Dealing with Troubling Thoughts

Learning to deal with distressing
Section Contents
 Understand why attempts to control our emotions fail
 Learn about ‘willingness to experience’
 Learn about ‘thinking about thinking’
 Understand the link between thoughts and symptoms
 Identify ways we can deal with ‘troubling thoughts’
Background - Stoic Philosophy
‘Man is disturbed not by
things, but by the views he
takes of them’
Epictetus, about 55 - 135 AD
Background - Constructivism
 ‘Constructivism’ is a perspective in philosophy that views all of our
knowledge as ‘constructed’, i.e. it doesn’t necessarily reflect any external
absolute realities; rather depending on convention, human perception and
social experience
 Experiment with the views in this section, take and use what seems right or
useful for you
 There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution!
Individual Differences
 The way we perceive things is determined in part by the ‘map’ of the world
we carry inside our heads
 Our ‘map’ is drawn up in childhood - it tells us about ourselves, life, and about
other people
 Our ‘map’ is a rough guide to life
 Sometimes our maps are inaccurate!
To Deny the Map is to Follow the Map
Complete the following
Men are ...
Women are ...
Life is ...
I am ...
Thoughts are both Consequences & Causes
Our thoughts are triggered by events around us, by our behaviour and by our
feelings and emotions, as well as by other thoughts
 We all have thoughts of which we’re unaware (unconscious)
 We have relatively little control over thoughts which enter our minds
 Although our thoughts may be ‘irrational’ we often believe them
 Unpleasant emotions and feelings often accompany ‘negative’ thoughts
Which Comes First - Thoughts or Feelings?
 What’s important, from a purely practical point of view, is that it’s usually
much easier to change our thinking (what we think) and our behaviour (what
we do), than it is to change our emotions
 Therefore we can make useful changes simply by assuming that thoughts
come first!
Some Anxiety is Useful - Yerkes-Dodson
 Our abilities improve with
anxiety, up to a point
 Anxiety interferes with complex
tasks more than simple ones
In Summary...
 Our minds are sensitive danger warning systems
 Some of our thoughts are inaccurate, unhelpful or ‘out of time’
 Negative and inaccurate thoughts often seem as though they’re true
 They also ‘feel’ true, so we tend to give them a high ‘credibility rating’
 Negative thoughts can give rise to painful moods, emotions and physical
 Relational Frame theory (RFT) suggests that one reason for human suffering
is the development of language!
You might want to look away if you have arachnophobia
Conscious Thoughts are Lexical
 Lexical means ‘made of words’
 If we’re afraid of spiders, the word SPIDER can evoke thoughts, emotions and
physical feelings
 Thoughts (words) evoke emotions - to a greater or lesser degree, just as
though a real spider were actually present
 There’s a picture of a spider on the next slide ...
Careful What You Say!
 Why taking about horrible things at dinner time isn’t a good idea
 The word ‘vomit’ can have similar stimulus effects as real vomit
Transfer of Stimulus Functions
 Relational Frame Theory (RFT) talks about the way that the stimulus function
of an object or an event tends to get transferred to the word used to
describe it
 If you’re afraid of spiders, the fear, the urge to run away and the physical
effects of seeing a spider can all be evoked just by the word ‘spider’
Words as ‘Noxious Stimulants’
 Our use of language can underlie a great deal of suffering as a result of the
transfer of stimulus functions from referents to the language used to
describe them
 Words can become noxious stimulants
Words as Sources of Pain
 Hearing someone talk about their relationship break-up, or about a
bereavement can be very painful, especially if we have suffered something
similar ourselves
 All we are exposed to is words, yet the words can evoke thoughts and
feelings, as though a relationship break-up or bereavement were happening
here and now
 When I remember past events which went badly, or when I anticipate things
that make me scared, I ‘telescope’ the past and the future into the present
 Without language, could we evoke a negative past or anticipate a negative
Why Worry?
