Can Daniel Fryer fix my thoughts? I'm hoping so, because it feels like a lot of them are broken. If our thoughts are supposed to be the rational through-line leading us purposely through a productive life, mine are not following form. Often they drive me into corners and dead ends. Occasionally, they drive me round the bend.
I am a veteran catastrophiser. Only one small thing has to go off course in my day to have me leaping to the worst case scenario. A family member running late and uncontactable, a strange pain appearing out of the blue, and it's as if ominous music starts playing in my head. A cognitive cascade is triggered, in which I imaginatively plot out a series of devastating events I feel certain will follow, all of them inevitably headed to the same conclusion: terrible suffering, either for me, or for those I care about the most.
Daniel Fryer is something of an expert in dysfunctional thinking. He is a psychotherapist, former journalist and author of a new book, The Four Thoughts That F**k You Up. By following his programme, he promises that it's possible to rewire your brain in just six weeks to be able to deal with life, stress and uncertainty in a more rational way.
He's agreed to take on my case of intractable worry. Through three Skype sessions and working on the book he believes he can turn me into a calmer version of myself. His approach is based on Rational Emotional Behaviour Therapy (REBT). It's a branch of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and its effectiveness is, according to Fryer, as strongly supported by empirical evidence as classic CBT. He chose to specialise in REBT because of a personal belief that "it does the better job."
Because many, many people say CBT helps, to a point. But this goes a little bit further. "It has a theme", he tells me, "the general principle of emotional responsibility. The theme is that it's not the events in life that disturb you, it's what you tell yourself about those events that disturbs you. The idea is that if you change what it is you are telling yourself, you get to change how you think, what you feel and how you act."
It all sounds very appealing. And yet, there is a part of me that truly believes that a fixation on the worst case scenario is quite a reasonable approach to life. After all, few of us get through without encountering trauma, without living through at least one or two of the things that we fear the most. We're quite likely to experience serious illness at one time or another. All of us will die. In the face of this ineluctable fact, it seems to me perfectly appropriate to feel anxious.
Well, yes, said Fryer, in my first session with him, but fixating on that idea is not necessarily an ideal way to live. "The problem with anxiety is that it has you stuck in the future. It's a future that hasn't happened yet and probably won't. You're worrying about all the horrible things that could happen and not enjoying what is happening," he says.
Daniel asks me to give him an example of a recent occasion in which catastrophising has caused me to act in a way that is unhelpful. I don't have to think too hard. Just the day before, my son had been taken out for a few hours to the park by his grandmother and he was travelling on the back of her bike. By the time it started to get dark, they still hadn't arrived home and my mother-in-law wasn't answering her phone. So what did I do? I abandoned the dinner I was in the middle of preparing, bundled the brand new baby into the car and drove around looking for them. Luckily, I'd barely got going when I passed my mother-in-law's house to see the bike propped up outside and the two of them cheerfully making their way inside. I slunk home feeling rather silly.
This kind of irrational behaviour, explains Fryer, is driven by a cognitive glitch. In other words, it's the thoughts that are f**king me up. His approach, as the title suggests, helps readers identify four key dysfunctional thinking patterns. The first is 'Dogmatic Demands' - a term that refers to the rigid expression of a demand for something. "Behind any emotional or behavioural problem that disturbs you there is a demand for something," says Fryer. In the example I gave him, the demand that propelled me out of the house in a flap was the demand that I must know that everyone is safe at all times.
The second dysfunctional thought pattern he refers to as 'Doing a Drama'. This is the habit of what Fryer terms "awfulising" or catastrophising. I'm definitely guilty of this, or as Fryer describes it, giving "an extreme rating of how bad a given thing or situation is, or how bad it is that your demand has not been met."
Number three is what he calls the "I can't copes." It's known in psychological terms as low-frustration tolerance, or, in Fryer's words, "an extreme and unhealthy rating of their ability to cope with things." This is what is at work when we become panicked when our unreasonable demand is not being met.
And finally, Fryer has identified the fourth thought that f**ks you up is: the habit of pejorative put-downs. "Self-damning," as it's known in REBT, is succumbing to an extreme and unhelpful inner critic. "People who do this tend to see themselves as stupid, useless, worthless, no-good failures," writes Fryer.
The demand that "I must know everyone is safe" is not only unrealistic but counterproductive. The key, he says, is to move from this rigid way of thinking to one that is more flexible - the ability to think instead: "I'd like to know everyone is safe, but I don't HAVE to." To that end, I learn the ABCDE model of emotional health - a central feature of the REBT model. The ABCDE represents a process. 'A' stands for Activating events - which in the example I gave, was the fact that it was getting dark and I didn't know exactly where my son was. 'B' stands for Beliefs that cause 'C' - Consequences. That's the bit you're trying to challenge, and REBT does so by introducing 'D', which stands for Disputing your beliefs vigorously and repeatedly, which leads to 'E' - an Effective rational outlook.
We work together to come up with a number of statements that sum up my unhealthy beliefs, as well as amassing evidence,w based on real experience, that refute them. He then guides me to a series of opposing statements, that I am to repeat to myself whenever I catch myself catastrophising. "Three weeks is all it takes to build a new neural pathway in your head," says Fryer.
Fryer knows a fair bit about dysfunctional thinking himself. His book is dedicated to his mother, who was, he says, an extremely anxious parent, and his early life was turbulent. As a response he devised his own coping strategies which were not that far removed from the REBT approach. As an adult, he found himself experiencing irrational anger in certain situations, particularly in crowds or traffic, to the point where he found himself sometimes grabbing strangers and shoving them out of the way. That was when his formal training in REBT took off. He's trained himself to be much more zen in situations that used to trigger him. By learning to tell himself that that the things that used to incite him are not "the end of the world, I can deal with it" he has successfully changed my entire ethos. Three weeks in, and I'm starting to see how that can happen. I'm starting, I notice, to act in accordance with the healthier set of beliefs Fryer has led me to. When one evening recently my partner was late getting home and his phone was going to voicemail, I resisted the temptation to hop in the car or start calling the hospitals, and got on with finishing some work instead.
Research published in the journal European Psychiatry last week argued that narcissists tend to be happier than the rest of us. In addition to the egomaniac's inflated sense of self-worth, they may also lay claim to a mental robustness shielding them from anxiety and depression.