- By noticing our automatic negative thoughts, we can catch ourselves before we spiral out of control.
- The ability to simply notice a thought and acknowledge “I am having the thought that…” builds resilience.
- Take a moment to reflect on what we can do to show kindness to ourselves, our minds, and our bodies.
The holiday season is upon us. While on the surface things appear colourful and jolly, this is also the time of year when anxiety may rise, given the multiple stressors and expectations we place on ourselves and others. One way to reduce this anxiety is through cognitive-behavioural strategies.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based therapy approach that is problem-oriented and practical in providing people with long-term skills for mental health. This approach helps us understand how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are all inter-linked.
Aaron Beck (the father of CBT) described various negative automatic thoughts that lead one to feel anxious or depressed. When we have these automatic negative thoughts, they get in the way of our ability to enjoy ourselves.
So, how do we “let go” and disentangle from these automatic negative thoughts? Below are three fun, science-based ways that can help us untangle from our automatic negative thoughts and shift to enjoying the holidays and reducing our stress. While we may still experience some stress, the idea is that our stress is more manageable and we are more mindful of when we need to pause and tune in.
- Noticing, labelling, and “BIH BOH”: Noticing some of our automatic negative thoughts and accompanying feelings, such as catastrophizing (“I’ve burnt the turkey; the entire dinner will now be ruined!”) plays a key role in managing our anxiety. By noticing these thoughts, we can catch ourselves before we spiral out of control. The key is to notice without necessarily reacting to the thoughts that come our way. With time, this process gets easier and we may notice these thoughts having less power over us. A colleague of mine, Dessy Marinova, recently wrote a helpful anxiety guidebook for children and parents, where she adds the playful element of “BIH BOH” upon noticing these negative thoughts: Breathe In… Hold… Breathe Out fully… Hold. She breaks down this process like this: Notice the negative thought (“I am going to fail”)—Greet it (“Hi, anxious thought. You are just a thought!”)—BIH BOH, or Bring your attention back to what you are doing.
- Let it be: Typically, when we encounter thoughts that we do not like, we may use some creative strategies to not think about these thoughts. Distraction is a common way to take our minds off unwanted and negative thoughts and feelings. Yet, a growing body of research shows the effectiveness of “letting go” of these thoughts in contributing to mental well-being. The ability to simply notice a thought and acknowledge, “I am having the thought that…” builds resilience. While tricky at first, it is definitely worth the practice. For those that connect with visualization, we may imagine placing thoughts on falling leaves (or snowflakes). As an extension to noticing the thoughts, we just let them be and continue on with what we are doing. In this way, we notice that thoughts and feelings come and go. So, BIH BOH and carry on.
- Mind-body connection: Tuning in and being mindful of not just our thoughts and feelings, but also how they are expressed in our body, is helpful in supporting both our mental and physical health. In his new book, The Myth of Normal, Gabor Mate emphasizes the importance of our connection between the body and the mind. When we avoid and repress our negative emotions, we increase our risk of numerous physical ailments. For instance, research by psychologists at UC Berkeley split participants into two groups: one was instructed not to reveal emotions when watching a triggering film, while the other was free to express emotion. When examining the participants’ physiological measures, those who suppressed their emotions showed a heightened activation of their sympathetic nervous system (our fight-or-flight response to stress). In short, ongoing avoidance of emotions may create harmful stress in our lives.
If we ignore our feelings and physical sensations, stress continues to build up in our body. We can take steps to build this connection between our mind and body through self-compassion practice. For instance, we may give ourselves a gentle hug, or place our hand against our heart. We can develop self-talk that shows compassion toward ourselves (e.g., “This is hard, I am trying my best,” or, “Everyone feels nervous sometimes. I love and accept myself for who I am”). It only takes a moment, but it is in this moment that we build connection to ourselves and increase our capacity to regulate.
All in all, remember that while we may experience all kinds of thoughts and feelings, we can be in control of how we respond to them. If needed, we can reach out for support, whether it’s to family and friends, or a professional. We can start with the simple step of being more observant of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Take a moment to reflect on what positive/helpful thoughts we can remind ourselves of and what we can do to show kindness to ourselves, our minds, and our bodies.