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.
I learned a new term this week: “trigger-stacking.” I wasn’t attending a professional conference or catching up on my journals. I heard the phrase from a veterinary behaviorist.
Six months ago we adopted Clifford, a three-year-old Australian Shepherd who had been a stray in rural New Jersey. Let’s just say the adjustment has been very rough.
During the three-hour drive from New Jersey, he draped himself across my lap, instantly claiming me as his ”person.” But he has what the Aussie rescue groups euphemistically call “a strong guardian instinct,” causing him to be overly protective of his turf, his food, his toys, and…me. So from the moment he entered our house, he treated my husband as an enemy invader.
Whenever my husband crossed a threshold into a room I was in, Clifford launched a canine air-missile strike. We began to feel under siege, on constant alert for the next attack.
Fast forward six months. Thankfully, through a combination of medication prescribed by the veterinary behaviorist and lots of counter-conditioning—which derives from the same learning principles underpinning the treatment approaches I use for anxiety—we now have a much more relaxed dog. I’ve stopped my Google searches for “Farms that Take Unadoptable Animals,” and Clifford has gradually been forming a tentative bond with my husband. We’re cautiously optimistic.
But because behavior modification isn’t linear, the aggressive displays we’ve been working so hard to eliminate will occasionally resurface. And even though I should know better, I was disheartened one day last week to observe a spike in Clifford’s territorial barking along with his refusal to come back into the house after he went out in the yard while I was at work. He stood on the deck for two hours, nervously casting glances at my husband, who tried to lure him back inside with a smorgasbord of tasty treats. Even steak couldn’t entice him.
After reviewing the behavioral log I keep to remind myself of Clifford’s progress (a practice I heartily recommend, by the way, if you’re working on changing your own behavior), the cause of his regression became clear: trigger-stacking.
I identified three major triggers, each of which individually heightened Clifford’s arousal and, cumulatively, pushed him over the edge: 1) A stressful visit to the vet for a vaccination the previous day; 2) Loud noises overhead while workmen repaired our roof; and 3) Repeated invasion of his territory while my husband walked in and out of his office moving books.
In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. But at the time, I had trouble convincing myself we weren’t back to square one.
When you experience an uptick in the anxiety or compulsive behaviors you’ve been working hard to manage, you might assume a setback means you haven’t made progress. Not so. A bad day at work, a fight with a partner, a sick child, a sleepless night—any one of those triggers might be manageable alone but in combination might just be too much to handle without reverting to the coping behaviors you’ve been trying to change.
So when you suffer a setback, don’t view it as a relapse. Instead, ask yourself if you’ve been facing more triggers than usual. Cut yourself some slack—but don’t make excuses to justify avoidance–by taking on lower intensity challenges, if necessary, to keep yourself from slipping back into old habits.
And, then, start back where you left off, as we did with Clifford. For a week, he continued to balk at coming inside whenever my husband let him out in the yard. But a few days ago, the sight of his leash brought him back in the house. And, for the first time, they walked around the block together.
My dog Freddie died last month very suddenly and unexpectedly at the too-young age of 10. Chronically anxious and high-strung, he wasn’t an easy dog to live with. But he was intensely loyal, affectionate, fiercely devoted to the family, and so smart he seemed almost human at times. In spite of–or maybe because of–his issues, we loved him dearly.
One of his most annoying habits was barking at the TV. We tried to train him to watch quietly–and watch he did, eyes fixed on the screen and head moving back and forth, taking in the action–but eventually we gave up, endured his loud objections during scenes containing sex and violence, and got used to relying on closed caption to fill us in on the dialogue he drowned out.
Over the years, as I wrote in a previous post, I longed to be able to relax in front of the TV with my dogs curled up quietly at my side. But as long as Freddie was with us, it never happened.
The night after Freddie died my husband and I sat down on the couch in the family room to catch up on the show we’d been following. We didn’t get past the credits before we had to turn it off. The quiet was deafening.
It was more than a week before we could bring ourselves to watch TV again.
A line from an old Joni Mitchell song comes to mind:
“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone”
RIP, dear Freddie.
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.