Our thoughts

Cognitive restructuring: Your ideal guide to reframing your thought patterns.

Your brain is not always right! In fact, you should not always believe what it tells you for that matter. Mhm, a bitter pill to swallow? I know, but that’s the fact. Even though the brain is such a powerful organ that alerts us of dangers and helps us get solutions, sometimes it can be misleading or rather lie to us.

Over time, the brain develops some faulty connections which lead to thoughts that are not necessarily true. When something happens, the brain quickly makes connections to alert you why the situation at hand has happened the way it has. This is where the brain tends to lose it since the connections it makes can be unhelpful, sometimes. What am I driving at? When these unhelpful connections happen, they trigger negative emotions making us experience feelings of anger, sadness, stress, and anxiety for the wrong reason.

Cognitive restructuring

Take an instance whereby your spouse is late to come home and they are not picking up the phone. Different people will react to this scenario in diverse ways depending on what their brain tells them. One person may think that their spouse is late because they are out there cheating. Another person might freak out and think that something terrible might have happened to their spouse hence the reason they are not responding to phone calls.

Both of these people could be wrong, yet, they might already be feeling angry, fearful or anxious. This happens when we are not able to take charge and capture the first automatic thoughts we have before they can proceed to mess up with our emotions hence affecting our mental health. At this juncture, allow me to introduce to you, cognitive restructuring, which is the solution to negative thinking patterns or what is popularly known as cognitive distortions.

In very simple terms, cognitive restructuring is reframing your thought patterns so that you are able to identify negative thoughts and change them as soon as possible. To break it down even further, it is ‘changing your thoughts.’ This in return helps to curb negative emotions and behaviors that might result from the said emotions.

Do I need cognitive restructuring?

We could all use some guidance, to be honest. Cognitive restructuring is an important element of therapy, because a healthy way of thinking is vital for good mental health. This means that identifying our negative thoughts and consciously changing them could very well help us better handle stress, anxiety and depression. As a therapist who not only handles marriage and family therapy but also mental wellness, cognitive restructuring is a term that pops up in nearly all my sessions.

You do need cognitive restructuring, to be able to look at the positive side of a situation. This way, you learn to view problems as challenges, meaning they can be addressed with the possibility of a positive outcome.

Let’s look at Bob’s story. A year ago, Bob set out to start his own business, one that he had been considering for a while. He worked hard at it, and channeled his energy and resources into what he considered the venture that would turn his life around for good. Unfortunately, Bob’s business did not flourish as he had expected, and he suffered great losses that led him to shut down the business. When it got to that point, Bob thought of himself as a failure. He was distraught! For many of us, that would be our initial thought if we were to go through such an experience. However, the process of changing our thoughts in such a case, would teach us to look at our failures as learning opportunities. This way, we are able to be objective as we review what went wrong, and what lessons we can pick and carry with us on our next attempt at pursuing our dreams. We look at ourselves not as victims of circumstances, but as courageous survivors who now have another chance armed with more knowledge and resilience!

To be better able to change our thoughts, we also need to dispute the thoughts using facts. Remember, our mind can lie to us! Whatever we think is not always necessarily the truth. We could also use alternative explanations that are not as distressful. We are then better placed to think rationally about the situation, without being overwhelmed by emotion.

Do you have a best friend? I would like to imagine that our best friends would be those who speak to us with empathy and honesty. How do you speak to yourself? Are you hard on yourself? When making an effort to reframe your thoughts, how about you try to speak to yourself as a best friend would?

Focus on what you CAN change. Have you heard of the Serenity Prayer? We may not always be in control, but we can choose to focus on what we can take control of – like our thoughts. We can gather the courage to change what we can, and be hopeful that the decision to do so helps us feel calmer and more confident.

I would like to challenge you to develop distress-tolerant thoughts. As living beings, we are bound to have times when life gets tough. Look back and think of all the times that you have weathered a storm – the many times that you have gone through really tough times, and survived. Let such times serve as an inspiration for you to believe that whatever you go through, you can make it through.

May your mind be stronger, and your thoughts better. Cognitive restructuring is an exercise that takes time, but it is one that has the potential to change your life in a very positive way. At the end of the day, we all desire to have a clearer mind and a better approach to every day challenges. If this is a process that you really feel you need, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

The Green Ribbon

Happy new month! This month of May, the world sheds more light on matters pertaining to mental health. In the recent past, owing to the worrying spread of the Corona Virus pandemic, mental health has become a great concern that is not only being addressed by the medical profession but by governments as well.

The green ribbon is used as a symbol for mental health worldwide.

So, what is mental health?

It is the emotional, psychological and mental well-being of an individual. If someone is experiencing stress due to changes in their environment, their mental health will be adversely affected and they will experience feelings of fear, anxiety or low moods.

And…..why is it so important?

Well…because it impacts a person’s thought processes which impart their emotions and their behavior. Good mental health results in positive feelings while bad mental health results in negative feelings and behaviours.

