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.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Nothing is good or bad---but thinking makes it so" Shakespeare

Cognitive psychologists agree with the Shakespeare quote in the title.  They say that any situation or life event is neutral, not good, bad, depressing, or anger or stress provoking until we begin to attach our thoughts to it.  In addition to the stacks of research that support this idea, it really makes common sense that if we think in depressing ways about things that we'll feel more depressed, or if we attach stressful or angry thoughts to situations that we'll feel stressed and upset. 

Many people argue, however, that it is life circumstances that dictate a person's mood.  They feel that if only they had less work, more money, better relationships, cars that didn't break down, nice weather, improved health, etc. that they would be happy. But even if mostly everything in a person's life was going as they wished and they felt happy, the power for their happiness is still in the circumstances and events in their life versus their own control.  As soon as something doesn't go well or isn't what they wished, their mood is taken in some other direction than peace and happiness.  Life for them is like riding in a sailboat without any way to guide it.  They get blown whatever direction the wind moves. 

When we become better at managing the thoughts that we attach to the different life circumstances that arise, we are taking back the ability to feel more the way we desire regardless of what has happened.  It is not the situation that determines our mood but rather the way we talk ourself through that situation.

To illustrate this, pretend that you and three of your friends are flying away for a week to an awesome vacation destination.  When you arrive there, you find out that your luggage has been lost and that you have nothing but a few things you carried on the plane.  If this event dictated how your group felt, all four of you would feel the same way, but you don't.

One of your friends might react with thoughts like this. "Why does this always happen to me? Every time I try to do something it goes wrong. My trip is ruined. This is just horrible. I wish I could just go home." And of course this friend ends up feeling down and discouraged.

Another friend might respond by thinking these thoughts. "I knew those stupid idiots at baggage claim were going to mess things up. I hate this airline, they always screw something up.  Why aren't there any competent people anymore that can do their job?!" And as this friend stomps off to yell at somebody, they feel quite angry!

Your third friend might think stress and anxiety provoking thoughts. "Oh no, what are we going to do now? I'm never going to be able to buy all the things I'm going to need down here.  I had all my favorite clothes and now my outfits are going to look totally stupid. What if they never find our bags and we never see our things again?!"

You are learning the importance of the thoughts that you attach to situations, so you think, "Well, I'd like to have my suitcase, but it's not that big a deal. The airline will probably find it in a day or two and I don't need that much to get me through.  We've got our room, were in an awesome place, and I'm going to have a blast on vacation even without my suitcase" And you are able to keep yourself fairly calm and upbeat.

There are multiple little and sometimes big life situations or events that happen in a day or week to which we attach our characteristic thoughts.  Begin by simply catching and observing as often as possible the self-talk that you tend to put on these situations.  Recognition of when you are engaging in your characteristic thinking patterns is an initial step toward being able to better change your self-talk to the calming, upbeat, reassuring thoughts that will lead to the more pervasive feelings of peace and happiness that you may desire.