When we feel stuck in some sort of negativity, whether it is sadness, fear, anger, or any other form of distress, there are linked thoughts and beliefs that are supporting this feeling. Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are typically aligned – this is our most natural state. Emotions are linked to related thoughts and behaviors – have a sad thought, feel sad, act sad. Sometimes we are not consciously aware of underlying thoughts and beliefs, but they are there.
The more these thought patterns have been repeated, the stronger those neural pathways have become. Like a well-traveled path, these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors become familiar. The longer this goes on, the more pseudo-evidence is collected to support them, as the brain tends to filter out anything that conflicts with existing beliefs. There comes a point at which repetition leads to automaticity, and then a comfortable, natural feeling. These beliefs may then exist beneath our level of awareness, feeling like facts that cannot be challenged or changed. The further back in time these go, the deeper the roots.
Our beliefs may feel like facts, however if they are amplifying negativity, they are judgments. Facts are neutral; it is our perspective of the facts that make them seem negative or positive. For example, look back at a time you were upset about something, and then you weren’t. The facts themselves, did not change – only your perspective did. Look at a situation during which people have various and conflicting opinions about – the facts are the same, but perspectives are different. This means the facts are not causing related emotions, the opinions are. The spilt milk does not make you cry, however your thoughts about it may.
At times we may put on a mask to change our behaviors, to hide thoughts and feelings from others, and sometimes even from ourselves. We may do this by distraction, avoidance, or numbing. When the thoughts come back, if they haven’t changed, we feel distressed again. Wearing a mask, stuffing our thoughts and feelings, is exhausting and unsustainable. When we are feeling calmer about something, we have calmer thoughts about it. The difference between wearing a calm mask and feeling calm, is having a different, healthier perspective.
The good news is, we don’t have to wait for this to happen by getting a good night’s sleep or talking with others to hear their viewpoint. We can unstick ourselves because we can use our minds to change our perspectives, to develop healthier thoughts, and to feel better.
It may seem strange and difficult to try to step outside of our own personal fishbowl, to even consider that our beliefs may be false. To do this, we can remember the fact that thoughts and beliefs are rooted in exposure, repetition, our genetic predispositions, and the lifelong fluid interactions of these, and may have little to do with facts or helpfulness.
This process can start with a simple but powerful question:
“Is it possible to look at this another way?”
I love this question, because the answer is always yes. It’s not about changing a negative to a positive, putting on rose-colored glasses, or ignoring emotions. It’s about separating facts from judgments, and developing healthier, believable thoughts about the facts, which may include neutrally stating the facts themselves, validating existing negative emotions, being kind to oneself, having empathy and compassion for others, considering possible alternative directions, and refocusing on efforts and goals. These are some of the steps to close the gap between negative and positive.
After developing these thoughts, it is essential to take deep breaths while focusing on them, and to repeat this frequently and proactively, to strengthen the healthier thought patterns that support related feelings and behaviors. When you do this, you are strengthening new neural pathways – you are rewiring your brain.
It is important to know this will feel weird at first (otherwise known as cognitive-emotive dissonance), but as with learning anything new, the weird feeling decreases with repetition, and the healthier perspective will become the automatic or natural state.
This does not mean the old thought patterns are going anywhere – we can’t replace thoughts; we can weaken identified unhealthy thought patterns and strengthen ones that support us feeling the way we want to feel. Neurons that fire together, wire together. Keep acknowledging the reappearance of old patterns (don’t stuff or mask), know that thoughts about failure are part of the old patterns, be kind to yourself, take a deep breath, and keep refocusing towards the new ones. Repeat this as often as possible, proactively.
Unhealthy perspectives and feelings may unnecessarily last for months, years, or decades – or not. We do have a choice in the matter. If you find it difficult to get started, it may be helpful to ask yourself another question to which the answer is always no. “If I keep thinking this way, is it possible for me to feel better?”
This means it makes sense to give it a try. We can develop these skills ourselves, or for more support with this process, we can find a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Marsha Mandel is a therapist with a private practice in Cornwall, New York. www.marshamandel.com
I recently saw a video of a newborn baby giraffe who repeatedly tried to stand up, but fell down again and again. It looked painful, but she was determined. Each time she stood, her legs immediately collapsed and she hit the ground hard in search of just the right balance on her unsteady legs. She persisted until she was able to stand for a few seconds before falling. After several more attempts and falls, she finally took her first wobbly steps.
This baby giraffe kept coming to mind during cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions with clients, after hearing comments such as, “I know I’m being ridiculous for still feeling this way,” or, “I don’t know why I keep doing this.”
Our natural state is for our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to be aligned. Often, we’re clear about this – we think about what we want to do, why we want to do it, and we follow through. At other times, we seem to have no idea why we continue to feel or do things, or we may be painfully aware of the internal conflict. Unfortunately, this failure to follow through is often accompanied by harsh self-criticism. With CBT, we are very tuned in to our language, including our internal dialogue. We easily brainwash ourselves with our own words.
This is where the baby giraffe comes in. If she could speak, it might sound like, “I’ve never stood up or walked before but I know I really want to do this! This is so difficult – I keep falling but that’s ok because this is a totally new thing for me! I have to keep trying! I feel like I’m almost there!”
Her attempts are rewarded as she masters her skill, and her confidence, excitement, and motivation grow.
