • Affirmations put in place possibility thinking. They allow confidence to develop and become a new self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Affirmations encourage, motivate, and reflect the value you have for yourself and others. It doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes or bad choices. What it does mean is that you are not defined by your mistakes. You are a child of God. And to quote an old phrase of the 70s, “God don’t make no junk.”

You are not your pain, shame, or abused child. The past does not define who you are today unless you allow it. Purposefully leaving the past in the past is telling yourself, I am okay – I can make it – I am worthwhile. There are no perfect childhoods or perfect parents. We all make interpretations based on who we were at the time.

A New Dialogue

Repeating affirmations every day installs a new dialogue. Choose from the affirmations listed below or create some of your own. Repeat them every day, several times a day. After a while they will become a new way of thinking that is encouraging and motivating.

  • I am an intelligent, capable, and responsible person.
  • I choose to expand my point-of-view and focus on what is positive.
  • I can bring something good out of a hurtful past.
  • I can become more than my hurtful experience.
  • I forgive because hanging onto grievances hurts me.
  • I work for excellence instead of perfection.
  • I am methodical and careful in everything I do.
  • I focus on what I can do and not on what I can’t do.
  • I am not my past – I am me in the present moment.
  • I accept myself unconditionally – both my strengths and my weaknesses.
  • I am capable, competent, and discerning.
  • I look for solutions to my problems.
  • I am pro-active and my efforts make a difference.
  • I am discovering more of my special talents, skills, and abilities every day.

This week, spend some time recognizing your internal critic. When does he/she begin haranguing you about all your failures? ]

Give it a name, tell it to sit down and be quiet. You no longer want to listen to all that stuff.

Then look over your past and find all the things that were helpful, instructive, and motivating, things you learned even in the toughest of times that can become a positive take away.

Changing Negative Habits Formed During Childhood

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Hard times bring up old memories; unpleasant or discouraging flashbacks from our youth.

There may have been traumatic times earlier in your adult life. Presumptions about who you believed you could become have been shaken. You might hear your parent admonishing you for not getting better grades or fighting with your siblings, unfair comparisons with a sister or brother or scolding for disobeying.

At such moments, we question ourselves.

Am I really that incompetent?

What if I can only be a troublemaker and can’t ever do anything right?

What if, what if, what if.

How can I be sure I won’t screw up so badly that I will never be able to recover?

Those old messages can erode any confidence you are gaining.

Life is an ongoing process of growth.

Abilities are honed over time. Our identities are defined as we live from period to period.

Discovering the source of unhelpful habits can be intimidating, especially if they originated in our childhood.

Why did that behavior or way of thinking become a habit?

What benefits am I getting from keeping it?

There is a reason why our behaviors become and remain habits.

Raw and intense emotions associated with our past often remain barricaded behind protective walls we build in our memories. When triggered in the present, we experience the same feelings of anger, protest, defiance, and resistance again, even when actual events are blurred or incomplete.

We can rewrite difficult stories from our past, enabling a new way to look at ourselves and our world.

Just remember that children are children and do childish things that get us into trouble. It is when we continue as a grown adult to believe we are that incompetent kid that we will feel insecure and end up with a habit or belief that is counterproductive.

Habits of thinking formed early in life continue to influence how we react to the world today until examined and challenged.

When we remain focused on the negative, we dismiss the qualities of possibilities, resilience, and determination.

When we understand that we can change non-productive, negative habits, we will develop the faith to step out and try again.

  • We can change thinking habits just as we can change behavior habits
  • We can replace destructive, devaluing words with positive, constructive ones
  • We can believe in ourselves
  • The past cannot keep us locked in negative thinking unless we allow it

child crying in kitchen

During this next week, think about the multitude of messages you heard as a kid. Write them down.

  • Which were instructional, focusing on teaching appropriate behavior such as good manners, stop running in the house, respecting others, etc.?
  • Which focused on how bad you were?
  • What labels were given to you, such as stupid, lazy, worthless, etc.?
  • How were you encouraged and supported to do your best?
  • What words were used that made you feel good about yourself?

