Tag Archives: grief

Is Your Mind in a Constant State Of Emergency?

negative thinking, worry, fear, disaster, pain

In a previous post I mentioned that in my journey of self-discovery and self-improvement I came across the book Thoughts and Feelings by Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, and Patrick Fanning.  I learned a lot from this book, especially in the area of automatic thoughts and negative thinking patterns.  One of the negative thinking patterns that truly resonated with me was what the authors called “Catastrophizing,” which basically means turning any seemingly negative situation, no matter how small, into a major catastrophe in our minds.  For instance, not getting the job after an interview may mean that we will never find a job. When failing to make a sale, the salesman may conclude that he’s a failure.

People who catastrophize tend to use phrases that start with “What if…” and what follows these words is usually something negative and of an apocalyptic magnitude.  Here are some examples of everyday scenarios and some of the thoughts that may surface for a person who tends to catastrophize:

[While going for a night out] What if my house gets burglarized while I’m out?
[While driving on the freeway] What if I one of my tires blow up while I’m driving?
[When about to give a presentation] What if the entire audience hates me?
[When going into a tall building] What if there’s an earthquake while I’m in the building?
[When experiencing a headache] What if I have a brain tumor?
[Regarding our kids] What if my son starts using drugs?
[When watching a movie at the theater] What if there is a fire?
[When taking a flight] What if the plane malfunctions and crashes?
[When hearing of a couple who got divorced] What if it happens to me?
And the list goes on and on.

Now I’m sure many of us have experienced some form of automatic negative thoughts along these lines at some point or another, especially when something negative happened recently that may be related to the situation in which we are.  For instance, if we’re watching a movie at the theater and we suddenly recall that we heard in the news about a recent fire at a movie theater and recall hearing that there were many victims, the thought that it could happen to us may suddenly take a hold of us and cause a wave of panic to sweep over us.

This is normal and can usually go away with a bit of rationalizing; a person who does not tend to catastrophize will usually ask him or herself, “What are the odds that it could happen to me?” and this is usually enough to stop the negative thinking pattern and be able to enjoy the movie.

However, for a person who tends catastrophize it’s not as simple.  One catastrophic thought leads to another, the images in their minds become more and more vivid, and pretty soon they find themselves almost feeling as if the situation is already happening to them.  At this point it becomes practically impossible for them to enjoy the movie, and they may end up choosing to leave the theater because the uncomfortable feelings are just too strong to ignore.  As you can imagine, the level of stress and mental anguish that a person experiences as a result of these negative thinking patterns are very high.

So how can we deal with this?

Catastrophizing is a mental habit, and as such, the more we do it the stronger the habit becomes.  So the first thing we need to do is become aware of when we’re doing it.  This awareness will also be a tool in helping us stop the negative thinking pattern.

We also need to develop a plan action in advance.  If we know that we tend to catastrophize, we need to select a few techniques that we can use once we become aware of the negative thinking pattern.  Once technique I found extremely useful was asking myself the same question I was already asking (“What if …”) but in a positive way instead.  For instance, if my catastrophizing thought was, “What if my marriage fails?” I would switch it to, “What if my wife and I find a way to reconcile? What if everything turns out ok? What if everything is better tomorrow?” or something along those lines.  I would make it a point to replace every catastrophizing thought with 3-5 better feeling thoughts, and this usually did the trick.  Not only would I save myself unnecessary mental and physical stress, but I would also free my mind to consider better possibilities and see opportunities to improve my situation.

I used multiple positive “what if” questions in order to re-train or re-condition my mind to take this route instead of the one it was used to taking.  Remember, catastrophizing is a mental habit and like any other habit, the best way to get rid of it (in fact, some argue it’s the only way to get rid of it) is to replace it with another habit that serves us better. And just like anything else, the more we do it the stronger the new habit will become and the weaker the old habit will be.

The key here is to use better feeling thoughts that are believable to us, as opposed to positive but unrealistic thoughts that we don’t believe.  If I said to myself “Everything will be wonderful tomorrow!” not only would I be deluding myself but my mind would not accept it, and I would experience a different kind of stress caused by the conflict between my current reality and what I’m trying to make myself believe.

