Dear Tacit mental health column Oct. 16, 2020
I struggle with being anxious and depressed at times and people always tell me I just need to think positively, or to focus more on happy thoughts. I feel like that’s a cop-out answer – how could just thinking about something good stop everything else I am feeling?
Signed: Don’t Worry, Be Happy!
Dear Don’t Worry, Be Happy:
Being told to “just cheer up” or “don’t think about it” when we are feeling low or stressed/anxious is seldom an empathetic way of being supported. It’s almost as bad as telling someone to just “calm down” when they are ticked off! But people who care about us don’t always know the right thing to say to make things better when they notice that we are struggling.
To answer your question – yes, changing the thought process actually does change the emotional reaction you are having. The CBT model of psychology (one of the foundational methodologies used in therapy which has been repeatedly scientifically studied for many, many decades) has proven that our thoughts play a part in controlling our emotions. The chemicals we produce as the result of the cognitive process that stimulates certain neural pathways in our brains create either an increase in negatively impacting chemicals (like our stress hormones) or positively impacting chemicals (like happy hormones and proteins needed to decrease depression and anxiety). That’s how antianxiety and antidepressant medications work – they either block the stress hormones or boost the happy hormones.
But you can often achieve similar results on your own, with practice. You have to do two things: you have to boost the chemicals you find helpful (Serotonin, Gaba, Dopamine, Oxytocin, etc.) and you have to stop producing the chemicals that are causing you to end up in a funk/full of anxiety. This means addressing the problem areas by finding the root causes to the unwanted production of chemicals, as well as using new strengthening activities to help boost the positive production.
There are a few different ways to accomplish both tasks. There are actually some foods you can eat, vitamins you can take and certain substances (food and drinks) to avoid that will change the chemicals you are producing in your body in the way you need. There are also some physical activities that work for people with all varieties of abilities (exercise, deep breathing, rocking and many other forms of body work like massage, heart math, EFT) which can alter your body chemistry in all the right ways. You just may not know about these techniques but a counsellor can help.
Therapy can also help you figure out why you are having your more negative thought processes by helping you identify the cognitive distortions (tricks our brains play on us with regard to our thinking processes) that take over. And therapy can help you heal old wounds/emotional injuries that stem from past experiences. You can learn how to spend time thinking about the successes and accomplishments you have each day and about how you positively and effectively contribute to your life in a way that brings you comfort and peace.
We spend a huge amount of time being critical and condemning (down right mean and abusive at times) towards ourselves for one or two things that we wish didn’t happen. We brush past the 20 neutral or uplifting things that we also experience in the day. If we have struggled with depression or anxiety for a while, the harmful thought patterns get habitualized and it can be very difficult to break these cycles on our own. But when we do, we can definitely change the body’s chemistry and improve our mood.
Kim Silverthorn B.A., R.P.C., M.P.C.C., C.T. is a registered MPCC through the Canadian Professional Counsellors Association and a registered CT through the Association of Clinical Therapists of Alberta. She is the owner of/therapist with Tacit Knowledge, a local counselling agency in Beaumont. She has been providing therapeutic support and professional development training for more than 30 years.
See more from Kim at https://www.tacitknows.com/. If you have a question that you would like Dear Tacit to answer relating to any mental health issue, please feel free to email Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is a psycho-educational support and is not designed to be a substitute for counselling.