Think Happy. Be Happy.
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? “Just think happy thoughts” and everything will be better, right? The essence of Cognitive Therapy is changing your thoughts (cognitions) to help you feel more happy, or at least not as (sad/worried/angry/other difficult emotion). When we become emotional, our thoughts become skewed to emphasize whatever we are focusing on, thus exacerbating the emotions. The process of recognizing these biases and adjusting them for a more balanced perspective is called “Cognitive Restructuring.” By taking a more balanced approach we will respond to situations more effectively and have a greater chance of enjoying whatever comes. So how exactly do we do that?
- Breathe – Okay, so deep breathing is going to sound a little cliche coming from a therapist, but everyone has heard about it because it helps. In “Ready. Set. Breathe.” I outline my favourite version of deep breathing (4-4-8 Breathing) but even just a deep breath in and out can stop us from reacting impulsively and give us a second to reassess what’s going on and what to do.
- Assess the Situation – When we get emotional, we often react to what we are feeling rather than what is actually in front of us – think “making a mountain out of a molehill” kind of idea. The difficulty is that our reaction is often then going to be based on emotions, rather than reality, and so is not always ideal or even helpful. Assess the situation by objectively describing what is going on – just sticking to the facts. eg: “I called my friend. She has not returned my call.” vs. “I called my friend and she hasn’t bothered to call me back.” The second version is biased and pulls for emotion – we don’t know for a fact why she has not called you back yet.
- Consider the Evidence – Now that you know what you are dealing with, reconsider your initial reaction. Identify aspects of the situation that support the negative thoughts (there is often a kernel of truth to our worries/sadness/anger) but then look for additional information that you may have missed in the heat of things or consider altervative explanations for the situation, eg: you forgot that she told you that she had a family lunch today or you know that she takes a few days to return everyone’s calls. Taking a step back from the immediate situation can help us to refocus on the “Bigger Picture,” ie: what is actually going on, what are the options and what is most important right now. Many times, we are better at giving others advice than using it for ourselves, so ask yourself, “What would I tell a friend in this situation?” to get another perspective.
- Now the Happy Part – Going straight from an angry/worrying/sad thought to a happy one can be hard so that is why we take a step-wise approach to “restructure” the thought. So take the initial thought that you had, acknowledge the evidence that supports it but also include the other information that was missing. This gives us a more complete picture allowing us to respond to the situation more effectively without getting as overwhelmed so we can do what we need to do and allow the world to provide us with additional information and experiences. New information can shine a light on things that were hurtful or didn’t make sense before and we can continue to develop our understanding of what happened, if we so choose, to move beyond what happened. I demonstrate the whole process below.
For example: If a friend doesn’t call us back, there are several reactions that we may have. We might be angry that they are rude and didn’t have the decency to return our call. We might feel sad that they do not care about us. We might worry that they are upset at us. Any one of these thoughts is going to bring up some difficult emotions that will likely spill over into our next interactions/activity perpetuating the negativity. So to restructure this thought, we will acknowledge the part that supports it, “It is hurtful/frustrating that my friend did not return my call” but then add to it to provide a more balanced perspective and perhaps add a positive action, “but I know that they had plans with their family today so I will try to reach them later.” Or “but I have made the effort so if they call back then we will catch up then.” Finish the thought with something that acknowledges you have done/are doing what you can do and that you will carry on and be okay.
People often get upset that it seems like we are just making excuses, but if that person is rude/doesn’t care about us/is upset and not telling us then it is also not worth us spending more of our time worrying about it. On the flip side, if they are just busy, then you don’t want to let the emotions get the better of you when they do call back. So in either scenario, changing your thoughts to change your emotional reaction, is a win-win. In this case, you have made the effort to reach out which is all that you can do for the moment so, now, make the most of the rest of your day.
This process takes some work so it has to be a conscious decision to think happy thoughts but with practice it gets easier and soon even begins to happen automatically.
Go forth and Think Happy Thoughts!
Think Happy. Be Happy… Ready. Set. Breathe.