This makes up your cycle or pattern in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Different beasts, all feeding and feeding off each other.
Certain thoughts can make us feel physical things. Those feelings can make us behave in a certain way.
Instinctive behaviours can reinforce thoughts and trigger feelings.
Feelings, unnoticed, can make us think in a set way and act out behavioural patterns.
What a mess. To get a handle on our doom spirals, we have to first try to dissect what each of these things are.
You might experience thoughts as words or pictures or emotions. They may be active or they may come unbidden and uncontrolled – intrusive thoughts.
A thought can be triggered consciously (though some argue that thought can never be truly concious), for example, choosing to return to a memory or work through a problem. Or a thought can be triggered unconsciously by our brains seeing, remembering or in some other way sensing something.
My dude, even neuroscientists are still trying to wrap their heads around what a thought is.
Most importantly for us is being aware of negative thoughts. Not so we can switch them off and turn on our positivity pump – no, avoidance ain’t the thing. Just recognising and accepting, rather than running from or reacting to it.
Turn the thought over
- If it’s a question, try to answer it
- If it’s a memory, explore it
- If it has a negative effect on you, share it
- If it’s useful, save it
Feelings – dread, fear, sadness – are even more elusive than thoughts, because we don’t really even put them into pictures or words. The point of emotions is to make us do something, whether that’s running away from something scary or sexing with someone we love.
We also give the label ‘feelings’ to physical symptoms, like pain, nausea and shortness of breath. These can also be prompts from our body (ouch! don’t touch that!) but they may just be side-effects of an automatic process our body is already following.
Feelings can often be addressed with physical techniques to redirect our negative patterns.
Examining our feelings
- What emotions am I feeling? Why?
- What am I feeling in my body? Why?
- What are my feelings prompting me to do?
- Can I sit with my feelings and not push them away or react?
Behaviour can mean action or lack of action. Fight, flight or freeze.
Faced with conflict, I’m a ‘freeze’ kinda guy. In the moment, I shut down, my thoughts are paused and my face is a sulky mask. That prospect makes me choose flight before anything has even happened.
Recently I found myself, five minutes before a Thing, with a whole bunch of physical feelings that were making me long to act out my usual behaviour: avoidance.
The tight chest, raised heart rate and sweating hands were all begging for a reprieve from this upcoming Thing. Hoping for a cancellation – classic anxiety.
Sometimes our coping behaviours protect us; sometimes they do more harm than good. When we know we’re reacting in a way that doesn’t fit the facts, a process for resetting our behaviour is useful.
- Notice your typical anxiety behaviours like avoidance or over-prep
- Next time you feel the emotional or physical clues to your stress, intervene before acting out your usual cycle
- Decide to enact a different behaviour: that can be something distracting (going for a run), calming (breathing exercise) or opposite (bit more extreme – like running towards your fear instead of away)
- If that helps with your anxiety, draw out your new behaviour cycle: when I think X and feel Y, I can do Z
Here’s what I did:
Instead of prep-prep-prepping right down to the wire, as I usually do (fake control!), I spent my remaining five minutes with my cats. Physical grounding and positivity. Opposite of stress-working.
I told someone how I was feeling. Darkness retreats from light.
I programmed my vibe to a casual, bright breeziness for the first few minutes of the Thing. That set the tone for the Thing, tricking everyone involved (including me) into feeling breezy about the Thing.
Why CBT now?
I’ve been doing therapy for years. I’m as well-adjusted as I’ve ever been, but I’m left with these remnants of anxiety that are triggered by things I’ve pathologised.
That’s shit but it’s also possible to deal with. I – a fairly settled and stable person – can look at this little pile of negativity and think through ways to deal with it.
It’s like someone who gets a lot of nosebleeds. You’re like ugh, ffs but you know what to do and you do it. I’m someone who gets dumb panic feelings. Ugh, ffs but let’s get on with it.
I still have work to do, to help my brain stop triggering my patterns. But in the meantime, I have some tools to get me through the bad feels.