Feeling Overwhelmed? Try This 3-Part Journaling Exercise

In a previous post, we discussed types of self-talk that only make stress and anxiety worse without addressing the root causes. (See “10 Ways of Thinking That Sabotage Your Life.”) Now, let’s look at one strategy for breaking the habit of unhelpful self-talk so that we can practice ways of thinking that actually reduce stress and anxiety.

 

Start by Identifying Old, Unhelpful Scripts

First, a quick review. “Self-talk” is the story we tell ourselves to make sense of our experiences. Unhelpful or harmful self-talk is often a “script” rooted in memories of experiences from our past. When we encounter a similar type of experience, our unconscious brain pulls out the old script and runs through it as a way of making sense of the new situation.

The problem is that the old script doesn’t give us a good handle on the new situation. The old script is what cognitive behavioral therapists call “cognitive distortions,” so named because they distort our perception of reality.

Dr. Greg Popcak explains how to identify the ten most common types of unhelpful self-talk in his book, God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy! A few examples include mind-reading (assuming you know what others are thinking without having sufficient evidence), catastrophizing (expecting the worst-case scenario to happen and seeing it as inevitable), and polarized thinking (viewing situations, people, or yourself in extreme, all-or-nothing terms, without recognizing any middle ground).

But once you’ve identified an old script that’s keeping you from achieving a happier, healthier life, what do you do next?

 

A Journaling Exercise for Rewriting Old Scripts

One option is a three-step journaling exercise that helps you take apart the old script and rewrite a more helpful one. Here’s a summary of the process as Dr. Popcak explains it in God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy!

 

1. Vent about the stressful situation 

Start by writing a single sentence that describes what happened. For example:

I applied for this job I really wanted two weeks ago, and I still haven’t heard back.

Keep it pretty straight-forward, focusing on the bare facts of whatever is causing you stress and anxiety.

Next, vent! Write down what this event means to you. Why is it stressing you out? For example:

I applied for this job I really wanted two weeks ago, and I still haven’t heard back. This is the fifth job I’ve applied for where they never even called to set up an interview. I thought I was a perfect fit, but they obviously don’t think so. I feel worthless, like a complete failure.

 

2. Identify the distortions

 Next, re-read what you wrote as if it were written by a friend; your job is to sort through each statement and separate facts from distortions. Make notes in the margins classifying each statement. For example:

I applied for this job I really wanted two weeks ago, and I still haven’t heard back. (That’s a fact.) This is the fifth job I’ve applied for where they never even called to set up an interview. (Also a fact.) I thought I was a perfect fit, but they obviously don’t think so. (Distortion: mind-reading,) I feel worthless, like a complete failure. (Distortion: polarized thinking, i.e., all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking.)

 

3. Write yourself a helpful letter

Finally, continuing in your role as a helpful friend, write yourself a letter that responds to the facts of the situation in a way that grounds you in reality, puts things in perspective, and offers practical steps that might actually help address the situation. Here’s an example:

Dear friend,

I know job hunting can be discouraging and demoralizing. But don’t make it harder than it is by listening to negative thoughts grounded in faulty thinking! The reality is, there are many possible reasons why these employers didn’t get back to you, including reasons that have nothing to do with you—so stop “mind reading!” And the fact that you didn’t get these jobs doesn’t make you a “failure”; it means you didn’t get those jobs, and that’s it. Plenty of successful people experienced way more rejection before finding success.

Here are three things you can do. First, take some time to pray, and just rest in the assurance of God’s care for you. Second, get some professional help with your job search process: hire a job coach, or take an online course to spruce up your resume. Third, ask around about a Christian job support group you could join, or start one yourself. Getting some friends to support you on the journey will help you keep going.

As you write this letter to yourself, avoid any “empty talk”: platitudes, pep talks, or encouragement that isn’t backed up by evidence. Focus on putting the facts of your situation in a more realistic light and naming practical things you can do to move forward.

This exercise can help you get on top of your stress and anxiety, but for a more comprehensive, one-on-one approach that takes your faith into account, reach out to Dr. Popcak and the therapists at CatholicCounselors.com.

10 Ways of Thinking That Sabotage Your Life

Some ways of thinking help us lead to a healthier, holier, happier life. Other ways of thinking aren’t helpful at all, leading us to powerlessness, isolation, and self-indulgence.

This was one of the key insights of the great spiritual master St. Ignatius of Loyola, who realized that some thoughts (or “movements of the soul”) drew him closer to God and his own well-being, while others led him away from those things.

More than five hundred years later, a similar insight among psychologists would give birth to cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy that has proven effective for treating anxiety and depression.

As Dr. Greg Popcak points out in his book Unworried: A Life without Anxiety, the two frameworks—one spiritual and one more science-based—can both help us identify whether our “self-talk” (the little stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our experience) are healthy, godly, and productive. Identifying unhelpful self-talk can help us take steps to change the unconscious “scripts” that are sabotaging our lives.

