How about challenging yourself in the New Year to learn how to manage difficult emotions better? Are there really any other developments that could make this a better year for you? The big three are anxiety, depression and anger. All three can be very healthy and appropriate but when they are excessive or unrelenting they are incredibly toxic with the power to destroy our lives and make the people around us miserable. Psychology has much to teach us and has made great progress in developing strategies to bring the harmful effects of these feelings under control.
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is the strongest tool in the psychology arsenal for dealing with problematic emotions. It teaches us to analyze our reactions and take specific steps to make our feelings more manageable. How we think about how we feel has a great deal to do with the impact of our emotions. Some people are just more sensitive and react more strongly to things. Difficult lives and experiences can cause this sensitivity but some people are really born that way; it’s just the way they are wired. Many families have the experience of having some children who are born with relaxed and easy going natures and some who seem to come into life having a much harder time dealing with their experience. These infants are more difficult to soothe, handle stress and changes less easily and are more shy, worried or aggressive even as very young children.
We are not powerless to control our nature however. The intellectual, thinking part of our brain is different from the emotional, feeling part of our brain. Many people who suffer from anxiety and depression can rationally think to themselves, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way…I know it’s not a big deal…I shouldn’t worry so much” but feel helpless to control their emotions. That’s where CBT comes in. We can learn to let our rational brain take charge and develop greater self-control when our emotions threaten to run amok.
What are the steps of CBT?
1) Get a clear description of what event triggered the emotion. This can be an anticipated event and often is! is what someone else said or didn’t say? Is it how someone behaved or something they neglected to do. What happened that we thinks made us so anxious, sad or angry.
2) Become more aware of what we tell ourselves once we think of something that upsets us. Most people have intense reactions and start telling ourselves things that make us MORE upset such as, “how could she do that….why did I say such a stupid thing…that was SOOO awful (unfair, unkind)”. We magnify the difficulty and agitate and upset ourselves. Making this crucial distinction is essential and the hardest part to understand and develop. It is not what happens to us that makes us so miserable it is how we think about and react to it that causes us the greatest grief. We can change our reactions if we work at it. Staying calm and in control when we are confronted with things that upset or distress us gives us a much greater opportunity to take actions that will improve the situation and our well being
3) Think about and realize the consequences of your reactions to upsetting events. Are you getting more worried, depressed, angry? Did you say or do something that made the situation worse. Did you increase your own distress. Become more aware of how your emotions and what you tell yourself as opposed to what happened to you effect YOU.
4) Practice arguing with yourself and using different and calming self talk. Instead of working yourself up tell yourself, “I can handle this… I can do something about this… it was annoying but I won’t let it ruin my good mood…if I plan ahead I’ll be able to deal with this.” Think about how you would speak to a friend or even a child over-reacting in in great distress. We need to learn to soothe ourselves.
If we learn to bring our most intense emotions under control when they are inappropriate or getting in our way or causing negative outcomes we can have a much more positive impact on our lives.
Make that your new resolution. Conquer yourself and you will have a whole new world of freedom and far greater peace of mind.