When we work towards a reward, whether it’s a degree, a clean home, a paycheck, or feeling helpful, our motivation comes from seeing progress or having a strong image or idea about our goal. Self-talk that helps with this is encouraging and motivating. It may sound like, “I can do this,” “this is going to be great,” or “I’m almost there.”
Our problems with changing a thought, feeling, or behavior, is where the well-worn path comes in.
Everything that we think, know, do, and feel, comes from our history, or more specifically, the history of the fluid interaction between everything we have ever been exposed to and continue to be exposed to, and our unique genetic predispositions. Whatever we repeat becomes habit. Whatever we repeat a lot, starts to feel like a fact, as if this is just the way we are, and it’s not really possible to change. This works the same for behaviors, feelings, and thought patterns.
The problem with this, is that our brain doesn’t filter out false or unhealthy thoughts, feelings or behaviors. Whether it’s a pattern of repeatedly driving a specific route or self-medicating with food or alcohol, saying, “I can do this,” or, “this is impossible,” or reacting with anger, if it’s repeated enough, it will become automatic and feel unchangeable.
When our new, healthier thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are developed, focusing on them is like carefully creating and walking a new path. If we’re not thinking about our thoughts, taking a helicopter view of our own thinking, we will just end up on the old path without even realizing it.
The old path is well-worn. The more it has been traveled, the more ingrained it has become, the more effort it takes to avoid it. It is insidious. The well-worn path often includes self-defeating self-talk such as, “I can’t do this,” “this is just how I am,” or “this is impossible.”
Back to the baby giraffe. She had this habit of just lying around, taking it easy before birth. That was her well-worn path which was clearly not going to be a healthy thing to continue to do. Standing and walking was entirely new and challenging, as evidenced by her repeatedly falling. This is how it’s supposed to work.
For CBT to work, we have to be prepared for this. Identifying false, unhealthy beliefs and developing rational, healthier ones is just the beginning.
Change feels weird. When we learned how to walk, talk, drive, or just about anything, we were motivated to overcome that feeling by the anticipated reward. With CBT, the work is an inside job. We are purposefully thinking differently, in a seemingly unnatural way. The clinical term for this weird feeling is cognitive-emotive dissonance, and for CBT to work, we must be aware of it and the importance of tolerating and overcoming it.
While we are establishing new paths, the well-worn paths are still there. They can have a subtle or strong pull that we may or may not be aware of. We can end up on the old path, be there for minutes, hours, or days before we are conscious of it. This can happen at any time – even years after establishing a strong, new path with conscious repetition.
Back to the baby giraffe again. Once she is comfortable walking, she may still fall in the future. She may trip, lose her balance, or get knocked over. She may have difficulty getting up at some point. If she is truly able to get up, she will, because she will not be beating herself up for falling.
The point is, it’s not our fault or a flaw to end up on the old-path, or even for criticizing ourselves if we do. This happens because of repetition. Falling is to be expected when standing is new. Falling can happen at any time, and it does not define us or our future. We can notice we have fallen, and we can decide to try to get up.
To help ourselves be aware of what path we’re on, we can practice check-ins by regularly observing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If we find ourselves on an old path, we can help ourselves head back to our new healthier path by responding with validation, self-compassion and without judgment. This may sound like, “Oh, here I am again. I’ve been here before and I know it’s counterproductive and unhealthy. It’s been difficult, however I would like to try to keep refocusing towards that healthier path.” When that healthier path is traveled repeatedly, it feels natural and happens automatically.
No, it’s not as easy or simple as it sounds, but like the baby giraffe, we can keep trying, no matter how many times we have fallen. We may have to try many new paths before one starts to feel comfortable. If we stop trying, it’s probably an old well-worn pathway that’s saying, “I can’t…” Many new pathways start with, “I can…” or, “I’d like to try.” If it is our habit, we can expect an “I can’t” to reappear. It’s all good. It’s all part of the process. No judgment, no worries, just notice and gently refocus, repeatedly.
Marsha Mandel is a therapist with a private practice in Cornwall, New York. www.mandelcounseling.com
Having these thoughts briefly or occasionally is not a problem, but getting stuck in them is. When we take a step back, a deep breath, and notice our self-talk, there may be clues to an unhealthy and judgmental inner voice that may be behind much of our distress.
Here are 6 common thoughts that indicate an unhealthy and self-defeating perspective, followed by solutions for calming that critical inner voice.
1. I shouldn’t feel this way.
If an emotion is there, it’s there. Resisting it won't make it go away – it will make things worse. Emotions don't like to be ignored, stuffed, or resisted. They tend to keep poking at us until we notice them. Turning towards the emotion we don’t want to have may seem counterintuitive, but it will actually decrease our distress.
Solution: Notice the emotion, identify it by name, accept that it's there, and allow ourselves to feel it. Feeling it doesn’t change any facts, it’s just part of acknowledging a reality, or what is.
2. It’s ridiculous for me to feel this way.
This takes #1 and adds judgment on top of it. Thinking not only shouldn’t I feel this way, but my feelings are ridiculous, will further inflame the emotion and stuff it down with shame. This leads to general negative self-perception. There's no benefit to shaming our own emotions, and we're often unaware of this form of self-bullying – we just experience it.
Solution: Step back, deep breath, empathize with our self. This means seeking to kindly and nonjudgmentally understand the emotion instead of ridiculing it. Ridiculing it is a cruel form of denial that distracts us from our healing path.
