As a Licensed Professional Counselor trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy focusing on changing one’s thoughts in order to change emotions and behaviors, I am always shocked at the number of people I speak to who are under the impression that they have no control over their thoughts.
In CBT, the relationship among thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is displayed as the Cognitive Triangle to show the interconnectedness of all three:
If we can change one of the three factors, the others will have to change due to the nature of the relationship. Working with the thoughts is usually the most logical place to start to affect change in the other two.
Canadian Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb coined the phrase “Neurons that fire together wire together” meaning that repeated thoughts or experiences form short cuts or well-paved highways in the brain. This is how thoughts or behaviors become habits- the cognitive, rational part of the brain is no longer involved as the electrical impulses can just run the highway without a thinking driver.
This highway or groove for the impulses to run on can easily become a rut, however, and makes it more difficult to change the thought or behavior later on. This is where I come in to coach a client through cognitive restructuring and behavior modification. The most important first step, however, is awareness. We must be aware of the thought or behavior before we can change it.
When something is a habit and it runs the route without a driver, we become oblivious to it- we don’t even think about it, it “just happens”. The body also begins to set itself up to keep this cycle going. When we experience different emotions, the body releases hormones related to that emotion. Some researchers are now reporting that the body then creates more receptor sites for those hormones and we become almost addicted to the cycle with the ‘need’ to fill those receptor sites. When this is done over and over with great frequency, the body actually responds with impulses to have those receptor sites filled in order to calm the nervous system and find what is now “normal” in the system.
Change at this point is no easy task. So, first we must examine the thoughts and behaviors that are taking us off track or keeping us stuck. In yoga, we refer to this as becoming “the witness”. We are observing what is happening in our brains or bodies, without judgment, in order to become aware. We cannot do anything to change what we are not aware of, so this step is imperative.
As an example, maybe we begin to notice that we have a habit of becoming angry and snapping at a co-worker every time he or she offers to help and later we feel bad about it and think, “Why do I do that?”. Once we notice that this is how we are reacting in that situation, we can begin to work on understanding it and then changing it.
However, it does take the hard work of introspection and repeated practice. Not only do people give up because of the repeated practice needed to break the habit, but many times, people give up before they even get there simply because it can be uncomfortable to look at ourselves and recognize that we don’t necessarily like what we see.
Do I expect you to read this blog post, become introspective, notice everything you want to change about yourself, and then change it all at once? Of course not. But, if you can practice becoming aware of your own reactions to life around you, you can work to become more of the person you want to be. Will it be easy? NO. Will your brain fight you in the process of change? YES. Is it worth the effort to be happier and feel better about yourself? ABSOLUTELY.
Spring is the time of cleansing as we are moving into the season of rebirth. Perhaps looking at your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and simply taking inventory is a step toward cleaning out the old and making room for the new.
Awareness is the first step toward taking control of your own life, turning off the Autopilot, and moving toward your own version of greatness. Remember to be kind to yourself in this process and that you are not alone. I will be right there going through the same process in myself.
Talk again soon,