The magic of “What if” is that we open ourselves up to the possibility of something positive happening; we’re not forcing it and we’re not pretending it, we’re simply acknowledging the possibility of it.  Shifting our attention from the catastrophic thought to the possibility of something positive happening has the ability to help us feel more peaceful and at ease almost instantly.

Another good technique to use in conjunction with the “What if” technique is the rubber band method I shared with you in a previous post.  Wearing a rubber band around our wrist and snapping it lightly when we catch ourselves in the middle of a negative thought pattern can help snap us out of it, and then we can switch to using the “what if” technique described above to ease ourselves into better feeling thoughts.

Negative thinking patterns can be replaced with positive ones, but it takes patience, dedication and persistence.  If you find that you experience this negative pattern of catastrophizing, give this a try and let me know how it works for you.  Or if you have any other techniques that have worked for you, please feel free to share them in the comments box below.  I’d love to hear from you!

To your success!

JC

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How To Give Your Negative Thoughts a Knockout Punch

So far we’ve discussed some eye-opening facts about automatic negative thoughts and learned how they can twist our perception; we’ve also learned about the characteristics of automatic negative thoughts so that we can easily identify them.  It is now time to put into practice some techniques to help us stop these negative thoughts dead on their tracks.

Today I will be talking about a skill I learned from the book “Thoughts and Feelings – Taking Control of Your moods and your life” which the authors call “Thought-Stopping.”  So put on your boxing gloves and prepare to give those negative thoughts a knock-out punch!

Thought-Stopping

Thought stopping involves focusing our attention on the unwanted negative thoughts for a short period of time, then interrupting the train of thought abruptly by vocalizing the command “Stop!” or making a physical move to act as an “interruptor.”  It’s a very similar approach to the one used by Pavlov when conditioning his dogs to salivate upon hearing the ringing of a bell.

I used this method successfully whenever my mind was preoccupied with thoughts of excessive worry.  For instance, I used to stress excessively about our financial situation and whether we were going to make it to my next paycheck.  This caused me to be in a high level of stress and anxiety for most of my waking hours, and any sign of an unforeseen expense, however small, would set me off on a worry tangent.

Here’s how this technique works:

Preparation

  1. Take a piece of writing paper and fold it in half. At the top of the page write “Trigger Situation” as the heading for the first half, and “Negative Thoughts” as heading for the second half.
  2. On the section labeled “Trigger Situation,” briefly describe a scenario that typically causes you stress, worry or anxiety. A single sentence is preferred.  For instance, in my case I would write “Looking at my bank statement.”
  3. On the section labeled “Negative Thoughts” write down the thoughts that generally plague you regarding that situation. In my case I would write “We won’t be able to make it. I can’t believe money is running out so fast.  We won’t have money for groceries or even to put gas in the car, so how will I be able to get to work? If I can’t pay the rent we’ll be evicted and then where will we go?” As you write, allow any feelings or physical sensations to come up and cue in additional negative thoughts associated with this scenario.
  4. Now flip the page over to the blank side, and at the top of the page write “Positive Situation” as the heading for the first half, and “Positive Thoughts” as the heading for the second half.
  5. In the section labeled “Positive Situation” you are going to briefly describe a scenario or topic that you would like to focus on instead of the triggering situation. Again, a single short sentence is preferred.  It could be anything positive from a vacation, an achievement or award, a person you love, or even a pet.  The key here is that whatever you pick must not be related to the triggering situation at all.  You’ll be writing pleasant thoughts about something that brings you peace or pleasure.  In my case I love the beach especially at night because I find it very peaceful and relaxing, so I would write “sitting on the beach on a cool, full moon night.”
  6. Finally, in the section labeled “Positive Thoughts” you are going to write down some thoughts associated with the positive situation you chose. Just as you did with the “Negative Thoughts” write down some brief sentences about the situation that you find pleasurable or peaceful, and allow the positive feelings or sensations to come up and queue in additional thoughts as you write.  In my case I would write something like “I’m sitting barefoot on the beach, and feeling the cool sand between my toes; I feel the cool, refreshing ocean breeze gently brush my face; I close my eyes and I hear the soothing sound of the waves. I take in a deep breath and feel the salty scent of the ocean fill my lungs.”

