Message Three: Get Curious

Hello again! In case you missed the first two messages in this series, here’s what you need to know. In message one, I talked about how overwhelm once again got to me while I was in the middle of creating this series on overwhelm! (And my gosh, how ironic is that?) And in message two, I talked about the skill of focusing on just one thing, which I learned many years ago from working as an actor in improvisational murder mysteries; as an introvert, this became something of a survival skill for me.

Today, I’m sharing skill #2 of stopping overwhelm, which is to get curious in order allow you to see and acknowledge what’s really happening. I wish I could say I learned this one from something fun, but that’s not true. I do think I’ve always been a very curious person. But after I developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from a car accident, curiosity as a skill is what allowed me to finally become highly functional again.

I was in a terrible car accident in February of 2008. I was on the highway on my way to work when a pickup truck, which had been going in the opposite direction, spun across 4 lanes of traffic and the median, and came to a halt right in front of my car. I didn’t even have time to turn the wheel, just enough time to hit the brakes to slow the car down a little and, unfortunately, break my ankle. I ended up with several other broken bones too and, as it turned out later, PTSD that was quite serious until a few years ago. Even today I still sometimes find it hard to be in a moving car.

While PTSD is an extreme example of overwhelm, what I learned from it is that getting curious allows my brain to be less at the mercy of strong emotions, and more able to be a neutral observer. When I can do that, I can get the critical information I need to slow down a little and be my own best advocate. I can describe to myself and to other people what is actually happening – meaning what the facts are – rather than just reacting out of habit every time.

Here are some of the facts I’ve noticed about what happens when I am in a moving vehicle and my PTSD kicks in. I experience symptoms of a panic attack. Among other things, I sweat, I get tunnel vision, my arms and legs feel like they are locked in place and I can’t hear what’s going on around me. When this happens, I am very likely to have some specific thought patterns, too. I tell myself that I am an idiot for being upset, I am stupid for reacting that way, I am useless because of the panic attack, and that I can’t be trusted because of my panic attacks.

Learning to see these sets of information with curiosity – about the way my PTSD shows up and about my own thoughts when it happens – has given me a tremendous sense of relief over the years! Instead of being controlled by my PTSD, I was able to reduce the intensity, little by little. It was my curiosity practice that gave me enough data to see a panic attack coming and pull the car over to the side of the road so I could get to safety. Eventually, I got enough data to do some specific therapy, which helped me dramatically reduce the frequency of my panic attacks. Believe it or not, it turns out that the most important part of this was being able to see the thoughts I was having about my PTSD.

By building the skill to get curious instead of going right into self-judgment, I got to the point pretty quickly where I could be just a little more compassionate with myself. I started to say, “Oh you’re trying so hard here, I’m proud of you,” at the very same time I was thinking those harsh judging thoughts. (It may seem like a small thing to you, but trust me when I say self-compassion had never been something I was good at before then.) And this seemed to slow down my reactions a bit (I thought they were automatic but that wasn’t true), which gave me just enough breathing room to get even better at noticing all the patterns behind my PTSD.

I was able to break my cycle of reactions and patterns so effectively that today, my PTSD hardly ever shows up!

And I used this very same skill of getting curious when I woke up the other day feeling very grumpy and overwhelmed. The one thing I chose to look at (remember that’s skill #1) was my own approach to this series on overwhelm and boundaries. Then I was able to look at the situation with curiosity and see it with much greater clarity.

I was able to give myself a lot more grace and compassion to make a new decision. But deciding what to do instead is actually skill #3, so I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. That’s what I’m going to cover in the next message, which will be released tomorrow.

For today, for this skill of getting curious, begin by thinking about that one thing you chose to focus on, the one bite you’re taking out of your overwhelm watermelon (or elephant, whatever visual works for you). Now, get curious about it to see whatever you can about what’s actually happening. Here are some questions and prompts to help you:

  • Can you describe what’s going on – what you see and hear and smell?
  • What does the setting look like?
  • Who is in the room or in the relationship with you?
  • Is there a conversation happening? What are the actual words people are saying?
  • How are you reacting?
  • What thoughts are you thinking and what feelings are you feeling? (If you want to know what the difference is between thoughts and feelings, listen to episode 40 of my podcast, which is the episode called “You can’t hurt somebody else’s feelings.”)

You can give yourself bonus points if you write down your observations, because you’ll be able to use it as data when as you begin to dive into skill #3. More on that tomorrow.

That’s it for today! I’d like to encourage you to leave a comment below or send me an email if you have questions or thoughts for me at this point. If you have PTSD, I definitely want you to know that you’re in good company. 

Here’s to building the skill of getting curious (and to being more self-compassionate),

Kay Coughlin, CEO and Life & Business Coach, and mother, wife and caregiver

P.S. Prefer to listen to this message? You can do that here.

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Kay Coughlin, life coach and CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is on a mission to help caregivers learn about personal boundaries. In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about Human Giver Syndrome, is the host of the weekly "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind." She is well known for coaching family caregivers and sandwich family caregivers who want to be in the workforce on their own terms.

When Kay works with businesses, she helps teams understand how to work with people of different ages through her decision-making workshops and "Building Trust Across Generations" seminar. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

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