Writing them down helps you remember the context in which they were given and how your reactions became habits of thinking and responding over time.

Our mind wants to dwell on the negative, in part so problems can be resolved. We need to be tenacious and persistent about bringing forward the positive and encouraging qualities that may have been dismissed or overlooked.

We can learn resilience and determination.

You can turn negatives into positive learning tools. You do not need to keep repeating old, biased, negative messages about who you are or who you can become. Challenge them.

Remind yourself of your resilience and tenacity to become a person you can respect – the person you want to be – one who accepts the good and bad of you. In that acceptance, you can begin to build on the positives and use them to construct new positive habits of thinking and believing and acting.

It is important to remember that processing old woundings may require the help of a trained and licensed mental health counselor. It takes courage to reach out and ask for the help we need.

How to Replace Bad Habits With Beneficial Habits

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Habits affect every aspect of our lives; from the moment we get up in the morning to the time we go to bed. We usually think of habits as our daily routines, so we don’t think much about them.

But our habits involve much more than our usual routines.

How you think, perceive, and respond to the world become habits.

Consider your typical responses.

  • Is your first reaction to anything that’s contrary to your view irritation, or anger?
  • Do you find yourself constantly defiant or defensive?
  • Do you see the world as pessimistic or negative, with no redeeming qualities (this outlook can result in ongoing anxiety and fear).
  • Are there few moments of enjoyment or pleasure?

When our typical way of responding becomes consistent over time, it becomes a habit. Yet, our responses are so automatic that we don’t think of them as habits.

Recognizing that habits affect every segment of our lives, we can understand the need to evaluate them.

Which have we consciously chosen, and which have become reactionary habits (our typical way of responding without thinking)?

How to create beneficial habits

To create beneficial habits requires first identifying the ones that aren’t helping.

  • Which habits are time wasters, such as items you put off for tomorrow when you could quickly and easily accomplish the task now?
  • What habits of interaction with others create ongoing conflict?
  • How often do you find yourself feeling defensive or argumentative?
  • Can you respect the differences of others while respecting your own?
  • How did you end up with these habits in the first place?

When suffering setbacks or losses, we often begin to doubt ourselves and our ability to make worthwhile decisions. In exploring our habits, we can remind ourselves that habits can be changed.

If there is an ongoing pattern of making bad decisions or diminishing your worth, the first habit change is to accept yourself unconditionally.

Acknowledge and accept both the positive and negative sides of who you are. We are not perfect and never will be. No one is. We are constantly transforming and becoming. Without acceptance you will not feel you can make the changes you want.

In last week’s blog post, 7 Things You Need to Know About Habits, I asked you to divide a sheet of paper into three sections: morning, afternoon, and evening. Every day for a week, write what you normally do during those time periods. This helps you identify current habits. Expand on that by including specific times of day.

Review your results.

  • How satisfied are you overall about how you spend your time each day?
  • How and when did you use your time effectively?
  • What intervals could your time been used more constructively?
  • What was left undone that you wish had been completed that day and how did it affect the following day(s)?
  • What role does procrastination play in your life? Were things left undone because you didn’t feel like doing them in the moment, or because you felt it was too much to do?

Replacing bad habits

habits

To replace bad habits, we need to identify them and pinpoint how and why they first got started. When we can separate favorable habits from those that are unfavorable, we find ourselves energized to make changes.

Recognizing non-productive habits and how they impede or interfere with your progress is the first step. You get a broader picture of how going beyond survival can be a positive and productive time in your life.

You determine where you want to go. You are in charge of your habits. Pray about it. Ask God for wisdom and courage to recognize and make appropriate changes. We can’t do it by ourselves.

Remember that habits are formed by repeating behaviors over and over. We change by replacing the cue and the process.

As you begin taking those tiny steps forward you will be rewarded with a new confidence and belief in yourself.

Believing in yourself does not mean you won’t make mistakes. It doesn’t mean you don’t need the help and support of others. Reaching out to others is essential. We need the support of friends who are accepting and caring.

