I had a patient a few years ago, whom I’ll refer to as Andrea. Andrea was a smart woman in her mid-30’s. She had worked in the past, though she wasn’t currently due to her struggle with depression. When we began treatment, I noticed she had a difficult time identifying her emotional state. When I asked her how she was feeling, she might say, “I feel like I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning,” or “I feel like I don’t like myself right now.” She was naming thoughts, not emotions. When I pointed this out to her, she was surprised and confused. With some help, she was able to identify feeling depressed and ashamed, and she was able to relate them to her latter thought processes. During this conversation, she had a “Eureka moment.” She realized that her thought processes were directly related to how she was feeling. In that moment, she felt empowered. Now that she was aware of how her thoughts and feelings interacted, she could take control of them and start to feel better.
Connection Between Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors
While not everyone suffers from depression like Andrea, the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is powerful. Once you are able to notice this connection, you become empowered to manage yourself more effectively. Feeling anxious about that upcoming presentation? Thinking things like, “There’s no way I will be able to get through the meeting without sweating through my shirt,” or “Everyone is going to laugh at me.” Ever notice how the more you think about that presentation, the more anxious you get and the more your hands shake or the faster you breathe? That’s because your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are connected. We don’t necessarily agree in the field about which one comes first. It’s sort of chicken before the egg syndrome. However, what we do know is that if you can change one area (thoughts, behaviors, or the emotions), it will have a cyclical effect and the other two will start to improve as well. As a therapist, I tend to start by helping people look at their thoughts.
What Types Of Thoughts Get In Your Way?
One of the first places I tend to start with people in therapy is examining what are the thoughts that may be getting in the way of the person accomplishing their goals. For example, maybe you are someone who constantly talks down to yourself and has a very negative self-image. Maybe you are someone whose mind is constantly buzzing and you are hyper-aware of threats of danger around you, especially when doing an activity that makes you anxious, like traveling on an airplane. Maybe you are someone who has a complex about never being smart enough. These are not fun thoughts to be having, no matter who you are. It’s natural that if you are plagued by these types of thoughts that you would want to change them. But how?
How To Change Your Thoughts
The first step to changing these thoughts is to learn to be more aware of them. If you are someone struggling with anxiety, depression, relationship stress, family issues, etc., once you begin to pay more attention, you will notice a large amount of negative thought content on a daily basis. Once you start to be more aware of it, you can work with your therapist to help you change it. Changing your thoughts can be a difficult task, but one I have found to be a crowd hit with most of my patients is to have them ask themselves, “Is this thought really helping me? Or is it making me more miserable?” Feel free to try it out for yourself!