One of the core ideas of cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy is that if you can consciously pay attention to and then deliberately shape what you think, this, in turn, will shape your moods. Here’s where you seek out those awful “shoulds” and substitute “wants,” where you pounce on “always,” “never,” forever,” where you eliminate all that “awfulizing” and “disasterizing” that can cause you to feel trapped, overwhelmed, victimized, and just plain miserable.
The goal here is to keep yourself driving down the middle of the rational road rather than sliding off into the emotional ditches and such thought-watching works. But for many this feels a bit too much like mental micro-management, which in itself causes you to feel overwhelmed or anxious or self-critical and sliding you off into the ditch you’re trying to stay out of in the first place.
Another variation that of the original concept that has come into use in the past few years is the idea of mindsets, or states of mind. In place of the micro-management is a broader brush approach that is easier…to wrap your head around. Here are six of the most common states of mind:
Rational. This is the gold standard, the middle of the road, the prefrontal lobes fully engaged. This is not being an automaton, the walking head who feels nothing, but the state where you use emotions as information, where the awfulizing and mustification and forevers don’t take over, and you’re able to maintain a reasonable and rounded perspective. You probably can stay there a good amount of the time at your job when your professional self is in charge, or when you're not tired and stressed out. This is where you’re always trying to get back to when the others states flare up.
Anxious. We all know this one. This is where we wake up at 3 in the morning ruminating about the performance eval that day, the $4 you have in your checking account, the way your boyfriend could have perhaps, maybe misinterpreted your last text. It’s about the future, the what-ifs, disasters and butterflies in the stomach.
Depressed. If anxiety is about the future, depression is often about the past—mistakes, regrets, roads not taken. But for many of us, even more than about the past is about feeling trapped, stuck at the bottom of a well with no way out—the soulless job, the wreck of a relationship, the sense that your life has no purpose. Here is the thoughts are those of “it doesn’t matter” “why bother” “it’s never going to change” “the other shoe will always drop.” It’s a world of gray.
Angry. We plot revenge, we say over and over how unfair this is, in place of anxiety’s butterflies is a raging volcano. The fire is burning and spewing and we want to do something with it.
Fear. Anxiety is worry, everyday fear (not battle-zone fear, surgery fear) and often tied to easily-activated little-kid fears. Here is where you feel intimidated by someone even though in your rational mind you realize there's no sane reason to. We withdraw, feel insecure and small, or we walk on eggshells and get good as a way of appeasing the other and avoiding confrontation. It's about triggers that open up childhood wounds.
Rebellious. Like fear, there’s usually a little-kid element to this as well. It’s not the heat of anger but more that "you can’t make me, I don’t wanna." There’s resentment and a bit of passive-aggressiveness or simple digging in of heels.
There are undoubtedly others that you personally find disabling or distressing for you, or would label differently. The point is that we move in and out of these common states o’ mind often throughout the day. The challenge is keeping yourself from sliding into one of these emotional ditches, or if you do, quickly pulling yourself out and getting back on the rational road. Some step-by-step suggestions:
#1. Track your state. Just ask yourself every hour, “How am I doing?” On a scale of 1-10 from happy to crummy, how’s your mood?
#2. Label it. When you start to creep up to a four or five, you want to ask yourself what exactly is taking over—getting irritable, down in the dumps, worried, rebellious and ornery, feeling a bit intimidated and vulnerable.
#3. Cool and rebalance. If emotions are ramping up, you may need to put out some of the fire of the emotion before moving forward. So if you’re angry, go exercise or write down how you feel, or punch a pillow. If you’re anxious, do some deep breathing.
#4. Identify a problem. Cooling off doesn't get to the root of the emotion. What you want to do next is ask yourself: Is there something I need to fix, a problem creating these negative emotions? Yes, you say, I’m worried my supervisor thinks I’m slacking; I still haven’t heard back from my boyfriend and I’m angry that he is being so inconsiderate; my husband triggers that little-kid feeling of intimidation when he starts wagging his finger and lecturing me. Rather than letting your emotions pull you down, bringing your four or five to a quick nine or 10, instead bring your rational mind online and use your emotions as information to tell you what is precisely bothering you.
Sometimes the problem is bogus, triggered by overall stress, lack of sleep, etc. Here’s where you are having a bad body image day or where you beat yourself up again about the way you handled the breakup with your last girlfriend, while on a good day you know that such thinking is mental bs.
Make a mental or real list of those garbage cans problems, the place where your head tends to go that lets you know you're stressed out, tired, hungry, etc. Recognizing them as red flags of stress can help you avoid going down those rabbit-holes of negative thoughts.
#5. Solve the problem. Once your mind has started to cool and rebalance, once you've identified the underlying problem, it’s time to plan action to put the problem and emotion to rest. Send an email to your supervisor or arrange a face-to-face to get honest feedback about performance. Rather than continue to steam, call the boyfriend not to rant and spray your anger, but to explain how you feel or send him an assertive adult text. Tell your husband how his body posture can feel intimidating at times, and work out a plan together to manage discussions when they become heated. Get some sleep to reboot your system rather than obsessing about your muffin top. The key here is doing, moving forward, rather than wallowing.
The more you do this tracking, labeling and solving, the more you notice what’s going on inside your head and body, the more quickly you become at catching these shifts in your mindset and setting them straight.
Staying out of the emotional ditch, like real ones, is all a matter of practice.