Chronic Illness · Chronic Pain · Grad School · Mental Health · Personal · Recovery

Cognitive Coping: Positive Life Hack

If you live with any kind of mental health problems, you know how hard it can be to feel like you’re fighting your mind and your mind is fighting you right back even more. It’s easy to forget that your nasty thoughts to yourself about yourself aren’t necessarily facts. (This is a really, really good thing, if you ask me.)

[image description: a white piece of paper with two different kinds of texts on it. One is a lowercase handwritten cursive and that comprises the top and bottom lines: “you are enough” and “you always were.” In the middle of these sayings are black capital letters with yellow, green, and pink dots in them. This font is smaller than the handwritten cursive and it says: “not because you did or said or thought or bought or became or created something special, but because”. Looking from the whole, this says: “you are enough not because you did or said or thought or bought or became or created something special, but because you always were.” Source].
It’s easy for me to forget that my thoughts affect my feelings, which then affect my behaviors (thanks, cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT], for always reminding me of this eventually). This means that if I take the energy and time to nurture positive thoughts by culling the more negative ones, I’m already on a better path. The cycle between my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is going to work out better and this will affect more than I know.

The trouble is that we have what are called “automatic thoughts.” We’re quick to fill in the blanks in our mental lives with information that we don’t have – and we don’t even realize it! It’s a time-saving technique, but for people with mental health problems and low self-esteem, our automatic negative thoughts might be hurting us by giving us negative emotions, hence negative outcomes, without our even fully being aware of it.

There are many types of automatic thoughts. Two kinds of automatic thoughts that frequently cross my mind are “catastrophizing” thoughts and “black and white” thoughts. This means that I’m quick to jump to worst case scenarios, and I’m also quick to judge the whole based on a part. For a catastrophizing example, if I don’t understand an article I have to read for school, I’m quick to say to myself “I’m so awful at this. I’m clearly stupid. I don’t know why I’m in seminary or why they accepted me in the first place. What am I going to do if/when I fail out?” My gosh, how stressful is that? I don’t understand one thing and my mind can jump to trying to figure out my contingency plan for my future. For a black and white thinking example, I can struggle with doing something halfway to the point that I’d rather do nothing than get started on something. That’s ludicrous, no? 15 minutes of exercise is better than none. A somewhat poorly-written assignment is better than no assignment at all. Black and white thoughts feed into perfectionism, one of my biggest battles in life.

This is an understatement, but this thought problem is super frustrating. So, what can I – and you with your unique negative thought processes – do in response?

[image description: a pink background with a circle of white hand-drawn leaves. Within the circle these words are written in white capital letters, with the word grace in a larger size in the center: “I will hold myself to a standard of grace not perfection.” Source].
  • Firstly, I remind myself that I would never speak words like that to another person. I try to speak to myself as a friend. I try to look from God’s perspective – a God who speaks love over me, who rejoices over me with singing simply because I am a child of God (Zephaniah 3:17B). While I judge myself, I give grace to everyone around me, and God gives grace to me in quantities unfathomable. This helps me calm down enough to be able to take the next step.
  • Secondly, I do some cognitive work called “cognitive coping.” This means I edit my first thoughts to be more factual and beneficial to my views of myself and my life. I speak truth over myself. If the thought is “this person doesn’t like me” because they didn’t text me back, a cognitive coping thought might be: “I am worthy of friendship.” “I have no reason to think that this means this person doesn’t like me or want to be my friend; it’s one text message.” “My feelings aren’t facts. They probably were just busy and will get back to me later.”

    Since mine tend to do with perfectionism and not feeling good enough, some of my cognitive coping thoughts relate to how I don’t have to be perfect; how I’m my own toughest critic and others’ words about my performance tend to contradict mine; how nobody can be good at everything, especially at the beginning of trying something out; and so on. For the moments that I feel like I cannot do this, I keep a little note on my phone that has some kinder thoughts already written down. This is called a coping card. I also have a public Google doc full of Bible verses and quotes about God that can ground me when I feel strong emotions that cause me to lose my way. 

[image description: a screenshot of a note on my phone. It says: “Coping thoughts * I have a lot of reasons to believe that I can do this. * I am more loved than I can comprehend. * God has told me that I am enough just by existing. * I am capable and I have conquered many things I never would have guessed I could have. * I am trying my best. My best will look different from day to day, but it will still be my best, and that must be good enough. * I am new at this and I’m not expected to be perfect now or ever. * I am worthy of love. * I can succeed with a mixture of hard work, belief in myself and my abilities, a team surrounding me, and God’s guiding hand.”]
  • Thirdly and lastly, I breathe and move forward, both mentally and physically.

I call these 3 steps a mental reboot. I do it every time that my anxiety or depression twist my thoughts.

These 3 steps are no cure for anxiety, but they can – and will, with time and practice – help you make the anxious thoughts come less frequently and less loudly and authoritatively. Let me tell you, it can be exhausting to go these 3 steps day in and day out. There are moments that I don’t have the energy to fight fears with facts, to fake it until I make it. In those moments, I do a more condensed version of these 3 steps. If the automatic thought is “I’m stupid,” I’ll at least take the time to breathe and say “I may feel stupid right now, but I know that I’m not. Tomorrow, I will try again.” 10 seconds to a better outcome is worth that energy, no? It doesn’t have to be profound and cover all of the steps in order to make a difference. These little reboots of your mind are worth it.

[image description: two hand-drawn candles against a tan background. Next to the candles are the calligraphic words “Be gentle with yourself.” Source].
Show yourself the love that you deserve, even though it will feel inauthentic at first. It will be worth it. I promise. I’m living proof.

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