3. That was so stupid of me.
Whatever it was that we're calling stupid is in the past, so it makes sense to try to view it in the healthiest way possible. A common belief is that we need to be hard on ourselves in order to change a behavior, but we actually don’t – it just makes us feel worse and is discouraging. Noticing that we'd prefer to do something different next time is all that's needed. It doesn’t matter how big the mistake is. It’s not calling the mistake fine or great; it’s not trying to turn a negative into a positive. It’s about healing and self-kindness. There's no downside to either one.
Solution: Accept the fact that we're not evolved or designed to be perfect, and call a mistake by its name. Then use encouraging self-talk that fosters hope.
4. I try to think positively, but I can’t.
Trying to improve our outlook with positive thinking can lead to flip-flopping – a term I use when we try to lie to ourselves with a thought we would like to believe, but don’t. If we are truly worried or unhappy about something, thinking, “It’ll all work out,” or, “I’m fine,” is completely invalidating to our emotional part. When we pretend our worry or unhappiness isn't there, it builds and builds, resulting in an increase in stress hormones followed by an eventual outburst, an explosion, passive-aggressiveness, racing thoughts, or unhealthy coping behaviors. Then we flip back to the negative. It’s internal warfare.
The main problem here is black-and-white, or rigid thinking. If we notice an internal dialogue that sounds like, “It’s going to be fine! No it’s not!” we're flip-flopping and distressing ourselves unnecessarily.
Solution: Be self-validating, neutral, and hopeful. Just as we can’t tell the future with negative thoughts such as, “This is going to be a disaster,” we also can’t tell the future with positive thoughts, “Things will be great!” We can notice our rigid thinking, and look for a gray area. Thinking, “I’m noticing I’m feeling worried about this, but it may work out OK. Either way, I’ll do my best to cope,” is a rational and much healthier thought than positive affirmations that our brain doesn't believe.
5. I should be doing better, or, I’ll never be good enough.
Better than what? Good enough for who? Making comparisons is a natural tendency, but it’s often a harmful one – especially when our brain is irrationally filtering out positives. Life isn't a race and we can define success however we choose, as well as the perspective we would like to take on wherever we are in our lives. There is no bottom to this particular thought pattern because there is always some kind of “better.” A common false belief is that challenging this leads to complacency.
Solution: Ditch the “should” and the shame. Replacing it with, “I want to, I hope to, I’ll try to,” inspires hope, motivation, and action. Again, take that step back, deep breath, and then accept whatever facts are evident. Refocus on carefully chosen steps or goals, and replace these unhealthy comparisons with encouraging, rational, and healthy self-talk.
6. I’ll never forgive myself.
Many people confuse forgiveness with condoning or forgetting. Forgiveness means letting go of anger about some transgression, and has nothing to do with saying this transgression was OK. Forgiveness allows for redemption, healing, growth, and the release of toxic anger.
Solution: Allow our healthy part to wisely acknowledge that anger towards ourselves has no benefit. All it does is sustain shame and other negativity. Taking ownership of the transgression, making whatever amends we can, and forgiving ourselves, are steps towards healing and inner peace.
Click here for more information on managing thoughts and developing healthier perspectives with cognitive behavioral therapy.
Marsha Mandel is a therapist with a private practice in Cornwall, New York. www.mandelcounseling.com
If you have tried ignoring or fighting it, you know that this is not just ineffective - it makes anxiety worse. Responding with more fear, worry, anger, or frustration inadvertently feeds it. Continuing to respond the same way will lead to the same result: more anxiety.
When we experience overwhelming negative emotions in the lower brain, our higher brain can become hijacked, leading to emotional reasoning. These unhealthy, unhelpful, or false thoughts, like other cognitive distortions, can feel like facts. If they’ve been repeated enough, thoughts such as, “Shoot, here it is again, it’s just going to get worse and worse,” or, “Oh no! Not my anxiety! I can’t stand it!” or, “Everyone knows how anxious I am!” become automatic and feel natural. This can trick us into believing there is no other possible way to look at our experience of anxiety. If we continue spiraling into it, in addition to anxiety we may feel embarrassed, powerless, and hopeless.
The single most important factor for managing anxiety once it starts is our relationship with it. View it as an enemy, and it will fight to distress or exhaust us. Try to view it as a nuisance to ignore, and the lower brain will keep poking at us with distress. Distractions may help temporarily, but if the belief that anxiety will take over and take us down remains unchallenged, it will.
If anxiety itself caused more anxiety, everyone would react the same way to it. As with other forms of distress, it’s our judgments about anxiety that cause it to spiral. Our judgments stem from beliefs which are rooted in many things including genetic tendencies, our life experiences, and the history of their interactions. Repeated thought patterns may be well-traveled pathways, but they're not hard-wired. (For more information about rewiring or changing thought patterns, click here.)
Maintaining the same unhelpful beliefs about anxiety is incompatible with a new, healthy perspective and relationship with it. Ask yourself how you would like to respond to anxiety. Imagine yourself feeling calm, noticing one of the warning signs such as a rapid heartbeat or quick, shallow breathing. Imagine yourself responding with acceptance, calmness, and confidence. What beliefs do you think would likely be present in order for you to feel this way? A reliable place to start is to separate the facts about anxiety from our negative judgments, and then to look for new, healthier thoughts to have about the facts.
Four important and simple facts about anxiety to be aware of are: (1) it serves a useful and important purpose in protecting us from danger by preparing the body to fight or flee, (2) it can be triggered when no actual danger exists, (3) we can use our higher brain, our rational thoughts, to calm it, and (4) calming it does not mean making it go away.
