Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Mind Over Mood


Last month's column "Double Your Problems" discussed the desirability of using strategies to reduce emotional problems generated by life problems. When you experience depression, anxiety, anger and/or addictions related to life problems, you will be increasing your difficulties beyond the original life problem.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy provides methods to prevent or treat these emotional problems by changing your thoughts to control your moods. Many people see depression and anxiety only as emotions, not recognizing that depression consists of sad thoughts and anxiety of worried thoughts. A few examples will make the point that thoughts can control emotions. In the first example, a mother looks into her six-year-old child's room, finding scissors and paper on the floor, paint splattered around, child looking guilty. The mother becomes angry while thinking that her daughter is guilty of making a mess. However, when the child brings out the newly made Mothers's Day card, the mother's mood changes to happiness based on her thoughts about the child's love for her. Another example: a man walks toward you at a cocktail party, smiling brightly. You smile at him and prepare to say hello. He passes you by and the smile freezes on your face. Think how you might feel in this situation, then realize that others may interpret this situation differently. Your feelings will be based upon your thoughts about the encounter. If you think he's rejecting you, then you feel embarrassed; if you think he's rude, then you feel angry; if you think he has a vision problem, then you might feel empathetic. In both examples the situation is the same and the emotional feeling is determined entirely by the thoughts of the beholder.

The next important point I want to make is that you can change your thoughts to alter your moods: mind over mood. In the example of the mother and child, the mother's mood changed quickly as soon as she recognized the card and altered her thoughts accordingly. However, as in the second example, the observer who feels rejected may feel quite upset and this mood may not easily be dismissed or altered. In this type of situation, when you do experience difficulty changing a strong feeling, you can use a structured method to examine and then alter your thoughts. First, pay attention to your thoughts about the situation and find the "hot thought," the thought that upsets you the most. Next, write down the evidence (facts) for and against the hot thought, ending with a balanced thought about the situation. The balanced thought will be less depressing or anxiety-producing and your mood will be altered. In the case of the party, you should realize the fact that this man is a stranger and does not have enough knowledge about you to judge or reject you. Your mood will lighten as you examine the evidence that the encounter was not a rejection. Another example: you feel depressed and anxious when you trip on a rug in front of your boss at work. You pay attention to your thoughts about the problem and realize that you are thinking the hot thought, "I'm such a klutz and it's going to affect my raise." When you look at the evidence for the hot thought, you recall that this is the second time you tripped at work and you failed PE in high school. However when you look at the evidence against the hot thought, you recall that your boss blamed the problem on the rug and later gave you a positive evaluation. Your balanced thought could be: "yes, I did trip twice, but no one made fun of me, certainly not my boss who reassured me that the problem was caused by the rug and gave me a positive work evaluation." Once you have changed your distressed thoughts about the situation, your mood will certainly improve.

For additional information about this technique you can consult a therapist familiar with this process and/or a book entitled "Mind over Mood" by Greenberger and Padesky, Guilford Press, 1995, pages 33 to 111. While you are learning this system it will be useful to write down your thoughts as well as the evidence for and against the hot thought and then the balanced thought. After you learn and practice the system you will be able to use it quickly and efficiently without needing to write down your thoughts. When you become upset you'll find yourself weighing evidence and altering your moods based upon logical thinking. You may still have the life problems to tackle, although you will find yourself with more energy to deal with life issues without being dragged down by depression and anxiety.