Much of the advice I dispense daily in my clinical practice involves guiding people beset by negative thoughts and feelings to respond to emotional discomfort in counterintuitive ways. Anxious? Approach your fears. Depressed? Get moving. Impulsive? Ride out your urges.
It all sounds rather simplistic. Yet changing behaviors in this fashion can improve your mood relatively quickly. Even more important, moving towards what feels scary or hard can help you build a protective core of confidence, making it easier to cope with the difficult times you’ll inevitably have to face in the future.
I won’t ask my patients to do anything I wouldn’t agree to do myself. Some of the “approach behaviors” I work on with them—touching a public toilet seat, say, or limiting themselves to only one glass of wine—don’t present personal challenges. But I certainly generate enough of my own worries to give me ample opportunity to practice what I preach.
Here’s an example: I just signed up for an eight-week course on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Silly that a program designed to reduce stress should significantly increase mine, right? But just thinking about it makes my mouth dry up and my heart beat faster.
I’d been looking for an opportunity to deepen my meditation practice for some time now. Periodically I’d google “Mindfulness Meditation in DC.” The Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW) always came up. I’d pore over the course offerings and then reject them because the timing wasn’t right or the center’s Buddhist orientation made me uncomfortable.
I had many of the same automatic thoughts and a few new ones yesterday when I found the listing for an MBSR course given through the Insight Meditation Community starting in just two weeks. “Maybe everyone will be a Buddhist. I hope they don’t expect me to practice Buddhism.” “I won’t know what to do.” “Will there be chairs or cushions? Should I bring my own cushion?” “Seven to nine-thirty on a Thursday night . . . I’ll be so tired after work, I won’t feel like going.” “I won’t have time to eat dinner and I’ll be starving.” “I won’t get home until after 10 and I’ll be so wound up I won’t be able to sleep.” “It might be lame, like that last mindfulness course I took.” “I might not be able to find parking.” “I won’t be able to walk the dogs or exercise on Thursdays.” “I don’t know what to wear. Should I wear yoga pants?” “I’’ll have to bring a change of clothes to work.” And even, embarrassing though it is to admit, “We’ll have to take off our shoes. I hope we can wear socks because I won’t have time to get a pedicure in the next two weeks.”
In the end, I recognized my reservations for what they were—excuses designed to avoid an unfamiliar situation causing me trepidation. I don’t like being a newbie, and this class raises all those old first-day-of-school insecurities (probably dating back to the start of kindergarten, when I wet my pants because I was too shy to ask my scary new teacher where the bathroom was and, humiliated, ran to hide in the coatroom when she asked the class who was responsible for the puddle on the floor).
So I did what I’d tell anyone else to do. I signed up.
To be continued . . .
I’m writing this at 7:00 am, in my office. I left for work this morning in an autopilot haze, thinking I had a 7:00 am appointment as I usually do on Fridays, and not bothering to check my schedule.
My first reaction was annoyance at myself. OK, maybe a little more than annoyance. I felt myself sinking into a full-blown funk. Being an experienced cognitive-behavioral therapist, I had no trouble capturing the negative thoughts fueling the feelings:
“That was really stupid!”
“You could have slept for another half hour.”
“Or you could have gotten up and walked the dogs. It’ll be too hot for a long walk when you get home, and you won’t get any exercise.”
“You don’t get enough exercise. You’re really out of shape.”
“Now you’ll be really tired all day when you could have felt rested.”
“You should always look at your calendar.”
If you’re familiar with the CBT model and its concept of thinking errors—characteristic patterns of distorted thinking associated with negative moods—you’ll recognize a few in my litany of self-flagellating thoughts: labeling, fortune-telling, all-or-nothing thinking, should statements.
Fortunately, I saw immediately that I had a choice. I could either allow myself to wallow, which would undoubtedly make the rest of my day difficult, or I could do something about it.
I chose action.
Now it’s only 7:30 am, and I’m just about done writing a long-overdue blog post. And my mood has taken a 180. I’m no longer upset. Instead, I feel pleased with myself for seizing an opportunity to be productive.
One of the complaints I often hear about CBT thought-challenging techniques (uncovering distorted thoughts and replacing them with more rational ones) is that “just thinking” differently isn’t enough to produce a change in mood. And that certainly is true. Rewriting your thoughts won’t have much impact unless you also change your behavior
It’s 7:50 am, and I’m still tired. But a little more coffee should take care of the brain fog. And now I can look forward to a relaxing holiday weekend with no pressure to write!
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