Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Old Stinkin' Thinkin'

Before you begin changing the old, automatic self-talk that causes more feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, anger, or self-doubt than you would like, it is essential to become great at recognizing when that characteristic thinking gets rolling and the typical words or phrases of the recurrent thoughts (Runaway Mental Semi-trucks). Sometimes people catch it when they notice some of their familiar self-talk popping in their minds, and sometimes people first notice an increase in the emotion that they are working on, and then realize that the automatic thoughts are cranking away.

Either way, pay very close attention to the thoughts that you might often attach to the many situations you get hit with daily. Are there thoughts that would tend to elicit irritation and anger, such as, “People are such idiots; Why is this person always a jerk; Why can’t anybody drive correctly, give proper customer service, or have correct manners etc.” Or is the typical self-talk more stress and anxiety inducing, such as thinking, “I’m so overwhelmed; I have a million things to do; What if _______……and fill in the blank here with any number of alarming things that you imagine could happen in the future”. Is the self-talk eliciting feelings of self-doubt and low confidence, such as, “I can’t do anything right; I’m always screwing up; I’ll never be able to do that; Nobody really likes me; I’m such a loser; I hate how I look, etc”. Or is the self-talk more discouraging and depressing, such as, “I’m so depressed; Nothing ever turns out the way I want; Everything is terrible in my life; It’s all hopeless”.

Then imagine rehearsing these familiar words and phrases countless times over years or decades, and it’s easy to understand how someone could end up feeling a lot more chronically down, anxious, stressed, angry, or insecure and self-doubting than they would like. And again, not because the life situations are making the person feel that way or even that their life is that way. The constant rehearsal of those messages has sunk in over the years, convinced them that things are that way or that they are that person, and it feels true… truly feels that the old, automatic thoughts and resultant feelings are facts that can’t be disputed.

But it isn’t true!!!!! It is so important to believe that it isn‘t true and that with time and practice, it is possible to get proficient at attaching a new set of thoughts to life situations, to change those old thoughts and feelings permanently, and to much more often, talk yourself into feeling more the way that you desire.  At that point when you catch the familiar thoughts or emotions starting to roll, it is essential to mentally put the brakes on the old self-talk in whatever manner works for you. Some people like to mentally tell those old thoughts to STOP and might picture hitting the brakes on the familiar thinking. Other people like to stay with the neutral observer strategy we’ve discussed (Calming Your Emotional Pond) and just notice those old thoughts and think, “hmmm, there is that thought again, ah, my brain is wanting to think that again….oh well, just my old thoughts, they don’t control me”. Try out different ways of halting the old, automatic thinking and see what works best for you.

Remember, even though your brain may automatically think all the usual thoughts when things happen, it is still your brain and you control what direction those thoughts take! The self-talk may head off in the characteristic direction, but with practice, you can get better and better at steering those thoughts in a different direction and begin to look at any situation in a manner that helps create greater feelings of encouragement, peace and happiness. In my next post, I’ll discuss how to do this.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Calming Your Emotional Pond

In the last three posts I’ve discussed the idea that it isn’t the situation itself that dictates our mood but rather how we talk ourselves through the situation (Nothing is Good or Bad But Thinking Makes it so), how challenging a process it really is to change our automatic thoughts (Runaway Mental Semi-trucks), and how we can acquire automatic emotional reactions to life events even before we begin attaching our characteristic self-talk to it. In this post, I’m going to discuss a strategy for lessening the initial emotional impact when a life event hits so that it becomes easier to change the old, automatic self-talk.

A metaphor which accurately captures the emotional calming that I’m discussing is one of sitting out on a boat on your emotional pond. The water may be calm at times, but it often isn’t calm for too long because life events hit it, and we quickly experience the familiar emotional waves as they begin to spread out. These life situations come in all sizes, with some hitting like a boulder and resulting in large waves, while others hit like a rock with resulting ripples.

  One of the keys to staying calmer is to keep your focus and awareness on just the initial hit and the emotional waves that come from that. The tendency, however, is to start picking up a bunch of rocks in your boat that are similar to the first one that smacked your emotional pond and to then perpetuate or even increase the size of the waves from the initial hit. For example, let’s say that a person who often got themselves worried and stressed had one of the following examples hit their emotional pond: an extra assignment at work, problems with a coworker or ex-spouse, lots of chores piling up at home, or a money shortage to pay bills etc. Understandably, they might initially experience their recurrent feelings of stress, but the reaction often doesn’t stop there.

