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Understanding Widow Fog Part III

The following article is reproduced with the very kind permission of widower, Corey Standford, who is also an Executive Coach & Wellness Author.  The article first appeared on his website Stanford Coaching  on October 16th, 2014.

Stanford Coaching

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Understanding Widow Fog by Corey Stanford

Part III: Cognitive Change

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This is the third and final segment in a three-part series about Widow Fog. You want to read Part I then Part II before reading Part III. In Part I, I described Widow Fog and its biological manifestation, and in Part II I explained some underlying issues to be addressed. Recall from Part II that developing your capacity to quiet your mind by dealing with your emotions more effectively is necessary to regain your ability to direct your attention.

This article builds on Parts I & II by offering principles and practices to help you quiet your mind, gain clarity and avoid isolation. Awareness, understanding and implementation empower you to begin to dispel your Widow Fog.

Your Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) makes you human. This highly developed part of your brain is what distinguishes your brain from a dog brain. Your PFC is the only region of your brain that can inhibit automatic responses. It allows you to simultaneously hold new and seemingly conflicting information and compare it to existing information. Your PFC allows for imagination, invention and creation by bringing different information on stage to be modified then restored in your brain.

Your PFC is your best resource, and managing it is the key to your success. Optimizing your PFC is a process that begins by using it more strategically. You learned that emotional suppression and endless rationalization are poor strategies. In this article, I will present two alternative strategies: Emotional Labeling & Reframing.

Emotional Labeling and Reframing are called Cognitive Change Strategies because you are strategically changing the way your brain operates.  Employing these Cognitive Change Strategies will exercise your PFC, and just like a muscle, your PFC will literally begin rewiring itself to enlarge its capacity to work better for you. These strategies require you to use the main functions of your PFC: inhibit, recall, understand, decide and memorize.

Emotional Labeling reduces emotional suppression and involves defining an emotional experience in a word or two. Leading yourself to deliberately choose one or two words to best describe your experience prevents you from repressing or impulsively expressing the emotion. Define your experience, not your story. Telling yourself or another the story often makes you feel worse and muddies the essence of your primary experience. First get clear on defining your initial emotion in one or two carefully chosen words.

Equip yourself with an expansive emotional vocabulary by using lists or charts of words that cover the full range of emotions. Posters that have facial expressions accompanying the emotional words are especially useful for children to expand their emotional vocabulary.  Learn to use these words in your thinking and communication, including your journal. Emotional Labeling is most powerful when used immediately as emotions arise, and it also provides clarity when employed later while reflecting on the experience.

As an example, consider a situation such as a friend not showing up to visit as scheduled. You could repress your feelings by feigning indifference to yourself, or you could review your emotional vocabulary to articulate exactly how you feel and acknowledge to yourself, “I feel confused and hurt” or “I feel lonely and insecure” or “I feel embarrassed”. You might even say to yourself, “I feel foolish but relieved!” The important thing is that you honestly and deliberately acknowledge how you feel.

Through practicing Emotional Labeling as best you can now, you redesign your brain to continually become more resourceful. Practicing Emotional Labeling requires you to inhibit your inclination to express or suppress. You recall other information useful for consideration to hold on stage simultaneously, and you seek to understand then decide on the word or two that best fits your experience. Then you choose to file your experience in your memory with the clarity of one or two excellent descriptors. Emotional Labeling reduces the noise.

Reframing is changing your interpretation of an event to create opportunity for you. Employing this strategy is absolutely necessary for resolving strong negative emotional events. People who learn to quickly reframe their experience enjoy more optimism, positive relationships, mastery of their environment and overall life satisfaction. As with Emotional Labeling, you can grow your Reframing muscle by exercising it.

Recall from Part II that your Limbic System sends raw emotional information to your PFC for interpretation, and threat signals dominate your attention. The challenge is to keep your PFC from being hijacked by these threat signals so you can use your PFC’s creative ability to tell a different story that reduces and resolves these threat signals.

Stories are not facts. Stories are how you interpret and explain events. Consider that facts make up 5% of the story, and the other 95% is your interpretation. Really understanding this is essential to learning the art of you telling yourself a much more beneficial story. The key is applying what Tony Schwartz at Harvard Business Review calls “Realistic Optimism”. He explains, “That doesn’t mean putting a happy face on every situation, which is just blind optimism. Rather it means intentionally telling the most hopeful and empowering story in any given situation, without subverting the facts.”

Successful reframing requires suspending judgment and creating alternative explanations for exploration. Upon experiencing an emotional event that feels threatening or negative, look for multiple ways to view it as if there is no right or wrong way to see things. When you’re stuck believing that the only interpretation is your initial negative reaction, you actually believe your story is true and you are powerless to improve your experience. If you generate two interpretations of the event, you have a dilemma, which is disempowering. This often takes the form of diametric thinking which sounds like, “I can choose to believe I was wrong or I can believe I was right.” Such a statement represents a failure to suspend judgment. You want more than two perspectives from which to choose.

As a simple example of reframing, consider a situation such as a stranger honking his horn as he passes your car on the freeway. You’re taking offense at what appears to be an act of aggression toward you. You see yourself doing this and decide to consider the facts. The fact is you heard someone honk a horn. You consider possibilities such as “The honk was accidental” or “It was another car” or “There was a dog in the road” or “That was an old friend in a new car saying hi to me”. Then choose the perspective that feels most beneficial and adopt the perspective as your empowering story. In this example, the benefit would be letting go of the distress, distraction and defensiveness to put your attention where you choose.

You need to use your PFC to practice Reframing by first inhibiting your inclination to pass judgment by accepting your initial reaction as truth. You recall other information to place on stage with the new information, then use your creative ability to understand the information in different ways. These different ways of thinking about the same facts provide you with a plethora of perspectives. You then decide what is the most optimistic and empowering perspective that doesn’t ignore the facts and you choose to memorize that perspective for future use. Reframing reduces the noise.

Emotional Labeling and Reframing can be used together or separately. Both Cognitive Change Strategies involve managing your interpretation of your experiences, and neither requires an external event to act upon you. Most often, your negative event is a memory primed by an association or your sabotaging self-talk. Your propensity to get stuck in a self-defeating loop inside your head is one reason why you need a support system.

Enrolling others in your growth plan is necessary for progress. Being widowed left you isolated in so many ways. In addition to losing your spouse, you lost other relationships. You lost your sounding board, and you’re left with others’ misunderstanding and unrequested advice. People try to change you, which triggers threat signals, and you respond by avoiding those and possibly other people. You have a new array of social threats to navigate on this journey.

In Overcoming Isolation I address how to properly build your support system by enrolling and engaging the best people in the most beneficial ways. These people will be instrumental in helping you with emotional labeling, reframing, and minimizing social threat, leaving you less isolated in your widowhood.

I lost my wife to suicide, leaving me to raise three challenging boys while working full-time during my Executive MBA program. The fog was dense and stifling, but as I applied these principles and practices and worked through my healing, I gained clarity, peace and direction. As a Life After Loss Coach, I’ve used these and related practices to help clients also navigate toward clarity, peace and direction. They work.

The best place to begin is right where you stand. You have a human brain with divine potential, and you can begin the deliberate process of dispelling the fog. I wrote this series of articles on Widow Fog to provide awareness and understanding to empower you to act. Learning about your internal processes minimizes the noisy threat response signals as you observe what’s really going on in your head. This awareness empowers you to use your PFC capacity strategically to direct your attention and achieve clarity.

If you remember nothing else I wrote, remember this: Be patient with yourself. Growth is a life-long process, not a destination.