We learn that humility isn’t diminishing. It takes courage to accept that we are not perfect, never will be, and yet, we can move forward anyway.

7 Things You Need to Know About Habits

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There are many ways you can design a new road map.

But before you do, you need to know what you are doing now.

  • What habits do you have in place that help you use your time effectively?
  • What habits are time wasters?

Once you become aware of your habits, you can put in place those that benefit you the most. Often it only takes some small habit changes to result in huge benefits.

Habits Tracker

Review what is currently working for you and what is not. Take a sheet of paper and divide it into 3 sections: morning, afternoon and evening.

In each section, write down what you did during that time period. Do this for a week. This will give you a quick overview of how you habitually spend your time.

Then ask yourself:

  1. Do I have a schedule I follow each day?
  2. Did I accomplish the things that needed to be done each day?
  3. What was planned but never worked on?
  4. What didn’t I do because I didn’t feel like doing it?

Atomic HabitsAtomic Habits

I love to learn new ways to improve my life. So, when I heard about James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, Tiny Changes that Produce Remarkable Results, my interest was piqued.

James took habits apart to see how they were formed, repeated and what was needed to replace a habit. He refers to these as the 4 laws of behavior change. They are a cue, a craving, a response and a reward. If sweets are easily accessible, they become a cue and a craving that you respond to get the reward of enjoying that pleasure.

7 Things to Remember About Habits

1. Once in place, habits will keep repeating themselves.

Habits, both good or bad, will continue to repeat themselves. If they are working against you, they need to be altered or replaced. Every habit begins with a signal or cue initiating a response from us. Change the cue and you change the response.

2. If you want to break a bad habit, invert the 4 laws.

Make the cue as invisible as possible and the craving unattractive. Your response needs to be difficult and the reward, unsatisfying.

Example: You want to cut down on carbs. You stop buying quick fixes that have lots of carbs or sweets in them. What you do have, put out of sight and make it difficult to get to. Replace that desire/cue with something that is satisfying and act on it.

3. “I don’t feel like doing it now, so I’ll do it later.”

Acknowledge how you feel but take action anyway. Complete the task. The action makes you feel different. Without action, you remain in a feeling state, and make excuses.

Bad habits create on-going clutter and chaos. You don’t hang up your clothes before going to bed. You come home from work and throw you coat over a chair. You soon develop habits that, if you don’t feel like it, you don’t do it, planning on doing it later. But later often does not come. And it only takes a few more minutes to complete the task in the moment.

habits

4. Break large jobs into small chunks and work them into your schedule.

I have an office in my home. When I write, I take periodic time-outs. In those time-outs I will do one of those small tasks before returning to my writing. By the end of the day, I find that I have completed everything that needed to be done.

5. Your environment shapes your behavior and responses.

If you are trying to reduce your weight and have cookies and candy all over the kitchen, it will trigger your desire to have one. Put them away so you can’t see them, and you won’t be automatically influenced by the sight of them.

A small change in our environment can lead to a big shift both in how you feel and what you accomplish.

6. All behavior is driven by the desire to solve a problem or develop a skill.

Habits are the best way to master a difficult skill. Make a ritual of the process. The more times it is repeated, the more likely it will become a habit. Practice associating your habits with something you enjoy.

7. The best way to start a new habit

No behavior happens alone – it is connected in some way to the other behaviors you have in place. The first thing in changing a behavior is to make it obvious. Pair a new habit with a specific time and location and put in place a formula of intention:

“I will (behavior) at (time) in (location) because I want to be more healthy.”

Additional Resources

There are so many ways to create the habits needed to accomplish the things you want to do.

Besides James Clear book, here are two others that can give you more insight. How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, by Katy Milkman, and The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg.

How to Change    The Power of Habit

Change Your Expectations and Change the Outcomes

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Several years ago, I met a bubbly and enthusiastic woman. As I got to know her, I was amazed at her life story. She was a goal setter, had a college degree, got married and expected her goals to become a reality.

