One of the foundations of Cognitive Behavior Therapy is that our thoughts affect our emotions. And much of what we think, even if we strongly believe our assumptions, may not be true.
Anger is one of many emotions fueled by our thoughts about the behavior of others. The stories we create in our minds may be complete fictions, but we rarely stop to consider alternate interpretations.
If someone cuts you off in traffic, say, how do you react? I doubt the first thing that comes to mind would be: “Oh, she must rushing to the ER because the police just called to say her teenager was hit by a car while crossing the street on the way to school.” More likely, you would be thinking, “ What an inconsiderate !!@**” Neither thought is truer than the other, yet your emotional response to each would likely be completely different.
Considering a possible backstory can be a powerful way to defuse a highly charged, negative emotional reaction.
I recently had the opportunity to experience such a change in perspective when I learned some new information about my dog Roland, a three-year-old Labrador Retriever we adopted when he was just one. He had spent the first year of his life as an outside dog in rural Louisiana, so kitchen appliances, stairs, and traffic all provoked frenzied barking and mouthing, drawing blood or ripping clothing if an arm or leg was in close proximity. He also came to us with multiple medical problems and partial blindness, all of which contributed to his arousal.
Fast forward two years later, and Roland is much calmer. A model dog, almost. I no longer have bruises and scabs on my arms and legs, and most of the time, I can cook dinner without having to endure an hour of ear-splitting barking. But one behavior I have not been successful in training out of him is food thievery. Even though we try to be careful not to leave food within reach on the kitchen counter, he has managed to snag a bowlful of rising pizza dough (resulting in an expensive trip to the ER), a piece of raisin (a potential toxin to dogs) bread, and hunks of imported Parmigianino Reggiano from the fridge.
I used to get angry and—I am embarrassed to admit this because I consider myself a “positive trainer” who does not believe punishment changes the behavior of animals or people—shout at Roland. But a few weeks ago I learned something that has made it easier for me to remain calm, or at least calmer, when he misbehaves.
Through some Facebook sleuthing, I tracked down the breeder who owns his parents. She told me he was the runt of the litter. His mother rejected him, and he had to be hand-fed to get enough milk. Poor puppy! Any irritation I had felt towards him melted away, replaced by sadness and compassion.
Everyone has a backstory–maybe not as compelling as Roland’s but still deserving of consideration. So, before jumping to conclusions about a person’s character when an interaction upsets you, try stepping back and observing your reactions without judging. Even if your anger persists, you may avert a response you will later regret.
In the last week, everyone I’ve seen virtually for therapy has voiced increasingly familiar complaints. They are bored; they cannot get motivated to work or study; they have no appetite or have put on pounds from mindless snacking; they cannot practice healthy sleep habits even though they know too much screen time before bed and staying up past midnight will make it harder to function at peak efficiency the next day.
A lack of interest and motivation, along with appetite and sleep changes, can signal depression. And, certainly, we all are experiencing what feels like a collective state of depression after nearly a year of living with the drastic changes raised by a global pandemic, a situation that appears endless to many of us.
So, if your mood is low and you are having trouble concentrating, take heart. You are not alone.
As we know from a large body of research on mindful self-compassion, acknowledging the struggle, rather than beating yourself up for going through a hard time, can help, especially when you can connect with a common humanity (“Life is different for all of us right now.”) Treat yourself with the same kindness you would offer a close friend or family member to ease the unpleasant feelings.
Other coping strategies include seeking out social interactions, even if they might be less satisfying through a virtual platform, and breaking out of the daily routine by creating some novelty. Try learning a language, experimenting with new recipes, or practicing a different exercise routine. If you have trouble pushing yourself to do anything right now, keep in mind a lesson psychologists have learned from behavioral activation for depression: just doing something – anything, in fact –can pull you out of the doldrums, even if nothing sparks your immediate interest.
That said, although your current feelings of ennui may be nearly universal, they still could signal the onset of depression. If you have had a history of depression, you may be more vulnerable than someone with no previous episodes. Be on the alert for warning signs: constant rumination, feelings of hopelessness, extreme changes in sleep and appetite, and persistent thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Please seek help if those symptoms persist or worsen.
If you are just weary from the daily dreariness and not clinically depressed, you might try observing your emotions through the lens of mindfulness. A common approach in meditation is to view your thoughts and feelings as transient, like clouds in the sky or a stormy weather pattern: they change from moment to moment.
I had the opportunity to practice observing my response to an actual meteorological event recently when I woke to a heavy snowfall. My first reaction was irritation at the inconvenience of it. “I won’t be able to walk the dogs without worrying about being pulled over on the ice.” “We’ll have to dig out the cars.” “It’s so annoying.”
