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In part 9 of my series on Cognitive Therapy, let’s meet Nick. Nick’s a brand-new college grad and started a new job last month.
With all Nick’s got going for him, you would think he’d feel on top of the world.
Instead, most of the time, he feels pretty low.
He struggles with panic attacks and feelings of depression.
If we were to look inside his mind, we would see a storm of emotions brewing, with shrieking winds and torrential rains.
Have you ever felt battered by your feelings? Have you ever been driven by fear, or pounded by guilt or worthlessness?
So far, we’ve talked about how thoughts can shape feelings. But the opposite can also happen: our feelings can sometimes shape our thoughts. This is called:
For example, Nick says to himself, “I feel like a failure.” What belief or version of reality would make sense with that feeling?
“I AM a failure.”
Nick’s feelings are running the show, creating their own version of reality.
“I feel guilty. That must mean I’m a horrible person.”
“I feel scared. So, I must be in danger.”
“I feel angry. So, the world must have done me wrong.”
“I feel hopeless. So, there must be no hope.”
The intensity of emotions like fear or sadness can contribute to the illusion. Nick thinks, “This feeling is so strong that it must be true.
Just like air currents in a storm, this cycle begins to feed itself, where the belief reinforces the emotion, which reinforces the belief, and so on.
Problems With Emotional Reasoning
There are a couple problems with emotional reasoning.
First, it can undermine our efforts to achieve important goals, like finishing a degree and getting a job. Feelings like fear and hopelessness can make us feel defeated before we even begin.
Emotional reasoning also locks many people in destructive patterns. For example, maladaptive guilt drains our energy and promotes compulsive, self-destructive behavior.
Living with feelings of guilt and shame has been directly linked to major lifestyle-related problems in society today, including binge-eating and other eating disorders, heavy drinking, and addiction.
Cognitive therapy can help.
In this series, we’re applying four principles of cognitive therapy to specific distorted thoughts.
Principle #1: Do Your RESEARCH.
- What exactly am I feeling? What thoughts are coming out of those feelings?
- What real evidence do I have to back up those feelings?
- Are my feelings ever wrong, or at least overblown?
Principle #2: Be a REALIST.
Please don’t get me wrong here. I’m not anti-emotion.
Far from it, actually.
Feelings are our personal, emotional reflections on the world around us.
What I’m saying is, feelings are not facts.
Feelings don’t create our reality – they interpret it, giving each event some sense of meaning and emotional valence — good or bad, safe or scary, happy or sad.
Problems occur when we don’t separate feelings from facts.
In psychological terms, one problem is called, “thought-action fusion” where we believe that just having a thought or feeling makes it more possible for the thought or feeling to come true.
We feel worried, so naturally, we believe something bad is about to happen.
This forms the base for anxiety disorders and phobias.
Nick may, for example, have a fear of flying. But his fears in and of themselves don’t prove that flying is any more dangerous than other ways to travel. Many facts suggest that flying is safer.
Principle #3: Find the Right RATIO.
Riding the ups and downs of every emotion will make life feel like an emotional roller coaster.
The highs and extreme lows of such thinking can be very costly over time.
So, we can ask ourselves, is the cost worth it?
Especially if our feelings don’t always line up with reality?
Principle #4:: Follow the Golden RULE.
This means not beating ourselves up over our struggles with emotional reasoning, but instead finding a constructive way to deal with it.
If I were to say to you, “I feel like garbage,” you would know better than to take me literally.
This is classic emotional reasoning.
Feeling rotten and miserable doesn’t prove that I am rotten and miserable – only that I feel I am.
If you struggle with this, ask yourself, “If a good friend were describing these feelings to me, would I agree with them?
If not, why am I using a double standard for myself?”
Our self-worth is an unchanging quality that does not depend on our emotional state.
One emotional regulation technique involves accepting our feelings.
Accepting is not the same as liking our feelings or agreeing with them.
Acceptance is merely a starting point for change. Psychiatrist Robert Leahy describes it this way:
Imagine that you were beginning a long journey and you were taking out a map. You would accept that you are where you are right now, and then you might examine the route you want to take to get to your destination.
Accepting an emotion is different from trying to suppress it or telling yourself that you should not have the emotion. It is where you start from.”Robert Leahy
When you feel a storm of emotion starting to brew, try simply noticing those feelings, accepting them without fear or judgment, and then moving on.
Novelist Matt Haig described the process this way:
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Understand, for instance, that having a sad thought, even having a continual succession of sad thoughts, is not the same as being a sad person.
You can walk through a storm and feel the wind but you know you are not the wind.
That is how we must be with our minds.
We must allow ourselves to feel their gales and downpours, but all the time knowing this is just necessary weather.
When I sink deep, now, and I still do from time to time, I try and understand that there is another, bigger and stronger part of me that is not sinking.
It stands unwavering.”Matt Haig
 Chao, Y. H., Yang, C. C., & Chiou, W. B. (2012). Food as ego-protective remedy for people experiencing shame. Experimental evidence for a new perspective on weight-related shame. Appetite, 59(2), 570-575.
 Wang, Z. Y. (2018). Shame, Self-Compassion and Disordered Eating. POLITIK.
P Luoma, J., Guinther, P., Potter, J., & Cheslock, M. (2017). Experienced-based versus scenario-based assessments of shame and guilt and their relationship to alcohol consumption and problems. Substance use & misuse, 52(13), 1692-1700.
 Flanagan, O. (2013). The shame of addiction. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4, 120.
 Leahy, R. L. (2017). Cognitive therapy techniques: A practitioner’s guide. Guilford Publications. 429-430.
 Haig, M. (2016). Reasons to Stay Alive. Penguin Books.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.