Mental Health Survival Guide
How thoughts affect feelings

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by Jerry Waxler

Our thoughts have a profound affect on our emotions, and by learning how to think in our own best interest, we improve our emotional condition. We may not realize our thoughts affect our feelings. Most of us assume it's the other way around; that our feelings come first and our thoughts naturally follow. But as we watch the relationship between thoughts and feelings we begin to recognize that the influence works both ways. For example, our thoughts may habitually emphasize first and foremost the discouraging side of every situation, or compulsively predict a catastrophe at the end of every pleasant moment. Such gloomy thinking drags our feelings into the dumps.

The fact that thoughts affect feelings is good news, because we can review our thoughts, talk about them, compare them with other people's thoughts, decide if we agree or disagree with our own thoughts, and so on. We don't have anywhere near as much access to our emotions as we have to our thoughts.

The part of our brain that gives us the ability to think, called the prefrontal cortex, is what makes the human brain so specialized, and distinguishes us from other animals. By using our thoughts to refine and guide our emotions we are maximizing our human potential.

But while it's possible to change thoughts, it's not easy. We've been under the influence of our thoughts for so long that we're not aware of the general tone of our thinking, nor do we realize we have choices. Even when we begin to notice the connection between our thoughts and feelings, we may not believe we can change them.

Time for change
To change the things we think, we must expose them to conscious scrutiny. Keeping a journal exposes what we are thinking, and enables us to more deeply understand our own thoughts and to make conscious decisions about them. Talking to a counselor also helps us recognize old patterns and consider new options.

Elaborate trap of habitual thinking patterns
As we learn more about our thinking patterns, we realize our thoughts can trap us into strong negative emotions. For example, it is common to blame another person's behavior for our own feelings. We might say to ourselves that the other person "makes us depressed" or "upsets us." Cognitive therapy helps us reframe our thoughts to realize that the other person doesn't magically control our feelings. We make ourselves depressed through our own beliefs.

When we look more closely at our beliefs about other people we realize that we often expect them to place us at the center of their world. We learned to think in these magical terms when, as children we believed we were the center of the universe, and we expected our parents to know our needs and give us what we wanted. These, and other childish beliefs, persist unchallenged into our adult life, continuing to disturb us, until we take the time to root them out and correct them.

For example, we may have formed the notion that another person is supposed to know what we want, and then is supposed to behave accordingly. This belief sets us up to become upset and troubled when the other person doesn't behave in the way we expected. By saying the other person upset us, we give all the power to the other person. Upon closer consideration we realize that we were upset by our own belief about the other person's behavior, rather than the behavior itself. When we look at it this way, we can find ways to reclaim control over our feelings.

Cognitive therapy is a rich, productive perspective that helps us learn about the habits of our mind. From Norman Vincent Peale's "Power of Positive Thinking" to Dr. David Burns' "The Feeling Good Handbook" many self-help books spell out the way we use thoughts to upset ourselves, and suggest ways to replace these habits with more productive ones. Here are some insights that help release us from negative emotions.

One of the most common ways we inflame our feelings is to use a label to describe someone. When we say, "you jerk," or, "what an oaf" we pin an emotionally charged label on someone else or on ourselves. A label limits our options, making us feel helpless, depressed or anxious. Once we accept the label "jerk" we have no where to go.

We can lift our spirits by describing situations more accurately. Say, "I'm having a bad day" or "Everyone makes mistakes." Such statements take more work than automatic labels, but when we use forgiving phrases instead of emotionally charged labels, we'll tune down our bad feelings, and increase our optimism and cheer.

Mental filter
We filter our observations of the world through our own beliefs. We may tend to focus on any information that agrees with our perspective and to ignore information that disagrees with our belief. By selectively filtering out the things on which we focus, we continually give ourselves supporting "proof" that our belief is a correct reflection of the way the world "really is." For example, if we have low self-esteem, we may tend to only hear criticisms, while ignoring praise. To break this gloomy habit, we need to make the effort to see and reflect on evidence from both sides.

When someone treats you unkindly, you may say to yourself, "He never considers my feelings" or "he is always rude." Words like "never" and "always" ignore all the exceptions and focus only on the negative point we are trying to make. If we look carefully we realize that the person or situation actually has a variety of positive and negative aspects. Instead of generalizing, we should select words that remind us that the offending situation is just one episode. Instead of "never" or "always" say, "in this situation." By looking more closely at the actual situation you are in a better position to respond appropriately, without escalating unproductive feelings.

Reality can turn out to be black, white or any shade in between. But often we convince ourselves that if we can't have it all, we can't have anything. For example, if I can't be first in my class, why bother studying at all, or if I can't be as thin as a model, why bother controlling my eating, or if my lover doesn't give me everything I want, she doesn't love me at all. This type of thinking creates expectations neither we nor others can ever meet, and so we are inevitably disappointed.