The process

You are now ready to begin. Keep in mind that this technique requires you to set aside some time for the process, so that you can practice it while you are in a calm and stress-free state of mind.  It cannot be successfully learned while you are in the middle of stressful situations, and as you read through the process you’ll understand why.

When you are ready to begin follow these steps:

  1. Sit in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for at least 5-10 minutes. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and relax your body completely.
  2. Now look at your paper and read silently the “Triggering Situation” and the “Negative Thoughts” you wrote about. As best as you can, focus on the thoughts and feelings that come up, taking in any sounds, scents, or sights from the scenario you described.
  3. Allow the scenario to become as vivid as possible and sit with it for a while until you feel like you are on an unstoppable train to worryland (or whatever emotion you feel as a result of the negative thought pattern).
  4. Once you’ve reached that obsessive-like state, shout “STOP!” very loudly, and mean it! To accentuate the effect snap your fingers, clap your hands loudly, or stomp your feet once.
  5. Immediately empty your mind of the unpleasant thoughts, flip the page over, and read the positive scenario and related positive thoughts you jotted down. Allow yourself to switch completely to the positive scenario and focus on it as much as possible, taking in all the pleasant sights, sounds, scents, and imagery from the scene; breathe slowly and deeply.  Do this for at least for 30 seconds.
  6. If the negative thoughts or feelings return before the end of the 30 seconds, shout “STOP!” again and focus on your positive scenario and positive thoughts.

Follow the above process until you are successfully able to stop the negative train of thought dead on its tracks when shouting “STOP!”  If you find that the positive scenery you’ve chosen is no longer strong enough to hold your attention, the authors recommend picking a different one.  It is important that the imagery you choose helps you to completely make the switch from the negative train of thought to a positive one.

As you can see, this technique does not involve resisting the negative thoughts; often, trying to resist a negative thought pattern can backfire and end up accentuating it or reinforcing it instead. This technique is about training or conditioning your brain to instantly (and eventually effortlessly) switch the focus to a different, unrelated positive thought pattern.

Advanced thought-stopping

Once you’ve succeeded in interrupting the negative thought pattern and refocusing on a positive one by shouting “STOP!” it is time to begin preparations to bringing this newly acquired skill into the real world.  Don’t worry, I am not going to ask you to yell “STOP!” and clap, stomp or snap your fingers in the middle of your next office meeting or while you’re standing in front of a bank teller making a withdrawal.  Imagine that!

What you’ll be doing is slowly modifying the technique, but you’ll be doing it in stages:

  1. Still in private, begin to interrupt the negative thought pattern by speaking the word “Stop” in a normal voice instead of shouting it.
  2. When you have succeeded in doing this, switch to just whispering “Stop.”
  3. Finally, don’t say anything at all, but instead think the word “Stop!” as if it was being shouted inside your mind. If you have difficulty accomplishing this, wear a loosely fitting rubber band around your wrist, and try thinking the word “Stop!” being shouted in your mind while at the same time snapping the rubber band just enough to feel the snap but not enough to cause you pain.

When you have succeeded in reaching level 3 above, you will be ready to bring this newly acquired skill into the real world without bringing attention to yourself.  The next time you find yourself in a situation that causes you stress, worry or anxiety, and you find your mind being plagued by obsessive negative thoughts, shout “Stop!” in your mind (and snap the rubber band if you need to) to interrupt the train of thought, and switch to your positive imagery.

Final words

Remember that this is a skill and every skill requires practice to master it.  If you’ve struggled with being able to stop or interrupt negative thought patterns, don’t beat yourself up for it.  Be patient with yourself and give yourself time.  It is likely that negative thoughts will return time and time again even after you’ve mastered this or any other thought-stopping technique.  The important thing is to condition your brain to make the switch as early on as possible and to focus on the positive imagery, so that in time the frequency of their occurrence will be greatly reduced.

Have you used this or any other technique to make the stop or replace negative thinking?  Please share with us.

I’d love to hear from you!

