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What Are Your Thought Triggers?

Know the thought, know the emotion.

geralt/Pixabay Commons
Source: geralt/Pixabay Commons

What are the thoughts bouncing around in your head that bring you down? Or make you anxious or worried? Or make you feel guilty or angry?

Feeling Your Thoughts

Can you feel thoughts? Aren’t thoughts and feelings separate things? Don’t we think with our heads and feel with our hearts?

People often place thoughts and feelings into different compartments of the human mind. However, there exists a much closer relationship between thoughts and feelings than many people suppose.

Feeling your thoughts doesn’t mean that thoughts are felt in the same way you feel a pinprick on your arm or the touch of a feather. Rather, it means recognizing the interconnections between thoughts and feelings—how behind every emotion lies a thought that triggers it. Feeling angry? What’s the thought driving it? You need to be angry with someone or about something. You can't be angry about nothing or while keeping your mind blank. Underlying the felt experience of anger are thoughts about being treated unfairly and not being able to stand it when people are treated this way.

Emotions do not occur in a mental vacuum. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a thought tethered to your emotional responses. Let's pull on the thought-emotion string by examining some common thought triggers.

What Are Your Thought Triggers?

Different types of thoughts trigger different types of emotional reactions. Here’s an exercise to test your knowledge of the connections between thoughts and feelings. Match the following thoughts with the emotional responses they are likely to trigger:

1. ___ “I just have this feeling something terrible is going to happen.”

2. ___ “I’m just never good enough.”

3. ___ “What if something bad happens and no one’s there to help?

4. ___ “The world sucks and I suck along with it."

5. ___ “I can’t stand it when people treat me this way.”

6. ___ “There’s something basically very wrong with me.”

7. ___ “I should have been a better parent.”

8. ___ “I’m going to fall apart in that interview tomorrow.”

Let’s sort them out. The choices are these:

(a) anxious or worrisome thoughts

(b) guilt thoughts

(c) depressive thoughts

(d) angering thoughts

(e) fearful thoughts

Now it’s your turn. Identify the letter corresponding to each of the thought examples.

The answers are the following: a, c, e, c, d, c, b, e.

How’d you do? Notice any patterns?

A Brief Guide to Classifying Thought Triggers

Different types of thoughts trigger different types of emotional responses. Here are some guidelines I use with my patients to classify particular types of thoughts based on their emotional effects:

Past vs. Future. Anxious thoughts involve perceptions of impending threat (thinking that something bad is going to happen). Worry thoughts anticipate negative consequences, often consequences that seem beyond our control. Guilty or depressive thoughts tend to focus on the past, on personal disappointments and failures, which I refer to as the “I screwed up” scenario: “It’s all my fault ... I’m just a loser ... I should never have been born,” and so on. But a difference in timeframe is not a hard and fast rule, as depressive thoughts may also involve forecasting negative future events (“What’s the sense of trying? Nothing ever works out for me. I’m just bound to fail.”).

Self vs. Other. Depressive thoughts tend to focus on the self, and more specifically, on what’s lacking or faulty about oneself. Angering thoughts focus on perceptions of being treated unfairly or unjustly by another person or a business enterprise or institution, of having been wronged or mistreated (“No one should be treated like this. ... It’s so unfair I just can’t stand it.”) The person stewing in anger has something sticking in their craw that they just can’t seem to shake off.

What I’ve Done vs. Who I Am. Guilt thoughts and depressive thoughts are sometimes difficult to separate, but a convenient rule of thumb is that guilt thoughts involve perceptions of one's own misdeeds or wrongdoing attached to particular situations (“Why did I? ... or ... Why didn’t I?”). These woulda’s, coulda’s, and especially shoulda’s, inflict feelings of guilt on the self. Depressive thoughts are also inwardly directed but tend to focus on general flaws and deficits about oneself (“I’m a loser. ... I’m a failure. ... What’s wrong with me that I always screw up?). Both guilt thoughts and depressive thoughts exaggerate negative consequences and internalize blame for negative or disappointing events.

Something Bad This Way Comes. Fearful thoughts are associated with dreaded consequences linked to specific situations (e.g., a looming exam, attending a party at which you will be meeting new people, giving a presentation or speech) or particular objects or places (e.g., injections, animals or insects, germs, enclosed spaces, height situations, etc.). General anxiety is characterized by worrisome thoughts and has a free-floating quality, a sense of foreboding or apprehension that something is wrong or something bad is about to happen.

The guiding maxim here is ... know the thought, know the emotion. A thought is an ephemeral thing that floats across the screen of consciousness before it is replaced by one thought after another in the ever-flowing stream of mental experiences. However, some disturbing thoughts keep returning or reverberating in the mind. In working with patients, my aim is to help them catch their disturbing thoughts, categorize them, understand how they connect to deeper, core beliefs, and replace them with healthier ways of thinking, especially when recurring negative thoughts seem to occupy so much of the person’s mental space that healthy thoughts are squeezed out.

Catching a Passing Thought

Thought catching is the first step in restructuring your thinking. Once you catch a thought, pin it down by asking yourself:

  • Is it accurate or exaggerated?
  • Is it helpful to me to think this way or does it bring me down?
  • Are there alternative ways of thinking about the situation?
  • What might I say to a friend who thought this way?
  • What might I say to myself in this situation if I were thinking clearly?
  • What coping thoughts can I practice saying to myself?

How can we catch anything as elusive as a passing thought? One way is through self-reflection—taking time to reflect upon the day’s events. What happened today and how did I feel about it? Begin by connecting your feelings to the day’s events and to the thoughts that accompany them. Did someone say something nasty to you that left you feeling angry or upset? Did something you hoped would happen didn’t pan out? Or did something unfortunate happen that was unexpected? How did you feel as a result of the non-happenings or unexpected happenings in your daily life? Or were you just waiting for something good to happen and are waiting still? The idea here is to self-reflect by understanding how the events of the day link up with your feelings and to tag the thoughts that enter your mind when you reflect on your experiences. So the next time a disturbing thought bounces around in your head unwelcome and uninvited, try to catch it and pin it down.

Some patients ask how they can practice the mental control needed to push out any negative thoughts that pop into their heads. But like spitting in the wind, focusing your mental energy on trying to force out negative thoughts can backfire by making those thoughts even more prominent. Substituting other ways of thinking is not the same thing as trying to force yourself not to think negative thoughts. It’s a form of overwriting a negative script by substituting a healthier way of thinking. Once you realize that a negative thought is only an opinion, not a fact and that it has no power to control you, the thought may begin to fade to the recesses of your mind. Another strategy many patients find useful is letting disturbing thoughts just pass through, as though they are merely floating across and then out of their field of vision. More about that in a future blog.

© 2018 Jeffrey S. Nevid.