"Should" statements and beliefs
We believe that someone should behave towards us in a certain way, and when that person behaves differently we become angry, disappointed, depressed, etc. But we are the ones who created that rule. While it would be nice if everyone focused on us and pleased us, this is not the law of the world. We can become much healthier when we realize that other people are motivated by a whole range of causes, and that their behavior towards us is not controlled by our rules. Accepting the rules other people live by, even those we don't agree with, lifts a burden from our shoulders and improve the quality of our life and relationships.

Crystal ball gazing
Often, we find ourselves considering what might happen in the future. Our mind races ahead, and we fantasize about a negative outcome, one with catastrophic consequences. We are flooded with fears about losing our job and home, or escalating the world's chaos from its present state to a much worse state. Experiencing the upsetting emotions of our dire predictions, we feel discouraged, frustrated, or angry, based on a reality that has not yet taken place, and probably never will. After recognizing that we are making ourselves miserable when we predict the future, we can allow ourselves to back off of our thoughts of gloom, and focus instead on those things over which we have more control.

Mind reading
As we try to relate to other people, we find ourselves wondering what they are thinking. Since they can't say everything on their mind, we must guess some of their thoughts. Sometimes our guesses take us into blind alleys, creating tension within ourselves, and tension with other people. By guessing that someone is judging us, mocking us, manipulating us, and so on, we can become enraged or depressed. We can help to bring our mental state back into equilibrium by recognizing that we have jumped to conclusions about their thoughts. They may not be thinking any such thing, and meanwhile we are working ourselves into a frenzy. Once we recognize that our emotions are based on fantasies of what they might be thinking, we can insert positive guesses into our fantasy. Even better, we can develop the skill to check out our fantasy by asking people what they are thinking. The ability to communicate our concerns empowers us to increase intimacy and reduce misunderstanding.

Refuting errors, and affirming positive values
Our thoughts form the verbal basis of our internal life. We describe the world through our thoughts, describe ourselves, and describe what we intend to do. We even get in touch with our emotions by describing them with our thoughts. Of course most of our thoughts are just fine. The ones we're interested in changing are the ones that drag us into feeling bad. When we recognize the power of our thoughts, and want to improve, we must learn how to modify our own mental patterns.

But just because we begin to pay attention to our thoughts doesn't mean we're immediately able to change them. These patterns run deep, and once we see these trouble-making thoughts, we often feel helpless. As soon as we stop one thought, our mind generates another. Rather than stopping thoughts, we need to learn how to dispute them and replace them with more effective ones. Changing our own thought habits requires practice and hard work. To understand, dispute and then correct the beliefs that make us miserable. Through introspection and skill building, we can learn to counterbalance these negative thoughts.

Notice thoughts
First, by becoming aware of the thoughts that make us miserable, we become better able to communicate them with others, and think about them ourselves. This clear perception itself improves our sense of understanding of ourselves, and can open channels of intimacy with others.

Abandon fruitless lines of thinking
Second, we learn to let go of fruitless lines of thinking. When we realize our misery is based on unsubstantiated fantasies of what someone might be thinking, or of what might happen in the future, we can begin to relax our grip on these thoughts that seem so compelling and important.

Refute thoughts that drag us down
Third, we can begin to actively refute our line of thinking. If we realize that a thought such as "He always treats me shabbily" makes us feel miserable, we can recognize it and refute it. In this case, we would realize that by generalizing we are making ourselves upset. Instead of focusing only on his negative behavior, we would also include times when he behaves more generously. By opening ourselves up to this recognition, even if he only treated us well one time, we can break our negative generalization and open ourselves to more positive ways of thinking about our situation.

Affirmations lift our feelings
Fourth, instead of disputing negative thoughts habits, consciously flip them the other way and substitute more positive ones. For example, reverse the crystal ball and consciously predict a positive outcome. Or change the negative filter to a positive one, and see all the good things in life that you can be grateful for. Even making simple optimistic statements like "this too shall pass" or "everything is for the best" you can get to the other side of rough spots with a more positive frame of mind.

Living well requires insights and learning about our own internal environment. One of the most accessible places to look for ways to feel better is our own thought stream. As we explore our thoughts, we find many opportunities for improving them.

When our thoughts drag us down, we can learn to change these habits for the better, and gradually, with diligent persistent work, we learn first how to detect, and then how to dispute our habitual thinking. By escaping the trap of unproductive habitual thinking, we can become free to think thoughts that deliver more productive and more harmonious results.

See also: Affirmations, Beliefs, Blame, Body/Mind, Change, Self-help, Visualization

Feeling good handbook by David Burns
Awaken the giant within by Tony Robbins
Power of positive thinking by Norman Vincent Peale
Anger, how to live with it and without it by Albert Ellis
Introduction to NLP by Joseph O'connor and John Seymour


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Mental Health Survival Guide
Copyright Jerry Waxler, 2004, All Rights Reserved