In this blog I'm going to share with you some cognitive behavioural tools, which I have learned through various trainings and lectures over the years. These tools may help you manage stress and painful thoughts in a more effective way. They do require a lot of patience and persistence and my hope is to give you exposure to them so you can find ways to continue to practice them on your own.
What are cognitive behavioural tools?
Cognitive Behaviour therapy/tools or (CBT) is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as a 'type of psychotherapy in which negative patterns of thought about the self and the world are challenged in order to alter unwanted behaviour patterns or treat mood disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression'. Simply put, they are techniques that can help people find new ways to behave by changing thought patterns.
Let's get straight into it...
1. Look at your thoughts objectively
Start by taking a step back and watching your thoughts as though they are passing by in front of you. If you need some imagery, observing your thoughts like they are on a conveyer belt/train/riverbed, passing by.
Take a moment to pause, close your eyes and notice what are some the things that you tell yourself? Not trying to judge anything but just acknowledging them as they are. So perhaps, you notice your thoughts wonder off to a variety of things such as your to-do lists, personal issues, maybe even some imagery starts to pop up here and there. And you work on being the observer of those thoughts so that you are able to detach from them and recognise them for what they really are: just thoughts. Which leads well into my next tool.
2. Remember that thoughts aren’t facts.
We can have all sorts of thoughts floating around in our heads all day. For example, I might encounter a rude person on the tube and think to myself, I would really like to slap that person across the face. Doesn’t mean I’m necessarily going to do it. It’s just a passing thought. We can have all sorts of thoughts pop in and out of our heads. We don’t have control over who knocks at the door but we do have control over how long we entertain them. You don't have control over what thoughts come and go but you can control how much you think about and put energy into it.
3. Know how thoughts trigger feelings
When it comes to situations, we often believe that a situation triggers the feeling that we have. When the reality is that we interpret the situation and that interpretation often triggers the feeling. For example, if I went to the supermarket and the checkout person shoves the change in my hand, I might interpret this event as ‘Oh my, who do they think they are? Do they think they are better than me?’ This might trigger feelings of anger or irritability. However, if the same event occurs and I can interpret the situation differently as ‘Oh, it's probably late on their shift, and they are probably tired’ or ‘I’m so glad I don’t have their job!’. This interpretation might trigger feelings of sympathy rather than irritability. So, the event didn’t change but my interpretation of the event triggered different feelings to arise. Just to clarify, it isn’t that ALL our feelings are in our head. If I hand over the money to the checkout person and she slaps me across the face, I would absolutely be justified in feeling angry. Lots of time, life has painful moments but sometimes it is our interpretation that is really turning up the heat on that pain.
4. Be aware of and shift critical/emotionally abusive self-talk
For most of us, if we talk to our friends the way we talk to ourselves, we would probably not have any friends. So being aware of our negative self-talk and the impact that is has on us is key so that we understand why certain emotions get triggered. Part of this is noticing the thoughts that we may have that aren’t helpful for us and then creating new neurological pathways that can change that. A personal example of this is when I was young, I lived in a chaotic and emotionally abusive household so I was entrenched with the belief that I am always unsafe. Sometimes, saying the opposite to myself has helped over time. So noticing whenever I felt unsafe and reminding myself that I am safe, I am safe, I am safe. By doing this, I help build other connections in the brain so that I have more cognitive flexibility. It's about noticing negative things you tell yourself out of habit, and saying the opposite to yourself (even if you don’t believe it). This can help you get more diversity in how you think.
5. Noticing when your mind goes and bringing back to the present moment
If you think about life on a timeline, usually this moment is not so bad. Sometimes, this moment can be pretty painful, but usually it is not so bad. What happens is our attention leaves this moment quite a bit. Even in the last couple of minutes whilst you are reading this post, you have probably left the room mentally a lot of times. Perhaps your mind has drifted off to thinking about the past or the future. Your to-do lists or perhaps a painful conversation in the past. If your mind does do this, don't worry. It's very normal.
If I have a habit of going to the future and I worry about an upcoming event, in this moment I am just practising being anxious. Similarly, if my mind drifts off to the past and i start obsessing over things that have happend, I am just feeling remorse or guilt in the present moment. If I can catch myself from doing either of these things and bring myself back to the the present moment I am more likely to live more fully. So being able to notice and bring ourselves back is an important skill.
Now sometimes it is helpful to mentally go to the future if I am planning. And sometimes, it is helpful to go into the past if I am reflecting and learning from my past experiences. However, if I am always living in the past or future, I am just practicing painful emotions in the present moment, that is not helpful. It takes a lot of practice and patience to bring yourself back to the present moment, gently over and over again. Things like Yoga and mediation can help with this.
And finally: No 6.
Be more effective in the moment, accept reality and let go of ‘shoulds’ or what-ifs’
Part of being effective in the moment and making the most effective choices given the situation, is that have we have to accept reality. That is challenging I know! We have the tendency to look at a situation and wish that it was different. For example, I don’t like the way my dog reacts to smaller dogs. He gets all worked up and starts barking a lot and I get embarrassed. But if I learn to accept this, rather than wish the situation was different, I may be able to come up with ideas of how to effectively deal with the situation. If I get wrapped up in saying to myself, "...well he should not be barking, why doesn't he understand me and why don’t all dogs bark at other dogs etc." , I get distracted and I make choices based on fantasy (the what ifs and the shoulds). I’m not going to maker effective choices if I am just wasting my energy on coming up with solutions to fantasy.
Just a reminder that acceptance of reality does not mean you have to approve of it. I don’t have to convince myself that I like the way my dog reacts. I just have to accept, this is my reality and explore my options accordingly. So what are my options? Maybe I can take him for walks when there aren't many dogs around, or maybe I can come up with some training techniques that may help. Perhaps, I can just take a minute to breathe when he does bark so that I am able to relax and self-soothe before reacting. Unless I accept reality , I am not able to make effective choices. So noticing when you use words like 'should' or 'what-ifs', take a moment to bring yourself back and realise you are going off on an unhelpful tangent.
As you can see, all these tools are pretty challenging and do require some hard work and patience but they are highly effective in emotion regulation and stress management. It is also really important not to beat yourself up if you do recognise your thought patterns are similar to the ones described above. Hey, we are all human and are never going to be 'perfect' (whatever that means). Be kind to yourself and start small.
Check out my other blog post for Yoga Poses for Stress & Anxiety. Hope you are well and sending lots of love.