Health and wellness
Managing our thoughts
By Nick Halmasy
Part 3 in this cognitive lifestyle series looks at why Stoicism and cognitive behavioural therapy are good ways to build resilience in our thinking
By Nick Halmasy
Our last stop on why the philosophy of Stoicism and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are good approaches for resilience lies with our thoughts. This is purposeful — often thoughts are the first place people wish to look when trying to address mental health and other problems in their personal life. For me to hear, “if only I could stop thinking about…” is almost a guarantee. This is likely because of the ease for which we can access them. Yet, as we have discussed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, the influences of our emotions and behaviours are an equal force in determining how we think, feel, and act in situations.
Actions, as Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez identify in their book, A Handbook for New Stoics, still depends heavily on internal workings. Meaning, of course, that our thoughts and emotions are inextricably linked with our actions. Or, if you’d rather, what you think of a situation lends to how you’ll manage it.
In The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes: “Take away those opinions— dismiss your judgements that this is something terrible — and your anger goes away as well.”
In CBT, thoughts are obviously important as marked by the word cognitive. Yet, our thoughts are susceptible to many failings and errors, skewing our perception and influencing our actions. This happens both explicitly and implicitly. A quick Google search can land you on “problematic thinking styles” (or cognitive distortions in CBT language), which is a working list of common ways we think, well, problematically. For instance, consider the “all or nothing” approach. This way of thinking about reality ignores that most situations have numerous answers or interpretations. Emotional reasoning is another approach that suggests we mistake emotional states for reality. If I feel “embarrassed” it’s because I’m “stupid”. But our emotions are not always the most reliable narrators and we should probably act suspiciously of them. There are many more thinking traps for us to fall into.
As therapists, there are a few fundamental rules that we must accept, I believe, in order to effectively practice CBT, which is the largest, most well-researched, reliable and valid approach to mental health that we have. Almost any “new” approach comes reliably from the philosophy of CBT and its approach to treating mental health.
First, you are not the author of your thoughts. You don’t choose the majority of the things you think. We have all had the experience of finding ourselves in some corner of our minds wondering how we landed there. Or worse, we think of ourselves as horrible people because of the thought(s) we just had. Yet, if we are paying pretty close attention, we’ll notice that we didn’t choose to think that. As neuroscientist and philosopher, Sam Harris identifies this in Free Will: “If you pay attention to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process.”
In Mind over Mood, Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky write, “… we all have automatic thoughts that influence our behaviour. These are words and images that pop into our heads throughout the day.” Understanding that thoughts and images will enter the mind without conscious consent is paramount to understanding that we didn’t author them. We can choose both what to think next (creating balanced thoughts), or how to act in spite of the thoughts (acting opposite).
Secondly, your thoughts don’t have real power. While this one is a bit harder to reconcile than the first, the reality is that a thought is just a thought. Of course, it is — what else could a thought be? Yet, we let it be much more than that often. If we have a thought such as, “I don’t like the probie,” well, if we aren’t careful with how we use this thought we will find ourselves quickly acting in accordance with this thought. That’s where the power comes from, not the thought, but the action associated with it. And this conflation is exactly where we get the idea of “good” and “bad” emotions. It’s not because emotions are fundamentally organized this way, but because our actions associated with them produce “good” or “bad” outcomes.
Practically, I’ve had the experience of having firefighters and other first responders reach out because they feared they were “going crazy.” Now, “going crazy” isn’t an emotion, it’s a thought. It’s a judgement. And with this judgement is a whole slew of other cascading thoughts and emotions, none of which are likely to be all that helpful. We can see that this thought may be the catalyst to other unhelpful thoughts that further lead to more unhelpful thoughts and actions. A thought is just a thought. If we can recognize this, we can also end a lot of our own suffering and pain. As Ward Farnsworth notes in The Practicing Stoic: “The pain of whatever is coming is not yet here, so we can’t feel it unless we impose it on ourselves by thinking about it… what is here is probably bearable.”
Thoughts are more problematic when they are intrusive. This is a key symptom of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but is common with a lot of other anxiety and depressive disorders as well. With an intrusive thought, the emotional experience that comes with it is more the issue. This is what causes the grief, after all. Treatment here, broadly speaking, is to expose ourselves to this thought (imaginal exposure, for instance) to take the power away. There needs to be an effort to see that the thought itself is not dangerous and that the person having the thought is not in danger in the here and now. In The Cognitive Behavioural Coping Skill Workbook for PTSD, Matthew Tull, Kim Gratz, and Alexander Chapman reflect that, “In the end, however, no matter how real or true they feel, these are just thoughts and just a symptom of your PTSD.” Lastly, Donald Robertson, in Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, reminds us that while automatic thoughts are common, “… our conscious ‘assent’ [saying yes, or agreeing with] to impressions is free and voluntary, giving adult humans the ability to self-consciously question their own impressions.” In other words, we can challenge our initial thoughts and question whether they were accurate or not.
We can easily demonstrate the power of a thought. If you find yourself angry, ask what specifically is angering you. You’ll likely find judgement at the base. If I get cut-off in traffic and become angry I attribute it to the “idiot” driving in front of me. I blame their character not the circumstance, known as the fundamental attribution error. This judgement creates my anger. Without judgement, I have only facts. That car cut in front of me. And that truth is boring and free from anger. Which is why “fact checking” our thoughts is a staple in the CBT approach.
Ultimately, we give too much credit to our thoughts. They do have power, though, if we believe them to be true and allow our emotions to be taken with them, therefore producing actions incongruent with what we want. Stoic students would be wise to be suspicious of their thoughts, skeptical of their accuracy, and consistent in challenging them to ensure they are as “truthful” as possible prior to action.
This three-part series was an effort to suggest that a path towards resilience and wellness doesn’t necessarily require deep pockets and niche training. Instead, there are practical, realistic, and easily accessible ways to increase personal resilience, work towards wellness, and ultimately achieve thriving. Whether this is through Stoicism, formal CBT training, or casual perusal of either or both, your wellness is reliant on you. Resilience isn’t something mysterious. We are all capable of it. Like our physical wellness examples, there is no magic bullet of a five-minute mind workout or special diet of cognitive foods to ensure it. Instead, it is achieved through the consistency and vigour of putting in the work.
Nick Halmasy is a registered psychotherapist who spent a decade in the fire service. He is the founder of After the Call, an organization that provides first responders with mental health information. Contact him at email@example.com.