As a psychologist much of my work involves helping people examine their feelings and thoughts and the subsequent responses they have to these. I love the process of unravelling these connections with people and the realisation people have that not all thoughts are facts. According to the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of Southern California, on average our minds generate 48.6 thoughts per minute, adding up to a staggering 70,000 thoughts per day! Imagine if we were to attend to each and every one of these thoughts and believe each one to be an absolute truth, how exhausting. Often thoughts we listen to lead to a subsequent behaviour. It is therefore important to be able to separate the fact from fiction.
When we are going through times of great stress or hardship our thoughts can begin to become skewed in particular ways that can create and increase anxiety and depression. It is at these times that it is particularly important to develop a consciousness around our thought processes. Before I explore this further I want to point out that I am not suggesting that we should be void of strong emotions that can be associated with depression and anxiety such as sadness, grief, fear and anger. These are all valid and healthy emotions and are important for us to experience. What I do however want us to decipher is when we are experiencing these emotions due to our distorted thinking. Let me give you a few examples of such situations.
During a session with a university student I was exploring feelings of anxiety associated with exams that were rendering her unable to focus and concentrate, with much time spent tearfully fretting about anticipated performance. I asked the her to explain to me what she was thinking. The client then went on to describe a thought process that went from feeling unprepared for her exams, to dying as a homeless person on the streets in her adult life. This provided great clarity as to why she was feeling paralysed with fear about failing her exams. Her catastrophic thinking pattern, linked poor exam performance at the age of 19 with lifelong failure. Identifying these thoughts created opportunity to explore alternative thoughts and outcomes thereby reducing the current anxiety to an appropriate level for a student sitting exams.
Another client presented with a very low mood and suggested this was due to his friends not liking him, that he had trouble fitting in and keeping friends. These thoughts resulted in feelings of isolation and loneliness. I asked him what had triggered these thoughts. He then went on to describe a situation where he had arranged two catch ups with different friends during the previous week and they had both cancelled. When I asked him to tell me why they had cancelled, he cited last minute work travel and sickness. Neither excuse suggested that his friends did not like him. When I asked him what his interactions with these friends has been like previously he described fun times and close relationships with a history of reliability. The client was then able to identify that his disappointment in not seeing his friends had led to thoughts of personalisation and over-responsibility in the absence of any such evidence. This recognition was a powerful first step in being able to work backwards to discover why he so quickly assumed that the failed catch ups were a result of his unlikeability. Looking at his historical experiences with kids in the schoolyard allowed him to recognise a vulnerability to assuming rejection triggering negative self talk. He was then also able to recognise how such thoughts ultimately resulted in him withdrawing from friends and reinforcing the self belief that he was unable to sustain friendships.
The above are just two examples of how distorted thinking that goes unchecked can impact not only on our mood but our behaviours. The method of unravelling these patterns and habits forms the basis of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) that was developed by Aaron Beck in the 1960’s. This is just one type of therapy that many psychologists use to empower individuals to understand what influences their mood and behaviours. If you were to look at Beck’s list of thought distortions it is highly likely that you would find at least one or two that you engage in. An awareness of these habits can result in recognition in the moment and lead to greater mastery of your emotions and behaviours.
There are some really good resources available for individuals wanting to look at this for themselves. Along with a vast amount of resources on the internet I have listed a few of my personal go to’s below.
Change Your Thinking with CBT by Dr Sarah Edelman – Ebury Publishing
MoodKit – an app that guides you through thought identification and challenging.