Their old, automatic thoughts kick in and they start tossing in all the rocks of their familiar stressful self-talk, “I‘m never going to be able to get all this done; I‘m so overwhelmed; Why is my life always so stressful; I’ve got a hundred more projects to do at work and tons of household things to get done; I just want to give up and go to bed!” Now, all of the waves and ripples from these self-talk rocks are also hitting their emotional pond, and they are perpetuating and exacerbating their feelings of stress and worry. Similarly, other people might have familiar rocks and waves of depression, self-doubt, insecurity, or irritation and anger.

Instead of adding to the size of the emotional waves as in the above example, it is challenging but possible to sit with and to observe your initial emotional reactions to events and to keep the waves and ripples to only that event. The key to this process is to become an aware but neutral observer of the reactions or emotions that you’re experiencing. If we stay with the above example, that chronically stressed person has the ability, with practice, to sit in their boat, and after the initial hit of the life event, to observe it and just be aware of it. “Hmmm“, they may think, “there’s that familiar nervous feeling in my stomach, heart is beating faster, ah, muscles are feeling tense……feeling like I need to get up and start cranking on my to do list…..interesting how that feels.”

And with practice, they can begin to notice that the waves start to spread out, start to decrease in size just like they do when one rock is tossed in a pond. As the waves get smaller, the person feels a little calmer, a little less stressed……and they continue to observe what is happening in their mind and body in that neutral way until the emotional waves are significantly reduced in size.

Like anything else, the more you practice this the better you get, so start by being aware of the familiar rocks that hit your emotional pond. Then sit for a few moments with neutral observational awareness of what happens in your mind and body……..notice those old rehearsed thoughts that try to get in your head, and neutrally observe them too. And picture the waves from the one situation that hit you slowly spreading out and dissipating.

It takes a lot of practice, so start with even small rocks and work up to the bigger ones. Lessening the impact of these life events is important, because in the next post I’ll be discussing how to change our old, automatic self-talk to more calming, reassuring, realistic thinking, and having smaller emotional ripples to manage makes this thought restructuring significantly easier!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Saber-toothed Tigers

In the last two posts I’ve talked about the life events that hit us, the characteristic self-talk that we attach to those events, and the helpfulness of changing that self-talk to more calming, upbeat, realistic thoughts that will more likely bring greater feelings of peace and happiness. This is a difficult process, however, because in addition to our old automatic self-talk being deeply ingrained through years of rehearsal (see Runaway Mental Semi-Trucks) the life events that hit us do so with some initial emotion even before we begin thinking about them.

There are implicit memories that get stored in our brains, and when a new event triggers that area or memory in a familiar way we can quickly feel the emotion that has been repeatedly associated with that event or a similar event. Our bodies have been wired physiologically to do this since the beginning of the existence of humans because it can be a very helpful process in some circumstances.

If one of our early ancestors walked out of their cave and heard the familiar growl of a dangerous animal such as a saber-toothed tiger, it would have been fairly important for the emotional/physiological response to that sound to occur automatically. If thinking were first required to create the emotion of fear, our ancestors probably would have been eaten by the time they thought, “hmmm, I’ve heard that before; I remember several times after hearing that sound that it was a dangerous animal to be feared; I’d better get psyched up now so I’m ready for it!”

Similar to this fear response, when feelings of discouragement, anger, stress, self-doubt, or anxiety have been repeatedly paired with certain life events (our modern day saber-toothed tigers), we often quickly experience one of these emotions when a new life event hits us, even before we’ve attached our characteristic thoughts to it. Your mind and body want to work together, so the initial emotional reaction to an event can easily  trigger the cascading self-talk that further elicits more of the negative emotion. Over time, people can become chronically stressed, anxious, depressed, self-doubting, or irritable as their mind and body work together in this fashion.

For example, many people frequently feel annoyed or irritated by others. They have chronically paired “frustrating or annoying” interactions with other people with corresponding self-talk such as, “Why does this person always have to act like that?; Why are people so stupid?; Can’t anybody do their job the right way anymore? What happened to manners in our society? Look at what an idiot that person is!” etc. Over time, any new situation or interaction with another person in which that other person behaves contrary to how they should be behaving, driving, talking, working, etc. quickly hits with those old familiar feelings of annoyance and irritation. These feelings are then exacerbated by the old, automatic self-talk that is attached to it.

This process works similarly for reoccurring feelings of discouragement, depression, self-doubt, worry, or stress. It is quite difficult to change the ingrained, automatic messages we attach to life events, but it becomes easier to do this when you can lessen the impact of the initial emotion that hits you, and in the next post, I will discuss one strategy for accomplishing this challenging task.