Cognitive Therapy and Challenging Negative Thoughts

When we’re feeling distressed about something or going through a difficult emotional experience it can feel like our thoughts are running out of control. Our minds start racing and we find ourselves dwelling in the past, worrying about the future, or just spinning our wheels trying to think ourelves out of our problems.

At times, our thoughts can become so powerful and consuming that it’s difficult to focus on anything else. Reading, being productive at work, or even just carrying on a conversation seems impossible. The thoughts become so persistent that nothing can distract us from them and nothing else can hold our attention, and it can feel like there isn’t anything we can do to slow down these thoughts or get some peace of mind.

Because it’s natural to want thoughts like these to go away and to have some control over what’s going on inside our heads, we often wind up trying to will these thoughts away and shut them out completely. But just like we can’t control our emotions, nor suppress our emotions, neither can we control or suppress our thoughts.

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Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Anxiety

upward spiralIn a previous post, we looked at the vicious cycle of anxiety, in which an anxiety-provoking events triggers an anxiety-related thought, feeling, behaviour or physiological symptom, which generates additional anxious thoughts, feelings, behaviours and physiological symptoms.
 
One of the keys to overcoming anxiety is break this cycle before it begins to gain momentum. We often don’t have control of our initial response to an anxiety-provoking situation, but once we become aware that something has triggered an anxiety-related thought, feeling, behaviour or physiological symptom, then we can choose how we react. Mindfulness, and congitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or cognitive therapy, are effective ways to help you stop these cycles before they can build.

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The Vicious Cycle of Anxiety

downward spiralAccording to the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) approach to anxiety, one of the reasons that overcoming anxiety can be so difficult is that anxiety generates vicious cycles involving your physiological, cognitive, behavioural, and emotional domains. We looked at these four components of anxiety in a previous post. Now we’ll look at how they act together to form vicious cycles that create and maintain anxiety.
 
In the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) model of anxiety, the vicious cycle begins with an anxiety-provoking situation. This situation can be something external such as a work commitment, a trip, a social engagement, or any other event happening in the future that you’re worried about. Anxiety can also be provoked by something internal such as a physiological sensation, a thought about something you’re dreading, or an unpleasant emotion.

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Cognitive Defusion and Letting Go of Thoughts

In a previous post we looked at some ways to practice letting go of thoughts, but it can often be difficult to let of thoughts because they have such a powerful pull, especially when the thoughts are related to a strong emotion.

In this post we’re going to look at some things you can do to get some separation from your thoughts when your emotions are particularly strong and you’re having some thoughts you’re finding hard to let go.

Steven Hayes, who developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), coined the term “cognitive fusion” to describe times when we are so tightly stuck to our thoughts, we become “fused” to them. When we’re experiencing cognitive fusion, we can’t separate ourselves from our thoughts. Our thoughts become our reality. We feel removed from the world outside of our thoughts, removed from our senses, from what we’re doing, and even from the people around us.

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Watching Thoughts and Letting Them Go

cloudsIn a recent post we looked at how mindfulness can help us let go of our thoughts when we get caught up in ruminating or worrying or just thinking in circles. Letting go of thoughts is never easy, however, and in this post we’ll look at how simply watching our thoughts can help us let them go.

Thoughts pop into our heads all the time, and usually we don’t pay any special attention to them: they enter and leave our minds all on their own, just like a car that drives into our line of sight, remains in our field of vision for a few moments, and then drives along and passes out of our line of sight again.

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Letting Go of Thoughts Mindfully

racing thoughtsIt’s easy to get swept away by our thoughts, especially in the face of strong emotions. We get stuck ruminating and dwelling about the past, filled with guilt or regret. Or our minds start racing and we can’t stop worrying about the future and imagining all the things that could go wrong. Or we replay conversations over and over again in our heads, trying to make sense of them or figure out what we could have said differently.

When our minds get going like this, not only is it exhausting; these patterns of thinking tend to make us feel bad, intensifying the emotions we’re already feeling and generating additional negative emotions as well. Because this experience is so unpleasant, it’s natural to want to these thoughts to stop, and to be able to prevent yourself from even having them in the first place. We often wind up trying to make these thoughts go away, and shut them out completely and make sure they don’t come back. But just like we can’t control our emotions or suppress our emotions, neither can we control or suppress our thoughts.

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STOPP and Be Mindful

 
 

When you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress and anxiety or distressing emotions, it can be diificult to know how to manage these feelings.

Often we allow our stress and anxiety and emotions to build and build all day without doing anything to calm them, trying to just ignore them and hoping they’ll go away. Then, when we finally can’t take it anymore and start feeling overwhelmed and desperate, things have often accumulated too much and begun to spiral downwards and it can be so hard to get any relief.

The more we allow stress and distressing emotions to accumulate, the more difficult they become to address. That’s why one of the keys to managing our feelings is to find ways to not let them build up so much in the first place.

One effective way to accomplish this is with an exercise called STOPP. STOPP is designed to help you stop stress and anxiety in their tracks, as soon as you begin to notice them, rather than waiting until they become overwhelming. Read More



Abdonimal Breathing to Calm and Relax

When you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, one of the most effective ways to calm your body, mind and emotions is to pay attention to your breathing.

When you focus your attention on your breath, things start to slow down. Physiologically, your heart rate slows, your blood pressure drops, and any tightness or tension you feel tends to relax. Breathing mindfully also calms your emotions, making them more manageable, and helps slow down a racing mind.

In the next post, we’re going to learn a few techniques to help you follow your breath, but first, it’s important to ensure that you’re breathing in a way that helps calm you, rather than in a way that can increase your level of stress.

To learn about abdominal breathing, you can watch the following video or read the description below:

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Give Yourself a Mindful Break From Stress, Anxiety and Depression

breathing spaceIn a couple of recent posts, we looked at some things you can do to help stop stress and anxiety from becoming overwhelming, and to give yourself a breathing time out from stress, anxiety and depression. In this post, we’ll look at a couple more techniques you can use to manage stress and anxiety, and to help your emotions from becoming overwhelming if you’re experiencing depression or anger.

The first is called the Three Minute Breathing Space, and it was developed as part of the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy program for people with depression. Like the Breathing Time Out, it’s a way to bring your attention to the present, give yourself a break from whatever stress or emotions have been building up, and then return to the rest of your day, more refreshed and focused on the present.

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Take a Breathing Time Out

time outIn a recent post we looked at a couple of exercises you can use to help stop stress and anxiety from becoming overwhelming. Another technique you can use throughout the day to manage stress and anxiety, and to help keep strong emotions and feelings of depression and anger from becoming overwhelming, is to give yourself a Breathing Time Out.

Just as a time out can be an effective way to help children calm down when they are acting out and starting to get out of control, when our thoughts and emotions start getting carried away, a time out is a great tool to help calm ourselves.

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