I Think, Therefore I Feel and Act

“Every time we become aware of a thought, as opposed to being lost in a thought, we experience that opening of the mind.”
-Joseph Goldstein

What’s the big deal about thoughts?

Imagine you are driving home from work after a long day. Like many others on the road, you are looking forward to starting your evening activities. Maybe you are excited to watch an episode (or two!) of your favorite show. Or perhaps you have a laundry list of tasks you are eager to get out of the way. Yet as soon as you walk through your front door and flip on the lights, nothing happens. The power on your block is out.

What is the first thought that would come into your mind? Do any others follow?

One of your neighbors might think, “Of course this would happen to me. Nothing ever goes my way. It’s always one problem after another. I can never catch a break. Why do bad things always happen to me?”

Another might think, “What if this doesn’t get fixed until tomorrow? I won’t finish anything that I had planned and I’ll be up half the night worrying about what to do. I’ll probably oversleep, I’ll be late, and my boss will think I’m unreliable… this is a disaster!”

The neighbor down the street may have thoughts that are entirely different. Maybe they think, “What is wrong with the world today? With all the money I pay for electricity every month, you’d think they could at least keep it working!”

Even though you are all facing the same power outage, the situation will trigger drastically different thoughts in different individuals. The thoughts that you each have in response to a power outage will lead to very different emotions. Think about the neighbors above. The first will probably feel sadness, the second will likely feel overwhelmed with anxiety, and the third will probably feel anger. Return to the thoughts that you would have in this situation. What feelings would likely follow? Those feelings in turn will significantly influence the choices that you make in response to the power outage. Our thoughts are intrinsically linked to our feelings and our actions. Together, thoughts, feelings, and actions play a critical role in how we live our lives, and thus our overall wellbeing.

So what can we do about problematic thoughts?

Our thoughts often pop into our minds so quickly that it doesn’t occur to us that they might not always be true. In fact, many therapists call them “automatic thoughts” for this very reason. They seem to come out of nowhere and we don’t necessarily get to choose the thoughts we have. Furthermore, our thoughts can do a real number on our mood, our self-esteem, and our relationships. Can you think of a time when you had a thought like “I am terrible at this” or “he must have spoken to me in that tone because he doesn’t actually like me”? The problem with these thoughts is that they seem so true, so accurate, that we don’t typically think of questioning them in the moment when they’re giving us grief.

In many types of evidence-based therapy, we explore how our thoughts about the events in our lives are connected to the emotions we experience. These thoughts and emotions are in turn related to the actions we choose. With this perspective in mind, it’s not so much the events in life that cause us distress, but the way we interpret and attach meaning to those events. One goal of therapy is to see how our thoughts might be causing us unnecessary suffering. Once we become more aware, we can learn new ways of interacting with those thoughts to change their impact on our lives. In our next few blog posts, we’ll explore two different therapeutic approaches for dealing with thoughts. Then we’ll talk just a bit about how your therapist may select the right techniques for you. Stay tuned!

Stacey Blase, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in working with individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, and intense negative emotions. Email Stacey at sblase@guilfordpsych.com

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