During this unprecedented time of job loss, homeschooling, isolation and rampant disease spread it is really hard not to be anxious. This is a very anxiety provoking time, even for those who don’t usually experience it. For those who suffer from anxiety regularly anyway, it is likely to feel out of control.
These anxious thought patterns are sometimes a product of a lack of self confidence or low self esteem. They can also stem simply from having learned them from your parents or other influential people in your life. You may have suffered a trauma, illness or loss that left you very anxiety ridden for a long period of time.
It is not likely that these thoughts will just disappear when this is over, especially if you have suffered from anxiety and/or depression your whole life. Learning to dispute and manage these anxious thoughts is the key. This does not mean sugarcoating things or living in denial, but using your mind logically and rationally to examine what you are thinking and why it is causing you distress. Studies show that learning to argue against dysfunctional thoughts in an effective manner relieves anxiety and depression and it is as effective if not more so than medications. There is also less chance of relapse as you have built a skill that remains with you for life.
Although this is typically one of the topics that would be covered if you were engaged in therapy with a professional, it is not always necessary to have someone else point out your dysfunctional thoughts. Below is an equation and tool that is used commonly in therapy that will help you test yourself, something you can do on an ongoing basis. As you get comfortable with the process you will feel better and be able to assess personal situations more effectively. I also have a free resource on my website listed below in the bio section that details other types of dysfunctional thought patterns and a quiz you can take if you are not sure this is you.
By using a cognitive model to dispute your anxious or dysfunctional thoughts and distortions, you are able to alter your reactions as well as your physiological responses that can take a toll on your body. In another post I discussed how every thought you have also has a physiological response, T=PR. If you think something scary, you are going to feel those unpleasant feelings of dread in your stomach, increased heart rate and changes in skin temperature. If you feel scared or threatened in some way you are going to behave and react differently than if you have interpreted the situation differently.
Here you are going to learn to question these thoughts and do some investigative work into your mind based on the answers to these critical four questions:
- What just happened-What is the exact event or situation that has occurred?
- What was my first thought-What was my initial interpretation of what was going on?
- How do I feel right now-Am I scared, angry or sad? Does my body feel these things?
- Is it reality-Did I interpret this correctly or did I have out my crystal ball and predict things I had no way of knowing? Did I interpret the situation using some belief or bias of my own that may not be accurate?
It helps to actually write it out for a while until it becomes second nature.
Here are a few examples of how this works:
1 Event =You are in the grocery store and someone is walking the wrong direction in the marked aisles.
2 My first thought = This person is doing this on purpose because they are lazy and thoughtless and wanted to get to the toilet paper aisle the fastest way. People are selfish and think only of themselves. The person is a reckless jerk spreading Covid all over the place. I probably caught it on their way by me even though I have a mask on and so did they. I may die now or contaminate my family.
3 How do I feel right now? I feel angry; I want to shove the person into next year or at least yell at them. I also feel angry in general that people are such selfish jerks. I am disappointed in the human race and feel negative toward the world right now. I feel anxious and fearful that I may be contaminated. I will fume and ruminate over this and in fact may relive this moment over and over all day or evening or longer. It will also consume my mind thinking of all the things I should have said and didn’t, causing me further anguish. I will be in such a negative state that no one will be able to stand to be around me all evening. The toxic feelings that have developed in my body feel terrible.
4 Is it reality? I really don’t know that they did it on purpose to get to the toilet paper. I have no evidence to suggest this. Maybe they were not aware of the markings or what they meant. Maybe they were so caught up in their own fear they weren’t paying attention to anything else. Maybe they take medication that makes them less aware of what is going on.
I had a mask on, they had a mask on, we didn’t speak, cough or sneeze as we passed nor did we have any physical contact of any kind. Chances are pretty low that I would have caught anything on the way by.
I feel better and the anger is dissipating. I really don’t care anymore about this person, and I will give it no more thought. My anxious and angry thoughts have been neutralized, calming my bodily process and allowing me to go on in a constructive manner. I have thought it through logically and rationally, and I believe and accept my new thoughts. They make sense to me.
To take it a step further, at this point you would be also operating from an internal locus of control where you decided to take an event and handle it yourself in a positive manner and not let it control you. You were presented with an adversity and decided to change the way you felt because you did not like your current feelings. You did not just wait for something else good to happen to counter or replace the negative feelings.
1 Event = My significant other seemed distracted at dinner. He/she did not show much interest in our conversation or in me in general.
2 My first thought = They must be tired of the relationship and is getting ready to end it. I will be financially strapped without their income and will have to get an extra job. I will also have to buy new furniture. I knew I was unlovable when the last relationship that I had ended; I should never have gotten into a new relationship. They are probably having an affair.
3 How do I feel right now? I feel scared for my future. I now can’t eat my dinner. I am thinking about all the bad things about this person so I can soften the blow when they ultimately end this. I will have thought of enough stuff to convince myself it doesn’t matter because they aren’t that great anyway. I am lonely because I am now detaching from this person to prevent more pain. I am feeling very defensive, and I may try to pick a fight in order to end the waiting and just get it over with. I am angry that they are cheating on me. I am going to pick a fight for sure now.
4 Is it reality? I have zero evidence that they are thinking of ending the relationship. In fact, I have more evidence to the contrary. When we spoke today, everything seemed okay. Everything in general seems to be okay; they haven’t voiced major concerns about the relationship and we have been talking long-range plans. I know they are experiencing work/family/ health/financial concerns right now that may have come to the forefront this afternoon. I will just ask, “What’s the matter?” and take it from there. I need to quiet these thoughts and enjoy dinner right now. If the behavior continues, we will need to work it out, or maybe this isn’t the right person for me. I must be somewhat loveable as I have enjoyed other relationships.
I now feel better, and I was able to focus on dinner and the moment at hand. I quelled my panicky thoughts, which allowed my body to get back to normal. I relaxed, became more open and conversational, and attempted to get the person to discuss their day. If nothing else, I am not going to let this screw up my evening out. Also, my attitude of examining this relationship from the point of view of whether it meets my needs puts me in a position of control over myself and my destiny.
1 Event = I did very poorly on a test today.
2 My first thought = I am stupid. Now I will not enter the program I want to attend and will have very limited career choices the rest of my life.
3 How do I feel right now? I feel sad, depressed and much self-hatred for being stupid. I am not even going to bother to try again. I think I will go eat/drink/use whatever other poor coping strategy I can think of. I feel as though my future is now very limited.
4 Is it reality? I guess I am really not stupid. I passed all the requirements to get this far. I have no evidence of actual low intelligence. I have done well on other tests and in other jobs and that takes some level of ability. What really happened was that I allowed myself to get distracted from my studying by my social life, and I wasn’t as prepared as usual. I can change this by not allowing that to happen again. One bad score is not going to result in the ruination of my life. It’s not ideal that this happened, and I am not going to let it happen again, as repeated failures will result in negative consequences for my future.
I feel better, more in control, and not as pessimistic about my future. My mood is lifted again, and I have the motivation back to try harder and control my circumstances.
You get the idea.
Of course not every situation or person’s bad behavior can be rationalized away, and if you are being abused you shouldn’t even try. This exercise is for the situations where we torture ourselves for no good reason, make predictions based on our crystal balls and suffer needlessly.
When mastered, the concepts of examining and changing your underlying beliefs, modifying dysfunctional thought patterns and evaluating the attributions you make to the world around you are already enough to see you on your way to feeling better. Most likely, you are able to see where a lot of your unhappiness may have stemmed from these learned thought processes. Remember, you were not born with these. You now have the opportunity to change them.
Feel Good For Life!!