As a licensed marriage and family therapist, my eclectic style of therapy regularly has recurrent messages of increasing insight and understanding of ourselves, identifying and challenging beliefs, and expressing feelings clearly. I educate my clients on basic theories that allow them to find a framework for their experiences, using traditional and non-traditional methods congruently. Across sessions, I often notice common, emerging themes for the week or month, usually repeating the same messages to multiple clients. As I believe “we” as a whole are connected to a much greater source of energy, I think the cosmos often sweeps us up into the current of life without our realizing. Suddenly, we either are flying high or struggling to stay afloat in an emotional tsunami, and our neighbors are riding the same crazy roller coaster.
One of my tried and true frameworks focuses on the connection between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. In traditional therapy, this is considered “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”, which is a core component of my favorite model “Dialectical Behavioral Therapy”. Essentially, the thoughts, feelings and behaviors connection is like an equilateral triangle. If you attempt to change one of the points on the triangle, all other angles will be impacted. This classic geometric mathematical law shows us that no matter which area you tackle first, you will be able to successfully change all areas. In mainstream pop culture, this can have a more abundance-focused appeal, presenting itself as manifestation as outlined by the cult favorite “The Secret”. The idea is that if you “think, visualize and feel” something passionately enough, you can create it. In the spiritual word, it can look like prayer, setting intentions, giving up control to a higher power and acts of service to others.
Regardless of what you call it or the terms that connect with you, there is a universal truth behind mind-body connection. For the sake of this discussion, I am using the traditional therapy framework as specific techniques often are the “down and dirty” version of what people want to know to make changes in their life. While these techniques may provide immediate improvement, it’s always a good idea to combine them with self-reflection, journaling and even therapy to permanently overcome negative or unhealthy patterns.
Behavior can be a straightforward change to start with. For example, if you tend to be prone to depression and lay in bed all day with the shades drawn listening to sappy songs, those behaviors will reinforce the depression. However, if you go for a walk, call a friend, put on upbeat music or engage in some other enjoyable activity, your mood will begin to improve. If any of those activities feel too overwhelming to tackle, start small. Begin by simply opening a shade. Or lay on the couch instead of your bed. Any small step towards a larger goal is a success. Of course, this example is oversimplified for the sake of being able to generalize the concept. If you have a hard time tailoring activities, seeking help from a professional can give you new ideas.
Thoughts are a lot more challenging for many. To successfully change thought patterns, we must explore multiple layers for the thought. It can sometimes stem from childhood experiences or traumas, or it can be our low self-esteem continuously popping up to diminish our feelings or worthiness. Regardless of the source, we must begin by identifying the thought. This can be done by writing down thoughts (i.e. each time you yell at your child, you think to yourself “I am a terrible parent”) and then writing next to it an alternate, positive statement (even if you don’t believe it yet!).
Mindfulness tools, especially meditation or journaling, can also be particularly helpful in noticing thoughts. Many people mistake mediation for forcing your mind to go completely blank. In actuality, it is the practicing of noticing, observing and releasing thoughts without judgment. Simple breath meditations can be a great starting place for this practice. For example, breathe in to the count of 7, hold for a count of 4, and breathe out for a count of 8. Your goal during this exercise is to focus on the count and/or the breath. Once this feels comfortable, you can shift your focus to the thoughts that enter your mind. Your job here is only to notice the thoughts and allow them to float on. You must avoid judging, criticizing or shaming yourself for having thoughts or being unable to avoid allowing your mind to wander. This takes PRACTICE!
If sitting in meditation is difficult, automatic writing can be equally as effective. This practice can be done in a free-form style or with a specific prompt or intention. Sit with a sheet of paper, take a few deep breaths, and begin writing whatever comes to mind. Do not attempt to change or judge what comes out. Do not worry about grammar or punctuation; just allow the ideas to flow. As the thoughts come out, they will begin to organize naturally, allowing you to increase your insight as to what thoughts may be triggering negative emotions. For example, a prompt may start by stating “I am angry because…” As you write, it may start stiff and forced, but stick with it. “I am angry because my smug therapist thinks she has all the answers and is making me write to prove how smart she is. I am really not sure why I pay her all this money to sit around and talk about feelings. I should be at work because my family is struggling to keep a roof over our head. My father would never have stood for this, he would have told me to ‘suck it up’ and get on with it”. This example gives great insight into a current stressor (finances) as well as a childhood belief that highlights negative self-talk (feeling as if a parent didn’t validate their feelings).
When we sit in non-judgment and notice our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, we can begin to find control over our responses. Many times at the start of therapy, clients look at me like I have four heads when I say they can “choose” their emotions. Once we establish the belief that they have a bit of control, even in a small way, big changes start to happen.
“The rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind and the harmony of the soul create the symphony of life.” ~ BKS Iyengar