Keeping these facts in mind while following the steps below will improve your relationship with anxiety, and it will no longer feel like an enemy to fight. Your new, healthier response to anxiety will include acceptance, understanding, calmness, encouragement, confidence, and empowerment. The goal is not to make it go away, because anxiety is with us for a very good reason – to keep us safe. The goal is to learn how to manage it effectively so that it no longer interferes in your life.
These steps may feel strange at first due to unfamiliarity. When we learn, we establish new thought patterns. This requires repetition and purposeful effort, which includes tolerating the initial strangeness of it until it starts to feel more natural. Each step is important for the process.
1 – Check in with yourself.
Frequent checking in with yourself throughout the day will increase your awareness of any anxiety before it has a chance to hijack your brain. Checking in can be done in just a few minutes. Take a pause, a step back, a deep breath. Check your heartrate and your breathing. Check your muscles for tenseness. Check in with your thinking. Anxiety brews beneath our level of awareness if we are not paying attention.
2 – Stick with the facts.
Identify whatever you notice without judgment. “Oh no, I can’t stand this!” or “My heart is racing! I’m going to die!” are false judgments. Focusing on the facts may sound like, “I’m noticing some anxiety - a fast heartrate and shallow breathing. This is a normal and safe body response to anxious thoughts.” Notice the level of anxiety as it is, without catastrophizing or future-telling. The next steps will help with this.
3 – Practice self-validation and self-compassion.
Keep your focus on the here and now, in the very moment as you are experiencing it. Acknowledge past distress, but avoid projecting this into the future. You can’t tell the future, and if you are following these steps, you are catching anxiety early and responding in a new way to the initial discomfort in order to change the outcome. If you’re used to resisting anxiety, this may feel very new and strange at first.
Self-validation is about acknowledging your feelings. If someone tells us to calm down, it feels invalidating and dismissive, yet we tend to do this to ourselves instead of acknowledging feelings that are present. Taking a moment to change dismissiveness or catastrophizing to validation has a profoundly powerful effect. It can be as simple as thinking, “I’m noticing some anxiety, and it feels uncomfortable. I feel my heartbeat starting to race. I’m feeling distracted and restless.”
Self-compassion is about being accepting and kind to yourself, instead of being critical. “Anxiety is something many people experience. I’m not alone with this. It’s not a reflection of my character and it doesn’t mean I’m weak or a failure. People can be strong and healthy, and still experience anxiety sometimes.”
4 – Consciously calm your body to help your mind relax.
Deep breaths and relaxed muscles are incompatible with an anxious mind. If your reaction to shallow quick breaths and muscle tension has been to focus on how bad they are, how it feels like they’ll last forever and lead to more problems, you’ve inadvertently been feeding the fire. Focus on slowing your breathing down and relaxing your muscles. This sends signals to your mind to calm down.
5 – Use calming and encouraging self-talk.
Recall the imagined calm response to anxiety and the beliefs that are likely supporting it. Self-talk has to be believable because we can’t knowingly lie to our own brain. If saying, “Everything will be fine,” is not believable, helpful self-talk may sound more like, “This is temporary. I’ve had this before and it’s gone away,” or, “In this moment, I am safe,” or, “I’ll do my best to get through this in a healthy way.” When you calm just enough to tune into your rational healthy part, you may recall a saying or mantra that has been helpful to repeat or meditate on.
Strengthening and Maintaining Your New Relationship
Healthy relationships require thoughtful effort. Building feelings of trust and comfort takes time. Waiting for a problem to start and expecting the desired response to automatically be there initially is unrealistic. Most people who give up on changing thought patterns using cognitive behavioral therapy skills (CBT) assume it doesn’t work for them because of the strangeness of thinking differently while the old unhealthy emotional reasoning is still present. This is called cognitive-emotive dissonance, and in order to make these positive changes, it must be tolerated.
If you think of a time you learned to do something differently, you’ll notice it felt weird at first, but became more natural with practice. We do this all the time – driving an unfamiliar car, using a new computer or phone, or starting a new job. The difference with these is that there’s a more immediate, tangible reward for staying the course. When we purposefully change our thought patterns because we’ve identified old ones as unhealthy, the rewards may initially be subtle and gradual, however staying the course can be life-changing.
Strengthening new patterns of thinking that support this healthy relationship occurs when we pay close attention to our thinking, and practice repeatedly shifting our focus to healthier thoughts. If we neglect to do this, the old, familiar, well-traveled pathways will remain strong.
Maintaining a healthy relationship with anxiety becomes very easy, because it’s a helpful part of our life experience, watching out for our safety like a trusted old friend. The trust is mutual because it no longer gets out of control - we know how to help it calm. At this point, anxiety becomes a familiar friend we can embrace fearlessly.
Marsha Mandel is a therapist with a private practice in Cornwall, New York. www.mandelcounseling.com
Living with an anxious mind is like living with a bully and a fortune teller who are always putting their negative spin on things. Anxious thoughts that endlessly repeat can make us miserable, interrupt our sleep, and drive us towards unhealthy habits such as nail-biting, smoking, or overeating. We may start to avoid other people and find it difficult to relax at all. An anxious mind is distracted, which increases stress and our chances of getting sick.
If you've read my blog post about changing unhealthy thoughts, than you know that when we repeat any thought over and over again, it starts to seem like a fact. Our brain doesn't care if it's true or not - it just makes things automatic after repetition. Anxious minds tend towards specific types of false beliefs, otherwise known as cognitive distortions. So take a step back, take a deep breath, tune into your own thinking and ask yourself if any of these seem familiar.
