As winter marches on and we continue to be challenged by pandemic lockdowns and new COVID-19 variants, I thought a blog series focused on coping skills might be helpful. To start off our series, I will focus on ways we can begin to challenge our negative thinking patterns.
Imagine the following scenario: you are walking down the street and see a very good friend. You wave and say hello and they quickly walk by you without saying a word. Take a moment and ask yourself how you might be feeling in a situation such as this. When presenting clients with this situation in my Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) Groups, I am usually met with a range of emotions. These include: confusion, surprise, anger, sadness, and even understanding. In order to understand the emotions elicited by this situation, we need to more fully explore the thoughts that people would also be experiencing.
For those experiencing confusion and surprise, thoughts might include, “How could they walk by without saying hello?”, “Are they mad at me?” or “Did I do something wrong?”. For those experiencing anger, thoughts might include, “I am so insulted that they would walk by me without saying hello” and for those with sadness, thoughts might include, “Maybe they don’t like me anymore”. What about those experiencing understanding emotions? Corresponding thoughts might sound like, “Oh they must be so busy, they didn’t even see me! I’ll tell them later on and we will have a good laugh over this”.
…it is not always the situation that is the challenge for people, but our interpretation of the situation.
What is amazing to me is that the exact same situation can elicit so many emotions and different thoughts. CBT research has shown that the lens by which we filter situations will trigger different thoughts and emotions. Therefore, it is not always the situation that is the challenge for people, but our interpretation of the situation. And while it is often much harder to change our emotions, we have some very good tools to be able to slow down our thoughts and begin to challenge them and try and see them from different perspectives. This is how we can begin to allow for change to happen.
CBT helps people to better understand the interplay between their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Using skills such as a thought record, we begin to slow down the tens of thousands of automatic thoughts that we experience every day, look at them from different perspectives and gather evidence for and against the believability of them.
…when all evidence has been gathered, you would work with your therapist or on your own to create a balanced thought that better represents the situation at hand
Let’s return to our friend who passed us by. If we catch one of our many automatic thoughts and look at it more deeply we might uncover the belief, “She might not like me anymore.” Instead of accepting this thought as a fact which would cause us a lot of sadness, we begin to gather evidence for and against this statement as if we were lawyers and had to defend it in a court of law. Evidence supporting this thought might be that she has not returned calls in the last week nor responded to emails. Evidence against this thought might be that she took you out for your birthday recently and sent flowers to your office after you broke up with your partner. And you would work to create a list of concrete evidence both supporting and refuting this thought. Eventually, when all evidence has been gathered, you would work with your therapist or on your own to create a balanced thought that better represents the situation at hand. It could sound like, “Although there are times when my friend is busy or preoccupied, she has also been there as a good friend for me for a long time.”
By working through thought records with therapists and eventually on one’s own, individuals gain a powerful tool to challenge and shift negative thought patterns and to understand situations from different perspectives. I often tell my clients that there are well-travelled pathways in our minds that filter situations in certain ways. With CBT work, we are building new roads and pathways together. In doing so, people will often experience tremendous shifts in mood and anxiety as they begin to better understand their thinking styles, challenge them and create new ones.
If you want to learn more about CBT and other coping skills, come and join us at Forward Thinking Psychological Services for our NEW Coping Skills Workshop as well as other therapy services!