The Power of Mindset: Lessons from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
By Dr. Katie Boyd
How important is mindset in reaching goals or living a happier, less stressed life? Mindset is EVERYTHING. That’s not simply an inspirational cliché—the thoughts we think do have a huge impact on how we feel and behave. And the best part? We have a say about what runs through our minds.
Neuroplasticity is the term from neuroscientific research used to describe the brain’s ability to change based on environmental experiences. This means that the behaviors and/or thoughts we choose and practice can literally change our brains. We can develop new, healthier patterns of thinking with practice, and when we do, there can be positive implications for our mood or anxiety levels.
Commonly, we tend to think that our feelings or behaviors are caused by events that happened, rather than our thoughts about those events. We often have little awareness of our preceding thoughts, which occur quickly and automatically, therefore leading us to the conclusion that the event itself caused our feeling. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a widely-used therapy approach to treat various emotional or psychological concerns. CBT teaches a process of identifying and challenging our automatic thoughts to improve mood or anxiety. Frequently, in times of distressing emotion, the triggering thought is inaccurate or biased. When we catch these inaccurate thoughts, we can replace them with more accurate, better-feeling thoughts. The consistent practice of this mental gear-shifting can create new patterns of thinking over time.
The following are a few examples of the many common distortions in our automatic thoughts:
1. Personalizing (Ex: My boss looks angry…I must have done something wrong.)
2. Overgeneralizing (Ex: This ALWAYS happens to me!)
3. Assuming/Jumping to Conclusions (Ex: Nobody likes me.)
4. Confusing facts with feelings (Ex: I feel worthless, so I must be worthless.)
5. All or nothing thinking (Ex: If I don’t perform at 100%, I’m a total failure.)
Here is a list of questions to identify inaccuracies in automatic thoughts:
1. What evidence do I have for this thought?
2. What are other possible explanations?
3. Am I ignoring certain information to focus on a small (negative) part?
4. Am I making this about me when it is not?
5. Am I mistaking feelings for facts?
A scenario I see frequently in sessions with clients goes as follows. “John” is feeling anxiety about work performance. He makes statements such as “My boss doesn’t like me” or “I’m totally failing at work.” I ask questions like those above. John comes up with no supporting evidence for those thoughts, or flimsy evidence such as his boss’s facial expression that John assumed was related to him. We identify alternative explanations for the boss’s expression, such as the boss has had a bad day completely unrelated to John. Additionally, we identify evidence to the contrary, such as positive performance reviews that indicate John is not failing at work. As a result of this analysis of John’s automatic thoughts, he came to the conclusion that his work anxiety was based on inaccurate thoughts such as personalizing or assuming, and he experienced a decrease in that specific stress. Moving forward, John can catch such thoughts as “I’m failing at work,” and tell himself, “No, I know that isn’t true” to prevent that anxiety before it happens. If mindset is everything, improving the accuracy of the thoughts that make up that mindset is everything as well.
Dr. Katie Boyd is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in private practice in St. Louis, MO. Dr. Boyd specializes in individual therapy with adults, with a focus on treating anxiety. Visit her website www.stlouisanxietypsychologist.com for more information.