1 - All or Nothing
If things don't go exactly as you've planned, is the whole thing ruined? If you have one spot on your shirt, or one hair out of place, do you feel as if you can't go out? Do you think others are either "good" or "bad"? Trustworthy or untrustworthy? Reliable or unreliable? Most things are on a spectrum and it can be harmful to generalize one way or the other. The red-flag words here are "either" and "or". If you recognize this kind of black-and-white thinking, look for the grey areas.
2 - Fortune-Telling and Catastrophizing
Do you find yourself thinking that you know what will happen? You have all the evidence you need, to know that this is unreliable. Think about times you predicted a terrible thing would happen, and it didn't . No matter what the outcome, it isn't helpful to feel certain about things that may or may not occur. Sometimes people think they have to worry or else disaster will strike. You can be thoughtful and cautious without the worry. In fact, you can counteract these thoughts by considering possible neutral or positive outcomes, and telling yourself you will do the best you can with whatever happens.
3 - Mind-Reading
Do you find yourself thinking that others are having negative thoughts about you? Do you assume that you know what other people are thinking or feeling based on their facial expressions or behaviors? Evidence that an anxious mind is doing this can sound like, "Are you mad at me?" We project our own beliefs onto others, and we're often wrong. For example, if you're thinking that something you've done is not up to par, chances are you believe others have this same negative opinion. Truth is, we can't read each others' minds. As with other mental mistakes, we may be entirely wrong or right, or the truth may be somewhere in the middle.
4 - Magnification
Do you find yourself feeling anxious when others around you have the same facts, but are calmer? If this is the case, you may be seeing a problem through a magnifying lens. An anxious mind tends to see things as much worse than they are, which is unhealthy and unhelpful. When you become distressed about something, ask yourself if you can look at it any differently. (The answer to this is always, "yes".)
5 - Filtering
Our mind typically takes in what it already believes. This means that when there is evidence to challenge distortions such as fortune-telling and mind-reading, our brain will likely filter it out or make us actively reject offers of reassurance or positivity from others. Furthermore, we will magnify evidence that supports the anxious thought.
If you find yourself collecting evidence that supports your anxious negativity, be like a detective, and search for clues that disprove your anxious thoughts instead. Be persistent and keep looking because your anxious mind will be sneaky and try to hide them from you. Look for facts, and look for positive interpretations of those facts. What do you have to lose? (Answer: anxiety.)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is very effective for decreasing anxious thoughts. Read more about CBT here.
Marsha Mandel, LMHC is a therapist with a private practice in Cornwall, New York. www.mandelcounseling.com
1 - It has no filter for false or unhealthy thoughts.
You can be 100% certain of something and be 100% wrong. The upsetting thoughts that you’re going to fail at something, that you can’t recover, that something bad will happen, or that others are judging or angry with you, can be entirely false. So can the related thoughts that you wouldn't be able to stand it if your worry was even partially true.
2 - You are inadvertently brainwashing yourself.
Accepting thoughts as facts without questioning them allows them to grow and spread, and they will. Thoughts are like seeds in a garden; whether they are weeds or flowers, given the fertile space to grow, they will thrive.
3 - Self-talk is going on whether you are aware of it or not.
Most of your brain activity is completely beneath your level of awareness. All of the knowledge you are carrying around with you which includes how to walk, talk, write, drive, and a million other things, also includes any other thoughts you have repeated – healthy, unhealthy, true, or false – your brain doesn’t care. If thoughts are repeated, they become deeply rooted and automatic.
4 - Your brain will reject ideas that conflict with whatever it already believes.
This means that even if your brain is given indisputable facts, it will seek to find a way to filter out and reject them with those deeply rooted automatic thoughts.
5 - Your brain can hijack itself with emotions.
Powerful emotions can take over your thinking and your behavior. Your brain is built for survival – sense danger, take action, and think about it later. When you experience intense fear or anger, self-protection kicks in within 20 milliseconds. The problem is that these emotions can generate false or unhealthy thoughts that that remain after the danger has passed, taking root and becoming part of your belief system.
6 - Images can be worth much more than a thousand words.
The images you carry with you hold immeasurable knowledge and beliefs. You may be certain of however you see yourself, others, the world, or the past and future in your mind, and yet these images and views may be entirely unhealthy and false, just like any other thoughts.
7 - You have the ability to make purposeful changes in your brain.
You can learn from mistakes, you can change your mind, change your thoughts, change your habits, and change your life. You can refocus and reimagine the images you carry with you. The thoughts, “I can’t change,” or “This is just the way I am,” are both false and unhealthy. The indisputable fact is that you can make changes. Question the thoughts that pop into your mind or that have been with you for a long time because the thought, "I just know I'm right," can actually be partially or completely wrong. Use self-talk to purposefully tend to your thinking, to consciously brainwash yourself with true and healthy thoughts that you have carefully developed and that you can believe. This may feel unnatural, which just means it’s different from how you're used to thinking. With focused effort and repetition, the new, healthier thoughts will become habitual and will start to feel natural.
8 - These changes are an inside job that only you can do, however there are two forms of therapy that can quickly and effectively help you do this. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help you identify false and unhealthy thoughts and to develop healthier ways of thinking. Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) can help change distressing images and views that you may feel stuck with. When the images are changed, your brain will shift to healthier perspectives of the facts. ART helps you let go of the distressing images, emotions, and body sensations, which you really don't need to hold onto. This can profoundly and quickly improve your quality of life. See more about ART at www.acceleratedresolutiontherapy.com.