 Worry primarily involves thinking or self-talk (Borkovec & Inz, 1990)
 This kind of internal verbal behaviour is one of the most highly evolved
systems characterising human beings, allowing us to experiment with ideas,
consider alternative choices, evaluate our motives and consider the likely
consequences of each possible choice before acting on one of them, without
fearing that the environment might, in some way, punish us for considering
Chronic Worry
 However, chronic worry has an avoidant function (Borkovec, 1994; Borkovec,
Alcaine, & Behar, 2004). Chronic worriers often believe worrying will help
them prepare for, problem-solve, or superstitiously avoid negative future
events (Davey, Tallis, & Capuzzo, 1996) despite evidence to the contrary
 Borkovec and Roemer (1995) found that GAD worriers reported engaging in
worry to distract themselves from ‘even more emotional things.’
 The next few slides show common unhelpful thoughts and beliefs
Difficulty Tolerating Doubt &Uncertainty
Problems can arise if we believe...
 That uncertainty is stressful and upsetting
 That uncertainty is unfair
 That unexpected events are to be avoided
 That uncertainty interferes with our ability to function
 ‘Certainty seeking’ is a problem e.g. having a heart attack – 1 in 10,000,000
chance, but so long as there’s a chance, I worry
 Consider - of what can we be absolutely certain?
Cognitive Style 2 - Unhelpful Beliefs
Problems can arise if we believe...
 That worry helps us find solutions to problems
 That worry increases our motivation
 That worrying in advance helps us feel better if bad things happen
 That worrying prevents bad things happening (thought-action fusion)
 That worrying shows we are responsible and caring people
Cognitive Style 3 – Problem Avoidance
Solving problems gives us a sense of mastery and pleasure
Problem solving = problem orientation + problem solving skills
 Problem orientation = (perceptions of problems) + (perception of self as
effective) + (realistic expectations)
 Problem solving skills = (defining the problem) + (identifying goals) +
(identifying alternative solutions) + (choosing a solution) + (implementing a
Cognitive Style 4 – Ineffective Self-Soothing
 Worry is lexical – there’s often little imagery involved, worry dampens our
autonomic arousal and emotional processing – without ‘emotional richness’
we can’t identify our needs
 GAD worry reduces hyperventilation and tachycardia – a form of selfsoothing which is painful and only partially effective
 Worry reduces the likelihood of ‘full network activation’ i.e. behavioural,
cognitive, emotional and physiological arousal (which is required for panic
Common Characteristics
 Early role-reversed or caretaking relationships
 Insecure attachments
 Predominance of overly-nurturing personality style
 Conscientiousness
 Positive social evaluation preoccupation – ‘people pleasing’ style
Avoiding Problems
 Although acting directly on painful things in the outside world can work well
(it helps us feel effective), focussing on negative thoughts and feelings
doesn’t help in the same way
 Avoiding things which make us afraid means we continue to fear fear itself
 Our ‘willingness to experience’ reduces the likelihood of panic
An example...
 A person with a fear of heights wants to take her family up the Eiffel tower,
and she’s not willing to experience anxiety
 She thinks:
 “I hope I don’t have a panic attack”
 “I’m not even going to think about having a panic attack”
The anxiety spiral
 The very phrase “I’m not even going to think about having a panic attack”,
whether spoken aloud or thought, can be a noxious stimulus for feelings of
 The thoughts “I must not feel X” contain the very words likely to evoke
feelings associated with “X”
 Try this - shut all thoughts of Uri Geller out of your mind...
How Do You Get Out of a Chinese Finger Trap?
‘Getting Rid’ of Feelings Doesn’t Work
 When we struggle to ‘get rid of’ a thought, emotion or feeling, we end up
with the original pain, plus more caused by our failing attempts to ‘get rid of’
the experience (more suffering)
 We sometimes call this the anxiety spiral – fear and anxiety breed even more
fear, which can, in turn, lead to panic
 In a sense, we get (intensify) what we notice
 So – we need to notice what we want to get!
