Article by: McKenna Hereford, PhD
With everything going on the past couple years, you might be feeling more stress, anxious, depressed, or maybe all of the above. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by current events, the pandemic, job changes, inflation, and uncertainty about the future. In fact, the American Psychological Association recently released an article showing that one-third of Americans are experiencing stress so significantly that it’s difficult to engage in everyday tasks. Additionally, there has been a rising mental health crisis since 2020. It can feel overwhelming or bring a sense of helplessness navigating your daily life right now.
One overlooked avenue to combating helplessness is to intentionally connect with your values. When we feel fulfilled in some way, likely we are tapping into our personal values. If we feel a sense of injustice, likely our values have been disconnected from us or violated. Values are intrinsic motivating reinforcers that guide us even during challenging times. You might engage in typical self-care strategies, but values are those routines where we feel a sense of meaning, fulfillment, or connection to ourselves or others. Some examples of values include:
There are the typical values we likely would repeat if asked examples of values, such as family, work, or spirituality. There are actually dozens of values that we don’t automatically think about when considering our personal values!
Values work basically means you identify your most important values, ideally to three to five most important. You can use a variety of value card sorts, including this one: Value Card Sort. As you go through the entire list, you may feel drawn to many values and feel nothing toward many others, and that’s normal! The process usually becomes more challenging as you narrow the important goals down to ten, and then three or five. The process itself might teach you new information about yourself. For example, how did you ultimately decide to set aside value number six of most important values? Your end result might also be interesting as well! Most people likely learn new values that are most important, particularly because value card sorts tend to be more specific than when we usually consider our own values mentally.
The next step is two then create one goal for each most important value (the three to five you have remaining, which is why it’s narrowed down considerably). You want to find a way to intentionally align with each value weekly if feasible. For example, maybe you identified genuineness, friends, and self-growth as your most important values. Then you might consider talking on the phone with a friend on the ride home from work once a week. For self-growth, you might choose a podcast or new book that might inspire your own growth. You might notice that you already engage in activities that align with your values. For example, maybe you regularly align with genuineness and have received feedback from others as well. In these cases, it might be helpful to incorporate mindfulness more routinely. Maybe I already set aside time for a game night with my family, and that is an important value of mine. However, throughout the games and interactions, I’m on autopilot because of current stressors I might be experiencing collectively or my own unique stressors. In this case, maybe I can do a quick grounding exercise to more fully engage and appreciate these moments and return to my stressors after game night is finished.
- Identify important values
- Narrow down to three to five most important
- Create ways to intentionally align with values each week or incorporate mindfulness if you already have a consistent routine
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is newer generation cognitive therapy that incorporates values work, where the client identifies values and incorporates goals to align with values throughout therapy. The reason is that distress in any form can result from or be exacerbated by losing alignment with values; if you intentionally align with your values, it could potentially create an important buffer against distress. When considering collective stressors over the past couple years, this could be very important! When studying moral injury, or when people are forced to witness or engage in something that violates personal morals, researchers and therapists have found that those experienced in moral injury have found benefit in aligning with their personal values. This is likely because it helps them re-align with values that have previously been violated or betrayed by others.
If we think about the last couple years, most of us have experienced a combination of collective and individual stressors. Many have reported more depression or hopelessness about current events and the future. Intentionally aligning with values in a meaningful way can serve as an anchor against the waves of uncertainty and distress.