If emotional problems are driven by negative beliefs, it might seem like the best way to feel better is to change the way we think. This concept is applied regularly by cognitive therapists who go through a series of steps to help their clients think in more realistic ways.
The first is to pay attention to intense emotions when they occur and recognize the thoughts that go with them. If the thoughts appear to be biased or distorted, it can then be useful to answer a series of questions, either alone or with the therapist, to determine whether the beliefs are accurate and useful.
Finally, after looking at the evidence, patterns of biased, negative, and unrealistic thinking can be restructured and rehearsed to overcome emotional problems and disrupted patterns of behavior.
This strategy is the most direct way to change the way we think and it can be highly effective. However, there are several limitations:
- It can take time and practice to identify patterns of negative thinking
- When intense emotions occur, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and forget to pay attention to automatic thoughts
- It can be unpleasant to pay close attention to thoughts that challenge our self-worth
- Instead of effectively restructuring a belief, it’s possible to fall into the trap of replacing negative thoughts with equally inauthentic and frustrating “positive” thoughts
- Patterns of negative self-talk that are used for years can be rigid and resistant to change, particularly when setbacks occur
- Restructured beliefs may not be convincing if there’s no change in behavior
Instead of struggling through the process of cognitive restructuring, you might be able to experience the same outcome by engaging in targeted behavior that conflicts with existing negative beliefs.
Below are some examples of destructive beliefs and behavioral responses that can give you the “data” to think about yourself, your relationships, and the future in more useful ways:
Belief: “I’m a chronic worrier and I can’t stop it.”
Behavior: Overcome the worrying that goes with generalized anxiety by scheduling a regular time to worry, and use that time consistently. Instead of allowing yourself to worry constantly, give yourself 10-20 minutes of focused time each day to address your concerns, and remind yourself to use that time when you catch yourself worrying throughout the day. You can also use this time to identify behavioral solutions to ongoing problems and schedule those activities, too. Setting aside time to worry may seem counterintuitive, but it’s an easy way to demonstrate to yourself that worrying occupies a small part of your day. If you noticed a problem with chronic sleeping, eating, or working, you might take steps to limit the amount of time you do those things. Why should worrying be any different?
Belief: “I can’t cope with (something specific).”
Behavior: Overcome specific anxiety by exposing yourself to feared situations, but do it gradually. Give yourself the opportunity to observe your changes, acknowledge successes (even the small ones), and plan to address more challenging situations as your behavior shows you that you can cope effectively with things that were overwhelming in the past. For example, if you believe that you’re awkward in social situations and that you can’t cope effectively with the discomfort, it will be difficult to change your thinking if you spend most of your free time alone. On the other hand, if you begin to increase the amount of time you spend with people, even nonjudgmental people you know very well, you provide yourself with evidence to suggest that maybe you’re more socially effective than you believed. And if this happens, the likelihood of gradually giving yourself more opportunities to interact with people will increase, too.
Belief: “I’m a procrastinator and I can’t get things done.”
Behavior: Overcome procrastination by “doing a little bit, and often” rather than waiting for that day when you “feel like” addressing boring or difficult responsibilities. If you’re not getting as much done as you think you should, you already know that those moments of inspiration are few and far between. If you let things go for days, weeks, and even months, make productive work a part of your day-to-day routine. The best time to do this is when you have the most energy to get to work and stay focused. For many people, this is at the beginning of the day. Give yourself 15-20 minutes a day to start. If that’s all you can handle, stop working, and acknowledge that you’re taking steps in the right direction.
Belief: “People take advantage of me and I won’t stand for that disrespect.”
Behavior: Overcome the anger that comes with believing that others violate your rights by recognizing the behavior you can control, and then take action. For example, if you’re suffering at your job because of an uncooperative co-worker, consider what you can do about it. If you passively accept the problem behavior or lash out with unfocused anger, the consequences could be damaging. On the other hand, you might be able to communicate in a direct, assertive way, and demonstrate that you’re looking to solve a problem through compromise so that you can both get your needs met. Of course, there are some situations where assertiveness won’t make any difference and there’s little opportunity to influence another person’s behavior. But even then, you can change your own behavior to make a situation more tolerable. For example, if you’re outraged by people cutting you off in the fast lane on the freeway, sure it’s upsetting, but you can’t do much to control how other people drive. If you personalize their behavior, and you’re not able to tolerate it, you have the option to move to a slower lane for a while. If you’re generally assertive and able to demonstrate personal control in other areas of your life, unpredictable and uncontrollable events like the driving behavior of others may have less of an impact.
Belief: “What’s the point of trying? Everything seems hopeless.”
Behavior: Overcome depression by doing one activity each day to experience pleasure and one to experience a sense of accomplishment. When depression is at its worst, all-or-nothing thinking can take over. If you notice that “nothing seems like fun” or that “everything is a chore,” give yourself a reason to think flexibly. For example, if you try to take a bike ride through the park or visit a friend you haven’t seen in a while, and you notice that the bike ride is more enjoyable, you might realize that some things are more pleasurable than others and that it’s a good idea to do more of the things that make you feel good. Similarly, if you do some laundry or pay bills and realize that either or both weren’t as bad as you anticipated, you may become more open to the idea that some chores aren’t so difficult, and that you feel a little bit better when you do them.