Learning to deal with distressing thoughts DEALING WITH TROUBLING THOUGHTS
Section Contents Understand why attempts to control our emotions fail Learn about ‘willingness to experience’ Learn about ‘thinking about thinking’ Understand the link between thoughts and symptoms Identify ways we can deal with ‘troubling thoughts’
Background - Stoic Philosophy Epictetus, about 55 - 135 AD ‘Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them’
Background - Constructivism ‘Constructivism’ is a perspective in philosophy that views all of our knowledge as ‘constructed’, i.e. it doesn’t necessarily reflect any external absolute realities; rather depending on convention, human perception and social experience Experiment with the views in this section, take and use what seems right or useful for you There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution!
Individual Differences The way we perceive things is determined in part by the ‘map’ of the world we carry inside our heads Our ‘map’ is drawn up in childhood - it tells us about ourselves, life, and about other people Our ‘map’ is a rough guide to life Sometimes our maps are inaccurate!
To Deny the Map is to Follow the Map Complete the following Men are... Women are... Life is... I am...
Thoughts are both Consequences & Causes Our thoughts are triggered by events around us, by our behaviour and by our feelings and emotions, as well as by other thoughts We all have thoughts of which we’re unaware (unconscious) We have relatively little control over thoughts which enter our minds Although our thoughts may be ‘irrational’ we often believe them Unpleasant emotions and feelings often accompany ‘negative’ thoughts
Which Comes First - Thoughts or Feelings? What’s important, from a purely practical point of view, is that it’s usually much easier to change our thinking (what we think) and our behaviour (what we do), than it is to change our emotions Therefore we can make useful changes simply by assuming that thoughts come first!
Some Anxiety is Useful - Yerkes-Dodson Our abilities improve with anxiety, up to a point Anxiety interferes with complex tasks more than simple ones
In Summary... Our minds are sensitive danger warning systems Some of our thoughts are inaccurate, unhelpful or ‘out of time’ Negative and inaccurate thoughts often seem as though they’re true They also ‘feel’ true, so we tend to give them a high ‘credibility rating’ Negative thoughts can give rise to painful moods, emotions and physical sensations Relational Frame theory (RFT) suggests that one reason for human suffering is the development of language!
Caution! You might want to look away if you have arachnophobia
Conscious Thoughts are Lexical Lexical means ‘made of words’ If we’re afraid of spiders, the word SPIDER can evoke thoughts, emotions and physical feelings Thoughts (words) evoke emotions - to a greater or lesser degree, just as though a real spider were actually present There’s a picture of a spider on the next slide...
Careful What You Say! Why taking about horrible things at dinner time isn’t a good idea The word ‘vomit’ can have similar stimulus effects as real vomit
Transfer of Stimulus Functions Relational Frame Theory (RFT) talks about the way that the stimulus function of an object or an event tends to get transferred to the word used to describe it If you’re afraid of spiders, the fear, the urge to run away and the physical effects of seeing a spider can all be evoked just by the word ‘spider’
Words as ‘Noxious Stimulants’ Our use of language can underlie a great deal of suffering as a result of the transfer of stimulus functions from referents to the language used to describe them Words can become noxious stimulants
Words as Sources of Pain Hearing someone talk about their relationship break-up, or about a bereavement can be very painful, especially if we have suffered something similar ourselves All we are exposed to is words, yet the words can evoke thoughts and feelings, as though a relationship break-up or bereavement were happening here and now
‘Telescoping’ When I remember past events which went badly, or when I anticipate things that make me scared, I ‘telescope’ the past and the future into the present Without language, could we evoke a negative past or anticipate a negative future?
Why Worry? Worry primarily involves thinking or self-talk (Borkovec & Inz, 1990) This kind of internal verbal behaviour is one of the most highly evolved systems characterising human beings, allowing us to experiment with ideas, consider alternative choices, evaluate our motives and consider the likely consequences of each possible choice before acting on one of them, without fearing that the environment might, in some way, punish us for considering them
Chronic Worry However, chronic worry has an avoidant function (Borkovec, 1994; Borkovec, Alcaine, & Behar, 2004). Chronic worriers often believe worrying will help them prepare for, problem-solve, or superstitiously avoid negative future events (Davey, Tallis, & Capuzzo, 1996) despite evidence to the contrary Borkovec and Roemer (1995) found that GAD worriers reported engaging in worry to distract themselves from ‘even more emotional things.’ The next few slides show common unhelpful thoughts and beliefs
Difficulty Tolerating Doubt &Uncertainty Problems can arise if we believe... That uncertainty is stressful and upsetting That uncertainty is unfair That unexpected events are to be avoided That uncertainty interferes with our ability to function ‘Certainty seeking’ is a problem e.g. having a heart attack – 1 in 10,000,000 chance, but so long as there’s a chance, I worry Consider - of what can we be absolutely certain?
