Get a Grip on your Emotions
Techniques to combat negative thoughts can make you a happier person by changing the biology of the brain, researchers say.
When Thomas Paine said, “These are the times that try men's souls" he wasn't talking about the '90s. But he could have been.
With corporations playing hardball and families juggling the demands of modern life, many people feel stressed at work and at home.
Such conditions can create a whole raft of debilitating notions: "I'm a failure" or "I'll never get ahead."
These emotional pitfalls can strain relationships, breed unhappiness and lead to serious depression, says Robert Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York.
"All of us have these distorted thoughts at times," Leahy points out. "It's not just people who are clinically depressed. Any kind of a loss or threat of a loss will tend to activate a lot of negative thoughts."
What's more, negative thinking is not limited to any particular economic status.
"I had one patient who was depressed because he was going to make only a million dollars this year," Leahy says. "In previous years, he had made $3 million."
Acknowledging that distorted thoughts can't be eliminated entirely, Leahy says, "The goal is to look at the situation objectively and solve problems."
That's where cognitive therapy comes in. Developed in the 1960s, cognitive therapy uses a battery of simple, practical techniques to help people control painful mood swings and stop self-defeating behavior.
Dr. David D. Burns, a cognitive therapist and an associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., says the idea behind the technique is this: When you’re depressed or anxious, you think in an illogical, negative manner and unconsciously become your own worst enemy.
One of Burns’ patients, a 34-year old mother of two was extremely critical of herself and others and plagued with self-doubt and insecurity. When her son’s teacher told her he was having trouble in school, she blamed herself.
Gradually, Burns says, the woman began to have a more realistic assessment of the situation: Maybe my son was having a conflict with the teacher. She began to talk to the boy to figure out how she could help.
Burns, author of “Feeling Good– The New Mood Therapy” (Avon Books, $6.50), has developed about 50 techniques to help people look at things more realistically. Here’s an example, taken from his book:
You realize you’re late for an important meeting. Your heart sinks. You’re gripped with panic. You think, “I never do anything right. I’m always late. Everyone will look down on me.”
Burns suggests that you write down these critical thoughts as they go through your mind to give yourself some perspective. Or say them aloud.
Next, identify the forms of distorted thinking you’re engaging in. Substitute a more rational, less upsetting thought: “I do some things right and some things wrong, just like everybody else.”
Don’t try to cheer yourself up by rationalizing or saying things you do not believe are objectively valid. Try to recognize the truth, Burns says.
He cautions against describing emotional reactions. Suppose you notice your car has a flat tire, for example. Don’t write, “I feel crappy” because you can’t disprove that with a rational response. The fact is you do feel crappy. Instead, write down the thought that flashed through your mind: “I’m stupid. I should have gotten a new tire this month.”
“This simple exercise of answering your negative thoughts with rational responses on a daily basis is at the heart of cognitive method,” Burns says.
Though this kind of therapy sounds almost absurdly simple, about 50 studies have documented its effectiveness, Burns says. In December, a review of several studies comparing the use of cognitive therapy and antidepressant drugs was published in a journal, “Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.”
The researchers concluded cognitive therapy was as effective– and in some cases more effective– than drugs, even for sever depression.
One theory about why it works is that changing the way you think actually changes the biology of the brain. Last month, scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry that behavioral modification (changing the way patients act) and cognitive therapy (changing how they think) ca alter the brain’s biology.
“Cognitive therapy is not just another self-help fad but a major development that has become an important part of the mainstream of modern psychiatric research and practice,” Burns writes.
Unlike other kinds of psychotherapy, cognitive therapy doesn’t focus on finding the cause of distorted thoughts.
“Pinpointing the nature or origin of your problem may give you insight,” Burns says, “but it usually fails to change the way you act.”
“It’s very difficult for people to have an unconditional sense of self-esteem,” he notes.
The assumption that your worth as a human being is proportional to your achievements I at the core of Western culture and the Protestant work ethic, he says.
“It sounds innocent enough. (But) in fact, it is self-defeating, grossly inaccurate and malignant,” he says. In essence, this work ethic means you have to earn personal worth and the right to be happy.
When your career goes well, you may feel satisfied, but you also may cut yourself off from other sources of satisfaction– being a parent or having a lot of friends.
When your career heads south, you feel worthless because you have another basis for fulfillment of self-respect, he adds.
In fact, he says, most of life’s satisfactions don’t require achievement at all: “ It takes no special talent to enjoy a walk through the woods. You don’t have to be ‘outstanding’ to relish the affectionate hug of your son.”
Success doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness, Burns says. “You don’t have to be No. 1 before you can feel fulfilled and know the meaning of inner peace and self-esteem.”
