Thoughts from a broken mind
There’s plenty of solid evidence that how we think about what’s going on in our lives can greatly contribute to whether or not we find events in our lives stressful. Cognitive distortions, or patterns of faulty thinking, can impact our thoughts, behaviors and experience of stress.
Our self talk, the internal dialogue that runs in our heads, interpreting, explaining and judging the situations we encounter, can actually make things seem better or worse, threatening or non-threatening, stressful or…well, you get the picture. Some people tend to see things in a more positive light, and others tend to view things more negatively, putting themselves at a disadvantage in life. (See this article on optimism and pessimism to see how.) But, as our self-talk develops starting in childhood, how does one go about changing these habitual thought patterns?
Cognitive restructuring, a process of recognizing, challenging, and changing cognitive distortions and negative thought patterns can be accomplished with the help of a therapist trained in cognitive therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy. However, in many cases results can also be achieved at home with the right information and commitment to change.
Here are some general tips on changing negative self talk: Patterns of negative or positive self-talk often start in childhood. Usually, the self-talk habit is one that’s colored our thinking for years, and can affect us in many ways, influencing the experience of stress to our lives. However, any time can be a good time to change it! Here are some ways you can stop yourself from using negative self-talk and use your mind to boost your productivity and self-esteem, and relieve stress.
Notice Your Patterns:
The first step toward change is to become more aware of the problem. You probably don’t realize how often you say negative things in your head, or how much it affects your experience. The following strategies can help you become more conscious of your internal dialogue and its content.
Replace Negative Statements:
A good way to stop a bad habit is to replace it with something better. Once you’re aware of your internal dialogue, here are some ways to change it:
Become aware of your cognitive distortions of choice. The first step in loosening the grip of cognitive distortions is to become aware of them. If you have a name for them, and some examples of how they work, they become much easier to recognize — or harder to ignore! Once you become aware of your patterns of faulty thinking, you can begin to challenge these thoughts more and more: look for exceptions if you’re an all-or-nothing thinker; make it a point to look for evidence and try to find alternate conclusions if you find yourself jumping to conclusions or practicing emotional reasoning.
With time and practice, this type of cognitive restructuring will become second nature to challenge your negative thinking patterns, and replacing them with more positive thoughts and views will become easy.
Studies on burnout show that people tend to get more stressed when they feel that they don’t have a choice in what happens to them. In some situations, such as within the context of a job, there is very little choice. However, we can also create a choice-less reality in our minds when we fail to recognize when choices exist. Pay attention to your self talk: do you tend to say you ‘have to’ or ‘can’t’ do things a lot?
The statement, “I can’t work out because I have to volunteer at the kids’ school again,” ignores the reality that both activities are choices. Just because one choice isn’t chosen doesn’t mean it wasn’t a choice to begin with. Changing your ‘have to’s and ‘can’t’s’ into ‘choose to’ and ‘choose not to’ (or some smoother-sounding approximations) can actually remind you that you do have choice in a situation, and help you feel less stressed. “I’d like to work out, but I choose to volunteer at the kids’ school instead,” feels less confined, and sounds more fun, doesn’t it? (For more on recognizing choices in your reality, see this resource on locus of control.)
For more tips on cognitive restructuring, see page 2 of this feature.
Sometimes stressful situations can seem to stick with us. Most of us find ourselves ruminating or holding onto negative feelings we have about stressors or conflicts in our lives at one time or another. Unfortunately, this tendency can prolong the stress that we experience. Here are some proven strategies for letting go of rumination, letting go of anger, and holding onto peace.
Some people write an angry letter that they later burn. Others write about their feelings and brainstorm solutions. A few even write books or short stories that express their feelings and combat rumination. Regardless of the form it takes, many people have found journaling and expressive writing helpful in letting go of stress and negative emotions. Research confirms that expressive writing can be helpful for the stressed: One study showed that expressive writing was effective in reducing symptoms of depression among those with a tendency toward brooding and rumination.
What Are The Benefits of Journaling?: Journaling allows people to clarify their thoughts and feelings, thereby gaining valuable self-knowledge. It’s also a good problem-solving tool; oftentimes, one can hash out a problem and come up with solutions more easily on paper. Journaling about traumatic events helps one process them by fully exploring and releasing the emotions involved, and by engaging both hemispheres of the brain in the process, allowing the experience to become fully integrated in one’s mind.
What Are The Drawbacks to Journaling?: Those with learning disabilities may find it difficult to deal with the act of writing itself. Perfectionists may be so concerned with the readability of their work, their penmanship, or other periphery factors that they can’t focus on the thoughts and emotions they’re trying to access. Others may get tired hands, or be reluctant to relive negative experiences. And, journaling only about your negative feelings without incorporating thoughts or plans may actually cause more stress.
