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:

  1. 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).
  2. Do a content inventory of those thoughts. Do you notice any patterns? (Consult a list of common cognitive distortions.)
  3. 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.”

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Marsha Linehan, the founder of dialectical behavior therapy, created an acronym to guide us through moments of distress—or “terrible, horrible, very bad” circumstances. The goal behind the acronym is to develop a skill set for tolerating events and challenging emotions when you cannot immediately change the fact that, for example … your boss continually reprimanded you in front of your colleagues during your morning meeting, your teenage daughter screamed at you through that closed door again, or you just discovered that your dear friend from college is struggling with an addiction.

When I first read Linehan’s claim that someone can “distract” herself through a series of options couched within a model called “ACCEPTS,” I remember smirking. Accept by distracting … oh really?! Yet a large part of the day-to-day human struggle, for me anyway, intensifies in my vigorous resistance to difficult situations, conflicts, and uncomfortable emotions that can feel overwhelming in a given moment.

Distracting with other constructive and worthwhile options is a step toward acceptance and tolerance. If I choose to occupy my mind and body with other activities, it doesn’t mean that I necessarily approve of the event that is making me so angry, sad, or fearful, but it is an opportunity to redirect my energies in a more productive and meaningful way because this thing [this divorce, this job toxicity, this disease my friend is battling] is a reality that I must inevitably bear. It IS, and so are the other possibilities below:

Distract with ACCEPTS*

1.    “With Activities – Engage in exercise or hobbies … call or visit a friend”
What are your go-to activities? Do you have a repertoire of options? Can you throw on your running shoes and take a quick jog? Pick up those knitting needles? Do you enjoy tending those plants on your balcony or window sill? Is it time for a Netflix night or a game night with the kids?

2.    “With Contributing – Contribute to someone; do volunteer work; give something to someone else”

Do you have a “cause”? Is there a way that you give back to your community or neighborhood beyond your traditional work day? In her famous TED Talk, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal cites research indicating that people who manage stress best and have greater longevity are individuals who reach out, connect, and extend care to others.

3.    “With Comparisons – Compare yourself to people coping the same as you or less well than you”

Instead of the dangers of some social comparisons, which can lead to lowered levels of self-esteem, this form of comparison has the opposite effect. “This is not my worst moment. I’ve managed much more difficult circumstances than this.” The popular refrain, “This is a first-world problem” often helps me to put my minor frustrations in perspective as well.

4.    “With opposite Emotions – Be sure the event creates different emotions. Ideas: scary movies, joke books, comedies…”

What makes you laugh? Your goofy, slobbery dog? Your toddling two-year-old? An impromptu family dance party? A favorite TV show or stand-up comic? (Parks and Recreation is a favorite TV sitcom in my household!) What makes you joyful?

5.    “With Pushing away – Push the situation away by leaving it for a while”

This is a simple exercise in refraining from further rumination. Some suggest that designating a specified time for worrying (e.g., 30 minutes a day) is a better option. Otherwise, immerse yourself in other activities.

6.    “With other Thoughts” – Count to 10; count colors in a painting or tree … work puzzles”

Sometimes easier said than done, but there are multiple tools and methods for cognitive reappraisal (ways to practice re-framing and replacing thoughts) that can also be very beneficial.

7.    “With intense other Sensations – Hold ice in hand; squeeze a rubber ball very hard”

Lots of healthy and appealing options here, right? Sexual activity, loud music, an invigorating CrossFit workout, a super-hot shower.

All of these strategies offer alternatives to feeling bowled over by that “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

*See Marsha Linehan’s website at www.linehaninstitute.org for additional resources related to dialectical behavioral therapy.