Week 4: Write a history of your emotion, part 2
Welcome to the Week 4 of your journey to gaining control over negative emotions!
If you are following this blog according to plan, you have been actively getting to know your negative feelings, and started writing a story on how they developed.
Not an easy thing to do, but it's quite an achievement, way to go!
If you need some help, do not forget to apply for some useful homework guidance.
Last week, you saw that our brains can actually learn and unlearn emotions. You got to know how pairing a naturally scary stimulus with a neutral one can make the latter scary too (classical conditioning). You also got to know how certain behaviors may maintain negative emotions (instrumental conditioning). Hopefully, you've traveled back in time and done some brainstorming on how these mechanisms helped your own negative emotions develop. It's now time to complete your emotion history puzzle with one more piece. A very important piece that makes us humans so special - our thoughts. So, this post is about how we get to think in a way that produces unhealthy negative emotions (that's called cognitive learning).
Linking thoughts to emotions
Imagine a woman calling her husband on the phone several times but he doesn't respond. Not having any other information on why he might be silent, she's wondering what's happening.
She thinks "he doesn't care enough about me".
How does she feel after having that thought?
You guessed right - she feels sad.
What if she thinks "maybe this is a signal that he is planning to leave me"?
You are right again - she feels anxious.
And what if she thinks "he wants to humiliate me this way"?
She would probably feel angry.
But what if she thinks "he is probably busy at work, he will call me when he is able to".
How would she feel? Would she feel sadness, anxiety, or anger?
You are right again - no, she wouldn't. She would feel calm and continue her day.
Now let's compare the four scenarios.
We have exactly the same situation resulting in four different emotional states.
What makes these scenarios so different is the woman's interpretation of the situation. Interpretation of stimuli or events is manifested as some very quick thoughts that arise automatically in our mind, without us being aware of them.
This is why they are called automatic thoughts.
They occur simultaneously with our conscious stream of thoughts, and we do not notice them. Unless we strongly focus on them and then we can bring them to our awareness. Although it's not an easy thing to do, we can get quite skilled if we practice. But since these thoughts appear very quickly, we need to get used to catching them as soon as our emotion starts. If not, they may easily pass unnoticed.
And this brings us back to the main principle of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) - how we feel depends on how we think about what's happening, and not directly on the actual events that are happening.
Positive automatic thoughts produce positive feelings, and negative automatic thoughts produce negative feelings.
But thoughts are not facts. Apart from being positive or negative, they can also be accurate (correctly reflecting the reality) or not, and useful (pushing us towards functionality), or not.
Negative thoughts that are not accurate and/or not useful are the ones that we call irrational, and these are our target thoughts when trying to deal with unhealthy negative emotions.
Digging beneath the surface of thoughts
So what we feel comes from our thoughts.
But where do our thoughts come from? Why can automatic thoughts be so different, when the situation is the same?
That's a million-dollar question that many scientists and authors have tried to answer.
CBT scientists see automatic thoughts as "superficial" products of deeper, more general beliefs (called the core beliefs) about ourselves, other people, the world, and the future when they get activated by specific events.
Watch the video below to see how core beliefs are created, and how they produce automatic thoughts.
For more videos, subscribe to our youtube channel.
There are many possible negative core beliefs. The CBT authors (e.g. Aaron and Judith Beck) have noticed that all of them could be divided into three main groups.
Worthless - beliefs about not being good, worthy, or moral (I'm worthless, bad, a waste, toxic, unacceptable, etc.)
Unlovable - beliefs of not being good enough to be accepted and cared for by other people (for e.g. I'm unlovable, unwanted, unattractive, uncared for, bound to be alone, etc.)
Helpless - beliefs about not being able to have control over own life (I'm helpless, out of control, weak, a failure, a loser, a victim).
These beliefs about self are usually followed by equivalent beliefs about other people, the world, and the future.
For example, I'm unlovable - others will always reject me - the world is a dark place - the future is hopeless.
Can you discover your core beliefs?
Try using the guidelines below.
So, emotions come from thoughts, thoughts come from core beliefs.
But where do core beliefs come from?
As you have seen in the video, our core beliefs are shaped:
a) during our experiences
b) by the procedures of distorted thinking.
A great part of core beliefs come from our early experiences with significant figures, but also from some stressful experiences when we are adults. You will learn and explore more about the origin of your core beliefs after you get more accustomed to them.
But let's get you to know more about the tricks of distorted thinking.
The tricks of distorted thinking
“I didn't do well at the exam. I'm a terrible student."
"He is not answering the phone. He's avoiding me on purpose."
"My heart is pounding. I'm having a heart attack."
Notice something wrong with these statements?
