Friday 23 August 2019

#MindYourself: 'It is our thoughts that fuel our stress'

In day two of his guide to feeling happier, psychologist Dr Paul D'Alton explains why we shouldn't believe everything we think

Dr Paul D'Alton
Dr Paul D'Alton

It sometimes surprises people to hear a psychologist say that "thoughts and feelings are not facts". I often say to patients that when you really, really believe that something is absolutely true, it's time to doubt yourself.

How we think affects how we feel; it sounds simple but this is one of the most important understandings when it comes to our mental health. This thought-feeling connection has transformed how we work with difficult emotions. This thought-feeling connection is fundamental to managing stress. The first challenge behind the thought-feeling connection is that a lot of the time we are actually unaware of our thoughts. This happens because, as we looked at in yesterday's paper, we are on automatic pilot a lot of the time. The thoughts that we are unaware of are just as powerful in affecting how we feel as the thoughts we are aware of.

The second challenge behind the thought-feeling connection is that our thoughts are not always accurate. This is really important because how we think about something will powerfully affect how we feel. This is very important when it comes to managing the natural stress that is part of being a human.

We know from decades of research that the way we think plays a key role in stress. Our thoughts fuel our stress. If we want to be less stressed, it starts with getting to know our thinking. This starts with not believing everything you think.

Our thinking is not as reliable as we like to assume. Our minds have a tendency to become much more 'sure' and 'certain' the more stressed we become. This happens because when stress starts, we narrow our thinking to only consider the immediate issues. Our minds become threat-focused and we tend to see things through a very restricted black-and-white lens. Just think back to an argument you had - in the heat of the moment it becomes almost impossible to imagine that the other person might not be completely wrong or that I might not be seeing the whole picture.

With strong moods our thinking becomes very fused and, simply put, we loose perspective. This narrowing of our thinking is what fuels the vicious cycle of stress. By challenging our thinking we can interrupt this cycle and reduce stress.

Challenging our thinking does not mean 'thinking positively'. Learning to mind ourselves means learning to question our thinking rather than replace it with 'positive thoughts'. We can bombard ourselves with all the positive thoughts we like - it most likely makes us feel worse. Learning to question our thinking is probably the most significant and sustainable way to mind ourselves and live with greater ease. This is about changing how we relate to our thinking.

We can begin to do this by noticing the unhelpful ways we think. There are three very common unhelpful ways we tend to think, especially when we are stressed. These are Emotional Reasoning, Labelling and All or Nothing Thinking. These kinds of thinking 'errors' are what cause us to loose perspective and they exacerbate stress.

1. Emotional Reasoning: we reason or work things out according to how we feel. "I feel like an fool", "I feel like a failure", "I don't feel like doing that now".

2. Labelling: we over identify with our shortcomings. Instead of saying, "I made a mistake on that", we tell ourselves things like "I'm a idiot" or "I'm useless".

3. All or Nothing Thinking: we split our experience into extremes. For example, because I am late for work, I think "I'm always messing up"… "this is all terrible".

By beginning to question our thinking, by not believing everything we think, we can interrupt the vicious cycle of stress. We can do this by using the following exercise when we notice ourselves getting stressed.

1. Pause for a moment.

2. Take three deep breaths, breathing slowly and deeply. Notice the breath enter and leave your body.

3. Notice your thinking - and if there are any particularly strong thoughts, gently remind yourself not to believe everything you think.

4. Take another three deep, slow, deliberate breaths.

Our thoughts fuel our stress. If we want to be less stressed it starts with getting to know our thinking. This starts with not believing everything you think.

Irish Independent

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