How to Change your thinking:
Talk to yourself as you would to a best friend. Suppose a friend who was getting divorced felt like a selfish, vindictive, uncaring failure. What would you say? Chances are you say something like: “You’re not a failure simply because your marriage ended. Many marriages end in divorce. I’ve known you for years and you’re a warm, kind, caring person.”
Examine the evidence. Take in the big picture. Look at the success you have had in life. Consider that your vindictiveness may be feelings of betrayal, which can be a normal reaction when you’re getting divorced.
Experiment. See how the negative thoughts stack up against your behavior in other areas. Think about how you have helped friends or others in need.
Look for partial successes. Consider how your marriage was successful. Perhaps you have some children who love you and still seem well-adjusted despite the breakup. Maybe the problems that led to the breakup have given you valuable new insights into how you can make your next relationship work.
Take a survey. Say you’re unable to take the kids for an extra day during a holiday weekend. Your ex calls you vindictive. Solicit views from your friends and ask them if your actions are justified.
Solve the problem. You blow up when you discover your spouse who wants a divorce has run up some charges on your credit card and expects you to pay them. You feel that your terrible temper has turned into a monster. The problem may not be your temper. Maybe it’s time to close that credit card account.
10 forms of distorted thinking
Indicate the distortions contained in the negative thoughts. Correct responses are at the end of this quiz.
You are lonely and decide to attend a social affair for singles. Soon after you get there, you want to leave because you feel anxious and defensive. The following thoughts run through your mind: “They probably aren’t very interesting people. They’re just a bunch of losers. I can tell because I’m bored. This party will be a drag.”
Your errors involve:
Jumping to conclusions
You receive a layoff notice from your employer. You feel mad and frustrated. You think, “This proves the world is no damn good. I never get a break.”
Your distortions include:
All-or Nothing thinking
Discounting the positive
A “should” statement
Your date calls you at the last minute to cancel because of illness. You feel angry and disappointed because you thin, “I’m getting jilted. What did I do to foul things up?”
Your errors include:
Jumping to Conclusions
You have been trying to diet. This weekend you have been nervous, and you’ve been nibbling. After your fourth piece of candy, you tell yourself, “I just can’t control myself. My dieting and jogging all week have gone down the drain. I must look like a balloon. I shouldn’t have eaten that. I can’t stand this. I’m going to pig out all weekend.” You eat more candy.
Your distortions include:
A “ should” statement
Discounting the positive
Answers: 1. a-d; 2. b and c; 3. c and d; 4. a-e
10 Emotional Traps to Avoid
Here are 10 forms of distorted thinking as listed in “Feeling Good– The New Mood Therapy” by Dr. David Burns, a Stanford University psychiatrist and cognitive therapist.
All-or-nothing thinking– You see things as black or white. If your performance falls short of perfect, you think of yourself as a total failure.
Overgeneralizing- You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. The tipoff is use of the words always or never. You ask a girl for a date. She politely declines, citing another engagement. You think: “No girl would ever want a date with me. I’ll be lonely and miserable all my life.”
Mental filtering– You dwell on the negative in complicated situations that have positive and negative elements. A depressed college student finished her mid-term exam certain she missed 17 out of 100 questions. She concluded she would flunk out of college.
Discounting the positive- If someone compliments you, you tell yourself, “They’re just being nice.” Or “Anyone could have done it.” Or “It wasn’t good enough.”
Labeling– You pin a negative label on yourself or others, leading you to believe no one can change. If the driver ahead of you turns without signaling, you say, “He’s a jerk.” Instead of “He made a mistake.”
Jumping to conclusions– This takes two forms. With mind-reading, you perceive a person’s actions as hostile or negative, based on very little evidence. A friend passes you on the street and fails to say hello because he is so absorbed in his thoughts he doesn’t notice you. You erroneously conclude, “He doesn’t like me anymore.”–Fortune-telling is the other form. You imagine something bad is about to happen even though it’s unrealistic. A friend fails to return a telephone call. You decide, “He’ll think I’m obnoxious if I call again.” You avoid the friend and fell put down. Three weeks later, you discover, he never for your message.
Magnifying and minimizing– You look at your errors, fears or imperfections and exaggerate their importance. If you make a mistake, you automatically think you’re going to get fired.
Emotional reasoning- You mistake your emotions for reality. “I feel stupid, therefore I am stupid.” Or “I feel guilty, so I’m a bad person.” Procrastination often accompanies this one. “I feel lousy when I look at my messy desk. Cleaning it will take forever.” Six months later, you finally clean it and realize it didn’t take all that long.
Making “should” and “shouldn’t” statements– You try to motivate yourself by saying “I should” or “I shouldn’t” do this. Use of the words must, ought to and have to also signal this thinking. These statements make you feel pressured and resentful and ultimately apathetic and unmotivated. When you direct should statements to others, you will usually feel frustrated.
Personalizing blame– You blame yourself for things beyond your control. Your child misbehaves at school, and you think, “I’m a bad mother.”