Pesky Thoughts? Zap Them with CBT

Last night I didn’t sleep.

I sent my daddy a message to tell him I was sad with him (before you say just call the poor bloke, this is the way my generation does things now, deal with it!)

After a while of no reply a niggling worry arrived. He has been doing ridiculously long and dirty days with FIFO work, long weeks and months away from his family. I know he is unhappy.

So my brain devised a neat little equation.

Dad unhappy + daughter tells him off = Dad kills himself.

The equation is based on the unsteady premise that if Dad hasn’t responded to my message something is wrong.

Logical? Not really. But my brain was struggling to come up with explanations (the brain is a problem solving machine – if it cannot solve a problem it will ruminate in frustration at not being able to do it’s job. If you haven’t solved a problem in 48 hours after a couple of consolidating sleeps, you can safely let it go and wait until life presents a resolution).

When we are stressed, our brain will find the solution that confirms our state of mind. If you were travelling down the road towards the beach, you expect to come across the beach not the desert. Same with the brain, our thoughts arrive in our mind after the trigger starts an electrical impulse along a certain road towards our stored memories and concepts of the world. If we are stressed, we head down a road that supports this stressed state and usually arrive in a whacked out reality of the situation.

Past memories (my father-in-law dying) and my concept of the world (depressed people die) were activated by stress-related thoughts (is Dad depressed?) to arrive at a scary conclusion: my dad is dead. My favourite person in the world, the bigger uglier version of me is dead.

In this case the trigger was my dad not writing back to my message. This triggered a memory of my sister telling me last week that he looked run down when he visited her in Perth on a job. This triggered the explanation – Dad is depressed. My mind then arrived at a conclusion depressed people kill themselves.

Then I heard my Mum crying. Well, I thought I heard Mumma crying. It was just the TV. But I was in a state of hyper-vigilance because I was so anxious. During anxiety-provoked hyper-vigilance we are alert for anything that confirms our thoughts. If Dad killed himself, Mum would be crying.

If your stress levels are high, chances are you having some of these same unhelpful thoughts.

Common Unhelpful Thinking Styles.
Mental Filter
Jumping to Conclusions
Personalisation
Catastrophising
Black and White Thinking
Shoulding and Musting
Overgeneralisation
Labelling
Magnification and Minimising
Emotional Reasoning

Check them out here.

So what do you do about them?

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy! All this term means is manipulating your cognitions (thoughts) and changing behaviour patterns to improve your wellbeing. I will introduce the C part of the therapy now. If you like the sound of improving your life in this way, find a great therapist and they can guide you through the rest of the model.

Today we will learn a quick thought restructuring technique.

Firstly, you have to ask yourself a couple of questions.

Is this thought realistic?
Is this thought helpful?

Usually if negative thinking does meet the first criteria because it could be true, it won’t meet the second criteria (unless it is about survival in that moment).

If you are unsure if the thought is realistic or not, you can ask a further question, what evidence do I have that this is true?

Then you can work on restructuring the thought to be more realistic. This IS NOT POSITIVE THINKING. Positive thinking is often disregarded by your brain. No matter how many times you say “I am perfect”, your brain won’t believe you.

First, we think up all of the alternatives to our thought. Even the wild ones. For my example this could be:

Dad is mad at me and doesn’t want to respond.
Dad is disappointed in himself.
Dad is out fishing with no service (he is a fisherman).
Dad is at the pub having a Sunday Session, he didn’t hear his phone.
Dad doesn’t have his phone with him.
Dad’s phone went flat.
Dad is bad at text messages.
Dad got abducted by extra-terrestrials.
Dad was busy doing an interview for Australia’s Next Top Model.

Then we pick the most likely. Sometimes the wild suggestions remind us that the brain can conjure anything it wants. It doesn’t just do truth. In my case the most likely would be: Dad doesn’t use his phone on Sundays. I don’t think he has ever written back to me or answered my calls on a Sunday. He is also bad at texting. Some recent examples include:
“Hi Lloyd (my name is Laura). Give me a call x Dad”.
“o k”
“breckie at 1030” (great Dad, where?)
“love u little one” (that was a personal fave)
“What type is it” (in response to me letting him know his brother just had a baby. Well not his brother literally but you know what I mean. It was a boy child Dad)
“Rringme” (lost all ability to press the space button)
“Hi Lyle. Love u my princess”

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Then we restructure the unhelpful thought to be more realistic. Take this random example (a common teenage response to feeling sad): I have no friends, everyone hates me. We would restructure that to “I had a fight with a work colleague. Some people don’t like me, that’s how the world works. My best friend just called me an hour ago.”

That all takes a bit of time, either in your head or writing all the alternatives down (putting it on paper makes you more likely to pick a realistic alternative). If that gets too cumbersome Acceptance and Commitment Therapy might be more your style. It is a form of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy aimed at accepting thoughts and letting them go rather than changing them. Leaves on a Stream could’ve helped me with this distressing thought about Dad. As I was laying in bed panicking I could’ve breathed deeply and conjured up a peaceful stream in my mind. As thoughts popped into my mind I could’ve placed them gently onto a leaf and let them float by.

I could also put myself into an “observer” mindset. This would distance me from the distress of the thought and allow me to just notice and observe my experience with curiosity. To get into this space I could’ve simply added this statement in front of my thought:
I notice I’m having the thought that…

Check out this great resource
Panic Stations by the Centre for Clinical Interventions.

I spoke to Dad. He was happy and alive. He is really resilient. He is always happy. When I restructure my thoughts I can activate memories of a smiling man, a happy voice, a cheekiness that surpasses any difficult situation.

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