The first step is to recognize the emotion and name it. Just being aware of which emotion is disrupting us is a valuable skill and researchers have found that people who are able to identify and name their disruptive emotions are able to recover from them more quickly.
Think about how your body is reacting. Is it flushed with anger, or heavy like a weight in the stomach? Think about what may have led to your disruptive mood and your usual way of reacting. Is this reaction similar? Many therapists encourage their clients to keep a diary to monitor their disruptive emotions and record the events that lead to them.
Sometimes the symptoms are mixed, but the therapists tell us that it’s important to recognise the symptoms and name the emotions as best we can. The help your children do it early. My grandson was playing with his train set and I heard him call out, ‘Frustrated! Help please!’ He had recognized the emotion, named it and come up with a solution at the age of two-and-a-half.
You must recognize what you are telling yourself about the upsetting event. Think of it in two stages: ‘Is this event really a threat?’ and if it is, ‘What can I do about it?’ Slowing the process down and thinking deliberately and sceptically helps to break unhealthy thinking habits.
Cognitive therapists have a list of thinking errors that you may have noticed in yourself or people you know. Let’s look at some examples.
Recognise any of these thinking errors?
Description Situation Possible thinking error
Catastrophising Expecting the worst without reason.
Business owner gets large bill from Inland Revenue.
Student is prepared but anxious before an exam.
Owner thinks: ‘They’ll bankrupt us once the penalty payments get added’.
Student thinks: ‘I’m going to fail and be thrown out of university.’
Predisposed to seeing situations or people in negative ways.
Employee gets bonus.
Husband brings roses home.
Employee thinks: ‘It must have been my turn’.
Wife thinks: ‘What’s he been up to?’
Picking out and dwelling on the negative while ignoring the positive.
Team leader praises worker’s performance and motivation, but wants him to be more diplomatic.
Student gets four As in a row, then a C.
Worker is preoccupied with belief that colleagues consider him rude or arrogant.
Student thinks: ‘I’m only a C grade student’.
You can hear thinking errors every day, even from people who cope well with disruptive emotions, but don’t give much thought to what they are saying. ‘Wet days really depress me’ or ‘My cousin makes me so uptight,’ suggests that our mood is controlled by the weather or another person. What about, ‘Exams make me really nervous’ or ‘Mondays make me gloomy’ or ‘Parties always make me feel anxious’?
Those statements cannot be true. They refer to neutral events. Our reactions to them may have been influenced by our experiences throughout life, but today those reactions are a choice. Believing that events, or people or days of the week, or the stars, control our emotions suggests that we are not the captain of our own ship.
Apply some healthy scepticism. Give yourself time to look at the situation and be sceptical about the beliefs that have led you to your initial reaction. hinking that the drunk with the wine glass is the one who is behaving badly and that everyone knows it stops you thinking that the situation is insulting, threatening or humiliating. You may still be annoyed, but it’s healthier than responding with rage, panic or depression.
Scepticism helps us to be more objective and that’s not easy when we are caught up in a depressive fog, or feeling anxious or angry. The emotional state distorts our perception of reality.
Depressed people are especially quick to spot any signs of strained friendship. They exaggerate the slightest criticism and are much more likely to interpret remarks as critical.
Healthy scepticism can be a challenging discipline, but ask the direct questions, ‘Did she really mean to criticise? Isn’t he just a bit tired and grumpy this morning? We have a strong relationship don’t we? Is there any evidence that she really thought that? Would it matter? Wasn’t it just a passing comment?’
The pioneers of cognitive therapy assumed that their clients were distressed because they had irrational beliefs or were systematically misinterpreting information from the outside world. Since then Australian researchers have used it successfully with people whose distress seems perfectly rational and based on accurate information – patients with advanced cancer. Sarah Adelman and Anthony Kidman from the University of Technology in Sydney report that while the cause of the patients’ stress may have been real, they were still making the classic thinking errors. Those patients learned to reframe their thinking. ‘If I can’t do the things I used to life is not worth living’, became ‘I can’t do some of the things, but there are many things I can do to make my life worthwhile’. ‘If there’s a chance that something bad might happen, I should focus on it now’, became ‘I will deal with it when the time comes’. They also encouraged the patients to work on problems they could solve, such as better medication for pain and resolving conflicts with other people.
I was once late to catch a plane to London. The light had already closed, but there was a delay, so the counter staf relented. I dashed through the various checks, along the travellator, panting, and came to a halt at the end of a long queue of passengers. After a few minutes I heard an American businessman complain about having to wait. ‘Ah well,’ grinned his companion, ‘It sure beats being an ant in a sand hill.’ It sure beats missing your light too. It’s all a matter of perspective.
If you are distressed because your team lost an important game, try comparing your success with those teams that didn’t even make the quarter-finals. If your business is worrying you, try comparing yourself with someone who is bankrupt.
Even when the situation seems desperate, some people manage to ind a useful comparison that makes them feel better. Researchers recall an AIDS patient who made a list of diseases he considered worse than AIDS and said, ‘You’ve got to get some perspective on this, and where you are in the Great Nasty Diseases List’.
There’s strong evidence in the research that expressing emotions does help us to recover more quickly, but as you’ll see, expressing them is not the same as acting them out or being pre-occupied with them.
If processing and expressing emotions helps us to understand more about an upsetting event and leads us to develop plans to move on or feel more positive, we benefit both mentally and physically. Numerous studies have shown that writing about traumatic events, especially a current trauma, can be a very efective healing process because it helps us assimilate and understand the event better. Putting the event into words seems to prevent intrusive, distressing memories.54 It has worked for people in a variety of distressing situations, including post-traumatic stress disorder and breast cancer.