You are at a party. You’ve been looking forward to this one. You’ve taken the trouble to dress up and the evening has been all you had hoped.
As you cross the room to thank your hosts, you pass a woman who has been talking loudly for the last hour. Suddenly, she lits a wobbling hand with a full glass of what looks in your peripheral vision alarmingly like red wine. You react too late and the wine spills down the front of your jacket and her dress. She looks menacing and shouts, ‘Why don’t you watch where you’re going? You’re a disgrace. Who invited you? Get out of here!’ Everyone turns to watch.
What’s your reaction?
Just as important, what are you thinking? If it’s, ‘his is humiliating,’ your reaction might be embarrassment, perhaps followed by depression. If it’s, ‘She’s asking for trouble, I have to show her that I’m not the kind of person to be treated like this,’ your reaction may be anger. If you are thinking, ‘She might attack me,’ your reaction would probably be anxiety or even panic.
Those thoughts would reflect your beliefs and something about your personality, but each would probably be inaccurate and the reactions unhealthy.
There’s another way of thinking about the same predicament. ‘She’s drunk. I’m not. I’ll react calmly and everyone will know that she’s the one behaving badly.’T hat kind of thinking reflects the belief, ‘I’m a good and confident person,’ and the action (reacting calmly) helps you to soothe yourself and the situation.
When we are at the centre of a public ‘scene’ or some other highly emotive event, we respond in ways that we’ve learned over the years and they are frequently automatic. But even if our immediate response is unhealthy, we can change it with some simple strategies.
Ideally, we should deal with our problems directly. If we are anxious about a business slump, we can prepare a plan and put it into action. If it’s a family crisis we can sit down together and work our way through it.
Researchers have revealed that people who deal with their problems directly are the most adept at reducing their disruptive emotions and feelings of stress. Problem-focused coping also increased their sense of control in their lives and their self-esteem. It works even when we are already depressed, anxious or angry.
It’s important to define the problem irst. Researchers working with hundreds of couples found that many partners who were unhappy were identifying the wrong cause. A partner who is under pressure at work might decide that his problem was that his wife doesn’t support him in his career, so he would complain and make demands for more support. The real problem was stress at work.
Dealing with the problem might be the best strategy, but clearly, it’s not always possible. So much of life is like the spilled wine: It happens before we know it and there’s nothing practical we can do about it. Instead, we need strategies to manage our emotional reactions so that, although whatever caused them continues, we preserve our own mental health and our valuable relationships.
Resilient people combine reframing with a commitment to inding a solution and they also see stressful events, especially change, as a challenge.44 hey see their successes or setbacks as things they can control, so they will agree with statements in research questionnaires such as, ‘What happens is my own doing,’ and ‘Capable people who fail to achieve have not taken advantage of their own opportunities’.
Researchers find resilient people very effective at gathering information and reviewing a range of possible solutions. They may also ask friends, family or colleagues for practical help.45 Notice how their attitudes reflect an internal locus of control – the belief that they are the captain of their own ship and that they have choices.
People, who handle life’s stresses least well blame themselves, indulge in wishful thinking or try to avoid facing their problems. One study found that men are more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs to avoid problems. Women are more likely to do passive (and less harmful) things such as watch television, drink coffee, eat, rest or go shopping.
There’s one outstanding characteristic of people who do better under stress and it’s optimism. Optimists are not only more motivated, they’re more confident, resilient, resourceful and problem-focused, both in a crisis and with everyday hassles.
Optimists live less troubled and more rewarding lives. But it only works for those who are healthy optimists, who face reality – not those who dream, deny or avoid their way through life. As two Canadian researchers who studied people with HIV put it, ‘Optimists emerge as individuals who follow the idea espoused in the well-known ‘serenity prayer’ – accepting those things that cannot be changed and working to effect change where possible’.48
Try some therapy
There’s a whole branch of therapy specializing in the connection between our thoughts, emotions and behavior. Its cognitive therapy and well-supported by the research. (It’s often referred to as cognitive behavioral therapy, because counselors add techniques to change behaviors stemming from thinking errors – the cognitive bit.)
Aaron T. Beck, an American psychiatrist, developed cognitive therapy in the 1970s and established the Beck Center for Cognitive Therapy in Philadelphia. Beck worked primarily with depression, but the method has since proved effective for anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, stress-related disorders and anger as well.
Cognitive therapy is not about lying on a couch and delving into our past to ind a cause, but inding ways to make our negative emotions less disruptive today and tomorrow. It’s based on the principle that the way we think determines our emotions.
Cognitive therapists are particularly interested in the thinking errors in the automatic thoughts that follow a stressful event, or trap us in continuing depression, anxiety or anger.
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.