PP in Practice

In this blog I’m aiming to describe how I used a range of PP strategies in real-time to help me cope with a minor drama and look at the ways in which they helped. I also look at how this is different from the way in which I might have responded in the past.

A familiar hassle

On the way back from visiting family in Devon, I experienced a challenge that may be familiar to many people who attempt to travel during the school holidays. My car began to overheat in terrible traffic on the motorway. My car is ancient and this is not the first time I have experienced this type of problem. However, on reflection, I think the way I responded to the situation is very different from how I would have done so even 5 years ago and markedly different from how I would have reacted 10 years ago.

Naturally, I am a “glass half empty” person, or at least I used to be. In the past, my car breaking down would have felt like a real disaster. I would have been flooded with anxiety about how to cope. I would have berated myself for trying to travel on a Friday, criticised myself for not looking after my car better, catastrophised having to miss a meeting due to the delay, and ruminated about potential disaster scenarios such as being stranded for hours with a grumpy teenager and no food or toilet.

What was different?

These are some of the PP strategies I used which helped me.

Emotional Acceptance: When I noticed my car temperature gauge creeping up, instead of trying to either ignore or suppress my anxiety, I leaned into it. I allowed it to be there, acknowledged it and prevented myself from catastrophising. I knew that my anxiety was just registering a threat and trying to help me.

Self Compassion: Leading on from the above, I used my best friend, the self-compassion break, which I have talked about in previous blogs. I acknowledged that this was a moment of suffering. I invoked common humanity and had fellow feeling for all the people who were no doubt going through the same thing as me. This made me smile. Then I asked, what do I need now to be kind to myself in this situation? I pulled onto the hard shoulder and turned my engine off and put my hazard lights on, to give myself a moment to take a deep breath and think. The traffic began moving a little better, my engine had cooled down a bit and I was very near the next junction so I felt the right thing to do was get to safety off the motorway. I managed to get to the car park of a hotel in a service area about a mile away.

Mindfulness, Gratitude and Perspective: Once stopped, I took a few deep breaths and grounded myself in the moment, allowing the thoughts of past and future-focused “what ifs?” to be seen as just thoughts and focus on the actual challenge in the present. Mindfulness, the ability to be in the present moment and encounter your thoughts and responses in a curious and non-judgmental way without over-identifying with them, is fundamental to many PP practices. This had the added bonus of invoking perspective, one of my strengths which I have written about in a previous blog. My daughter and I were safe and now had access to food, toilets and coffee! This was the important big picture and I did feel truly grateful for this, especially as my mind naturally engaged in downward hedonic contrast. That is, comparing one’s situation to real or imagined times when things have been worse. This does not work for everyone or all the time but in this situation, for me, it did. I almost laughed as I thought about the time when I lived in Zambia and had to get out of a broken-down jeep with a hunting leopard about 10 meters away!

Positive emotions: We know from the Broaden and Build Theory, that positive emotions help us look up and out and think more creatively and flexibly, so engaging humour and gratitude probably also helped me work on solving my actual problem.

Hope: I was hopeful that I could resolve my situation. As I was calm, I was able to concentrate on what my goals needed to be and how to go about achieving them (waypower). I was fairly motivated (willpower) not to spend the whole day in the hotel car park. Being well prepared is always useful and order/organisation is a strength of mine, so my mobile phone was fully charged and I have full breakdown cover. I was quickly able to contact my recovery provider and report the problem. I knew it would be a busy day for breakdowns so I was expecting a long wait. I was pleasantly surprised to be told it would only be an hour and a quarter before someone could get to me. Another couple of quick phone calls and emails to rearrange a few things later in the day and let people know I would be late and my list of reorganisation goals was achieved. I kept checking in with my emotional state. Yes, it was frustrating that my plans were derailed but the strategies above helped keep me on track. As we had time to wait, we worked on looking after our bodies and had something to eat and drink and moved around a bit.

Values and strengths: I knew with the chance to sit and ruminate I could be in danger of being hijacked by some of my unhelpful narratives, related to past experiences, such as “I’m really incompetent at practical things”. I asked myself “what kind of person do I want to be in this situation?” Checking in with my values of love, wisdom and authenticity, I knew I wanted to use my strengths around love to make the most of the situation. I definitely didn’t want to be the person who takes their stress out on those around them. So I spent time talking and laughing with my daughter. When the breakdown engineer arrived my social connection strengths went into action, finding out about how his day was going and developing a rapport, which made the experience more pleasant for both of us and probably also encouraged him to go the extra mile in helping me.

Defensive pessimism: This is a strategy in which you imagine what can go wrong in order to prepare for it. Research shows that those who naturally tend to this strategy fare better when they are allowed to use it rather than being prevented from doing so. Although I was optimistic that the lovely engineer would get me home, either by fixing or towing my car, my inner pessimist had already worked out that if needed we could just book into the hotel we were parked outside. This helped me to feel hopeful because I had an alternative backup plan (waypower).

Resilience: My car was functional again with a temporary fix, so after about 3 hours total delay, I was able to drive home. The traffic was even worse and there was definitely a danger of anxiety about breaking down again. However, I realised that actually I am quite good at coping and staying calm when things go wrong, so if I did have a problem, I could do this again. This really helped me be calm and patient on the rest of the drive. After all, I had already rearranged my schedule so there was really no hurry and because I had been calm, my daughter was also relaxed, we had music, snacks, drinks and each other.


I made it home, taking 7 hours over a normally 3-hour journey, arriving tired but otherwise fine. The next day friends asked me about my journey and sympathised that the breakdown must have been “awful, stressful and really traumatic”. I’m fairly sure that 10 years ago I would have agreed with this assessment. But now it really didn’t feel like that. It felt like a minor challenge that had helped me learn something about myself and spend some quality time with my daughter. These changes in attitude and behaviour don’t happen overnight, the investment in practising PP strategies I have put in over the last 5-10 years has paid off. It is an investment of time and effort I would recommend as it can really change your experience of everyday problems, as I hope I’ve shown here.


Read more about Sarah Monk and her other articles HERE


‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’


Share This