Emotions are not all good nor bad. They make us human and give us information about how we are doing. They can signal danger, let us know when we need a break or let us know that things are just where we want them to be. We may not be able to control our emotions but we can learn to choose how we respond to them in a more compassionate way.
One of the first things that people do when they experience any type of emotional discomfort such as anxiety is to try to avoid the emotion. Let’s face it, Anxiety sucks! Anxiety is that uncomfortable feeling that can lead to thoughts which actually increase your anxiety; sending you spiraling down the rabbit hole of negative thoughts. These negative thoughts are thinking traps that allow us a very narrow view or perspective.
An example is your teen comes home and tells you he had a bad day at school. His friend didn’t say hello when they passed in the hallway and didn’t respond to their texts when they texted them last night and this morning . Your teen begins to feel anxious, thinking “what’d I do wrong?”, “he/she doesn’t want to be my friend anymore”, “they must be hanging out with Johnny/Suzie”. “Jumping to conclusions” is just one of many common thinking traps that people fall into before having any facts about a situation. Negative thoughts/thinking traps, also referred to as cognitive distortions are completely normal and happen to all of us. Unfortunately, they lead to negative feelings which may also lead to behaviors that are harmful to us and that we later regret.
At times like these, it’s important to do some reality testing or detective work with your teen to try to get them to see if they have any evidence for their negative thoughts. It’s also helpful to try to figure out, “are my thoughts factual or just my interpretation”?
It’s important to help your child remember that a thought is only a thought. They aren’t necessarily true or based in reality. Reframing the earlier example of a teen’s negative thoughts from: “what’d I do wrong?”, “he/she doesn’t want to be my friend anymore”, “they must be hanging out with Johnny/Suzie” to “I can’t take it personally; he/she probably was in a bad mood; he/she wasn’t feeling well” will help provide a more realistic view of a situation. Reframing involves a change to our perspective or view on a situation is viewed more realistically and possibly in a more positive manner.
Several skills that are taught in our Teen Empowerment Therapy Group use Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) techniques to address some of these negative thought patterns. Learning to identify our own cognitive distortions is essential to modifying our thinking which in turn changes our perspective and outlook and eventually our feelings and behaviors. A CBT skill that we teach in group involves being a detective to find as many facts and “evidence” to dispute the negative thought. This skill allows for replacing the negative thoughts with more realistic thoughts.
Another skill taught in the Teen Empowerment Therapy Group is the DBT Skill of Observe and Describe. The first part is where you mindfully observe a situation, emotion, and/or behavior. The exercises involved help you learn to create some psychological space or pause so that you can observe in a non-attached way in an effort to put an end to the automatic thoughts that lead to our cognitive distortions. You are present in the moment and mindfully experiencing the situation or emotion without labeling it or getting swept up in the emotion of it.
During the describe part of the skills, the teens learn to describe or label the thought or feeling objectively. For example in the situation above, they would learn to say “I just had the thought that he/she doesn’t want to be my friend”. Labeling thoughts or feelings in this way allows for describing a thought or emotion without making judgements or assumptions. This is a great skill that helps to not mistake every thought or feeling as fact or true. This skill helps prevent you from “jumping to conclusions” that lead to negative thoughts before checking the facts of a situation.
Just having the feeling of being afraid or anxious doesn’t mean the situation or your environment is dangerous. In the example above, not getting a text back from a friend is just that. You did not get a text back. With some investigation, not getting a text back may be because the phone fell into the toilet, or your friend was punished and the phone was taken away or your friend got into an argument with their parent and is feeling badly about themselves and doesn’t feel like talking.
Learning to use the observe and describe skills help to keep you mindfully focused on the present moment while maintaining a realistic view. The words we speak to ourselves focus our thoughts which in turn impact our feelings and eventually our behavior. Becoming more aware of negative thought patterns is the first step in changing our thoughts to more realistic and positive thoughts, ultimately feeling better about ourselves and more confident in the way we respond or act on our feelings.
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