Anyone who appreciates art understands the importance of framing. An appropriate frame and mat can transform how we see a painting. The effects of framing are even more profound on a greater work of art – your life.
According to the tenets of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), how we see the world shapes our emotions and behaviour. By reframing or changing the way we think, we can change our emotional state.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is one method used by some counselors and physicians to treat individuals with various psychological conditions. For many of my patients who are depressed or anxious, I have prescribed several self-help books, including Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger & Christine Padesky, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential and Lasting Fulfillment by Martin Seligman, and Feeling Good: the New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns.
The former book by Greenberger and Padesky is a practical workbook that takes readers through the steps of identifying their negative feelings, recognizing the thoughts that trigger them, and changing those thoughts to more positive alternatives.
According to Greenberger and Padesky, four key aspects of our experience are the physical (e.g. our sensations), emotional (how we feel), cognitive (what we think) and behavioural (what we do). These four aspects interact with one another.
For example, our cognitive interpretation of an event or situation affects our emotions, which in turn influence our behaviour and the situation. Our emotions obviously influence our thoughts. In psychiatry, the cognitive triad of depression is negativity about one’s self, the world and the future.
Greenberger and Padesky identify three levels of beliefs. Automatic Thoughts are the conscious thoughts that spontaneously arise in response to a situation. For example, if you can’t find your favourite stained and holey shirt, you might assume (wrongly) that your wife threw it out because she doesn’t care about what you value.
Underlying Assumptions are cognitive generalizations, which influence our automatic thoughts. They can be conceptualized with “If …, then …” statements.
For example, “If my spouse works late every night, she cares more about her career than me.”
Core Beliefs are the enduringly fixed framework by which we interpret and make sense of our lives. They form the foundation underlying all our thoughts. They are often absolute and rarely examined. For example, “The world is a terrible place and everyone cares only for their own interests.”
Cognitive therapy focuses on changing one’s automatic thoughts to a situation so that we see that situation in a more positive light. If successful, the result may be less anxiety, anger or depression.
The process requires a lot of work. It helps to have a supportive friend, spouse or relative who can coach you into seeing alternative points of view.
Cognitive therapy doesn’t work for everyone. But for the motivated individual with good insight into how his thinking may be influencing his emotional state, it can be an empowering process.
However, individuals who suffer from depression and anxiety should not feel that they are to blame for their condition. Sometimes friends and family members, who have never been depressed, think that their loved one should just snap out of it or get over it. They don’t realize that people with clinical depression aren’t simply suffering from the normal blues we all go through in response to life’s ups and downs.
Even if you do not suffer from a mood or anxiety disorder, CBT can be a useful technique to maintain a positive attitude or to develop your emotional intelligence. The next time you have a strong emotional reaction, such as anger, sadness or anxiety. Identify the triggering situation. What are the automatic thoughts causing your reaction? Can you come up with alternative thoughts? Do these new thoughts change your mood?
When I was a young driver, I used to get angry with reckless drivers and would respond with honking, gesturing and angry words. Today, if I get cut off in traffic, I do not allow myself to get upset or even touch the horn. My automatic thoughts are of concern. “What is his emergency? Is his wife in labour? I hope he doesn’t cause an accident.”
If cognitive therapy was taught in public schools, we wouldn’t eliminate depression and anxiety, but we would be teaching the essential skills of emotional control. We also could reduce the incidence of road rage.
Picture that, and frame it.
Your happiness exercise: The next time you experience a strong emotion, treat it as a meditation gong; wake up and ask, “What am I feeling, what triggered these feelings, and what thoughts have contributed to them?” Can you reframe the situation and see it from another perspective? How does this change how you feel?