• This [event] shouldn’t have happened, and…
• It’s terrible that it did, and…
• I can barely handle it, and…
• Somebody here needs to be called out or reprimanded because of it. Is it me? Is it you? What a screwed up world we live in that this should happen.
Can you think of a time when one of these thoughts passed through your mind? Last week? Yesterday? A few minutes ago? The phrases above represent common forms of irrational thinking identified and discussed by psychologists like Albert Ellis (Rational-Emotive Therapy) and Aaron Beck (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). In an article addressing teachers’ stress and their common reactions to student behaviors, John W. Maag (2008) references the following internal thought patterns:
• Demandingness: The use of the words “should/shouldn’t, have to, need to, must”
• Catastrophizing: The belief that a situation is worse than it is
• I-Can’t-Stand Its: Imagining one can’t tolerate situations or have any happiness if the situation persists
• Condemning and Damning: The tendency to be excessively critical of oneself, others, or the world
And there are many, many more. My personal defaults include “catastrophizing” (e.g., “This is a really horrible situation, and I just can’t believe that it’s happening”) and “personalizing.” Although only implicitly featured above with the “Is it me?” quote, personalizing assumes that somehow I’m primarily responsible for the behaviors and reactions of the people in my immediate circle. (My ego and I have learned that isn’t typically the case.)
Einstein says, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Our interpretations of events can aggravate, intensify, and sustain our perceived stress levels. Something happens; we feel it as chemicals surge through our bodies; we tell ourselves a story about it, and we react—not always in the best way. The key is finding a way to pause, notice, and interrupt the pattern so that we can rewire our brains.
This takes time. There is absolutely no simple way to do this, other than through consistent practice. Cognitive reappraisal, mentally shifting one’s interpretation of a situation, has proven to be one of the most effective, evidence-based methods for reducing anxiety, depression and/or stress (Hoffman et al., 2012).
For example, if a student yells at you when you ask her for her homework, you might initially think, “This is awful. I can’t believe she is screaming at me in front of everyone. I don’t deserve this!” However, if you reframe this incident by thinking, “That wasn’t fun, but it’s not about me,” you can begin to get curious about what is actually going on with your student today (rather than catastrophizing, personalizing, reacting angrily, and further escalating the situation).
To address your thought patterns and begin to rewire your brain, consider these three key steps:
- Record the repertoire of mental messages you send to yourself daily. Spend a week or two jotting down the common thoughts you have when you perceive a threat or potential conflict brewing (even those that seem fairly benign or innocuous).
- Do a content inventory of those thoughts. Do you notice any patterns? (Consult a list of common cognitive distortions.)
- If you are committed to digging in and making some long-term changes, do a post-mortem on your day-to day reactions. When a problematic event occurs, take the time that same day (or evening) to replay the situation with this “Testing your Thoughts” worksheet. If you practice using this tool 2-3 times a week (for a sustained period of time), you will likely increase your awareness of your thought patterns and begin to retrain your brain.
Believe in the power of neuroplasticity (i.e., your brain can change and rewire itself with practice), and take Pablo Picasso’s words to heart: “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”