What can happen if we feed one stray cat?
Thinking positively, negatively
 When we think a negative thought and try to get rid of it, we are thinking
positively, negatively
 Thinking is like breathing: It goes on night and day and you can’t stop it. But
you can change it. You can breathe slowly and deeply or shallowly and
quickly. You can breathe any way you want. But you can’t stop.
 ‘Getting rid of’ fails because we are intensifying the experience by attending
to it
What’s the Best Thing to do in Quicksand?
Emotions Come in Waves
 Recognise that an emotion begins, peaks, then ebbs
 Think about how long horrible feelings and emotions usually last
 Don’t become preoccupied by the time though...
 Think about how confident swimmers deal with waves
 Don’t ‘splash about’!
Intrusive Thoughts
 Intrusive thoughts - thoughts which just seems to ‘pop’ into our mind without
warning and which are upsetting or which stop us from getting on with
 Thought suppression studies, (Wegner, Schneider, Carter & White, 1987)
show that the very act of trying to suppress a thought only results in more
unwanted thoughts. This has been termed the ‘rebound effect’. The more
you try to suppress a thought, the more the thought keeps popping up
Dealing with Intrusive Thoughts
If you are troubled by thoughts which intrude, try the following techniques:
 Thought stopping
 Creative fantasies – ‘boxing’ your worries
 Making worry time
 Surreal Visualisation
 Distraction
 Guilt and regret – a special case?
Thought Stopping
 Thought Replacement
 Yelling ‘Stop’
 Thought disputation
Creative Fantasies - ‘Boxing’
Paradox - ‘Worry Time’
 Put aside time each day to worry incessantly
 Paradoxically, it can be very difficult to consciously ‘hold’ a worry
Surreal Visualisation
 Re-voicing our worries to disempower them ...
 Give your worries a different voice
 Click the speaker icon above
 Thoughts have ‘charm’ – that which draws our attention to them
 The challenge is to find something more ‘charming’ than our worries
 What can you think of that is more attractive or interesting than worry?
Guilt and Regret – a Special Case?
 Consider your values and personal philosophy, would most people with your
philosophical outlook feel guilt or regret in your circumstances?
 Is it possible for you to forgive yourself, even if others won’t?
 ‘When the whole picture is taken into account, people always do the best
they can’ – do you believe this?
 To what extent is personal pride or anger preventing you from moving on?
(guilt is sometimes based on anger)
 What reparations or amends might you be prepared to make?
 These may be to heal the past, or to improve the future
 Understand why attempts to control our emotions fail
 Learn about ‘willingness to experience’
 Learn about ‘thinking about thinking’
 Understand the link between thoughts and symptoms
 Identify ways we can deal with ‘troubling thoughts’
• Borkovec, T.D. (1994). The nature, functions, and origins of worry. In G.C.L. Davey & F. Tallis (Eds), Worrying:
Perspectives on theory, assessment, and treatment (pp. 5-34). New York: Wiley.
• Borkovec, T.D., Alcaine, O.M., & Behar, E. (2004). Avoidance theory of worry and generalized anxiety disorder.
In R.G. Heimberg, C.L. Turk, & D.S. Mennin (Eds). Generalized anxiety disorders: Advances in research and practice
(pp. 77 – 108). New York: Guilford.
• Davey, G. C. L., Tallis, F., & Capuzzo, N. (1996). Beliefs about the consequences of worrying. Cognitive Therapy
and Research, 20, 499-520.
• Borkovec, T. D., & Roemer, L. (1995). Perceived functions of worry among generalized anxiety disorder subjects:
Distraction from more emotionally distressing topics? Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry,
26, 25-30.
• Borkovec, T. D. & Inz, J. (1990). The nature of worry in generalized anxiety disorder: A predominance of thought
activity. Behaviour Research & Therapy, 28, 153 - 158.
• Wegner, Schneider, Carter & White, 1987

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