She discovered, however, that the career she had chosen was not what she had hoped for. She was happy to be a stay-at-home mom, but when her second child died in the womb, she was devastated and was convinced it was her fault even when doctors assured her it wasn’t.

Spiraling downward, depression settled in as she tried to come to terms with what had happened. Her marriage began to dissolve and the counseling she got was not helpful. She went from a healthy, vibrant individual to sinking into a troubling depression.

During this time, she found a bracelet lying on the sidewalk. After unsuccessful attempts to find the owner, she decided to keep it. Upon closer examination, she discovered words inscribed on the bracelet. They included words like imagine, believe, and create.

bracelet with "believe" engraved on it

They immediately got her attention, and she began to examine her ideals, expectations, and assumptions she had about life.

What did she really want to do?

When she switched her career to something she loved doing, she became a vivacious, energetic, goal-oriented woman. She knew what was important to her and why.

We Need Healthy and Realistic Expectations

There are thousands of stories like hers that hold similar expectations about how life should and ought to be.

We hold expectations that our goals will result in a happy ever after. When they don’t, we are unprepared as to what to do next.

We need expectations to make our goals succeed. We need them to motivate us. If we didn’t believe we could succeed, we wouldn’t bother trying. There would be nothing to motivate us.

But those expectations need to be shaped and molded. Our first attempts will not automatically be successful.

Turning Expectations into Unbreakable Rules

We often turn our expectations into unbreakable rules that everybody must follow.

I shouldn’t have been laid off; I was a loyal employee.

I did everything everyone told me to do, but it didn’t work out.

I have been trustworthy and loyal, with good intentions. How could you do this to me?

When life turns upside down, we begin to doubt ourselves. Or we might hold others responsible for what happens, and nurse our anger or resentment until it consumes our thinking.

We believe that others are responsible for how we feel.

Yet, everybody sees the world differently. Everybody has their own expectations and assumptions. Each of us interprets life and the expectations associated with them differently. If we turn them into laws, rules, and expectations that cannot be broken, we will be in trouble.

Expecting – and Accepting – Unforeseen Challenges

Without realistic expectations, we will not achieve.

It is important to dream and aspire for a better life. Great things have been accomplished because people had the determination to make their life meaningful. At the same time, we need to take time to examine them.

We will be hit with overwhelming challenges. The best laid plans will not always work out. When we accept that unforeseen challenges will always be a part of life, we will stop struggling and put our energy into figuring out how we can work with them. Then our actions become productive and beneficial.

Disappointments, setbacks, and difficulties are not just unfortunate things that happen to us. They happen to everybody.

Within those unexpected challenges, however, we discover we have a stronger resilience than we thought. While we may think we have reached our limit, and it might seem like the end of the world, we often discover a determination and toughness we didn’t know we had.

Disasters and misfortunes become opportunities to discover more about ourselves.

You Don’t Need a Degree to be Successful

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Did you know that some of today’s most famous entrepreneurs became successful without a college degree? People like Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg never completed college. Some dropped out before finishing. Others dropped out after two years or even six months. (Read more here and here.)

I am not suggesting that going to college isn’t important. I am a firm believer in education. I went back to school after my children were raised and finished my master’s degree, required for the work I do.

But I also know that there have been many people who have made it without earning that degree. They knew what they wanted, they had a passion for it and were ready to work to achieve it.

That’s the key – willingness.  Willingness to put in the time and energy to learn.

  • We learn from life.
  • We learn from good mentors.
  • We learn from studying and applying ourselves.

Consider your options.

As you think about where you want to go from here, consider all the options available to you.

My son was born with an incredible ability to draw. He started drawing as a kid. His art caught the attention of his teachers at college and when he struggled to complete an Algebra requirement in order to get his bachelor’s degree, his professors told him, “Don, you have great talent. Forget about the degree. Go out there and use your talent.”

They were right. The degree itself would not help him in his career. But working in the artistic world would and did.

We start life planning for our future, hoping it fulfills our hopes and dreams. Some goals are lofty and require considerable work, time, and commitment.

Others are simpler: I just want to live a happy life, find a job, get married, and have a family.