Each one of them represents an illogical exaggeration trick of some kind, that makes people have a negative, inaccurate outlook on reality. A CBT pioneer Aaron Beck named these tricks cognitive distortions.
We all have cognitive distortions from time to time, in response to negative events. At first, they help us instantly cope by distorting our perception of events in a way that we can understand. But just a bit later, we discover our thinking does not fit reality and get back to the logical thinking pathway. So these are normal fluctuations in our way of thinking.
However, the longer and stronger negative events get to form stronger cognitive distortions, which then form more rigid negative core beliefs and more frequent irrational automatic thoughts.
In turn, firm negative core beliefs "approve" the job of cognitive distortions and strengthen them even more. So, there's a vicious loop, a cognitive perpetuum mobile.
Learn about the most common types of cognitive distortions in the infographic below.
Does any of them sound familiar?
Now think of the examples of your own cognitive distortions.
Use the worksheet below (check the boxes of the cognitive distortions you have, and write your examples in the appropriate spaces).
Get these and other printable materials here.
After getting introduced to cognitive distortions, it's also important to try cathing them in your everyday life. But wait. How can you be sure if your thinking is distorted?
Here's a brief trick to get you warmed up for our work in the incoming weeks.
When you feel negative emotion, catch your automatic thought about a triggering situation. Then ask yourself the following four questions:
What's the evidence that this thought is TRUE? (from your experience, or information you know)
What's the evidence that this thought is NOT TRUE? (try to find alternative explanations)
How HELPFUL is this thought? (think of the consequences of having this automatic thought)
What would you say to your FRIEND if he or she was in the exactly same situation as you? (Would you say the same that your automatic thoughts told you, or not?)
Answering these questions for each thought that triggers negative emotion, and then browsing through the list of cognitive distortions, may help you with this task.
You have now learned how to gather a number of important elements to write the history of your emotion. Take a week to practice what you have learned, and we will be exploring how to put these pieces together and draw a history map of your emotion next week. After "locating" all of these elements in your map, we will show you how to target each one of them by specific techniques of CHANGE.
To get you warmed up for that, let's introduce you to some preparatory activities, such as learning how to relax quickly.
Click here to learn a calming breathing exercise.
This is also important because confronting your deeper beliefs can be overwhelming. If you feel distressed during this task, please take a step back.
Remember that these negative beliefs relate to your past and that you are now on your way to a positive future. It just takes some time, and being at this point already is a great achievement on your way to gaining control over negative emotions, congratulate yourself on being there!
Find relief in positive distraction (do some calming, constructive activity, not related to this task) and relax by doing breathing exercises.
After calming down, you can return to your homework tasks, but only to those parts that do not disturb you. Give yourself more time to get ready for the ones that are now overwhelming, approach them gradually (step-by-step) and follow your own pace.
If you have trouble calming down or experience severe distress, do not hesitate to contact your mental health provider to get immediate help.
Feelings are not about what you see, feelings are about what you think you see. When you feel something, automatic thoughts occur in your mind (verbal or images). These thoughts result from deeper, more general beliefs (core beliefs) about yourself, others, the world, and the future.
The core beliefs are learned from experience (interpreting or imitating what people important to us are saying or doing). Negative core beliefs get activated by specific situations that "fit" them and are responsible for unhealthy negative emotions.
Adverse experiences provoke distorted thinking patterns (cognitive distortions) that tend to get stronger with more adverse experiences, "feeding" the negative core beliefs and automatic thoughts. Core beliefs and automatic thoughts also feed the cognitive distortions, creating a perpetuum mobile.
For your homework …
In the following week:
discover your core beliefs, use the Discover Your Core Beliefs guidelines.
discover your cognitive distortions, use the Cognitive Distortions infographic, and the My Cognitive Distortions worksheet.
continue catching your negative emotion episodes in the Emotion Monitor, including an additional column containing the cognitive distortion and the core belief. Remember the trick of four questions to check if your automatic thought is distorted.
practice breathing exercises for 5 minutes, 3 times per day, plus when the disturbing emotion occurs.
do not forget the 9 rules to follow this blog in the most useful way.
Get more detailed tips, printable worksheets, and additional materials, to help you with your homework tasks.
Have a nice week and good luck with reading your mind!
NOTICE: Please note that this self-help blog program is for informational purposes, and cannot replace mental health treatment. Research has shown more potential in CBT self-help if using such a program is guided by a mental health professional throughout the process.
If you have been experiencing significant distress, mood challenges, behavioral dyscontrol, or similar mental health dysfunction, please contact your mental health service provider without delay. Mental health diagnosis and treatment can only be done after conducting a one-on-one clinical examination of the client by a mental health professional. The owners of this website and the writers of the content provided do not take any responsibility for the mental health outcomes of readers.