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Key to Overcoming Stressful Thoughts? Stop and Shift

By Lesley Kennedy  |  December 6, 2022

SAN DIEGO—Karen Allen was 29 when her husband was murdered while teaching a fitness class at the gym he owned.

That was nearly 10 years ago. In the aftermath, she found herself in a dark, dark place. She eventually lost her job and her car, too.

But ultimately, Allen found a way back to a space of being healthy, joyful and at peace.

The reality is that being positive doesn’t always make things better, but being negative always makes things worse.
—Author Karen Allen

“I never thought I would experience those things again,” she said during a session titled “Stop and Shift: A Mental Exercise to Reset Your Mind” at NCSL’s first Forecast training meeting designed specifically for state legislators and staff. When you consider how powerful the mind can be at overcoming not only slight disruptions or moderately stressful moments, but also traumatic life-changing events, she adds, “just know that you have that same power inside of you, as well.”

Allen, now a TEDx speaker and founder of 100% Human, recalls the turning point in her journey out of darkness. Her young son had asked her if she was going to get out of bed that day. “And as I looked at my son, I saw two paths,” she says. “The first path was me just giving up, which is what I was currently doing—and living on autopilot is a form of giving up, by the way.” However, she added, an alternate path also started to form in her mind: getting up.

It wasn’t a light-bulb moment, but more of a dimmer switch, she says. But little by little, Allen soon found that one moment, one choice, one step could lead her in a new direction.

‘Small Hinges Move Big Doors’

“I recognized later that a lot of times we overlook these small changes or habits when really small hinges move big doors,” she says. “We can’t overlook the small effort because that helps to contribute to the bigger change.”

When we accept that life is messy and refuse to let that get the best of us, Allen adds, the alternate path becomes, “OK, how can I make life beautiful in the mess?”

This led her to come up with a mental strength training system she calls Stop & Shift (her book “Stop & Shift: The Mindset Reset that Changes Everything” was published earlier this year). The “stop” means becoming aware of the voices in your head, which often come through as critical, and learning to harness them.

“Once you notice a thought, you can see it in your mind as a picture, as an option, as a voice, as a feeling,” Allen says. “Can you imagine if you were able to just be fully present in that moment but still feel centered and clear and calm?” When you take a beat and pause for a moment, you can look at your thoughts objectively, recognize them and then decide how to proceed as your best self, she adds.

That leads to the “shift,” a positive or productive step forward, Allen says.

“Every single moment of every single day, you’re choosing who you want to be,” she says. “And that’s why it’s important that we be more thoughtful about the choices we’re making and the impact of those choices, either in the current situation or beyond.”

And while there may not always be a positive way forward, Allen says, there is likely a productive one.

“The reality is that being positive doesn’t always make things better, but being negative always makes things worse,” she says.

As Allen developed her Stop & Shift growth mindset, she realized life isn’t about win or lose, but rather win or learn.

“Because even if you fall short of whatever your goal may be, if you can learn something through that experience, you are still making progress and progress is the key,” she says. “When you become better, you make the people around you better. And that is how we make the world a little better, too.”

Lesley Kennedy is a director in NCSL’s Communications Division.

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