Have you ever noticed that sometimes the same event is stressful and sometimes it’s not? Or maybe there’s something that just drives you crazy, while your spouse, friend, or co-worker seems unaffected-or even thinks it’s funny?
What is it that makes something stressful for you or not? Is there some variable that makes all the difference?
In the 1960s, psychologist Albert Ellis developed “Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy” when he recognized the strong link between how we interpret events and the emotions and behaviors that result.
Most significantly, he noticed that “Between the event and the emotion is realistic or unrealistic self-talk. The self-talk produces the emotions. Your own thoughts, directed and controlled by you, are what create anxiety, anger, and depression.” (p.136, “The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook,” by Martha Davis, Ph.D., Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, MSW, and Matthew McKay, Ph.D.)
Taking it one step further to complete the chain, your emotions then determine your actions.
So, the causal chain goes like this: activating events, interpretation (thoughts, self-talk), emotions, and behavior. This becomes a feedback loop in which all of the above (event, thought, feeling, behavior) are linked together. Once this pattern is encoded in your body and brain it becomes easy to trigger.
For example, you might be faced with a challenging task at work or in a family relationship which you interpret through the lens of a past failure in a similar situation. This makes you feel hopeless, so you withdraw from the situation to avoid feeling bad again.
Ellis identified 10 common irrational beliefs that launch us into stressful feelings which result in poor coping behaviors.
10 Irrational Beliefs
1. It’s essential to have love and approval for me to feel good.
2. I must be unfailingly competent, successful, and perfect to deserve good things.
3. Certain people are evil and should be punished.
4. It’s horrible when things don’t turn out the way I want them to.
5. External events cause human suffering.
6. The unknown is dangerous and scary.
7. It’s easier to avoid difficulties than face them head on.
8. I need a higher authority to validate my judgments and actions.
9. The past determines the present.
10. Happiness comes from endless leisure and relaxation.
These are just a sampling of the irrational ideas that produce crippling feelings and behaviors. It’s not that there is no truth in them. It’s how we use them against ourselves that is decisive.
At the heart of these beliefs is the assumption that “things are done to me” or that “I am a victim of circumstances beyond my control.” That disempowered way of thinking lies at the core of the stress we feel.
Ellis discovered that, if you can refute your irrational ideas, you can interrupt the chain of reaction, and create a new outcome. If you reframe your thinking, you will feel and act differently. By doing this, you become stress resistant and stress resilient.
Ellis suggested five steps:
5 Steps to Refute Irrational Ideas
1. Write down the objective facts at the time you become upset. Try to describe “what happened” without writing a big story around it. For example, “Bob criticized my report and I walked out of the meeting.”
2. Write down any self-talk about the event. This is the story you are telling about what happened, including any value judgments, beliefs, predictions about what it means for you, and worries, such as “I’ll never be good at this,” “I don’t deserve a raise, unless I’m perfect,” or “If they don’t like me, I’ll lose my job.”
3. Write down your dominant emotional response, such as “I feel angry, afraid, anxious, sad, depressed, worthless, and so on.
4. Dispute the irrational ideas identified in Step 2. Do this one idea at a time. First, identify the idea or belief in your inner self-talk, such as “I’ll never be good at this.”
Then, ask yourself what evidence supports that belief. For example, remember times when you failed in the past in similar situations.
Next, ask yourself what evidence is against this belief? Find exceptions or remember times when the opposite was true.
In this example, you could find evidence for the opposite idea that “I can get good at this.” Remember times when you used criticism as constructive feedback that helped you improve what you were doing.
Seeing both sides of an irrational belief supports the insight that there are alternative interpretations you can choose from. Which leads to the final step.
5. Substitute alternative self-talk that is more realistic, positive, empowering, and productive.
For example, “I can use this criticism as feedback to get better at what I am doing. This person did me a favor by pointing out shortcomings in what I was doing. Without that feedback, I wouldn’t have known how to improve. This is the best thing that could have happened.”
Can you see the transformative power in this process?
I’ve used this strategy many times with great success. However, in my experience, there’s one preliminary step missing here-a step can make all the difference!
Sometimes you are so wound up in your stress that you just can’t seem to step back and go through this kind of rational process. You need to first take the edge off the stress you feel. You need to activate your body’s natural relaxation response.
So, what helps you release stress in the heat of the moment? Is it taking a walk, a few deep breaths, a little meditation, or a workout at the gym?
Once you’ve done that, you can revisit the situation from a much clearer state. Then, you can use the steps above and truly change how you are relating to that situation.
Enjoy your practice!