Making Life Changes, Part 1

 

Why do people seek help from a psychotherapist? Psychotherapy helps people in many ways. For some, it is a way to understand themselves better. For others, it helps to find meaning in their lives. Some have a definite problem they want to address (like, “Is my job right for me?”), while others have a specific conflict that appears repeatedly in their lives- for example, “Why do I always end up in fights with the people I’m closest to?” Some may want an objective listener who will always look out for their best interest. A large number of people, however, seek therapy in order to come to terms with self-defeating behavior that they know they must change because it is jeopardizing their health, their future plans, or their relationships with friends and families. They want to make life changes.

 

The list of self-defeating behaviors is endless. People want to quit smoking or abusing alcohol and other drugs. They want to control their weight, exercise more, be more optimistic, quit procrastinating, stop trying to control other people or letting others control them. They want to stop spending so much money or so much time online- so they seek help from a psychotherapist.

 

Fortunately, therapy can help people address these problems, but only if the person is ready to make the lifestyle changes required to bring the self-defeating behavior under control. Making life changes is easy for some people. For others, the changes seem enormous and the person goes into relapse repeatedly. Think of the number of smokers you know and the number of times they have tried to quit. Think of the number of friends you know who have tried repeatedly to diet, only to gain all the weight (and more) back within a year.

 

Change can happen when the person is ready to change. A psychotherapist can help people identify their readiness to change and move toward the stage of taking action to make the changes occur. A major emphasis in therapy is examining why change may be difficult and understanding how to get past the roadblocks that stand in the way of change.

To Be Continued…

 

Friendship & Social Support: The Laws of Attraction

Since 1985, the number of people who say they have no one to talk to has doubled. The lack of social contacts and social support, despite our technological advances over the past decades, is one of the downsides to the huge transformations that have taken place in our society. Despite the advent of e-mail and cell phones, people today have fewer meaningful social contacts than they had in the past. We have traded our face-to-face contacts for technological forms of communication. We tend to drive alone, work alone, eat alone, and live alone more than we did in past years. Our public presentation may reflect less about whom we are on the inside than our ability to conform to the latest look that we pick up from the all-pervasive media. We go to the gym and work out alone to the beats stored in our iPods. We go for coffee and immerse ourselves in our laptops. And we don’t talk to strangers, who may, as many believe, pose danger to us. Yes, we’ve changed. Friendships are harder to come by. It is more difficult these days to get to know who another person really is, or for them to get to know whom we are.

 

Research studies have shown repeatedly that friendship and social support systems have many psychological benefits. Social support cuts off the dysfunction cycle of stress, which produces physiological responses such as increased heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. Just having another person nearby will reduce stress when people perform difficult tasks. And it also takes a load off when you need help in doing some of your tasks of the day.

 

Spending time with a good, supportive friend will calm us and uplift our mood. We feel better when we talk things through with a trusted friend. When we hear ourselves talk, we can often get to the root of what is bothering us without the listener’s having to say a word. Social support validates us. We don’t feel so alone when there is a trusted friend nearby to say that the same things have happened to them, or merely says, “I understand.” Social connections help us to feel better about ourselves. Good friends make us feel good, and we feel that we’re part of a larger whole. When we have a supportive social network, we can face life’s everyday problems with the feeling that we have the backing of others who care about us.

 

Social support also has physical benefits. People who have social connections bounce back more quickly from surgeries and illnesses than those without support. A study of people with heart disease found that people with a good friend to confide in lived substantially longer than those who didn’t have a support network. Research has also found that social support can increase your body’s natural immunity. A well-known study found that women with advanced breast cancer who attended a weekly support group lived twice as long as those who did not. It has also been found that lonely people sleep less soundly, wake more frequently during the night, and had less regenerative deep sleep than those with good social support networks.

What are the characteristics of a friendship? Who is likely to become our friend? Stay tuned for an in depth analysis of the variables that have been found to be associated with the establishment of a friendship…

 

To Be Continued…

“Rumination” Part 3

Overcoming Your Rumination

Rumination is an elusive experience. We get caught in the ruminative pattern without realizing it and then assume that this was the way things are supposed to be- thinking and thinking endlessly. We slip into the pattern automatically and feel that we have no control over it. The experience can feel agonizing, but may also seem familiar and comfortable. It does not solve the problems that we are anxious about, and in fact it ultimately increases our anxiety and may lead to depression.

Let’s look at a few ways of breaking the ruminative pattern that can work in a short time. Working on these strategies with a professional therapist can be highly effective.