It is quite easy to identify when there is a problem. Symptoms of intense fear, sadness, lack of interest in things they used to do, low motivation, low energy levels, feelings of anger and frustrations over things that didn’t bother them before, fear of the unknown, feeling like they do not matter (“No one cares about me…”), too many problems they feel they have no solutions for, low sense of self confidence, esteem, worth or value, regrets, guilt, shame are all pointers that all is not well.

Behaviors to cope would include isolating from social situations, change in appetite and sleep patterns, avoiding taking care of responsibilities, anger outbursts, giving silent treatment to close people, consuming alcohol excessively, overspending, not taking care of themselves or their environment (showering, cleaning the house), mindlessly watching TV or excessively engaging in social media, etc.

Treatment with medication for depression (low mood) and for anxiety (high levels of fear) is an option for some. One would need an evaluation by a psychiatrist to get the needed medications. For depression, the need for medication comes in especially if the individual is constantly feeling suicidal and has a plan to execute it. The anti-depressants help to up their mood and clear the mind to identify options and solutions to their situations that have triggered the hopelessness. The use of medication usually goes hand in hand with therapy, so that the individual is equipped with knowledge and skills on how to cope with the challenges they are facing. These skills are useful not just for the period of treatment with medication, but for life.

How do we maintain good mental health? 

-Take care of your physical body by eating a well-balanced diet.

-Get enough sleep and rest.

-Engage in physical exercise.

-Get regular medical check-up and treatment.

-Keep your body hydrated by drinking at least 8 glasses of water daily.

-Take care of your physical appearance (showering, clean clothes, brushing teeth, keeping a neat hair do, basic physical self-care).

-Keep your environment clear and decluttered.

-Take care of your emotional, psychological and mental well-being through connecting with others (socializing with friends, family, colleagues, chamas, church, etc).

-Journaling (decluttering your mind).

-Meditation.

-Talking to a therapist/coach to learn skills in problem solving, managing stress, decision making, setting boundaries with others, assertiveness training, financial management, parenting skills, relational skills. All these skills helps one to learn how to manage their lives so that they can manage the normal stress of living.

On emotional health, working on self awareness (personality & temperaments) is key to increasing feelings of self worth and esteem which is a big cause of mental and emotional disturbance and challenges.

If one has had any kind of traumatic experience, it is important to seek mental health counseling to address the past experiences that have caused the negative emotions.

On the spiritual part, it is important to practice spiritual self-care through rituals like religious activities, having a strong belief in a higher power, having a sense of purpose in life, and joining others in the faith community for communal worship and scripture reading and exposition. These practices help a lot in feeling connected to the goodness of life and the hope of living.

Mental health issues are very real and not to be taken lightly. Let’s talk about our youth.

Many of us, especially those in their 20’s are at risk for mental and emotional challenges, the inability to rise above the stresses of life. Those mostly at risk are those who have little or no social and family support. It makes it harder to manage these thoughts and feelings without the help of community. Experiences of rejection and abandonment as well as abuse of all manner put you at risk of mental and emotional and psychological disturbances. In addition, loss of parents at an early age can also trigger the onset of mood disorders once a person hits teenage-hood into young adulthood.

Other risk factors are when individuals grow up in very sheltered homes. You will find them unable to transition effectively into young adulthood especially how to navigate through the new world of freedom to get into romantic relationships. The joy of romance can lead to the most painful experiences when love goes sour or consequences like unplanned pregnancy or contracting sexually transmitted infections hit. These are realities our young people are experiencing now more than ever. We really need to do our best to offer support and information to our young generation rather than judging and shaming them.

Another risk factor is use and abuse of psychoactive drugs and alcohol. Once young people are exposed to the substances, they can begin the process of developing addiction to them. Most are introduced to them during social gatherings and peer pressure can be the motivator to continue ingesting these substances. Before they know it, they are hooked and it becomes an effective way to escape the normal emotional ups and downs of teenage and young adult living. The use of alcohol makes depression worse. Many tell me they use it as a sleep aid while others find that alcohol helps them numb their feelings. Then use of stimulants like weed, cocaine and others, gives them a quick high and feeling of confidence as well as a burst of energy (alertness). These substances are however detrimental to mental and physical health over time.

It may come as a surprise, but there are sexual behaviours that put many at risk for depression and anxiety. These include masturbation, attraction to same sex, pornography and other sexuality issues. We also factor in sexual violence, which is very common in this age-group. Sexual violence is the general term used to describe any kind of unwanted sexual acts, such as sexual assault, rape and sexual abuse. In the case of masturbation, there’s a sense of shame and guilt that increases feelings of low self-worth and esteem. There’s a lot of insecurity associated with this as well. When I work with such individuals, I treat it as an addiction. Reconstruction of thought patterns seems to provide opportunities for healing from the behaviour, especially when they understand the ‘why’ of it.

Mental healthcare is an integral part of our general health, and being mentally healthy boosts our productivity, relationships and ability to adapt to the changes in our lives.

How is YOUR mental health? Feel free to reach out to me if this article has raised some concern about your wellbeing or that of a loved one.

I am here, if you need someone to walk with you.

Grace.