Emotional Regulation

“E” is today’s letter. “E” is for Emotional Regulation.

Emotional regulation was something I learned from a therapy session. The theory behind it is that feelings, behaviour and thoughts all influence each other. Feelings and thoughts come more automatically compared to behaviour. Essentially you are trying to modify your negative thoughts and feelings by behaving contrary to them.

Seriously!? Act opposite? It sounded like fromage (cheese) to me! I was told I don’t need to mask the emotion, that I should accept it and feel it, but my actions should reflect the opposite. This immediately came to mind…..

So this was my task, acting opposite….and because I’m a good little girl who does her homework, I gave it a try. I used my usual scenario, getting out of bed in the morning. When I wake up in the morning, I don’t want to get out of bed. Bed is cozy and warm and I’m safe from people and their opinions. If I get out of bed, I have to eat, get dressed, go to work. This, of course, requires energy that I do not have. Then, the thought of work starts to give me anxiety as I think about all the things that could go wrong and all the mistakes I could make and how that’s going to make me look. That gets me thinking about what other people think of me, then I just start hating myself. This cycle is what goes through my head every morning.

What would happen if I stayed in bed? I’d get to stay warm and cozy, my anxiety over work would lift and I wouldn’t have to spend any energy. So far, sounds good. That only lasts for a moment though. My anxiety is replaced by guilt for not getting up and doing what the average person does every day. This must mean I am lazy. I don’t want to be considered lazy, so I start hating myself and worrying about what people think again. On top of this, since I’ve elected to stay in bed, I’m alone with my self-loathing thoughts all day.

What if I got out of bed? I wake up, I feel like hell. Yes, I am depressed and have no energy, but instead of dwelling on that, I’m going to get up. Getting up is followed by the routine of getting ready to leave the house…breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed, hair, make-up, pack a bag….before you know it, I am out the door without having started my cycle of dread. Huh. It worked!

By getting out of bed right away and starting my routine, I distracted myself from my negative thoughts and prevented that self-loathing feeling. I was still depressed, but I was functioning and I got to skip that whole part about dreading the day and hating myself. There are positives to this technique.

 

C is for Cognitive

Cognition is a huge part of mental health. That’s why I have dedicated the letter “C” from the A to Z blogging challenge to cognitive aspects of depression. I have already talked about the cognitive dysfunction experienced by some depression sufferers and how to combat those symptoms. Today I want to talk about a popular topic in cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), cognitive distortions.

What is CBT? CBT assumes a relationship between thoughts, mood and behaviour and by changing maladaptive thinking, you can change your mood and your behaviour. The idea is to challenge your negative way of thinking. These automatic negative thoughts are called cognitive distortions. There are methods to counteract these cognitive distortions but first, you must learn to catch yourself in a negative thought. To do this I kept a Thought Record. I recorded the situation, what I was thinking and the cognitive distortion. Here is a list of the most common cognitive distortions.

how i feel

Negative Thoughts – Emotional Reasoning

  • All-or-Nothing Thinking. This is when you look at things in absolute categories; black or white. You forget about the continuum, the shades of grey. If you make a mistake, you see yourself as a total failure.
  • Over-generalization. This is when you look at a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. If it happened once, it will always happen.
  • Discounting the Positives. This was one of my first posts. You ignore your accomplishments and good qualities. It’s like they don’t count for anything.
  • Mind-Reading. You assume you know what other people are thinking, failing to consider more likely possibilities. For example, when someone laughs, you think they are laughing at you, but really they are probably having a conversation or remembering something cute their kid did that morning.
  • Labeling. You identify yourself with your short-comings instead of considering a more complex reality. Instead of shrugging off a mistake, you conclude you are a loser because of it.
  • Magnification/minimization. You blow a negative situation out of proportion or shrink a good situation inappropriately.
  • “Shoulds”. You motivate and criticize yourself with “shoulds”, “ought to’s”, “have to’s” and “musts”.
  • Emotional Reasoning. You feel it therefore you are. I feel fat therefore, I must BE fat.
  • Personalization. You blame yourself for something that wasn’t entirely under your control. I blame myself for not getting a lot of research data. In reality, there are a lot of factors that contribute to this. For example, people don’t want to participate!
  • Filtering. You dwell on the negative and ignore the rest of the situation.
  • Catastrophizing. You automatically assume the situation will turn out badly without considering other outcomes. You fear one negative event will be part of a chain of negative events without end.
  • Selective abstraction. You jump to conclusions without having all the facts.

Once you are able to identify these cognitive distortions it is time to come up with a strategy to challenge them. Being a scientist, I find it easiest to look at the facts of the situation. What are the facts? What information do I have to support my thoughts? What is the proof? You can use previous experiences too. What has happened in similar situation? How did I cope? What have I learned that will help me this time? This line of thinking does not come naturally. You have to literally stop what you are doing and think about it, ask yourself these questions. The good news? It does get easier and more natural over time. It has helped me to manage my anxiety. I hope it helps you too.

Discounting the positive

I am so guilty of this. I never realize I am doing it until I look back on the situation months later. When I say discounting the positive, I don’t mean just negative thinking. When you have depression it’s just natural to look on the negative side of everything. That kind of thinking is hard to reverse in of itself, but discounting the positive is taking it one step further. When your experience contradicts your negative outlook, you go as far as to discredit the good that’s happening by saying it doesn’t count.

I’m sure I do this regularly for little things, but when I catch myself having done it for a big thing, I get annoyed with myself. Last summer I found out that I won a fellowship I applied for. It was from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). I should have patted myself on the back. A national agency liked my research proposal enough to fund it. I should have taken advantage of that moment and celebrated it. It’s not an everyday occurrence that you get funded, especially in my field. But no, not me, I didn’t celebrate. I said to myself, I guess no one else applied this year and that’s why I got it. *face palm* I even waited a few weeks to tell my supervisor the news. She was wondering why I wasn’t doing the happy dance all over the place.

I expected not to get the fellowship, so when I did, I told myself it doesn’t count because no one else applied. In doing that, I completely disregarded the good in the situation taking away the potential happiness it could have given me. Instead, I felt sorry for myself being their only choice. Now that I look back, what was I thinking?! First of all, I have no idea who applied and second, who cares. If my research proposal wasn’t good they wouldn’t have given me the fellowship. It’s not like these nonprofits just throw money at people.

So now, almost eight months later, I will be a little proud of myself. I’ll celebrate by putting another check mark in the I’m not such a loser after all box. It’s never too late to be happy about something. It doesn’t have to be something big-ish like this either. The small victories count too. I have been told at the end of everyday, I should take inventory and write down something good that happened, no matter how small. I have been trying to remember to do this and it does help a little. Today, I got to sleep past 7am. I’m going to relish in that for a little while.

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