I received a great deal of positive feedback from my post on IFS yesterday, so I decided I would share another simple tool from my toolbox. This one comes from a much more well known and commonly used theory: Cognitive Behavioral. This model is significantly broader than IFS and its history goes back considerably longer. Some even trace its roots back to ancient philosophy. It dovetails well with religious thought too. The Apostle Paul, for example, would have made a great CBT therapist as he repeatedly tells his audience, “take captive every thought!”
I am going to simplify the CBT theory drastically for the purpose of practicality. But, the gist of it is this: our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are intertwined with one another. With this theory, mental health is improved by challenging and changing unhelpful cognitive distortions. The illustration of dominos I have included is rudimentary, but I hope it helps as a visual. Of note, the process is not quite so linear and sometimes moves more freely.
The first domino is a precipitating event. For example, as we were scrolling Facebook a few days ago our eyes caught a news story: “President Declares a National State of Emergency.” Immediately following was what felt like a flood of thoughts and emotions. These probably happened so fast that we experienced them as simultaneous. In fact, it might have happened so fast that our reaction felt automatic. But, if we pause and go back, we will discover that each is distinct. The goal is to separate them out and examine them openly. At first this is a slow and clunky process, but with practice it can happen in real time.
Here is a real example from my life
👉 Event: I went to the store yesterday to purchase food for my child who has several food allergies only to find many items gone.
👉 Thoughts: “Everything is gone! My son won’t have anything to eat. There are no alternatives. How can people be so selfish?!
👉 Feelings: Helplessness, fear, panic, anger…
👉 Actions: Luckily in this instance I had awareness and felt my body respond, so I was able to go back through the dominos and examine my thoughts (had I not been mindful, my actions could have been an outward display of anger toward others).
👉 Examined thoughts: “well, actually there is some stuff left and we do have more at home. I guess he has enough for right now. Worst case, we can ask for help or think of other alternatives. I guess everyone is feeling a little on edge. I bet folks with less resources are pretty scared.” (notice that a lot of my initial thoughts included fallacious absolutes, blaming, and all or nothing thinking)
👉 Outcome: Inner peace (bonus: I’m not arrested for getting into a fistfight at the grocery store)
Inside each of our brains is a little almond shaped mass called the amygdala. The amygdala is part of our limbic system and plays a major roll in our emotional response. Its primary function is to keep us safe from real or perceived threats. When we are going for a walk in the woods and a bear jumps out, the amygdala lights up and flips the switch for the response commonly referred to as “fight or flight.” Our brains are filled with cortisol and adrenaline and other helpful super fuel. Our eyes dilate, our pulse quickens, our palms sweat. Our physical bodies are literally better prepared to run or fight. And this is really handy when a bear jumps out. Not so much when Fry’s is out of gluten free oatmeal…
The goal with CBT is to move information from our amygdala up to our prefrontal cortex. This is the part of our brains that processes and sorts information. It is the thinking center that is better equipped to anticipate outcomes and predict the consequences of our behaviors. The more we practice mindfulness the more synapses are built to route information in that direction. Essentially, we can build a super highway that automatically moves information to these advanced reasoning centers. When we do this we discover more inner peace because our brains aren’t being basked in hormones.
One final note: Our thoughts are deeply impacted by our core beliefs. Our beliefs about ourselves, other people, and the world around us. One of my core beliefs is that people are essentially good. I believe that all persons are made in the image of our creator and thus worthy of love and compassion. If your core belief is that people are wicked and unlovable you might find it very difficult to find peace no matter how you choose to pursue mental health. Be excellent to each other.