Cognitive Behavioral Strategies

Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

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Let’s Get Some Perspective

By Lynne Gots, posted on December 13th, 2023.

I have been a professional observer of human behavior for more years than I care to admit. In my experience, and I am by no means the first to say this, people are much touchier these days—quicker to take offense, react angrily to seemingly minor provocations, and denigrate others for expressing different opinions.

Leaving the obvious arenas of politics and world affairs aside, I see frequent evidence of these hair-trigger responses when I read social media posts in the groups I follow. Just recently, for instance, there was a heated discussion about an answer in the New York Times Connections game, which I have been playing daily. My approach is pretty laissez-faire: I try to do the best I can, competing with myself to beat previous scores, but I will use Google when necessary and concede defeat if I bomb out. I find it relaxing and fun and don’t care much about my performance.

But others, apparently, take it much more seriously. The Connections game has sixteen words that fit into four categories of four words each. It can be tricky because some of the words can work in more than one category. In a recent game that caused a furor among players, one category contained words that are countries when “land” is added to them: Fin, Ice, Ire, Nether. But as many incensed gamers noted, Netherland is not a country. They complained, they worked themselves up into a frenzy over the editing error, and they even attacked each other over either being too pedantic or not caring enough about grammatical correctness.

The Times apparently took the criticism to heart because when I looked at the game later that day to refresh my memory for this post, the word Nether was gone and was replaced by Green. Which should have made some of the haters happy but, predictably, only led to more dissent in the group.

All very trivial, to be sure. But it reflects a broader concern: the fear of doing or saying something wrong and being publicly skewered for it. I see this worry coming up much more frequently these days in the people seeking treatment with me for OCD. Most of the calls I get lately are not from compulsive hand-washers or stove-checkers but from individuals with obsessional worries about having committed an offensive or immoral act.  And because OCD thrives on ambiguity, these imagined transgressions are not obvious or clear-cut, such as inappropriately touching someone or cheating on your income taxes, but fall into the realm of “what if I accidentally did this terrible thing I may not even know I did?”

As with any OCD worry, the solution is not to review the past to determine what really happened (because memory is unreliable and will never yield the desired certainty) or to seek reassurance from others. It is to give yourself grace. Acknowledge your mistake, if you actually made one, accept your imperfections, learn from the experience, and move on.

Self-compassion and kindness towards others are two qualities in short supply these days. Let’s work on cultivating them.

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Posted in General, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Perfectionism, self-compassion |

How to Ride Out Difficult Emotions

By Lynne Gots, posted on September 21st, 2023.

As I’ve said before, avoidance may provide temporary relief from anxiety, but it makes it worse in the long run.  Like all emotions, anxiety is a transitory state—a weather pattern of the mind—and, sooner or later, it will blow over if you don’t respond to it. But most people can’t tolerate distress without trying to relieve it, so they unwittingly resort to strategies, such as analyzing and reviewing or relying on distraction, that ultimately prolong the discomfort.

One component of emotional resilience is “distress tolerance.” Some people are naturally better at it than others, and they tend to weather stormy moods more easily. But even if your emotional storms buffet you about, you can learn to ride them out more effectively without getting blown off course.

Emotion Efficacy Therapy is a mindfulness-based program for managing strong emotions. You can apply the techniques in any situation that stirs up an intense emotional reaction even without having gone through the full, eight-week protocol.  There are four basic steps to practice, first by visualizing a recent situation that evoked discomfort and later, after mastering the skills, in real time when you feel upset.

  1. Observe your physical reactions. Where do you feel the strongest sensations in your body? Are they spread out or concentrated in one area? Is there a temperature associated with them or a color? Try to be a scientist and objectively describe what you are noticing.
  2. Label the emotion. Is it anxiety or fear or dread?
  3. Note your thoughts.  Watch them as them come and go, prefacing each thought by silently saying to yourself, “I’m having the thought that…” You will be surprised at how effective this technique can be for diluting the intensity of an emotion.
  4. Identify the Urge. Typical responses to distressing feelings are to avoid them or engage with them in ways that actually intensify their impact. The challenge here is to sit with the urge and watch it rise, peak, and ebb like a wave.

You may need to repeat this process several times until you notice the physical sensations softening and the urge subsiding.

Emotions, like the weather, change. We have little control over the reactions in our mind and body, but we can know that even the most painful sensations will not last forever. That knowledge can help us navigate even the most tempestuous emotional storm.

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Posted in Acceptance and Mindfulness |

How to Stick with Meditation and Cultivate Mindfulness

By Lynne Gots, posted on July 10th, 2023.

When I finished meditating today, the 10% Happier app I use for my practice rewarded me with a burst of confetti signaling the completion of 365 straight days of meditation. One year without missing a day! (To be clear, I have many more years than one of meditation under my belt but there have been occasional missed days to break the streak.) I am proud of the accomplishment and think it has earned me the right to share some tips for how to stick with a formal meditation practice.

The terms meditation and mindfulness are often used interchangeably but they are not the same. Mindfulness, to use the definition popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is being present, without judgment. Meditation is a way to cultivate the state of mindfulness. You can practice mindfulness without meditating but you cannot meditate without being mindful.

1.Aim for consistency rather than duration.

Beginning meditators often feel it “doesn’t count” if they sit for less than 10 or 15 minutes. Some protocols, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, call for 45 minutes of daily practice, an unrealistic and discouraging time commitment for most. However, data from a 2019 research study suggest that emotional regulation improved in new meditators when compared with a control group of podcast-listeners after only 8 weeks of brief (13 minutes), daily guided meditation.

As with any new behavior, cultivating the habit is the hardest part. Once you have established a routine by practicing daily, even if only for a minute or two, you can work on increasing the time.

2. Make it a habit.

You don’t have to meditate at the same time every day, and it may not always be practical to maintain a rigid schedule. But as with exercise, having a routine can be a helpful way to remember to practice. Set an alarm, or link the activity with a daily occurrence, such as waking up in the morning, beginning or ending the workday, or getting ready for bed.

3. Let go of expectations.

The point of mindfulness meditation is to work on being present, not trying to achieve a goal. There is no such thing as a “good” meditation session. If your mind is wandering constantly, you have more opportunities to practice bringing it back. If you feel restless or bored, you can observe the sensations of restlessness or boredom in your body. Relaxation and calm can be the by-products of meditation but they are not the main purpose.

The benefits of mindfulness practices are subtle but empirically well established.  They can help develop psychological flexibility, relieve depression and anxiety, allow you to recognize negative thoughts as transitory mental events, improve focus, and cultivate compassion.

If you approach it with curiosity and let go of preconceived notions, meditation just might become an interesting and rewarding part of your daily routine.

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Posted in Acceptance and Mindfulness, mindfulness |

This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.

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© 2008-2024 Lynne S. Gots, PhD. Photographs by Steven Marks Photography.