Marsha Mandel is a therapist with a private practice in Cornwall, New York. www.mandelcounseling.com
Learning to balance the needs of my children with my own self-care became essential. While my children were young, I was in a graduate program in psychology, however some of the most helpful learning came from books on a wide range of topics including parenting kids with special needs, mindfulness, self-compassion, and cognitive behavioral therapy skills. I connected with an online group of parents who faced similar challenges, my “friends in the box”, who shared invaluable lessons they had learned from their real-life experiences.
Here are 8 ideas to help balance the demands of special needs parenting with self-care.
1. A little bit of mindfulness goes a very long way. Whether our distress is about our child’s behavior, future, education, treatment, or emotional state, though concerns may be valid, if it’s not a crisis, there is no need to constantly keep this concern in the forefront of our minds. In fact, it can easily do more harm than good as it prevents us from being present. Whatever the reality of the situation is, it does not require us to relentlessly distress ourselves.
Mindfulness is about putting our full attention on the here and now, in the present moment, and on our sensory experiences in it. The saying, “When we take care of each moment, we take care of all time,” is about observing the moment without judgment, being present, instead of allowing the mind to wander, dwell, or distress itself. The here and now is not about what's happening with our kids at school, what has occurred in the past, or may happen in the future; it is only about the present place and time. Mindful breathing is a good place to start. How does a deep breath feel? How does it sound? We can focus on any sound, taste, scent, image, or feeling as it occurs. Just by doing this, we are providing our formerly preoccupied mind a welcome respite. We are interrupting a crescendo of distressing thoughts. We are decreasing the overflow of stress hormones, and we may be averting an anxiety or panic attack. And, we are growing our skill of managing our own attention as we keep returning our wandering minds to the present. Mindfulness enables us to be better parents, to be present and nonjudgmental with ourselves and our children.
2. Get out of your own way. Like a fish in water who asks, “What is this water you speak of?” we may be entirely unaware of our tinted lenses of perception that we are seeing things through. Ongoing feelings of anger, sadness, anxiety, or other negativity may indicate the presence of deeply rooted unhealthy beliefs, such as judging a situation as all bad, magnifying the effect of a problem, wanting to control another person or past event, dwelling on the negative and filtering out any positives. Often, we are unaware that we are carrying these beliefs around with us, we just experience them as part of our reality, oblivious to the fact that these are judgments. When we feel stuck in a rut, we are stuck in our thinking, and we are rejecting alternative perspectives. It may feel counterintuitive to turn towards the situation, roll up our sleeves and take a closer look, however this is just what we need to do. If you find yourself repeatedly upset about the same thing, it is time to ask yourself if it is your perspective that would benefit from an adjustment. I spent years trying to change something that was out of my control, unnecessarily distressing myself. Shifting my perspective led to new solutions and finding peace.
3. Ask yourself, “Is it possible to look at this another way?” I love this question, because the answer is always yes! This includes things we feel absolutely certain about, because our brains do not filter out false or unhealthy thoughts. When our emotional, fixed mind conflicts with reality, we can become very distressed. We may feel devastated, hopeless, or enraged, and think that there is no alternative perspective. In these conflicts with reality, reality will always win, every time. Reality does not care what we think about it, so we may as well take that deep breath, step back, and seek a healthier way to look at things.
This is not about complacency or turning a negative into a positive; it's about seeking the healthiest way we can look at things that are out of our control. It is the path to constructive mental clarity. Acceptance does not prevent us from being optimistic, proactive, or from problem-solving. Acknowledging a challenge or disability, does not erase gifts or strengths. Acceptance helps clear out unhelpful negativity, resistance which fuels sadness, anxiety, frustration, or hopelessness. It enables us to live in the context of whatever challenges may be present.
4. Be kind and encouraging to yourself and to your child. Things are difficult enough without being a harsh critic in your own head. Is it your intention to be a loving parent? If you would like to do things differently next time, keep learning, planning, and growing. Instead of telling yourself, “I really messed up,” try saying, “Although that was disappointing, I can keep trying to improve things.” Acknowledge that your parenting situation is difficult and challenging, and that you are not alone. We all make mistakes. Since this is a fact, we may as well try to look at it in the healthiest way possible, and turn it into a lesson.
Is it your child’s intention to “be bad”? No, they are doing the best they can as well – no matter what they are doing. Your child doesn't want to be in trouble or for you to be upset with them. They may feel overwhelmed with their emotions and be unable to express them appropriately. Responding to your child with kindness and encouragement sends a healthy, rational message which acknowledges mistakes are part of being human, and we can always keep trying to learn and improve.
5. Practice empathy. Think of a time when someone may have been annoyed with you for being upset, telling you to calm down. Was that helpful? Or is it preferable to be met with empathy, with an offer to listen, or words of encouragement. “Tell me about it. We’ll try to find a way through this.” Emotional well-being is not about the absence of emotional pain; it is about managing the inevitable emotional pain that is part of being human.
I often hear people call their emotions stupid or ridiculous. Emotions do not respond well to dismissal or stuffing; they tend to keep poking at you until you acknowledge them. Being self-validating or empathic means noticing the emotion that is already there, accepting its presence without judgment, even befriending it. This will allow us to have our feelings, and work through them, instead of throwing fuel on the fire.