But then life becomes more complicated. You are not finding the satisfaction you hoped for. You really don’t like what you do, and technology suddenly makes the learning curve much higher.

When my parents were married, they expected life to demand hard work, persistence, and a knowledge of what you were doing. Both came from immigrant families. They didn’t hold college degrees. My dad didn’t go past the third grade. But they knew how to farm and what it took to be good at it.

And they were. At the end of their lives, they had raised ten children, and were very successful with their farming. When my dad died at the age of 101, he had accumulated, through astute money management and investments, an estate that gave a substantial amount of money to all their heirs – children and grandchildren.

Perhaps the most valued inheritance for me was what I learned growing up: how to look at life, how to meet the challenges that come out of nowhere and how to move beyond and grow because of them. That inheritance was priceless.

Whatever your background, you can learn the basic skills needed to achieve and succeed in whatever field of endeavor you enter.

I will

Don’t just work – work with a purpose.

When things go wrong, stop and consider what, why and how.

  • What did or didn’t I do?
  • Why didn’t it work out?
  • What could I have done differently?
  • How could I accomplish my goals, original or revised, by trying again?
  • Can I define more accurately what I want and then identify the steps needed to accomplish it?

Regardless of your childhood, traditions, or upbringing, to succeed at anything requires planning, review, evaluating, and a willingness to try something different. It requires an “I won’t give up” attitude.

We can alter our goals, discard and make new ones. As we learn and appreciate ourselves more, we can better articulate what it is we want. Each of us has unique gifts, talents and skills, that, when applied, benefit both us and others.

A simple exercise

We have many wants and desires, but when they are not prioritized, we can get sidetracked.

Start writing down the things that are most important to you.

  • What turns you on?
  • What inspires you to keep going?
  • What do you need to make your dreams come true?

Next, list the necessary tasks you need to do each day. How can you work your new aspirations and goals into your daily routine?

5 Steps to Pick Up the Pieces and Construct a New Outcome

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There are many stories of people who have experienced and survived one crisis after another.

  • They looked at the remains of what was their home after a tornado and saw a pile of rubble.
  • They were hit financially when the market tanked and saw empty bank accounts.
  • Others may have escaped their home country when it was overrun by enemies.
  • Soldiers coming home from war, injured physically and psychologically, suddenly face a new enemy – they no longer fit in. They ask themselves, “Who am I now?”

In each situation, their first concern was to survive.

Next it was, “Where do I go from here?”

Perhaps you can recall times in your own life when you asked yourself, “Now what do I do?”

But you picked yourself up and started over.

Last month we explored what survival was like and how it impacts our lives. You identified where you were on the spectrum of survival and rebuilding.

Now let’s take that next step.

5 steps to begin the process of rebuilding

Step 1: Take whatever you have and make something even better from it.

When listening to comments from people who have gone through tornadoes and you see in front of them that pile of rubble that used to be their home, you also hear them tell reporters, “We will rebuild. We will start over.” The challenge was daunting.

But deep inside they knew they had recovered from catastrophes in the past and they could do it again. It wasn’t the first time they experienced losses. Despite the enormity of such an endeavor, they knew they could begin again.

Step 2: Believe in yourself. Failure isn’t the end – it is the beginning.

Everyone gets discouraged. When life hits hard, we begin to doubt. At such times we forget the many times we had to start over.

Don’t allow uncertainty to take over. Remember what it took to learn to walk, or play baseball, or cook a meal or build a business.

In the process of living, we will start, stop, and fail many times. But that’s not the end. That is the beginning. You have what it takes inside you. You just need to ignite that belief and put it to work for you.

Many famous people, like Mozart and Beethoven, struggled with failure and struggled to keep going anyway. Rekindle the belief that you can make it.

Step 3: Support. Everyone needs a hand up.

Reach out and grab hold of a hand extended to you.

Reach out and grab hold of someone’s hand who is struggling and offer them your support.

Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better LifeEric Greitens, a Navy Seal, wrote letters to a fellow decorated veteran who was struggling to re-identify himself after returning home. He had fallen into a deep pit of despair and addiction. Later, Eric compiled those letters into Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, a book I couldn’t recommend more highly.

