By Debbie Mitchell
PCC Board Member
Did you know that the average person has 50,000 -70,000 thoughts a day? According to Dr. Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, 80 percent of everyone’s thoughts contain some sort of negative content. The difficulty isn’t that we have negative thoughts but rather we often believe that our thoughts are true. The good news is that you do not have to believe everything you think and that you can retrain your brain to think differently. Researchers have also found that people who are happy actually question their thinking. They are more aware of their negative thought patterns and have learned effective ways to change how they think. Lisa Esile states happiness doesn’t depend on how few negative thoughts you have, but on what you do with the ones you have.
I recently retired from a profession that I loved for over 35 years, providing counseling and psychotherapy services to individuals, couples and families. I consider it an honor to have known and worked with each person who entrusted me with their personal story and struggle. Perhaps the most important thing I learned in my career was that our thoughts have a powerful effect on how we feel and if you want to feel better, the key is often changing the way you think. People often seek counseling because they are unhappy, depressed, anxious, stressed, lonely and they believe that their primary problem is their feelings, other people or the stress in their lives. What they may not know is that the way they feel about a situation comes from how they think about whatever is going on, how they interpret it and what they tell themselves. Often we will believe our thoughts and do not even think of questioning them. If you struggle with depression and anxiety your thoughts will seem even more believable and convincing. Most of the time we are not even aware of the thoughts that play over and over in the back of our mind. These thoughts, beliefs, assumptions and judgments were often formed early in life from our relationships and experiences we had growing up and some are faulty or inaccurate.
So how do you know if what we are thinking is true or not? The first step is to become more aware of your thoughts. As a therapist, I encouraged people to become more aware of their negative thought patterns using, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I ask them to: write down negative thoughts, learn about the 15 styles of distorted thinking, identify which styles they tend to use most then restructure the negative thoughts.
For example, two types of distorted thinking are Mind Reading (assuming you know what someone else is thinking) and Personalization ( seeing yourself as the cause and making it about you when it is not). An example would be when Kim believes Lisa is angry at her because she walked past her without saying anything and had a irritated look on her face . Kim remembers that she’d forgot to return Lisa’s call last week and starts to feel guilty, sad, hurt, rejected.
The Antidote for Kim would be to question her thinking, identify exactly what she assumes her friend is thinking, identify any clear evidence for or against these thoughts, consider other possible reasons for why Lisa didn’t talk to her and looked irritated and to ask herself what are the costs and benefits of believing this thought (does this thought help me or make me feel worse?).
For example a benefit might be that she pulls back to protect herself to avoid further rejection The cost is that she feels sad, hurt, rejected, is critical of herself or her friend, less trusting and loses a sense of closeness with someone she really cares about. Other tools include checking out her assumptions directly with her friend, to find out if she had seen her and what was going on for her. Or next time she saw her Lisa to act counter to the thought by approaching and greeting her friend rather than withdrawing, avoiding eye contact and looking busy. As you can see, these tools involve questioning your thoughts rather than simply believing them and then to restructure/change the thought. Kim can now recognize when she is mind reading and can interrupt these thoughts much quicker. Just because she thinks it doesn’t mean it is true. What was going on for Lisa in that situation might not have anything to do with her.
Dr. John Grohol writes that cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that really isn’t true. The result is we feel bad about ourselves selves. Dr Jeff Riggenbach states that we all have distorted thinking and the way we think even if it is unhealthy now, may have served a purpose at some earlier time in our life and even helped us in some way. The problem is that these thoughts no longer help but rather rob us of joy, happiness. The good news is that overtime, anything learned can be unlearned. He reminds us “ It took your whole life thus far to come to think the way you do, so retraining takes time. It is not a “don’t worry be happy” therapy.”
Researchers now believe that much of our stress comes from our thought process.
Many people worry about things outside their control. While we can not control things that happen or what others say or do, we can change how we choose to think about it and how we will use it. Clinical Psychologists Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky use this helpful metaphor “An oyster creates a pearl out of a grain of sand. The grain of sand is an irritant to the oyster. In response to the discomfort, the oyster creates a smooth, protective coating that encases the sand and provides relief. The result is a beautiful pearl. For an oyster, the irritant becomes the seed for something new”. Like the oyster, each of us have the capacity to grow and learn something valuable from our own discomfort, emotional pain and the negative experiences in our life. Have you ever noticed how two different people can go through the same life event and come out with a different experience or feeling. Again the key is not what happens, but how you think about it.
One of the greatest personal struggles I faced in my early marriage was infertility and after several years of infertility treatment I was unable to get pregnant. Looking back I am aware now of how my thinking about myself, husband, friends and even God became more negative over time. I became discouraged, lost faith, withdrew from God, felt alone and questioned whether my infertility was some kind of punishment. I even stopped praying. And yet through this very painful experience I grew immensely. I learned that I do not have control and that God has his own plan and his own time frame. The plan God had for me turned out to be a greater blessing than any plan I had for myself. My husband and I received the miracle and blessing of adoption even though we never initiated any steps to seek adoption. I now think about my struggles differently and search for ways to learn and grow. As a Christian, I also believe that through faith and the guidance God provides through his word, we can reexamine our patterns of thinking and responding so that we may heal and think in new ways that are affirming of our faith and relationship with God.
(Debbie Mitchell is a retired LCPC, NCC, and CCMHC (Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor.) Debbie specialized in mood disorders (Depression), anxiety disorders, grief/loss, couples therapy, trauma/ PTSD, and held an EMDR Level II certification for trauma treatment.)