Ten Questions to Help You Think Differently and Feel Better

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) in its very basic form is based on the idea that our mental health is like a three-legged stool. Each of the three legs stand for a different aspect of health: thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. Make a change in one leg (like learning how to think differently) – the other two legs are changed as a result!

Want even more good news? You can start with any leg of the stool!

  1. THOUGHTS: Keep reading and start learning how to think differently. Like weight training with increasingly heavy weights, changing how we think takes a lot of practice. It can help us feel better, thereby making a difference in our behaviour.
  2. ACTIONS: Many people choose to start here. What we do impacts how we feel. How we feel impacts how we think! (Watch for my upcoming post on Behaviour Activation.)
  3. EMOTIONS: In my last blog entry I talked about “bottom up” techniques, such as mindfulness in order to learn how to self-regulate our physiological responses to stress and anxiety. Most distressing emotions have an accompanying physiological response. When we can manage those responses, we can help our emotions lessen in their intensity, which will better equip us to work on our thoughts and behaviours.

Learning to Think Differently: An Example

We know that “Thoughts Are Not Facts”. The facts are what happened. Often, even that is in dispute! Our thoughts are only our interpretation, or “take-away” about what happened. Here’s an example.

SITUATION: Lucia’s 17 year old daughter is spending a lot of time in her room with the door shut. She almost never comes out to hang with the family anymore. When she does, and Lucia tries to engage her in friendly conversation, she will respond with irritation and impatience.

THOUGHTS: This could mean any number of things. In Lucia’s case, she’s thinking that her daughter must be hiding something illicit. Because Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) come and go so quickly, without us really taking time to put them under a microscope, her counsellor recommends that she sit down and journal all the distressing thoughts that are in her head – getting as detailed as she can. By slowing down through her writing, she realizes that she’s also been ignoring a few more thoughts – because they feel even more personal. Lucia is thinking about her friends that seem so close to their daughters, and wondering if her daughter must hate her. In turn, this leads to more thoughts about what a terrible mother she must be, and what a crappy job she is doing as a parent.  

FEELING: Lucia has had a whole bunch of emotions about this state of affairs. Worry, anger and hurt standing out as the strongest.

If Lucia continues down this path, her behaviours are going to get in the way of her relationship with her daughter, and her own self image as a mother. If she thinks her daughter must be hiding something illicit, she may choose to search her room when her daughter is at school. She may make accusations. If she thinks she’s a crappy mom compared to her friends (or at least, that her daughter thinks of her that way), she may go into her own fight or flight response. She might spend a lot more time in her own room. Or she might feel the need to defend herself.

Is There Another Way to Think About This?

These ten questions will help Lucia think differently, which in turn will decrease the intensity of her distressing emotions. Once she feels better, she will be in a better space for problem solving.

  1. What might I tell a friend who was in this situation?
  2. How do I think about this when I am feeling my strongest/best?
  3. Could more than one thing be true here?
  4. What’s the worst thing that could happen? How likely is it? Will it matter in five years?
  5. What’s the best thing that could happen? What is most likely to happen?
  6. Are there any exceptions to this rule? (Do I have different rules for myself than others?)
  7. If this thought is true, is it really so bad? Can I cope? Can I do anything about it?
  8. Is there anything good about this situation?
  9. What can I learn from this that will help next time?
  10. What way of thinking will help me to best serve my health and well being?

Through this questioning process, Lucia will probably come up with some other possible meanings for her daughter’s behaviours. Is it likely that her daughter is hiding something illicit, or is it perhaps that she needs more time to herself as she is growing up and feeling overwhelmed? Is she seeing all sides of her friends relationships with their daughters? Or is it possible that she is only seeing what they tell her and put on social media? Could some of what she is noticing in her daughter and their relationship be in fact, normal?

She might not fully believe any of those possibilities (yet) … but even by noticing them, and admitting there is a small chance they could be “true” … she is opening a crack to let some light in. The emotions don’t go away, but they don’t feel quite so intense, so that she can better problem solve and function as a parent.

Finally, remember that …

It’s not about seeing the world through rose coloured glasses, or looking on the bright side. Rather, it’s about learning how to step back and look at a situation from all angles, even when it feels personal and hurtful.

Imagine your thoughts are the ocean. It’s the difference between drowning in the ocean, versus sitting on the shore and watching the waves roll in. Remember, thoughts are not facts. They are only our interpretations of the facts. Learning how to think differently takes a lot practice, and it often takes a lot of help. I have a lot of experience (and more tips and tricks) to help others learn this new skill; reach out today!

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