Many times, when struggling to rebuild, we reach a breaking point. At such times we need more than good intentions. We need a good friend or loving family member who believes in us, who cares and is willing to walk beside us when the journey gets rough.

Step 4: Become resilient

We will fail. And fail many times. As Eric Greitens writes in his book, “Beginning again as often as it takes, creates resilience – a determination to succeed.”  We need to activate that resilience and step out.

We learn from doing – not from sitting and contemplating a potential activity.

Think of the many things you have done that began with that desire to learn more. You weren’t looking for perfection. You were looking for the contentment of doing. You could work for hours at something that you felt was important. You didn’t think of failing – only of doing. In the doing was the satisfaction.

My son was an artist and drew constantly from the time he was little onwards. Writers write and write and write. People who like to bake can always be found in the kitchen – that is where they are the happiest. Use that same resilience to start again.

Step 5: Stay focused.

Change your focus to what you like. Incorporate the lessons you learn along the way and step out. It is so easy to take your mind off what you can do and focus instead on what you haven’t done. Read books written by people that have been there and not only survived but thrived.

The lesson to all this is that you can make it.

No matter where you are required to begin, you can make it. Refuse to let the magnitude of rebuilding take away your resilience and determination.

When taking one small step after another, it is surprising how far you can go and how much you can accomplish.

Breathing Exercise to Reduce Stress

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Stopping the downward spiral

We can’t think of options and alternatives when we’re under high levels of stress – in fact, we can’t think at all.

Only when some of that stress has been reduced can we put on our thinking cap, challenge our fears, and look for ways to go beyond survival.

Ruminating over your problems may be the only way you know how to cope with stress at first. You may continue to argue your point of view… “You just don’t understand. I followed instructions. I took classes to learn. All I hear from everyone, is why don’t you do this or that, as if I haven’t already tried that and more.”

When you’re on a survival merry-go-round, you can’t think of anything constructive. You blame yourself or others for feeling out of control.

Unresolved issues from your past can keep you in survival mode. The current pandemic may have put you in a tailspin. Being isolated takes a toll. You may be anxious about the COVID vaccine. There is a lot you have little control over. But you can change how you respond.

Lowering stress and tension

The first thing in reducing stress and tension is to replace shallow breathing with slow, even breathing.

Shallow breathing is short breaths originating in the chest. This type of breathing reduces the amount of oxygen needed by the body.

When feeling panic and fear, our breathing becomes more rapid and shallow. To lower feelings of panic, fear, or anxiety and reduce tension, breathe slowly and evenly from the diaphragm.

Deep breathing exercise

The purpose of this exercise is to calm your mind and body so you can function, think, and solve problems.

  • Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.
  • Sit or lie down.
  • Focus on your breathing. Is it fast and shallow, originating in the chest area?
  • Put your hands on your abdomen, or stomach area, and then take some slow, deep breaths, concentrating on using your abdominal muscles.
  • As you breathe in slowly, count to three, and as you exhale, do the same, count to three.
  • Feel your abdomen rise and fall.

If frantic thoughts intrude during this exercise, don’t try to stop them. Instead, re-direct your attention to your breathing. Continue this calming breathing until your mind begins to relax, your heartbeat calms, and you feel your tension drain away.

Sit with this calmness for a while and listen to that quiet voice deep inside you that has been drowned out by anxiety. It has been trying to get your attention for a long time. You will be all right. You can make it. Reflect calmly on what keeps you stressed, anxious or fearful. Just reflect for now. Later we will look for solutions.

Do this calming, breathing exercise several times a day until it becomes a habit. Any new habit requires consistent and repeated practice. Then, whenever you feel your stress levels rise, stop, breathe slowly, deeply, and calmly.

Starting over

As you begin your journey out of survival, focus on possibilities for where you can go from here. Don’t keep thinking about what you haven’t done or didn’t do.

Don’t compare yourself with others who you might think are more successful.

