Where Research In Re-Framing Our Thoughts Could Take Us

We get consistent word from our therapists that if we re-frame our thoughts, we can change the way we think, the way we perceive things, and that will ultimately help us cope with life. This is often done with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is a very proven (as in scientifically) therapeutic method.

There are people who praise this method for saving their lives and others who don’t, and CBT takes a lot of work–a hell of a lot of work. You won’t see results if you don’t take it seriously, and if you’re anything like me, it’s hard to take it seriously when you’re heavily depressed or so anxious you want to jump from your skin. Let me give some background on why this topic is so interesting today.

Amidst all the anxiety this morning, I spiraled down with thoughts of failure, pain of where I am in my life right now versus where I could be, and felt out of place in the classroom; other students whispered about me, and thought very loudly about me. I lost focus in the lecture and I felt bad about that.

The professor popped a meme up on the screen of some woman with a stack of papers at work scribbling maddeningly and saying “this is a two-cupcake Friday”.

I don’t remember what this portion of lecture was about, or if the meme was even relevant, but through all my cloudy thoughts and thoughts of the students around me, one of my voices said calmly “you’re having a bad day.”

And I was. But the significance of this is far greater than just that realization.

Another thing therapy shoves down our throat is that our problems which feel permanent and hopeless are often temporary and malleable. In the moment, I felt miserable. I thought I was falling into another depression, that I’d spent the last year and a half off meds and this day, today, was going to be the day I decided to go back on them because I just couldn’t take the pain anymore.

It’s been a hard three weeks, and to ignore all of those factors and conclude “it’s just my brain making me mental again” would be foolish. I’ve been stressed, and today has been particularly difficult: I had a bad day. There’s nothing else to look at.

Multiple things came to mind as a result of this voice presenting his softer side. The first was–I tell myself the very same thing all the time. I’ll say to myself, “Ugh, today is a bad day.” And I’ll recognize it, but the reality doesn’t always sink in. And so I thought, as I sat through my second course more invigorated and positive, are we more likely to believe others about our true state of self, of being, than we are to believe ourselves?

Let’s look at this through two lenses:

The Theory Behind It All:

  1. Personality Research Shows that friends/family are more accurate in describing things we may be good at, like school/work. (Look up INFORMANT JUDGEMENTS and studies by Connolly (2010).)
  2. Research in this area also shows friends/family are better than us at predicting our personality traits like contentiousness and openness.
  3. Some personality researchers focus only on showing how much we DON’T know about ourselves (like WHY we think the way we do, or WHY we did something/feel something).
  4. Researcher Carol Dweck studied growth/fixed mindset and the influence on intelligence. In her study, children were influenced with praise on their intelligence versus praise on their effort. The study didn’t have anything to do with the effect of the words, but the outcome. Still, the words had a great effect on the thoughts of the children.

The Questions That Now Arise:

1.We are our largest critics, so they say. Why does it seem we doubt the POSITIVE things we tell ourselves, but are convinced of the NEGATIVE things about ourselves?

2. Can we use this possibility to our advantage?

3. For those of us who hear voices, can we train our voices to re-frame their approach, or do they naturally mature as emotional stability improves and coping mechanisms enhance state of living/being?

4. What makes us more likely to believe NEGATIVE things about ourselves versus POSITIVE things?

5. What makes us put more weight on OTHERS words versus our own?

6. How could research in this area of behavior and cognition help further treatment and therapies for psychosis?

These are passing thoughts I had during my second and last lecture. I wondered about it because I had been soothing myself all morning, giving myself reminders that my anxiety is bad, I’m not having a heart attack, that I’m just having a bad day. The moment my voice reiterated that, relief washed over my body. Suddenly, my heart rate slowed and I could focus in class. My head wasn’t as clouded and I went to my second lecture in a great mood–partly because I was fascinated at the effect he had on me.

And so the wonder continues: there is no argument that when a voice tells you you’re worthless, or stupid, or that you’re going to die, you feel immediate dread, sadness, anger. Therefore, were one to tell you something positive, it seems reasonable the same intensity, but positive (happiness, comfort, contentment) has the potential to flow through you. The problem is there isn’t a lot of research in helping people unite with their voices, nor with themselves, regardless of whether they hear voices or not.

When I attended a Hearing Voices Workshop in San Francisco, the man in the couple leading the discussion heard voices and had just been diagnosed with dementia. They’d been spending time training his voices to remember things for him. According to his self-report, and his wife’s informant judgement, it had been working.

This would be regarded as a case study and we can’t put a lot of weight on those scientifically. But it can be a catalyst for real research and potentially a new therapeutic avenue for soothing psychosis.

It seems that we need affirmation when it comes to positive things about ourselves. It seems we need someone to agree with us, or remind us, that yes, we are safe. Yes, we are okay. Yes, this too shall pass. Yes, you are strong, yes you are this, yes you are that. It’s as if we have the inability to create that foundation for ourselves and truly believe it.

But when it comes to the negative things, our failures or short comings, we take them at face value. We don’t need someone telling us “yeah dude, you failed”, for us to think of ourselves as a failure. In fact, someone affirming our negative beliefs about ourselves seems to make it more likely we’ll believe that in the future, whereas someone affirming our positive traits/beliefs doesn’t.

What could this mean? How could we study it?

Many of us may internalize what trauma we’ve experienced as children or adults and so the automatic sense of “everything is horrible” may influence our natural thought. But even among memories of trauma and experiences of trauma, we had moments of great fun. I grew up with my dad being violent and using drugs, terrorizing my house. But I have equally intense, positive memories of being out in the garden with him, planting tomatoes and helping him work on his cars.

Why is it that the negative becomes the basis of my emotional foundation? And can we use what we know (and can still learn ) about this very automatic bias to creative equally positive, habitual thoughts?

I suppose it’s worth mentioning that since one of my False Angels reminded me I’m “just having a bad day”, I haven’t heard anyone else talking, my anxiety is at a steady, manageable level, and I’m more motivated than ever to finish this degree and research.

And to think: I’ve ignored them for SO long.

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