Seeing our children overwhelmed with emotions can be extremely difficult for a parent. This is one of those times, when we may not be aware that our reactions are unhelpful. Time to once again, step back, take that deep breath. If your parenting goal is for your child to be able to manage emotions, start by helping identify the emotion so that the child can have the emotion, instead of the emotion having the child. Once it is acknowledged, we can move towards nonjudgmental acceptance and calming.
One of my go-to mantras is, "I am responsible for my effort, not the result." It's important to recognize that we can continually strive to improve our parenting strategies, however there are factors that we have 0% control of. The only thing we can control, is our focus and our perspective.
6. Know that you have a right and a responsibility to practice self-care. Parents often have a false belief that sounds something like, “I can’t do things for myself because I have to sacrifice everything for my kids!” It is actually healthier for your children to experience some disappointment and to manage it then to have every perceived need met. It is also healthier for you to model self-care for your children. Everything you model for your children adds a tint to their lens of perception. Your children are more likely to practice self-care and self-kindness in their future, if they are exposed to the concept by you.
7. Tune into the love you have for your child. It may feel hard to do sometimes, and that’s OK. My grandfather used to say, “Even when I’m mad at you, I’m mad about you.” I remember feeling very guilty when I admitted to my mother that I felt like putting my hyperactive tornado child “through the wall”. Her response was to laugh, and to say, “Marsha, I have some news for you…” Apparently she had experienced similar thoughts decades ago about me. We will have conflicting thoughts and feelings; the healthy thing to do, is to nonjudgmentally strive to balance them. Your child can be angry at you, and still love you, just as you can be angry with your child, and love them. It's all good. Take that deep breath, step back, and think about the deeply rooted love that exists within you for your child. It is always there to tune into, like a gem in your heart that will help you find that balance when you turn your attention towards it.
8. Use your tools and skills every day. Unused tools become rusty. Integrate some of the strategies that work for you into your daily life instead of waiting to be overwhelmed. Develop some healthy self-talk that you practice each day, so that you are creating and strengthening new thought patterns. It won’t take any extra time or energy to use healthy self-talk as passwords such as, “take a deep breath” and “relax your muscles,” or to practice mindful eating and mindful walking, to give your mind a break, to experience moments in time as they occur, and to be present and awake for yourself and for your child.
Marsha Mandel, LMHC has a private practice in Cornwall, NY, where she provides individual counseling as well as groups for parents of children with special needs. Visit www.mandelcounseling.com for further information.
Learning Cognitive Behavioral Therapy skills can be empowering and life-changing. These skills help identify and change the thought patterns that negative feelings and behaviors are rooted in. Old negative patterns of behaviors, reactions, and interactions fade when we change the underlying beliefs that are sustaining them. This can lead to growth in self-awareness that positively impacts every aspect of our lives.
To improve functioning or performance of our physical bodies, we seek to change habits, learn new exercises, engage in new activities, or perhaps seek a trainer, coach, or physical therapist. If we do not turn our focus towards the problem, identify the need for change, and decide to take action, things will remain the same and mistakes and lessons will be repeated.
The brain is like any other organ in that it can have issues that interfere with its functioning. Just like the rest of the body, repeated unhealthy habits lead to problems. In the brain, these can be problems in thinking that have developed over time. Just like our other organs, when we see problems in functioning, we look for the root and seek change or treatment to improve the quality of our lives. A problem in functioning with the brain can easily be seen in problems with emotions, behaviors, and relationships. We can get to the roots of many of these problems by thinking in different ways. This starts with turning our attention towards our own thinking.
CBT helps identify problems with thoughts that have caused or contributed to problems in life. Problems with thoughts do not mean a person is "crazy" or defective in any way; it means somewhere along our journey, we have learned and repeated thought patterns that are unhealthy for us. We have developed our own personal, unique lens of perception that we see things through. In a sense, our brains have been wired this way, so it becomes the way we operate. Thankfully, we can rewire our own brains by identifying, practicing, and repeating healthier and more rational thought patterns that help develop a new lens of perception. To develop this new, healthier outlook, we need to learn about our mental mistakes and then learn to modify them.
When we start the process of changing any habit, including unhealthy, negative thinking habits, the discomfort can lead us to believe that we are literally unable to do so, and we may start telling ourselves, "I can't do this." We will act as if this is true and give up when this happens. Unhealthy habits, including unhealthy thinking habits, become comfortable and may feel natural. We may tell ourselves, "This is just the way I am." The rational, healthier, more accurate view of a bad habit, may sound something like, "Even though I've struggled with this for a long time, in reality, change is actually possible. I'll try and find new ways of thinking and doing things to improve the quality of my life." If you decide this is true, but sounds strange and feels weird to think, it's because it hasn’t been practiced or repeated enough.
Finding our own encouraging thoughts and practicing them are the first steps to changing and breaking free from those habitual, comfortable, and self-sabotaging thoughts that we have inadvertently allowed to reside in our brains. New and healthier thoughts become natural through practice, increase positivity, and ultimately lead to an improved quality of life.
Click here for more information about CBT.
Many people set a new year's resolution with the hope of starting a new habit, discontinuing some old ones, or just setting some brand new goals for a new year. The words and focus we choose for this commitment are more important than we might think.
We brainwash ourselves with our thoughts and the language we choose.
Here are some ways to make it easier for our words and attention to help us reach our goals:
Change language from negative to positive.