You are not denying the problems you face or minimizing the magnitude of their impact on your life. You are gaining a new perspective on how to deal with problems for optimum results.

When anxiety levels are lowered and your mind has calmed, you can re-assess, re-evaluate and focus on what you want to accomplish in the future.

What is the first step towards a new beginning?

These early goals should include not only deep, calming breathing, but reminding yourself that you are capable and can make it.

Here are some things to include in that first step beyond survival and high stress.

  1. Laughter and humor. Find something to laugh at every day. It is both healing to the body and brain, but also expands your outlook.
  2. Gratitude and blessings. Make a list of things you can be thankful or grateful for. Add to that list every day. Read that list every day.
  3. Find a support system – a good friend who can laugh and talk with you. Find a support group you can join.
  4. Find something you enjoy doing and begin working on those projects.
  5. Ask God to walk with you and give you strength, comfort, and wisdom.

This is a pivotal time in your life. You can’t recover what was lost or return to what had been. But as you accept and stop fighting, you can pick up the pieces and put them together in a new picture of possibility and success.

Stepping into that new space allows you to build on that kernel of hope.

What is Creating Your High Levels of Stress?

Listen to this episode of the Focus with Marlene Podcast:

Get caught up with all episodes in the Moving Beyond Survival series.


A student in my husband’s college class came to see him one day to tell him she would have to drop out of college. She was a great student, and he was afraid she would not return to school, limiting her chances in life.

He was always a trusted resource and support to his students, and he gently probed the reasons. He listened as she told her story, as shared below. The name has been changed to protect her identity.

Susy grew up in a home that lacked nurture and care, and she was basically left to fend for herself emotionally and financially. Entering college, she was introduced to the wonderful world of music and musicians, who cared about developing their talents and abilities.

She was swept off her feet by a charismatic trumpet player who only wanted a pretty girl by his side. After they were married, her husband discovered she had an eating problem and difficulty maintaining her weight.

She was not the “perfect” girl he wanted to show off and he literally threw her out on the street. She spent the first night sleeping in the attic of a house her brother was renovating. She was told she had a week to find a new place to live.

That is when she came to tell my husband she was dropping out of school. He quietly listened, then picked up the phone and called me. Could we take her in?

“Yes, of course,” I said.

We refused rent, and only asked that she begin to trust in her abilities, finish college and get her degree. She did. And accomplished much in life. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

Many Stories Mirror This One.

Kids who grow up without nurturing; marriages you thought would last a lifetime suddenly come to an end; a person you trusted betrayed that loyalty; the list is endless.

You, too, may find yourself one step from being on the street due to circumstances beyond your control. How will I make it? How will I survive?

While circumstances are different for everybody, we all experience some feelings of abandonment, rejection and, Oh my gosh, now what will I do?

The Fight/Flight Response

In survival, stress settles in as a permanent resident. Your mind and body are constantly trying to compensate. When the brain registers danger, either psychologically or externally, the fight/flight response is activated. Its purpose is to quickly prepare you to respond to whatever danger you face.

How Fight/Flight Affects Us Physically

Hormones and chemicals are released. Our heart, circulatory system, adrenal glands, stomach, intestines, kidneys, liver, brain, lungs – in fact, almost every organ in the body – is activated in some way to meet this emergency.

  • Blood is shunted away from our extremities, liver, and digestive areas to the heart, lungs, and skeletal muscles.
  • Digestion is put on hold.
  • Glucose is dumped into the blood to provide energy for the impending fight or flight.

Once the danger is past, the body returns to a restful state; the heartbeat returns to normal, blood pressure lowers, and the digestive system resumes digesting your latest meal.

The problems we experience today are not so much a physical danger, like a real tiger at our door, but what I refer to as a “paper tiger,” a perception of danger.

When in a constant state of anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty, our body remains geared up to take action of some kind and is unable to return to a restful state. The longer it remains in the geared-up state, without some resolution or down times, the more potential long-term damage can occur.

Life in general will create a certain amount of distress. We expect life to have its challenges. It is when these become more than everyday occurrences, however, escalating into problems that seem unsolvable, that we need to stop and take action.