 

Realize that rumination is not a healthy resolution to your problems

During a ruminative episode we may feel that we have finally gained insight into what is bothering us. “I deserve to feel angry about what he did to me.” “I have a right to feel depressed over the neglect I’ve suffered in my life.” We need to understand that these negative thoughts simply exacerbate our underlying negative mood. When we ruminate we get caught in tunnel vision. We see the world in only one way. This is not a healthy route to solving our life problems. It simply sets us up for depression, more anxiety, and anger. It helps to understand and accept that there are better ways of dealing with problems.

The use of distraction

Research has found that engaging in a pleasant distraction is a good way to open the way of effective problem solving. The use of distraction from rumination can improve our mood and lead to positive thinking. Even a few minutes of distraction can have long-term effects. Some people use exercise as a distraction. A walk around the block, swimming, gardening, or a workout at the gym are all positive distractions from rumination, as well as a hobby that requires us to pay attention to what is happening in the moment. Reading can be a good distraction. The goal is to break the rumination and to focus on something else. Of course, we need to realize that a distraction is not the same as escaping from a problem. For example, alcohol or other substance abuse, losing oneself in videogames, or binge eating are not healthy distractions.

 The” Stop” technique

When you find yourself caught in the swirl of ruminative thoughts, one short-term technique that may help is simply to tell yourself to stop. While this will not last long, and it is certainly not a permanent way to curb rumination, it will give you a sense of some control and open the way to try out longer lasting methods. You might try putting a rubber band around your wrist and then snapping it when you find yourself overthinking, along with the verbal reminder to “stop”.

 

 

Observe yourself

When rumination takes over, cultivate the ability to observe yourself from a distance. Ask yourself, “What am I doing?” “Isn’t my thinking like this just a way of giving the power to the other person?” “I’m letting the other person control me.” Redefining your overthinking in this way gives you a sense of power over it. Take this method to the next step- come up with different ideas that truly allow you to solve the problem constructively. Try to see the issue from the other person’s point of view. Redefine the problem using more positive thoughts.

Put aside time to ruminate

If you allow yourself to ruminate, it can take up your whole day. From morning to a sleepless night, you ponder your situation endlessly. It takes over your life and you do have other responsibilities. Tell yourself that you will allow yourself only an hour per day to ruminate. Choose an hour when you normally feel good (and this should not be right before going to bed).  When the urge to ruminate appears, tell yourself that you will put it aside and save it for your “thinking hour.” Many people find that because they are not spending most of their days free from ruminating, the problems seem less overwhelming during the hour of thinking.

 Share your thoughts 

Rumination is a private experience and we seldom share the thoughts we harbor with other people. We generate thoughts that may have little basis in the real world. You can break this pattern by sharing your thoughts with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. This person can ask relevant questions, such as, “What was your mood before you starting thinking about this?” You can listen to their feedback and ask questions- and this will allow you to see your issues in a new light and gain new perspective. Make sure that the person you talk to is stable. If you choose a person who simply fans the flames of your thoughts, you will accomplish nothing and may drift further into your ruminative thoughts.

“Rumination” Part 2

Identifying Rumination 

Rumination is associated with anxiety, depression, anger, and substance abuse. The content of rumination falls into three broad categories:

 

Victimization – When we feel that we have been treated badly by someone, we ruminate about the injustice we have experienced. We review the situation again and again and think of ways we can find retribution. We don’t look at the whole situation or try to understand our part in the interaction. Unfortunately, we may take action on our thoughts that may have negative consequences.

Magnifying– When we feel upset, we start thinking of reasons to explain our feelings. We may come up with a number of causes, all equally plausible, and some may be dramatic and not grounded in reality. We then take rash actions with negative consequences, such as quitting our job, ending a friendship, or acting out our bad mood.

Chaos– Sometimes we feel overwhelmed and our thoughts dart from one focus to another without any clear theme. We end up feeling disoriented- and we may shut down or run away from our problems.

Ruminating should not be confused with other types of thinking. Rumination is not the same as worry, although ruminators do worry. Worry involves “what if’s”- wondering about things that might happen (“What if I say the wrong thing at work?” “What if this date goes wrong?”) Rumination, on the other hand, focuses more on things that have happened in the past- like things you said or things that went wrong.

Rumination is not the same as obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD involves a preoccupation with thoughts that are external, like germs, and how they might intrude on us. Ruminators can turn these thoughts off easily.

And rumination is not like the thinking that goes on in therapy. One thing that therapy might do is to focus on effective problem –solving, including looking at situations in a different way and finding ways to take action to solve problems. Ruminators focus on one-way of looking at a problem and they seldom get to the point of solving the problem.

