I’ve always been thrilled by the feeling of a plane taking off. No matter how often I fly I am amazed by the experience of the plane barreling down the runway with increasing velocity until it reaches such speeds that it begins to lift into the sky.
That feeling of becoming airborne, of the momentum of takeoff, is nothing short of incredible. But I have to go no farther than the local soccer field or basketball court to witness the power of momentum. As a spectator of many high school sports over the years, I find it fascinating to witness how powerful momentum is on the field. Sometimes all it takes is one goal, or basket, or home run, to completely change the energy of the game and send a team that had been struggling to score, to ultimate victory.
Momentum can work in the opposite direction too, the kind that spirals downward and makes you feel stuck in a rut. I have certainly seen this momentum at work in the lives of some of my patients, and at times, in my own life.
It can show up in the form of procrastination, anxiety, stress, depression, loss of motivation, hopelessness, or other insidious forms. Momentum of this sort can be quite powerful, too, making it harder and harder to move forward. Sometimes it can feel more difficult to take that one step forward than to do nothing at all.
It can be helpful to take inventory of the ways in which momentum has shown up in your own life, creating both downward and upward spirals. Think of a time when you were in a downward spiral? What helped you to escape it?
Think of a time when you experienced the effects of positive momentum. What actions were you taking that helped to perpetuate the forward motion? I notice with myself and my patients that inaction, whether due to fear, or procrastination, or depression, or self-doubt, is usually behind most downward spirals. There are often things that we can be doing to get ourselves out of a rut, to help ourselves feel better, but we aren’t doing those things.
So how do we begin to generate positive momentum? I find that one of the most helpful guiding principles comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which reminds us that we don’t have to wait for our discomfort to go away in order to take that small step forward and do something that brings meaning or value to our life. We don’t need to wait to be less anxious, less depressed, or more motivated in order to take that first step. We just need to step! Here are some other suggestions for creating momentum:
- Think of one thing that you might do to take care of yourself in some way, or one small action that might generate a positive emotional experience. The key here is to make it small and achievable.
Perhaps take a five minute relaxation break, go for a short walk, reach out to a friend for help, or acknowledge how you are feeling with some self-compassion. I have seen time and time again how often one positive act of self-care, or one act of kindness toward oneself can help to create that positive momentum that begins to tip the scale from negativity to positivity.
I have had many patients share how the simple act of making their bed, or going for a walk, or painting a picture, helped to generate the energy to take the next step, and so on, to lead them on a path towards well-being.
- Be aware that just as easily as momentum spirals downward, it can spiral upward. Sometimes it can feel like there is no way up, so it is easier to stay stuck. But positive momentum often works exponentially, not linearly. Just like the baseball team that is down 3-8 and comes back to win 10-8, things can turn around quickly once an initial action is taken. It is taking that initial, first step that is often most crucial.
- Know that life rarely moves in only one direction. If you anticipate setbacks, and build in some resiliency to face them, you will likely be able to re-establish your momentum after a difficult situation.
Think about those individuals who are trying to eat healthy in order to lose weight. They may be on an upward spiral for a while, and then have a day where they binge and feel upset about losing control. How they choose to handle that is often the difference between reaching or failing to reach their ultimate goals.
If you know that you can pick right back up with healthy choices, and start by taking that one, small step the next day, and if you can bring compassion to yourself and welcome your own humanness, this can offset the self-criticism and self-sabotage that often accompany missteps.
- Make a point of thanking someone or letting someone know you appreciate something they did, that you might not ordinarily do.
Expressing gratitude or showing kindness towards another can do a lot to boost our mood and help us step out of our internal ruminations. Perhaps it may be as simple as making eye contact with the cashier in the store and thanking them for their help. (As I am writing this I am reminding myself to send a brief text to the plumber who spent the good part of a day here this week, fixing pipes in the crawl space of our basement.)
Is there something you have been putting off in your life that might contribute to your well-being? What small step forward might you take today? When we look for it, we can often find little actions that, added together over time, can create tremendous momentum in our lives. The difference between well-being and unhappiness may be as small as taking that first step.