Signs of Distress – What Are You Experiencing?

You may or may not be aware of the causes of your distress. To find solutions, you first need to identify what’s causing your distress. The following questions might help.

  1. What situations are creating high levels of distress for you? Can you identify them?
  2. What mental, emotional, and physical signs reflect your rising stress levels? What actions do you take to reduce or lower your stress? Are they working?
  3. List the ways you can replace distress with good stress. Good stress is motivating, encouraging, accomplishing, stimulating, doing what you love to do, etc.
  4. Stress is experienced in our interpersonal relationships, and in many social settings, such as home, work, community, church, etc. How can different responses help lower levels of contention when they occur?
  5. What are you doing when less stressed? Can you incorporate more of that into your life?

Next week, we will address ways you can immediately begin to reduce stress so you have the energy to find more long-term solutions.

What Does Survival Look Like?

Listen to this episode of the Focus with Marlene Podcast:

Get caught up with all episodes in the Moving Beyond Survival series.


“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

—Joshua 1:9 NIV

Are you in survival mode?

When the unexpected happens, we come face to face with the unknown.

We may have lost our job, or the marriage we thought would last a lifetime has just ended. Our spouse may have died unexpectedly, or we lost our best friend. It may be the death of a child or the shocking awareness that our teen is deeply involved in drugs or gangs. Or that our health is slowly deteriorating with aging.

There are a thousand ways our life can be turned inside out and upside down in the blink of an eye. At such times, we feel like a deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car: paralyzed, unable to move. Shock protects us for a short time, but when it wears off, the magnitude of our circumstances hits full force.

Along with trauma, tragedies, and misfortune comes uncertainty and unpredictability.

Stress is heightened as fear and anxiety settle in. Our fight or flight response is not only activated but remains stuck in high gear. Hormones and chemicals continue to be released into our body, enabling us to run or defend ourselves.

Except we are not applying those chemicals in the way they were intended. With no appropriate way to be used, they begin to work against us.

As worry and anxiety set in, we may experience constant stomach upsets and indigestion. We have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Thoughts spin out of control and our heartbeat seems to constantly be racing.

How could this be happening?

What will I do now and how will I survive?

Feelings of anger or betrayal along with cynicism and bitterness can raise their ugly heads. Guilt, shame, and self-incrimination become the norm and the future seems bleak and hopeless. We find ourselves isolated and alone, feeling as though we are sliding down an abyss with no way to stop or slow down.

When we enter survival mode, we become hyper-vigilant to everything around us. Our mood may shift from anxiety and fear to irritability and anger. We argue with or shout at loved ones, increasing tension and stress.

Or we retreat from everyone and everything. Trying to survive, we direct our anger and fear onto others and blame everybody and everything for what is happening.

Survival mode has physical, emotional, and psychological consequences.

Stress not only robs us of sleep but continues to keep us tense and on edge. High levels of emotional stress prevent us from thinking effectively. In a constant, non-ending state of apprehension and anxiety, we enter a world that appears to be going nowhere.

Stress Helps us Adapt

We were designed to adapt to the world we live in. Stress is that adaptive ability that allows us to adjust to any new situation, whether it is enjoying the grandkids, going to work, raising our families, cheering at a football game, or responding to a threat.

If we couldn’t adapt, we wouldn’t be able to respond to life – mentally, emotionally, socially, or physically. When stress is working for us, we are motivated and energized. We can set goals, plan our careers, enjoy life, solve problems, and live life to the fullest. When it is working against us, it wears us out.

We are born with a certain amount of adaptive ability to use and make the adjustments needed. When we have used up our storehouse of adaptive ability, we don’t get any more. While we have little control over the amount we receive at birth, we do have considerable control over how we use it.

You may believe there’s nothing you can do about the unwanted stress you are experiencing. Yet we know that not everyone will react to similar circumstances the same. What might raise your levels of distress may be an energizer to somebody else. How we interpret events and situations can have a significant outcome. And we can change that interpretation.