How Does Journaling Compare to Other Stress Management Practices?: Unlike more physical stress management techniques such as yoga or exercise, journaling is a viable option for the disabled. And, although some prefer to use a computer, journaling requires only a pen and paper, so it’s less expensive than techniques that require the aid of a class, book, teacher or therapist, like techniques such as biofeedback or yoga. Journaling doesn’t release tension from your body like progressive muscle relaxation, guided imageryand other physical and meditative techniques, however. But it’s a great practice for overall stress reduction as well as self-knowledge and emotional healing.
It seems that everyone from Oprah to Sting is touting the benefits of meditation and mindfulness for stress relief, and for good reason. A key ingredient of meditation is a focus on the present. When you actively focus on the present moment and gently prevent your mind from fixating on past events or future fears, it’s much easier to let go of negative emotions surrounding these things. Research confirms that meditation-based stress management practices reduce stress and rumination, and also enhance one’s tendency toward forgiveness, which brings its own rewards.
The Benefits of Meditation: The benefits of meditation are manifold because it can reverse your stress response, thereby shielding you from the effects of chronic stress. When practicing meditation, your heart rate and breathing slow down, your blood pressure normalizes, you use oxygen more efficiently, and you sweat less. Your adrenal glands produce less cortisol, your mind ages at a slower rate, and your immune function improves. Your mind also clears and your creativity increases. People who meditate regularly find it easier to give up life-damaging habits like smoking, drinking and drugs. Meditation research is still new, but promising.
The basis of cognitive therapy is that the way you think about an event can shape the emotional response that you have in a given situation. For example, if you perceive a situation to be a ‘threat,’ you will have a different emotional (and therefore physical) response than if you viewed the same situation as a ‘challenge.’ This assertion has been supported by research as well. Looking at a situation from a new lens, rather than just dwelling on the negative, can help with anger management and lowering one’s stress response. Once you understand how your thoughts color your experiences, you can use this information to reduce stress with a process known as cognitive restructuring.
You can also change your feelings by changing your behavior — taking the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach. You can do this in a few different ways. Perhaps the simplest is to make conscious choices to add some new stress management activities to your life: Get regular exercise, practice meditation a few times a week, or have ahobby that helps you relieve stress. Another effective strategy is to change your behavior when you find yourself dwelling on the negative: Actively get involved in doing something that will take your mind off of what’s stressing you. If you’d like to take a more structured approach, behavior therapy has been found to be more than 80% effective in treating ruminative tendencies, and is considered the ‘mainstay’ of treatment; it works relatively quickly, and you may find it to be very effective. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is another effective form of treatment, which combines cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy. This type of intervention alone, or combined with SSRI medication, has been found helpful for depressed patients who tend to ruminate.
Find Additional Stress Reduction Resources
Research shows that having ambivalent friendships in your life—relationships where interactions are sometimes supportive and positive and sometimes hostile or negative—can actually cause more stress than relationships that are consistently negative! Additionally, relationship conflict and stress have been shown to have a clear negative impact on health, affecting blood pressure, contributing to heart disease, and correlating with other conditions. That’s why it’s in your best interest to minimize or eliminate negative relationships in your life. The following plan can help you to minimize the stress of ambivalent relationships in your life.
Step One: Make a list of friendships in your life. Include everyone you think of when you think of your ‘friends’, including those you only see on your holiday card list, those you see regularly, and everyone in between. Also include romantic partners, if they’re in your life now or may come back into your life at some point.
Step Two: Circle the names of people who you know are positive: those who support you when you’re down and genuinely share your joy when good things happen to you. As for the others, evaluate the relationship honestly to see if it’s a benefit or a detriment to you. The following questions may help:
After answering some of these questions, you should have a clearer picture of whether this relationship is positive or negative for you. Circle the person’s name if you believe that the relationship is positive and supportive, or if it could be, given an appropriate amount of time and energy. Otherwise, cross off the name.
Step Three: Now put more of a focus into the relationships you have with the people whose names are circled. Remember that relationships, when healthy and supportive, are worth the time and energy you put into them, and give them the time that they deserve. As for the names that are crossed off, you can decide whether you want to keep sending them holiday cards and maintain a friendly rapport when you see them by chance, or if you want to make a clean break. But don’t allow them to continue to add stress and negativity to your life. Reserve your energy for your true friends.
If some of the names you encounter are those of family members, co-workers, or people who are for some other reason difficult to avoid, this article on dealing with difficult people can help you to deal with them in a way that will reduce the stress they can bring into your life.———————————————— All Articles By Elizabeth Scott, M.S Edited together By: Mike G