Cognitive Style 2 - Unhelpful Beliefs Problems can arise if we believe... That worry helps us find solutions to problems That worry increases our motivation That worrying in advance helps us feel better if bad things happen That worrying prevents bad things happening (thought-action fusion) That worrying shows we are responsible and caring people
Cognitive Style 3 – Problem Avoidance Solving problems gives us a sense of mastery and pleasure Problem solving = problem orientation + problem solving skills Problem orientation = (perceptions of problems) + (perception of self as effective) + (realistic expectations) Problem solving skills = (defining the problem) + (identifying goals) + (identifying alternative solutions) + (choosing a solution) + (implementing a solution)
Cognitive Style 4 – Ineffective Self-Soothing Worry is lexical – there’s often little imagery involved, worry dampens our autonomic arousal and emotional processing – without ‘emotional richness’ we can’t identify our needs GAD worry reduces hyperventilation and tachycardia – a form of self- soothing which is painful and only partially effective Worry reduces the likelihood of ‘full network activation’ i.e. behavioural, cognitive, emotional and physiological arousal (which is required for panic response)
Common Characteristics Early role-reversed or caretaking relationships Insecure attachments Predominance of overly-nurturing personality style Conscientiousness Positive social evaluation preoccupation – ‘people pleasing’ style
Avoiding Problems Although acting directly on painful things in the outside world can work well (it helps us feel effective), focussing on negative thoughts and feelings doesn’t help in the same way Avoiding things which make us afraid means we continue to fear fear itself Our ‘willingness to experience’ reduces the likelihood of panic
An example... A person with a fear of heights wants to take her family up the Eiffel tower, and she’s not willing to experience anxiety She thinks: “I hope I don’t have a panic attack” “I’m not even going to think about having a panic attack”
The anxiety spiral The very phrase “I’m not even going to think about having a panic attack”, whether spoken aloud or thought, can be a noxious stimulus for feelings of anxiety The thoughts “I must not feel X” contain the very words likely to evoke feelings associated with “X” Try this - shut all thoughts of Uri Geller out of your mind...
‘Getting Rid’ of Feelings Doesn’t Work When we struggle to ‘get rid of’ a thought, emotion or feeling, we end up with the original pain, plus more caused by our failing attempts to ‘get rid of’ the experience (more suffering) We sometimes call this the anxiety spiral – fear and anxiety breed even more fear, which can, in turn, lead to panic In a sense, we get (intensify) what we notice So – we need to notice what we want to get!
Thinking positively, negatively When we think a negative thought and try to get rid of it, we are thinking positively, negatively Thinking is like breathing: It goes on night and day and you can’t stop it. But you can change it. You can breathe slowly and deeply or shallowly and quickly. You can breathe any way you want. But you can’t stop. ‘Getting rid of’ fails because we are intensifying the experience by attending to it
Emotions Come in Waves Recognise that an emotion begins, peaks, then ebbs Think about how long horrible feelings and emotions usually last Don’t become preoccupied by the time though... Think about how confident swimmers deal with waves Don’t ‘splash about’!
Intrusive Thoughts Intrusive thoughts - thoughts which just seems to ‘pop’ into our mind without warning and which are upsetting or which stop us from getting on with things. Thought suppression studies, (Wegner, Schneider, Carter & White, 1987) show that the very act of trying to suppress a thought only results in more unwanted thoughts. This has been termed the ‘rebound effect’. The more you try to suppress a thought, the more the thought keeps popping up (‘rebounding’)
Dealing with Intrusive Thoughts If you are troubled by thoughts which intrude, try the following techniques: Thought stopping Creative fantasies – ‘boxing’ your worries Making worry time Surreal Visualisation Distraction Guilt and regret – a special case?
Thought Stopping Thought Replacement Yelling ‘Stop’ Thought disputation
Paradox - ‘Worry Time’ Put aside time each day to worry incessantly Paradoxically, it can be very difficult to consciously ‘hold’ a worry
Surreal Visualisation Re-voicing our worries to disempower them... Give your worries a different voice Click the speaker icon above
Distraction Thoughts have ‘charm’ – that which draws our attention to them The challenge is to find something more ‘charming’ than our worries What can you think of that is more attractive or interesting than worry?
Guilt and Regret – a Special Case? Consider your values and personal philosophy, would most people with your philosophical outlook feel guilt or regret in your circumstances? Is it possible for you to forgive yourself, even if others won’t? ‘When the whole picture is taken into account, people always do the best they can’ – do you believe this? To what extent is personal pride or anger preventing you from moving on? (guilt is sometimes based on anger) What reparations or amends might you be prepared to make? These may be to heal the past, or to improve the future
Summary Understand why attempts to control our emotions fail Learn about ‘willingness to experience’ Learn about ‘thinking about thinking’ Understand the link between thoughts and symptoms Identify ways we can deal with ‘troubling thoughts’
References Borkovec, T.D. (1994). The nature, functions, and origins of worry. In G.C.L. Davey & F. Tallis (Eds), Worrying: Perspectives on theory, assessment, and treatment (pp. 5-34). New York: Wiley. Borkovec, T.D., Alcaine, O.M., & Behar, E. (2004). Avoidance theory of worry and generalized anxiety disorder. In R.G. Heimberg, C.L. Turk, & D.S. Mennin (Eds). Generalized anxiety disorders: Advances in research and practice (pp. 77 – 108). New York: Guilford. Davey, G. C. L., Tallis, F., & Capuzzo, N. (1996). Beliefs about the consequences of worrying. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 20, 499-520. Borkovec, T. D., & Roemer, L. (1995). Perceived functions of worry among generalized anxiety disorder subjects: Distraction from more emotionally distressing topics? Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 26, 25-30. Borkovec, T. D. & Inz, J. (1990). The nature of worry in generalized anxiety disorder: A predominance of thought activity. Behaviour Research & Therapy, 28, 153 - 158. Wegner, Schneider, Carter & White, 1987