Our thoughts are powerful. While they cannot be seen or measured, they have the potential to dictate our mood, responses, and behavior1 (p. 53). They can propel us to push through hard experiences, or on the contrary, they can tell us to give up in the midst of uncomfortable life events. While we always have the option to choose whether or not our thoughts and feelings dictate our behavior, it is common for individuals to feel stuck in negative-thought patterns. It feels defeating when challenges arise, expectations go unmet, disappointments repeat, and traumas occur. Emotions related to circumstances are always valid. And while we cannot control what happens to us, we can intentionally focus on how our thought life impacts us.
How new thinking creates new neural pathways
Let’s use an analogy for how repetitive thoughts (or neural rigidity) is caused. Imagine we go on a hike. You and I walk down a particular trail in the woods and notice the dirt path that is carved out for us. Along the way, we talk about how a path is formed by individuals walking up and down it numerous times. If we want to stop journeying down this path and make a new trail, what would we need to do? We would begin creating new footprints in a different area in the woods. In order for a new path to form, we need to walk up and down it numerous times.
This is much like the human brain. When we repeatedly journey down the same thought-path, our unhealthy feelings and behaviors will stay the same as well. In order to form a new route, we get off of the familiar trail and begin taking steps into the new one. We must do this not just once or twice, but over and over again until the new path is formed. This is called neural plasticity, and it gives many clients hope that they don’t have to be stuck in their way of thinking for the rest of their lives!
Taking a new pathway offers new perspectives
So how do we create a better relationship with our thought life? How do we form new pathways? According to Gillihan1, one popular modality that has “emerged in recent decades as the best-tested approach for managing a wide range of psychological conditions” (p. 2) is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). While it uses numerous interventions, the goal is to help individuals “take back control over their own thoughts and change the stories they tell themselves”2 (p. 19). Telford2 notes that CBT focuses on how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are connected (p. 26). The internal domino effect works like this: an event occurs, which leads to a thought. That produces a feeling, which leads to a specific behavior.
Let’s take a look a recent example of the event-thought-feeling-action effect in my own life:
Event: I attended a zoom training and the facilitator called on me to provide the answer to her question; my answer was not correct aso the trainer asked another individual on the call to answer instead of me.
Thought: “I should have known that…I am stupid”
Feeling: Shame and embarrassment
Behavior: I logged off the zoom call early and did not complete the training
Notice how my thought (that came automatically after the event) produced a feeling which influenced my behavior. The keyword here is notice. Being aware of your thoughts is the foundation to creating a better relationship with them. I would like to encourage you over the next week to begin noticing what comes to mind immediately after an event occurs. Can you identify themes? What feelings were produced from your thoughts? In what ways did you respond to the thoughts and feelings you were experiencing?
Some helpful tips as you blaze a new mental trail
As you begin practicing this new awareness of thought, I encourage you to keep in mind what psychiatrist Aaron Beck and David Burns call “cognitive distortions,” also known as “thinking errors”1 (p. 56). Having awareness of these errors is not meant to pull you into the deep forest of shame, but rather to serve as a light illuminating the campgrounds to which our thoughts may be residing and putting language to experience. In the list below from Gillihan1, notice if you experience the following cognitive distortions/thinking errors:
- Black and White Thinking: seeing things in extremes; all or nothing
- Shoulding: thinking the way we want things to be is the way they ought to be
- Overgeneralization: believing that one instance applies to every situation
- Catastrophizing: thinking a situation is much worse than it is
- Discounting the positive: minimizing evidence that contradicts one’s negative automatic thoughts
- Emotional reasoning: assuming our feelings convey useful information
- Fortune telling: making predictions based on scant information
- Mind reading: assuming we know what someone else is thinking
- Personalization: thinking events that have nothing to do with us are actually about us
- Entitlement: expecting to reach a certain outcome based on our actions or position
- Outsourcing happiness: giving outside factors the final say regarding our emotions
- False sense of helplessness: believing we have less power than we actually do
- False sense of responsibility: believing we have more power than we actually do
So let me link arms with you for a moment and share with you that there is so much grace for you in this process. May you be kind to yourself as you begin to notice your thoughts while your awareness of thinking errors grows. Creating a new neural pathway takes time, and it is hard work, but it’s never too late to become a pioneer of change. You can forge new pathways in your brain to find peace, freedom, and rest from mental rigidity. This week, try to set footprints onto new thinking territory. Take this journey for yourself. It’s worth it!
- Gillihan, S. J. (2018). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple: 10 Strategies For Managing Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Panic, And Worry. Althea Press.
- Telford, O. (2020). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Simple Techniques to Instantly Overcome Depression, Relieve Anxiety, and Rewire Your Brain. Independently published.