Sunday, January 30, 2011

Runaway Mental Semi-trucks!!

In the last blog I talked about the idea that any life event that we experience is neutral until we attach our thoughts or self-talk to it. I also discussed that we have characteristic self-talk that we tend to apply to the many little things and occasional bigger life situations that occur and that it is essential to catch when we are doing this in order to improve at practicing the calming, upbeat, realistic self-talk that can lead to more consistent peace and happiness.

Conceptually, it is a fairly simple idea to change your thinking and self-talk in ways that help you to manage situations and experience the mood that you desire regardless of the life events that are hitting you. In practice, however, it takes significant initial effort and energy to make this happen. Our old, characteristic thoughts and self-talk are incredibly automatic and ingrained after years of rehearsal. Most people don’t intentionally attempt to get themselves stressed, depressed, worried, or angry by generating self-talk that elicits these moods. But when our brains have repeatedly attached the same types of messages for years or decades to life situations that occur, those old, automatic, negative mood inducing thoughts are often off and running before we realize it.

It’s like a semi-truck in neutral that is just starting to roll down from the top of a hill. If we were able to catch that initial movement in the old, ingrained direction, it would be possible with practice to put the mental brakes on those automatic thoughts. But if the semi picks up speed and the old, characteristic thinking gets rolling, it can be incredibly difficult to get out in front of that self-talk and stop it.

For example, let’s say that a person has ingrained self-talk that often steers them down the road toward stress and worry. On many mornings (and afternoons, evenings, and at bedtime) their brain starts thinking about all the situations past, present, and future in their life. They think about the usual pile of tasks to complete at work, all the things that they should get to around the house, several errands they need to accomplish, places they need to run their kids, relationship stresses, and 20 other life events that have already happened or might happen in the near future. They attach their automatic thoughts to all of this, “I’ve got a million things to do, I’m never going to be able to get all this done, What if I don’t finish everything at work,, I’m so overwhelmed and stressed that I can’t stand it, What if my kids don’t start doing better in school, Why is my life always so crazy!”.

As those old, automatic thoughts pick up momentum, they become harder to slow down, and this person likely ends up experiencing their familiar chronic, pervasive feelings of stress and anxiety. Thoughts of irritation and anger or discouragement and depression gain strength and create chronic negative emotions in the same manner.

As stated in the first post and again here, one of the keys to changing the old, automatic self-talk is the early recognition of when those thoughts start rolling. It is easier at that point to put on the mental brakes and replace those thoughts with the calming, upbeat, realistic self-talk. It is also very helpful after early recognition of the characteristic thinking to have a strategy to dissipate the intensity of the emotion that was experienced. I will discuss in the next post how to dissipate the intensity of that initial reaction and then how to change the automatic thoughts to self-talk that generates more pervasive peace and happiness.

1 comment:

  1. Another excellent post! You've really got me examining the chain of internal events leading up to my emotional responses - and even more importantly, my daily thought process. (You know, "Oh man, it's Monday and I'm not sure want to face the world!")

    It's very refreshing to find a psychologist who's found a way to put these things into simple terms, yet isn't talking down to his readers.

    Bravo and keep 'em coming! If you've read my blog posts or watched my web talk show, you know that I've found it sometimes takes a lot of work to keep my ship on an even keel while I'm navigating the stormy seas of modern life. :)

    Jim Otey

    p.s. I'm going to be telling everyone who'll listen about your blog. I know a bunch of people who could use the advice!