But instead of continuing to wish it were different and getting upset about a situation I had no power to change, I decided instead to work on accepting the state of affairs. While I drank my coffee, I gazed out the window at the wooded path behind my house and noticed how peaceful it looked. I bundled up, took the dogs for a walk, and let them enjoy sniffing and digging in the soft mounds of snow. I laughed out loud watching Roland drag a shovel down the stairs and across the yard like a prized game specimen. I stopped my internal grumbling, and my mood lifted.
And, then, much to my surprise, the sun came out, it warmed up, and the snow melted. Of course, the puddles will freeze tonight when the temperature drops. And tomorrow, we will begin, again.
As a cognitive-behavioral psychologist, I teach people how to handle distress by changing the thinking patterns and behaviors that negatively affect their emotional well-being. The inauguration of the new President has stirred up strong feelings for many on both sides. So it seems fitting to offer some coping advice for weathering this highly polarized and emotionally charged political climate.
First, I’d like to correct one misconception. Contrary to what many journalists reported during the campaign and following the election, I haven’t seen an uptick in referrals due to anxiety about the new administration. My practice is just as busy now as it’s always been, but no one has contacted me specifically because they can’t deal with the current state of affairs. To be sure, discussions about politics and heated emotional reactions have come up frequently during recent therapy sessions–I work in DC, after all, and see many lobbyists, lawyers, Hill staffers, and Federal employees from both ends of the political spectrum. But anxiety, for those who are prone to it, tends to attach itself to whatever happens to be in the headlines of the moment. Today it’s the roiling political climate; at other times it’s been Anthrax or West Nile Virus or bedbugs. The important point to remember, as I’ve noted before, is that the content of anxiety is irrelevant in learning how to manage it.
1. Practice selective avoidance
Although I don’t typically encourage avoidance as a way to reduce anxiety, I do advise managing triggers strategically. So if you know reading the Comments section of a blog post or news article will send your blood pressure through the roof, skip it. Likewise with Facebook and Twitter. You already know what the people you follow think, so you won’t be missing anything important.
2. Limit the time you spend reading the news
For any compulsive behavior–and checking the news for a media junkie can become as uncontrollable as washing for a germophobe–coming up with a reasonable schedule can help dampen the urge to check and keep your emotional reactions from coloring your entire day. If this is a problem for you, try limiting the number of sites you read to two or three major news outlets; don’t go on your phone the moment you wake up; decide only to look, say, after breakfast, lunch, and dinner– and never before bed.
3. Challenge your thoughts
A standard CBT technique is to identify cognitive distortions contributing to intense, negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and depression. Two common distortions, labeling and overgeneralization, may lead to anger towards those whose political beliefs differ from our own. In a Pew Research Center Poll, Republicans attributed these qualities, ranked from highest to lowest, to Democrats: close-minded, immoral, lazy, dishonest, unintelligent. The view of Democrats towards Republicans differed only in the order of the ranking: close-minded, dishonest, immoral, unintelligent, lazy. Clearly, such sweeping generalizations and negative labels create acrimony and even hatred of The Other.
4. Practice mindfulness
Railing against what should or shouldn’t be happening can make a difficult situation unbearable. As a Buddhist saying goes, “If you get struck by an arrow, do you then shoot another arrow into yourself?” The Second Arrow–our reaction to a bad event–only adds suffering to the pain. We can cope more effectively if we adopt an attitude of acceptance. Keep in mind that acceptance doesn’t mean liking the status quo or giving up. It simply involves seeing things for how they are without judgement. Dialing down our emotional reactivity allows us then to make more clear-headed decisions about the course of action we want to take.
5. Cultivate compassion
Attempting to understand another’s point of view, even if you never arrive at any common ground, can help you feel less angry. Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild, a Progressive academic who couldn’t be more different from the residents of St. Charles, Louisiana, where she embedded herself during a 5-year study, scaled what she calls “the empathy wall” to understand the economic and social forces that led them to embrace the Tea Party. Over time she came to see them as people rather than stereotypes. They, in turn, came to accept her as a human being rather than dismissing her as a “West Coast liberal.” In the end, they developed a mutual respect for each other even though their political positions never changed.
Emotional resilience requires the ability to see moods as transient, like the weather. We can apply the same approach to preserving our sanity in today’s stormy political climate. Lay in ample reserves of acceptance, empathy, compassion. Take constructive action. Batten down the hatches. And wait for the hurricane to pass.
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.