file0001956356954“To use fear as the friend it is, we must retrain and reprogram ourselves. We must persistently and convincingly tell ourselves that the fear is here–with its gift of energy and heightened awareness–so we can do our best and learn the most in the new situation.” ~Peter Williams

Barely a week goes by these days without some mention of the skyrocketing rates of anxiety in our culture. Drugs are offered as a quick fix but they come with a price. As discussed in a previous blog, most psychotropic medications like Xanax and Valium are highly addictive, and can be very difficult to withdraw from.

In the psychotherapy research, the use and benefits of various cognitive behavioral therapies have been widely proclaimed as the answer. New research from a team led by Elizabeth Phelps, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science, now demonstrates how there can be a bit of a slipped cog in cognitive methods. Published last month by Raio et al. with the provocative title, “Cognitive emotion regulation fails the stress test,this new research got my attention.file9841279612478

What Is Cognitive Emotion Regulation Anyway?

Cognitive emotion regulation is a fancy term to describe managing one’s feelings by deliberately thinking about them in more helpful ways. For example, millions of people override their fear of flying by reminding themselves that travel by plane is far safer than travel by car. Cognitive therapy teaches consumers to question their fear-inducing beliefs and to substitute them with more accurate appraisals, and these tools have been widely shown in the laboratory to be effective in altering the nature of our negative emotional responses.

However, what this newly published study demonstrates is that even mild stress can derail the ability of someone to use these otherwise effective weapons when they most need them–in real life. “In other words, what you learn in the clinic may not be as relevant in the real world when you’re stressed….Our results suggest that even mild stress, such as that encountered in daily life, may impair the ability to use cognitive techniques known to control fear and anxiety,” explained Candace Raio.

file5151286030086And the reason why? In order to use cognitive techniques, a person needs to be able to engage their prefrontal cortex–simply put, we need to be able to think clearly–and chronic mild stress gets in the way.

What Can We Do About It? Tips to Practice for Your Lifetime

“One can overcome the forces of negative emotions, like anger and hatred, by cultivating their counter forces, like love and compassion.”  -Dalai Lama

The authors conclude that it takes practice. Lots of practice. Therapists need to teach their clients about how negative emotions such as anger, fear, and grief, as well as stressful lifestyles so common in today’s families exert very powerful influences on our ability to return to a calm state, even when we have taught them cognitive behavioral skills. Here are some lifelong practices that will help immunize the user against stress.

Tip #1: Practice some form of self-calming at least once or twice daily. No one thinks twice about brushing their teeth every day. If you practice self-relaxation or meditation for five minutes twice a day for the rest of your life, you will be more able to remember how to calm your emotions when you need to do so quickly.file5831255704783

Tip #2: Don’t sweat the small stuff–and realize that almost everything we get hyped up over is pretty small. My personal practice is to run my worries by the life-or-death question. For example, I hit traffic and am upset that I am going to be late for work. I ask myself if this is a life-or-death issue. The answer is almost always no, whereas driving like a madwoman to get to work on time could become life-threatening quite easily.

TIp #3: Don’t take things that other people do or say (or fail to do or say) personally. A good mantra to reinforce this perspective is, “It’s not about me!” This is easy in principle but often difficult in practice especially with those closest to us who seem to be pushing our buttons deliberately. If you need reminders about learning how to respond when your buttons get pushed, check out this blog. Remind yourself that everyone else is stressed out too, struggling to regulate their emotions and often failing miserably.

Tip #4: Practice turning blame into empathy and compassion, both for yourself and for others. The use of blame rarely generates a positive outcome or facilitates closeness and connection. If you typically beat yourself up, remember that mistakes are opportunities to learn and that you are a work in progress. If you like to point the finger at others’ errors, generate empathy by reminding yourself of similar mistakes that you have made. I have never had anyone complain to me that they had received too much empathy or compassion.

file2081270820302Tip #5: Find the silver linings in any cloud. One regular assignment I have given to my psychology graduate students and psychotherapy interns over the years, is to make a daily practice of turning every single negative thought into a positive or neutral one. Initially, many found this very difficult, but over time began to be able to turn negative thoughts around with more ease.

A similar assignment is to stop complaining (yes, about anything!) for a month. This does not mean that you have to become a doormat when others are doing or saying things that hurt you. Rather than complain, which is usually expressed as a judgment or “you” message such as “You’re late again, and you messed me up,” this same issue can be sent as an “I” message or as a request, such as, “Please text me the next time you think you might be late, so I can plan around it.”

If you take on this challenge–practicing healthy forms of mind control on a daily basis–your life will slowly but surely take on a different light. Change will not happen over night, and you may forget these tips when you are really under fire. But if you are anything like me, you will be a bit calmer and more unflappable a year from now. The tips and tools from cognitive therapy will be right there in a convenient toolbox, more readily available when you most need them. Take your time. They don’t call these things spiritual “practices” for nothing–even the greatest spiritual teachers continue to do daily practices to develop love, kindness, and patience.