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How Negative Thinking Can Twist Your Reality And Ruin Your Life – Part 2

In my last post I talked about automatic negative thoughts being the reason behind our negative emotions, and explained that it is the meaning that we have attached to people, circumstances and events that trigger the automatic negative thinking cycle rather than the people, circumstances and events themselves.

Today we’ll be looking at ways to identify those negative thinking patterns as the first step towards stopping them and ultimately changing them.

Here are some characteristics of automatic negative thoughts to help you identify them.  As you read, try to see if you can relate to any of them:

  • Automatic negative thoughts often express themselves as one or two words which we already associate with some negative meaning, for instance, fear or loneliness. Sometimes they don’t express themselves as words at all, but rather as flashes or brief images, or even as memories of scents, sensations, taste, etc. I my case I experienced this in an intensified manner. The memory of a person who had broken my trust in the past was enough to put me in a bad mood, and that memory could be triggered by the mere mention of the person’s name.  All of a sudden my demeanor would change to the point that it was clearly discernible to those around me that something was bothering me.  This happened because the utterance of single word (the person’s name) triggered a series of automatic negative thoughts associated with that person breaking my trust.
  • Automatic negative thoughts are usually very believable to us; when they occur, we tend to grant them the same validity as the validity we ascribe to things we perceive with our senses such as the color or texture of an object. Basically, we think it therefore it must be true.
  • Automatic negative thoughts often involve words such as should or ought to, which imply a certain level of expectation whether from ourselves or from others. A person may think, “I should clean the house because it’s a mess.” This is a self-imposed expectation which, if not fulfilled, may result in negative emotions such as self-blame or feelings of failure or low self-esteem.  And while it’s true that some “shoulds” are valid, they happen so automatically that we tend to take them at face value without analyzing them or modifying them to fit the situation.
  • Automatic negative thoughts tend to exaggerate (or as the book “Thoughts and Feelings” calls it, “awfulize”) the situation. They tend to predict and expect the worst in everything. And while this may have its function in helping us prepare for worst-case scenarios, we must learn to keep these thoughts in the proper perspective as tools rather than as reality.
  • Automatic negative thoughts vary tremendously from the way we describe our circumstances or events to others. When speaking to others we tent to describe our situations in a cause and effect context; however, our self-talk about the same situation may include words of blame or guilt or detrimental predictions. For instance I could say to someone, “I’m feeling sad because I hurt your feelings.” But internally, my self-talk would be more like, “I’m a terrible person. I can’t believe I did it again.   What kind of a monster am I?”
  • Automatic negative thoughts are generally theme-based, especially in the case of chronic emotions. For instance, chronic anger may be caused by thoughts about deliberate hurtful words or behavior from others, and chronic anxiety may be caused by thoughts of danger or impending doom. I could see now that my chronic anger stemmed from my thoughts about other people looking to intentionally hurt me or take advantage of me in some way.

These are just a few of characteristics to help you identify automatic negative thoughts.  On my next post I will provide some tips on how to go about stopping the cycle before it spins out of control, and we’ll explore some techniques we can implement to change the direction of our thoughts.

Do you have any additional input on this subject that you’d like to share? If so, please do so in the comment box below.

I’d love to hear from you!

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How Negative Thinking Can Twist Your Reality And Ruin Your Life

There are many things I’ve had to work on and address as part of my self-improvement journey, but one of the main things was being able to spot and change my negative thinking.  For as long as I can remember I suffered from chronic negative emotions such as anger and fear.  As a result of this I unintentionally ended up hurting people I loved with my words and actions.  I wanted to change these negative patterns of behavior but I didn’t know how to go about it.  At one point I came across a book by Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, and Patrick Fanning called “Thoughts and Feelings – Taking Control of Your Moods & Your Life.”  This book helped me tremendously and was an excellent tool for what I wanted to accomplish.

One of the first things I learned was that thoughts and thought patterns, rather than people, circumstances or events, were the cause behind my negative emotions.  As easy as it would be to blame my anger, fear, frustration, sadness, irritation, or whatever it was on a person or situation, it was always a thought or a series of thoughts that would precede and give birth to my emotions, and subsequently to my behavior.