“Cognitive Distortions- When Your Thoughts Are Hurting You”- Part 3

As we discussed in the previous post, there are several common cognitive distortions that many of us use to cope with life’s trials. Please read below for the continuation of that list:

4. Disqualifying the Positive– This is an extreme example of turning positive events into negative ones. When positive things happen, the person says that they “don’t count” and finds a way to turn them into something negative. This cognitive distortion can be a way to express a negative self-image. This is a way of blocking out the richness that your life experience can bring.

5. Jumping to Conclusions– You make a negative interpretation of an event, even though there is no real evidence to support this conclusion. There are two variations of jumping to conclusions:

Fortune Telling– This is where you anticipate that things will turn out badly and act as if they have already turned out that way. Your actions then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Mind Reading– Without checking it out by talking to the person or seeking other evidence, you arbitrarily conclude that someone is acting negatively toward you.

6. Magnification and Minimization– Magnification happens when you blow a negative event out of proportion. Minimization is the opposite process, where you look at your strengths and then trivialize them. Both of these processes take us out of touch with the reality of a situation and interfere with good decision making.

7. Emotional Reasoning– This happens when you let your emotions guide you as if they reflect the reality of a situation. When people feel depressed, they use their feelings (which are often negative) as their guide rather than doing a good reality check. It is more helpful to check the reality of your perceptions even if your intense emotions make things seem real.

8. Should Statements– This also includes “must” and “ought” statements. We motivate ourselves by talking about things that we “should” do- but the consequence is that we end up feeling pressured, guilty, and resentful. Paradoxically, we then feel unmotivated and apathetic when we don’t live up to our unrealistic expectations. When we apply these statements to other people, we include that other people aren’t living up to our expectations of them, and this leads to our losing respect for them.

9. Labeling– Our lives are complex and constantly changing. The definitions we place on ourselves in one situation might not be appropriate for a different situation. When we label ourselves or other people, we apply a simplistic and unfair definition that is probably wrong, or more likely, incomplete. We fail to appreciate the full complexity of life when we apply simplistic labels.

10. Personalization– You see yourself as the cause of negative events that you are not responsible for. When something bad happens, you assume that it is your fault. This cognitive distortion leads to a feeling of personal guilt.

“Cognitive Distortions- When Your Thoughts Are Hurting You” Part 2

As we learned in Part 1, our thoughts can significantly influence how we feel about all matters of life. If the meaning we give to events is usually negative, we might constantly find ourselves feeling depressed. If the meaning is usually positive, we may find ourselves feeling good much of the time. If we give threatening meanings to events in the world, we might find ourselves living with a lot of anger. If we see the world as a stressful place, we might experience anxiety as a result. Sometimes we give meaning to our own actions that are negative (that is, we judge ourselves in a negative light). This might arise from negative self-image and our mood will reflect this core belief in a variety of negative ways.

Our emotional health depends on our ability to make good, reality-oriented judgments about what is going on in the world around us. Sometimes events are positive. We need to interpret them in precisely this way and have an appropriate emotional response to the situation (that is, happiness). At other times, events are negative and we ought to be able to give proper meaning to these events so that we can take correct action to deal with the problem in a reality-based way.

Most of us distort our thoughts to some degree. We all have unique lives, with different experiences, different parents, different friends, different problems to work through- so that throughout the course of our lives we have learned our own ways of interpreting the world. Our interpretations are not always based in reality and are often colored by our unique needs. We develop our own core beliefs about how the world operates, and, when various situations present themselves, these beliefs lead us to automatic thoughts (these are well-learned ways of thinking about situations that are instantaneous and reflect our underlying beliefs about the world). Sometimes these automatic thoughts are distorted. It is important to examine our cognitive distortions so that we make the right decisions in life and increase our chance of experiencing a good mood. Working with a trained therapist in examining these distortions is an especially effective way of dealing with depression.

David D. Burns, in his classic book, Feeling Good, has identified several common cognitive distortions.

  1. All or Nothing Thinking– this is when we see things in black and white categories. Events are either right or wrong, with no shades or grey in between. This cognitive distortion is the basis of perfectionism- either you do a perfect job on something or you’ve failed. Unfortunately, this sets us up for feeling like a failure and increases our chances of feeling depressed.
  2. Overgeneralization– this is when you see a single negative event as part of a never-ending streak of failure. Although the normal setbacks we all have in life can be disturbing when they happen, they are usually explained through different circumstances. To fail to examine these different situations, and generalize them all as having a single cause, is again a way of setting ourselves up for failure.
  3. Mental Filter– this occurs when a person picks out one negative detail in a situation and dwells on it exclusively. You ignore all of the positive events that have happened and this one negative definition comes to color your interpretation of an entire situation.

Stay tuned for Part 3 to read more insights into common cognitive distortions.

To Be Continued…