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  • Eugenie Lewis

Thinking Flexibly

Thinking Flexibly Over the years, many strategies have been developed for people to learn healthier ways of thinking flexibly. Flexible thinking is a concept which has evolved over a rich history of psychotherapy. It is defined as an openness towards our own experience and ideals as well as to those of others. It allows us to meet challenging and changing circumstances inside and outside of ourselves with compassion and levelheadness. By becoming aware of our thoughts, and seeing the connections with our feelings, body sensations, behaviors and environment, we can exert greater control over the course of our emotions and direction of our lives. There is an expression “name it to tame it.” By identifying our thoughts and the impact they have on us, we can pause and consider positive ways of adapting. The Science of Negative Thought In the mid-1950’s, psychiatrist Dr. Albert Ellis developed Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT). Ellis believed that people are not aware of their irrational thinking patterns about themselves. He saw that thoughts can negatively impact behaviors in relationships and situations. Negative thoughts can lead people to suffer unnecessarily; they may experience strong, negative emotions or engage in self-destructive behaviors. Ellis believed that humans are capable of challenging and changing irrational beliefs. He coined the term the “Three Basic Musts,” or the demands for ourselves, others, and the environment. Take for example the thought, “I must do well and win others' approval or else I am no good” or “Others must treat me fairly and kindly and in the way I want them to treat me.” Ellis identified three guiding principles or ABCs for REBT. They include: A the activating event; B beliefs or thoughts about the event and C consequences which include feelings or actions. During the 1960s, Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) was pioneered by Dr. Aaron T. Beck. A psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania, Beck studied depression and noticed that clients had certain “automatic” negative thought patterns that were associated with depression. These thoughts, which arose spontaneously, related to negative views of oneself, the world, and the future. Beck saw that one’s thoughts could serve as a litmus for deeper core beliefs that developed based on life experiences. By helping people see the connections between thoughts, feelings and behaviors, Dr. Beck found that his clients were more able to think realistically, feel better emotionally, and function more effectively in the world. Over the past 60 years, CBT has become a mainstream treatment and has evolved in multiple ways. Many have contributed to this field. There are now CBT protocols for depression, anxiety, trauma, sleep, weight loss and pain management. Other evolutions of CBT include Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Solution Focused Therapy and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. In DBT, skills are developed in mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness and emotional regulation. In ACT, people learn to develop psychological flexibility and face difficult emotions in the service of achieving important values. With the help of these cognitive behavioral strategies, we have the ability to change the course of our emotions and behaviors that don’t support our lives. The Internal Critic We have to admit that as humans our brains have something of a negativity bias. This bias is not all bad—its function is to protect us from potential danger. While this tendency towards the negative, overseen by the Amygdala, is designed to keep us safe, it often contributes to our tendency to produce negative thoughts about ourselves and others. Our minds can accept these thoughts as the “truth,” even without evidence. The following are examples of negative thinking habits.

  • “I can’t...” This is a thought that you are not capable of meeting a new challenge or solving a difficult problem. This could lead you to give up before trying with a feeling of sadness or anxiety.

  • “What if?” When we catastrophize and expect disaster, we can feel panicky and anxious.

  • “If I am not perfect, I have failed...” This is an all-or-nothing thinking habit where life is seen in extremes.

  • “That doesn’t count...” In the habit of focusing on the negative, you think over and over about bad or embarrassing experiences, while failing to notice neutral or positive experiences and qualities.

  • “I should, or You should...” In the should habit, you either hold yourself or others accountable for rigid or unreasonable rules. When your expectations are not met, you become frustrated with yourself or angry at others.

  • “What’s the use of trying?” Fortune telling is when you draw a conclusion about your own performance or expect disappointment about something in the future. It can make us feel unmotivated, sad, cheated and resentful.

  • “They don’t like me…” Mind-reading is when we think we know what another person is thinking and believe it is critical. It can make us feel unsure of ourselves or anxious.

  • “It’s all my fault” or “It’s all their fault...” In this habit we feel guilty if we blame ourselves, or angry and resentful if we blame others.