I learned that situations in and of themselves are neutral and have no emotional content; but it is our interpretation of those situations that causes our emotions.  This was a little bit difficult for me to accept and process at first.  Surely if something appeared to me to be negative, it had to be! Looking at a situation and judging it for what it was, it was clear to me that the situation was the trigger behind my negative emotions.  But I quickly learned that that was my black-and-white mentality speaking, and a little bit of logic proved me wrong.

If in fact it the situation was the cause behind my negative emotions, absolutely everyone experiencing that situation would also experience the same negative emotions, isn’t that so?  Allow me to illustrate.  Let’s say that my teenage son has a 10 PM curfew, and he has broken the curfew several times in the past; the last time he did this I let him off with a stern warning.  Today he decided that he would not respect the curfew yet again, and came home well after midnight.  When he walked in I reacted by getting upset and irritated at him for disrespecting me and being careless and dismissive of the household rules.

But let’s say that a stranger was walking by the house just as my son was returning home, well after midnight.  Would the stranger have reacted in the same manner? It would be weird if he had.  The stranger is not emotionally involved with my son or the situation, so he would have no emotional reaction even though he observed the exact same situation I observed. Although very simplistic, this is a good example that demonstrates that the situation itself was not the cause of my angry outburst.

What then, was the real cause behind my anger and irritation about this situation? The answer? My interpretation of it; the meaning that this situation had to me, or put another way, my thoughts about the situation, regardless of how fleeting or unnoticed those thoughts were.

Here’s where I learned that if I changed my thoughts, it would logically follow that I would also change my emotions.  The tricky part was being able to identify the thoughts because they seemed to happen so quick and almost unnoticed, as if my brain was bypassed altogether and my emotions spontaneously expressed themselves.

But cognitive therapy tells us that that doesn’t happen.  There is always a thought behind every feeling, and being able to spot those thoughts is the first step towards changing behavioral patterns.  This is a skill I would recommend to anyone looking to improve their lives.  And it is indeed a skill, for it takes dedication and practice.

The situation->thoughts->emotions->behavior sequence is not always as clear as in the example I described above. Sometimes, our own emotions and behaviors join the cycle and create yet another situation which is followed by additional thoughts which then give birth to additional emotions and behavior, which then become another situation….and the cycle goes on and on.

For instance, imagine that you are on your way to work, but your car doesn’t start.  What is a possible emotional cycle that may result from this?

  1. Situation: Car does not start.
  2. Thought: “I can’t believe this. I’ll be late for work again! And my boss warned me that I’d be fired if I came in late again.”
  3. Emotions: anxiety, fear, irritation; sweaty palms, heart beating fast.
  4. Thought: “If I lose my job we won’t be able to pay the bills. It will be very difficult for me to find another job, especially these days. We will lose the house!
  5. Emotions: more anxiety, more fear; feeling sick to your stomach, dizziness.
  6. Thought: “We’ll be homeless. We’ll have to move to my in-laws and they don’t like me already. They’ll blame this entire situation on me. My mother-in-law will drive me crazy!”
  7. Emotions: sheer panic.

You can see how easy it is to get carried away by these cycles.  We’re constantly making interpretations and assigning meaning to the situations that we encounter in our lives. We judge events as good or bad, pleasurable or painful, relaxing or stressful. These judgments and labels are the result of the constant chatter going on in our minds, and this is why these thoughts are very subtle and rarely noticeable.

Since childhood we have practiced habitual patterns of thinking and have been conditioned to interpret our lives’ circumstances and events a certain way.  There will always be situations and events which will have some level of negative meaning to us; and unless we learn to identify the cycle and put into practice some techniques to break it, we’ll be in a highly stressful state most of our lives.

In my next post I will share with you some of the most common characteristics of these automatic negative thought patterns to which most of us fall prey to one degree or another, and then we’ll start looking at some techniques that we can implement right away to help us get out of the cycle. In the meantime share with us! Do you believe you’ve fallen into the automatic negative thinking trap? When does it usually happen? What have you done to get out of it?

I’d love to hear from you!

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