When we experience a troubling emotion, we may think we can control it by sheer force of will. We tell ourselves to stop feeling bad or anxious or angry, as if a simple stop command will suffice. Or we try to force ourselves to feel happy. These efforts are misguided because they are directed at the effect (emotions), not the triggering causes (underlying thoughts). We cannot force ourselves to be happy, any more than we can force ourselves to sleep if we’re not sleepy.
We can mollify pain by taking an aspirin or another pain-reliever. But unless we correct the underlying cause, the pain returns. We may also temporarily squelch or dull troubling emotions by using alcohol or other drugs as emotional pain relievers. But neither strategy works in the end, and using drugs or alcohol may only compound the problems we face. A better strategy is to learn from our negative emotions. We can treat a troubling emotion as a signal that something is wrong and requires attention. There is no such thing as a wrong emotion. We need to learn to read the signal and identify the underlying thoughts that trigger it. Then, we can work to stem the flow of negative emotions at the tap.
Imagine you're a college student taking an examination. You believe everything is riding on how well you perform on the test. You take your seat and look around the class. People are nervously fidgeting with their pencils and scrap paper. You wonder if you are as prepared as you should be. Everyone else seems so much more confident than you. They're even joking with each other. You wonder how they could joke at a time like this. Don't they know their future is on the line? If you mess up here, it's all over, you tell yourself. Finito. Negative thoughts fill your mind: “I'm never going to make it. Who am I kidding? They'll all find out what a phony I am.”
You begin noticing a feeling of queasiness in your stomach. Your hands begin to shake. Your mouth becomes dry. You're breathing quickens. Your heart beats more rapidly. Thoughts race through your mind: “Am I going to pass it? What happens if I have to throw up? What if I forget everything I know? What if I can’t think straight?”
The professor hands out the examination and your mind goes blank. You can't remember a thing. You just sit there while everyone else begins answering questions. The professor comes over, asking you if everything is alright. “Yes, no problem,” you say, lying badly. You wonder how you'll ever hold it together until the end of the examination. You're sure you're going to fail.
Now consider an alternative scenario. You enter the examination room and take your seat. As people shuffle in and arrange their things, you feel confident, relaxed and composed. You know you're well prepared for the examination and feel confident, though certainly not cocky. You tell yourself you prepared the best you could and that whatever happens, happens. Even if you're not as well prepared as you'd like, you tell yourself there's nothing more you can do about it now, other than doing the best you can. Perhaps you feel some twinges of anxiety. It's normal, you tell yourself, to feel a little anxious in a test situation. Just let it be and focus on your work. Silently, you remind yourself to stay calm and work through the questions one at a time. You rehearse some of the material in your mind, preparing to answer the questions. The professor hands you the exam. You manage to produce a weak smile and an insincere thank you. Taking a deep breath, you turn to the first page and begin answering questions.
Examining the differences in your inner speech between these two scenarios identifies errors or flaws in thinking that trigger problems with anxiety. The first scenario models an anxiety-inducing pattern often seen in people with anxiety disorders and other troubling forms of anxiety, such as test anxiety and public speaking anxiety. This pattern is characterized by flaws in thinking that include the following:
1. Expecting the worst. You expect to fail. Even before you look at the examination, you imagine the worst possible consequences.
2. Catastrophizing. You convince yourself that a poor performance means the end of your career.
3. Misreading the situation. You assume other people are joking around because they are better prepared. You don't realize that their laughter may be covering up their own anxiety.
4. Misreading your body. You're keenly aware of your bodily reactions. You label bodily signs of anxiety as signals of an impending panic attack or loss of control. Instead of taking a few deep breaths and relaxing yourself, you intensify your anxiety reaction by expecting the worst.
5. Thinking the worst of yourself. You think of yourself as a loser who's bound to fail in any endeavor.
6. Jumping to conclusions. You have a mental block on the first question and conclude that all the other questions will be just as difficult.
The second scenario highlights a different thinking style in which you talked sensibly and rationally to yourself. You adopted a benign attitude of letting whatever happens, happen. You engaged in coping responses such as taking a deep breath and relaxing yourself. You told yourself to relax and remain calm.
Troubling emotional reactions derive from distorted patterns of thinking. By exploring the content of your self-talk and analyzing errors in your thinking, you can identify thoughts that trigger these emotional reactions. The principle of substitution then comes into play. Becoming aware of dysfunctional thinking patterns is not sufficient by itself for change to occur. It must be combined with practice in substituting rational self-talk for distorted or irrational self-talk. By talking sensibly to yourself you can gain better control of your emotions. You can change fear-inducing, depression-inducing and anger-inducing thoughts and self-statements into calming, confidence-enhancing self-statements. You may also identify issues which require other forms of corrective action, such as developing better study skills or social skills, resolving interpersonal conflicts, or learning to start and maintain conversations, and so on. Starting by capturing and examining triggering thoughts helps you determine a path of action.
Controlling emotions can be likened to stemming the flow of water gushing out of a faucet. Yes, you could try to stem the flow of water by covering the spigot with your hands and trying to push the water back. However, not only will this prove ineffective, but the force of the water pressure will soak you and everything around you. A better strategy, of course, is to control the flow of water by turning it off at the tap.
Trying to control emotions by fighting against them is like trying to push the water back into the faucet. The harder you fight against an emotion, the stronger the emotion is likely to become. Like turning off the flow of water off at the tap, controlling disturbing emotions involves identifying and changing the thought triggers, in effect turning off the emotional flow at the tap.
You first need to identify the controlling thoughts lurking in the recesses of your mind. Once you’ve nabbed an offending thought, turn it over from side to side to examine it. Does it make sense? Is it rational or distorted? What other thoughts can you practice to substitute for an offending thought? Does thinking differently lead you to feel differently?
Expect there will be a learning curve to put this into practice—to identify, challenge, and replace disruptive thoughts. The process is one of countering distorted negative thoughts with rational alternatives, of talking sense to yourself whenever and wherever disruptive thoughts occur. Nabbing and replacing disruptive thoughts brings about change in the present. It is these kinds of minute-by-minute changes in our thinking patterns that postings on the Minute Therapist blog explore.
The purpose of the blog is to help people identify thought triggers that underlie negative feelings as well as self-downing views of the self. The postings on the blog direct attention to what we say to ourselves under our breath about the events we experience and the emotional effects of these thought triggers. By learning to uncover your inner speech, or self-talk, you can become more aware of the effects these self-statements have on your moods and outlook.
When your interpretations of life experiences are twisted or distorted, your emotional reactions are also likely to be twisted or distorted. Troubling emotions are the residue of the excess meanings we impose on the events we experience, such as expecting a negative outcome is not merely a setback but an utter catastrophe. Your awareness of mental misperceptions can be put to use by taking control of your inner speech. What are the thoughts bouncing around in your head that are pushing your emotion buttons?
© 2017 Jeffrey S. Nevid