  • “It’s not fair!” When you feel you have been unjustly mistreated, it can cause you to get upset and sidetracked, when being treated fairly may be an unrealistic expectation.

Thinking Differently by “Cognitive Restructuring” To combat these negative thinking patterns and associated bad moods, we focus on something called “Cognitive restructuring.” The following are steps we can take to restructure our thinking:

  1. Notice and name the negative thought pattern going through your head, particularly when you feel bad.

  2. Identify feelings, both physically and emotionally that are associated with the thought. Notice what action you think about taking, or not taking in response to a thought.

  3. Look for evidence both for and against the truth of the thought.

  4. Reframe your negative thoughts or come up with a more helpful or accurate thought or action you can take to move forward.

There are worksheets you can use called “thought records” or “ABCs” that we can use to sort out these steps. The next time you notice your feelings go downhill, step back and ask yourself: “What was I thinking?” “How does this make me feel?” “How can I think differently?” Other Strategies for Negative Thoughts Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT takes a slightly different approach to negative thinking. Such therapy accepts that negative thinking patterns are a way of life. Therefore, the strategies used here focus on “being present, opening up and doing what matters.” The following are some methods used in ACT.

  • Being present while consciously engaging in our experiences, both internally and with people and the world around us. Breathe into our positive and negative experiences, ground ourselves, and attend to what is going on. This is a form of mindfulness.

  • Defusing is a way of stepping back and detaching from our thoughts, images and memories. We do this by watching our thoughts in an attempt to see them as mental activity instead of getting hooked or tangled in them.

  • Accepting is opening up and making room for unwanted thoughts, feelings, emotions, images, impulses and sensations. This replaces the tendency to fight, resist, run away, or use unhealthy coping strategies, such as abusing alcohol or drugs, overeating, or expressions of anger that get us in trouble.

  • Noticing ourselves allows us to step back and observe ourselves and others. It helps us get a perspective on things with curiosity and non-judgement. One way to do this is to pretend we are looking at ourselves from the sky.

  • Focusing on values helps us guide our behaviors and set priorities in our lives. It helps us to define what we want to cultivate physically or psychologically. “What do I stand for? “How do I want to spend my time on this planet? “How do I want to treat myself?” “How do I want to treat others?” “How can I help the world?”

  • Committed action means taking action that is guided by our values. These could include physical or psychological actions. If we are living our values, we are more able to persevere, even if doing so brings up difficult thoughts and feelings. Examples of committed actions include: goal setting, learning skills, getting active and exposing ourselves to things we find scary.

There are many other approaches to thinking flexibly. Research and our own experience demonstrates that these strategies help us to live rich and meaningful lives. Sources and Resources:

  • Website – Self Help: Center for Clinical Interventions Self-help resources for a variety of mental health concerns:

  • Workbook: Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens: A Workbook to Break the Nine Thought Habits that are Holding You Back by Mary Karapetian Alvord, PhD. And Anne McGrath, MA

  • Workbook: Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life for Teens: A Guide to Living an Extraordinary Life. By Joseph V. Ciarrochi, PhD, Louise Hayes, PhD. And Ann Bailey, MA

  • Workbook: Mind Over Mood by Christine Padesky, PhD and Dennis Greenberger, PhD.

  • Book: Feeling Good by David Burns

  • Book: Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance & Commitment Therapy by Steven C. Hayes, PhD with Spencer Smith

  • Books: Cognitive Therapy of Depression; Anxiety Disorders and Phobias, A Cognitive Perspective.

  • Books: ACT Made Simple; The Happiness Trap and the Illustrated Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

  • Therapy: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Depression, Anxiety; Cognitive Triangle

  • Activities: Awareness of Thoughts; Feelings Vocabulary; Helpful & Unhelpful Thinking Styles; Pushing Paper

  • Video: Choice Point by Russ Harris

[This post was originally a part of our ongoing newsletter series—Leaning on Your Strengths with Eugenie Lewis]

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