Negatively stated goals can sound like, "I do not want to smoke," "I do not want to overeat," or "I'm not going to lose my temper this year." The problem with stating goals this way is we lose half of our brain power with the word "not". The language part of our brains understands what this means, but the visual part has no idea what to do with the word not - so it just leaves it out. Here's an example: Do not think of a pink elephant. Too late. The visual part or our brain has already created an image of the pink elephant. What does "not smoking", "not overeating", or "not losing my temper" look like in my mind? It looks like smoking, overeating, and losing my temper. The visual cortex just loses the word not, and we find ourselves inadvertently triggered to do the very thing we are trying to avoid!
It's easy to get around this by using our words to create new, healthier images of the changes we want to make. For example, instead of, "I'm not going to smoke," say, "If I have the urge to smoke, I'll breathe some fresh air, drink some cold water, and stretch." Now we have a healthy image linked to the urge to smoke. Instead of saying, "I do not want to overeat," try saying, "If I get the urge to keep eating, I will wait ten minutes, see if I'm hungry, and if so, I'll eat something healthy." If you want to "not" lose your temper, try saying, "If I am feeling angry, I'll remember that I want to keep myself calm." We can see ourselves making these changes, and tap into more of our brain power.
Move from stagnation to motivation with a shift of focus.
Many times we find ourselves dwelling on things we would like to change or leave behind. That keeps our focus on negativity, like staring at a door that we don't want to go through. The problem with this is that it leaves us stuck, motionless, killing our motivation. People can and do remain stuck for long periods of time.
If you have been feeling stuck, it's likely that your focus is stuck, keeping you dwelling on the negatives, squashing hope and optimism. To get unstuck, first visualize another door you would like to move towards, and ask yourself what steps you can take to move in that direction.
Our minds were built to wander, and often return to old thought pathways. Bringing your attention to your thoughts, or using mindfulness to be present in the here and now, will help you notice your focus shifting back to negativity. If this happens, just shift your attention back to the door you want to move towards and the way you would like to be.
The parts of ourselves we would like to develop are there; they just need our attention to grow. The more we do this, the easier and more natural it becomes.
Using visualization to think and see what you want more of in your life helps you
break free from negativity, and makes your goals more easily attainable.
I remember my father telling me years ago that it takes two to argue. I didn't quite believe him at the time because it seemed as if some people could argue with a brick wall. Only after studying and practicing CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) did I realize that he was right.
Although it sometimes feels as if we get pulled into arguments by others stating their views as if they're facts, this is not true. We do get pulled into arguments, but it is an inside job. The forces pulling us into an argument are not other people; our own beliefs do the pulling. It may sound unbelievable - I know that's how I reacted to this concept initially. The good news is that understanding this helps us figure out how to stop allowing it and to keep the peace with others who seem to be pushing our buttons. We can all learn how to do this, and keep the peace during the holidays.
Argument outcomes can vary from those that settle down and lead to greater understanding, to those that escalate to the point of bitterness, anger, and resentment. Still other arguments end with people agreeing to disagree. The evidence is clear that disagreements and arguments can go in many directions. What is often unclear, are the factors that lead to these different outcomes.
No one person is always right, or is always argumentative. There is no one person who comes out on the top or bottom of every disagreement. So, what causes arguments to escalate? People often point to the more obvious, observable factors such as stubbornness, sarcasm, not letting things go, raising voices and insults. But what causes these? Why do we insist on another person agreeing with us?
There are two irrational beliefs that play some part in this. One is that we can actually make another person agree with us. We may believe that if we argue just one more point, get a little bit louder, or pull others in to support our view, that we can impose control on the mind of another person. But is this possible? Can we reach into another person's mind and put our opinions in it? Even if it is a fact? The answer of course, is no. People believe what they believe. Even if we pull out a dictionary or research that proves our point, another person's beliefs about it, are their own; we cannot touch them. We may be able to have a civil discussion and plant some seeds that the other person may decide to either discard or nourish, but even if we are 100% certain and have tons of evidence to back it up, we can't control what is in another person's mind.
The other belief that can lead us to pull ourselves into arguments is that not only can we make the other person agree or understand our point, but that we have to. The more a person insists on arguing and imposing his or her view on others, and "making" them understand, the stronger this belief is. When we believe things are critical for whatever reason, that we need to do something, we feel and act as if it's true. Our brains don't filter out false beliefs on their own. But we can use CBT skills to do it ourselves.
So, what do people believe when they are not only able to walk away from an argument, but are able to feel at peace doing this? With CBT we know about the relationships between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We know that they are typically aligned. So if we are walking away and feeling at peace about it, our thoughts might include the following:
No matter how strongly I feel about this, I cannot force others to agree.
I can share my view and hope they understand.
If they disagree, continuing to argue my point will only escalate conflict.
I would like to keep the peace between us.
Others have a right to their views, just as I have a right to mine.
I can tolerate them having a different belief than mine.
I only want them to agree, I do not need them to agree.
If these thoughts seem unnatural to you, that's OK. We have repeated and practiced everything we have learned that has become familiar and natural to us - the same is true with thoughts and thought patterns. If you have a habit of getting pulled into disagreements and arguments, the pathways of believing you can and must change others' beliefs are strong. For any CBT skills to be effective, we have to practice them. Try practicing and elaborating on the rational, healthy thoughts above, add some of your own, and keep in mind the goal of keeping the peace. If you feel another person is trying to pull you in, remember, they can't. And thank goodness for that.