Tuesday, April 19, 2011

It's All in Your Head

Have you ever misread a situation and created a whole big drama in your head that later turned out to be false? Our human minds are constantly at work, trying to explain the world around us. Thoughts come at us from all directions, defining situations or people as good or bad, judging everything so we can form a conclusion that makes sense of it all. We use our knowledge, however it was obtained, to help us decide how to feel about things. So we feel good or bad about any given situation based on our thoughts.

That makes great sense in theory, but it's not so simple when we're busy living our lives. For example, I just picked up the dry cleaning, and there was an envelope attached to it. My thoughts immediately went like this: envelope=bad news, they're closing, I will have to call the neighbor and see who their dry cleaner is, I don't have time for this, . All this before even opening it. So, of course it was no big deal, the dry cleaner was just giving information about their services, but my thoughts had already created a catastrophe that sapped my energy and good mood. An envelope is not inherently bad, but my thoughts judged it to be so, and my emotional state dove right in, despite multiple other logical scenarios.

Other times our thoughts create a long-standing judgement that affects us on a regular basis. I saw a patient yesterday who is often on call for work. When he is on call, he works 24 hours a day responding to technical emergencies. He regards his pager as a curse. I can't say I blame him, because I have my own emotional reaction to a pager beeping. We explored his thoughts and feelings about his job to see if we could change his emotional state. He likes his job, which provides the livelihood for his family. His pager could be a reminder that he is employed by a company he likes, doing work he enjoys, or it could be a reason to become anxious and upset because it might go off at any time. The pager hasn't changed, but the thoughts and emotional reactions to it have.

So how can we patrol our thoughts to keep them from ruling our mood?

1. Remain mindful.

Like a lot of people, I live on autopilot. I am multi-tasking and unaware of things going on around me. In this state, my thoughts are as automatic as my fingers on the iPhone. I don't notice the scenery, and I don't notice thoughts until an emotion takes over. Why am I suddenly so irritable? If I'm unconsciously going through my day, I will have no idea. On the flip side, if I take time to check in with each moment, noticing the input from my senses, observing my thoughts and reactions, I can see the conclusion waiting to be jumped before I do it. This makes #2 much easier.

2. Recognize your triggers.
I have unresolved insecurities, and worry whether I'm liked by others. I know this is true, and by remaining conscious of this trigger, I can avoid an emotional pity-party when someone doesn't return my phone call right away. This leads directly to step #3.

3. Evaluate each situation logically.
Remember that every situation, person or thing is not either all good or all bad. Just like my patient's dreaded pager, the emotional label comes from our thoughts. Cognitive therapy advocates an almost "scientific" analysis of our thinking with every emotional state. When a friend doesn't return my call, I start to evaluate possible scenarios. I stay mindful, recall my triggers, and suddenly I can think of other reasons for the delay. I understand that my assumption, that my friend doesn't like me anymore, isn't the only explanation (or even the most logical one!).

Thoughts are powerful, but we can remain in control of our own emotions by staying mindful. Over time, we can be more conscious of the emotional baggage that distracts us from the moment, and we are more steady. Then we get to choose how to react instead of bouncing from crisis to crisis all day long. I am striving for equanimity and balance. I think these steps can lead the way.

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