Read any good minds lately? What about your own?
Posted Dec 09, 2018
The wise only possess ideas; the greater part of mankind are possessed by them.
The mental calculus of thoughts and emotions comes down to this: thoughts trigger emotions. We make ourselves angry by thinking angering thoughts to ourselves. We make ourselves anxious by thinking anxious thoughts. We bring ourselves down by talking down to ourselves, telling ourselves that we are a failure, a loser, a wart on the face of the universe. We make ourselves worry by rehearsing worrisome thoughts and we make ourselves feel guilty by telling ourselves just how awful we are for doing something we shouldn't have done or for not doing something we should have done. It stands to reason that if thoughts trigger emotions, then changing your thinking can have positive effects on your emotional well-being.
We can’t directly control our emotions, as anyone who tries to just shake off depression or clamp down on anger will tell you. But we can change the thoughts that trigger emotional responses. We can choose to think A rather than B, if A leads to anxiety and B helps calm us down. Simple, right? Well, no. Not simple, but who said life is simple? You first need to capture the triggering thoughts, then hang them out to dry and then substitute rational ways of thinking.
Some people can make these mental adjustments on their own or with a few pointers. Others benefit from working with a cognitive-behavioral therapist who can help them wade through the welter of their daily thoughts, collect samples of negative, disruptive thoughts along the way, categorize them, prick the surface to uncover underlying core beliefs that give rise to these thoughts, and help the person practice different ways of thinking and interacting with others. That said, emotional disorders like anxiety disorders and mood disorders are complex problems that involve a myriad of factors. This blog focuses on what each of us can do ourselves to reorient our thinking, but it is not a substitute for professional help when these types of problems become persistent and interfere with daily functioning.
Emotions cannot exist in a thought vacuum any more than fire can exist in a vacuum in space. You may not always be aware of how your mind sizes up a particular situation or triggers a corresponding emotional state. Much of our thinking and perceiving occurs automatically without conscious reflection. By their nature, even conscious thoughts are fleeting experiences. Our thoughts may become known to us only through inward reflection in which we directly examine our inner dialogues or self-statements.
When our interpretations of events become twisted or distorted, our emotions become twisted and distorted too. Troubling emotions are the residue of the excess meanings we impose on events we experience. By focusing on our inner speech, we gain awareness of these misconceptions and misstatements and then can correct them by substituting rational alternatives.
The entries in this blog offer many tips for changing what you say to yourself under your breath. By focusing on the private conversations you have with yourself, you can recognize and correct the disruptive thoughts that prompt ineffective behaviors (e.g., avoiding anxious situations) and states of emotional distress (anxiety, anger, guilt, worry, depression). Having a rational dialogue with yourself can be an effective antidote to troubling emotional reactions to daily experiences. Check out the suggestions for taking control of your inner dialogue in other entries in this blog. Here, let me offer a few additional suggestions:
Hold that Thought!
Being forewarned is being forearmed. Whenever a disturbing thought enters your awareness, grab hold of it. Nab it in the act! Hold it long enough to jot it down in a thought diary. It may try to squirm away but be prepared to grab it and hold on to it for as long as it takes to write it down. Grab hold of it the instant you become aware of it floating around in your mind.
You might wonder why you shouldn't just let it drift away, leaving you in peace. The answer is that disturbing thoughts tend to repeat themselves, especially when they touch upon deeper feelings of insecurity or inadequacy. They keep coming back, dampening your moods and twisting your perceptions of yourself. When you write them down, you give yourself the time and opportunity to expose their logical flaws and inconsistencies. Generate countermanding rational thoughts you can use to talk back to yourself the next time the disturbing thought intrudes.
Say you're troubled by disturbing thoughts about social embarrassment or rejection (e.g., "No one's going to like me.") which pop into your head in social situations, raising your level of anxiety to a point you're unable to relax and simply be yourself. As long as disruptive thoughts remain unexamined and unchallenged, they are left to play havoc with your feeling states. You need to move them from the background to the foreground of your consciousness so you become aware of them and replace them with calming alternatives (“Just be yourself. You can’t control what they think. They may like you or they may not. It is what it is.”).
Conduct a Mental Stakeout
One way of tracking down disruptive thoughts is to be on the lookout for them. Just like a detective waiting patiently for a suspect to return home, you can prepare yourself to snare disruptive thoughts whenever they occur. In conducting a mental stakeout, you delegate a part of your consciousness, which we can call a hidden observer, to be alert for any sign of the intruding thought so that you can catch it in the act.
Another way of keeping tabs on offending thoughts is to imagine that your brain is equipped with a mental filter which traps disruptive thoughts before they penetrate the surface of awareness. Whenever a disruptive thought occurs, imagine it getting stuck in your mental filter, sounding an alarm so that you can muster your defenses to question its validity and replace it with a more rational thought. Whenever you capture an offending thought, jot it down on an index card or electronic notepad and then prepare a substitute rational thought.
What were you thinking about just before reading this sentence? What thoughts were bouncing around in your head, perhaps diverting your attention from what you are reading? If we are to uncover thoughts that trigger troubling emotions, we need to turn a magnifying glass on ourselves and probe the contents of our consciousness. In effect, we need to become mindful of the contents of our conscious minds. Fortunately, consciousness permits this form of self-reflection. Here let me offer a few simple guidelines:
Stop and think. Thoughts rush by in an ever-changing stream of consciousness. To try to nab them, you need to slow down the process and reflect inwardly on what you are saying to yourself under your breath. You need to stop. And think. Press the pause button on your mind’s remote control and take stock. Whenever you experience a negative emotion or a nagging sense of uneasiness, stop the action and ask yourself, "What am I thinking about? What thoughts are rambling around in my head?"
- Write them down. Triggering thoughts fall into patterns. They occur over and over again. Am I thinking something terrible is about to happen? Am I putting myself down? Am I blowing things out of proportion? Am I pinning nasty labels on myself—"You idiot . . . You stupid f***. . . You’re such a loser.” After recording offending thoughts for a week or two, try to find the pattern or patterns they represent: the put-downs, the catastrophizing, the magnifying the importance of negative events, the expecting the worst, and so on.
- Recover disturbing thoughts. Feel sad, angry, or anxious today? What was going on during the day that might have made you feel this way? What were you bothered about? What was different about this particular day? What thoughts were weighing on your mind? Bring yourself back to the scene of the crime, to the point in the day when you first became aware of the negative feelings. Recall where you were, what you were doing, and try to recover the stream of thoughts that entered your mind and got stuck there.
- Reexperience the experience. You may be able to track down hidden thoughts by reexperiencing in imagination an event associated with a negative emotion. Try recalling the experience as though it were happening right now, at this very moment in time. Try to picture the event as vividly as possible in your mind’s eye. Close your eyes and visualize the situation. Open your mind to bring back the thoughts you were having at the time. What might you find in these mental excursions? Perhaps you’ll recover the offending thoughts that stomped down on you for being a worthless loser or that blew things out of proportion. That being said, some thoughts are lost in the hazy mist of time, as difficult to catch as a fading dream upon awakening. No matter. Patterns reemerge. The next time you experience the same emotion, stop the action and reflect on what you were thinking.
The philosopher René Descartes is perhaps best known for the expression, “I think, therefore I am.” I’m not sure I need a renowned philosopher to reassure me that I exist. But I do think there is value in recognizing that who we are is a reflection of what we think, especially what we think about ourselves. Think about it.
© 2018 Jeffrey S. Nevid