Dr. Popcak goes into more detail about St. Ignatius’s approach to discerning helpful and unhelpful thoughts in Unworried, but for now, let’s turn to some of the most common types of unhelpful self-talk identified by cognitive behavioral therapists.

 

The Top Ten Types of Unhelpful “Self-Talk”

The following list of “cognitive distortions” (so-called because they distort our perception of reality) is taken from chapter 2 of Dr. Popcak’s book, God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy!

 1. Mind Reading

Mind reading involves assuming you know what others are thinking without having sufficient evidence.

Example: You’re in a meeting and your boss looks at you briefly with a stern face. You immediately think, “My boss is disappointed with my work,” without any concrete evidence or feedback to support this assumption.

2. Filtering

Filtering involves focusing exclusively on the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive.

Example: You receive feedback on a project. Despite receiving nine positive comments and one slightly critical one, you focus solely on the criticism, ignoring all the positive feedback.

3. Magnification

Magnification is exaggerating the importance or severity of events, often perceiving them as more disastrous than they are.

Example: You make a minor mistake in your report and think, “This is a disaster! It’s going to ruin my entire career,” amplifying the significance of the error.

4. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing involves expecting the worst-case scenario to happen and seeing it as an inevitable outcome.

Example: You feel a mild pain in your back and immediately think, “What if it’s a serious illness? I might end up bedridden and unable to work.”

5. Emotional Reasoning

When you believe that what you feel must be true, even if there is no factual evidence to support it, you’re engaged in emotional reasoning.

Example: You feel anxious about flying and conclude, “Because I feel scared, flying must be a very dangerous way to travel,” even though statistics show it’s quite safe.

6. Polarized Thinking

Polarized thinking involves viewing situations, people, or self in extreme, all-or-nothing terms, without recognizing any middle ground.

Example: You don’t get the promotion you wanted and think, “If I’m not a complete success, I’m a total failure,” seeing things in black-and-white terms.

8. Fallacy of Internal Control

The fallacy of internal control leads you to believe that you are responsible for events and feelings that are actually outside your control.

Example: Your friend is in a bad mood and you think, “It must be because of something I did,” assuming you have more control over others’ emotions than you actually do.

8. Personalizing

Personalizing involves attributing external events or others’ behaviors to yourself, often blaming yourself for things you are not responsible for.

Example: Your spouse is short-tempered one evening and you immediately think, “They must be upset with me,” taking their mood as a reflection of your actions or worth.

9. The ‘Shoulds’

The ‘Shoulds’ involve imposing rigid rules on yourself or others about how people should behave, leading to guilt and frustration when these expectations are not met.

Example: You tell yourself, “I should always be working and productive,” and feel guilty whenever you take time for leisure, imposing rigid rules on yourself.

10. The Fallacy of Change

The fallacy of change means believing that your happiness depends on changing others to meet your expectations or desires.

Example: You believe, “If I can make my partner more outgoing, we’ll be happier,” thinking that changing someone else is the key to your happiness.

 

Changing Unhelpful Self-Talk

These distorted ways of thinking have real consequences for our life, leaving us poorly equipped to deal with things the way they really are. Moreover, a number of studies show that cognitive distortions lead to poor mental health and poor relationship satisfaction.

The good news is that once we recognize our unhelpful self-talk, we can change it—although that can be challenging, given that these self-sabotaging scripts are often deeply rooted in our subconscious brain.

We’ll look at some steps to help us rewrite those scripts in a future post, but if you can’t wait, contact a Catholic therapist at CatholicCounselors.com.

Who Is Narrating Your Life? How You Answer Has a Big Impact on Your Happiness

In the movie Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS agent who is haunted by the voice of an unseen narrator who offers a running commentary on the events of his life.

Mr. Crick’s unseen narrator turned out to be a frustrated author. But the truth is, each of us have an internal voice that “narrates” the events of our life. The nature of that running commentary shapes the way we react to situations and events—and that, in turn, has a big impact on our overall happiness.

Like Mr. Crick, then, it’s a good idea to occasionally interrogate that internal narrator.

Interrogating Our Narrator

In his book, God Help Me! This Stress Is Driving Me Crazy!, Dr. Greg Popcak proposes a simple exercise. Whenever you hear that unbidden voice interpreting a situation or event in your life, stop and ask: Is this thought true or false?

In the context of this exercise, we’re not so much analyzing the factual accuracy of the thought. Most of the time, our internal narrator’s interpretation of events contains at least a grain of truth. Rather, we’re trying to determine whether the thought leads us to the richer, more joyful life that God wants for us.

“We know that a thought or feeling is true (healthy, productive, rational) if acting on that thought or feeling would lead us to experience a greater degree of hope, confidence, competence, intimacy, security, peace, strength, and so on, even in the face of problems,” Dr. Popcak writes. “On the other hand, we know a thought or feeling is false (not of God, who is ‘the way and the truth and the life’) if acting on that thought or feeling would lead to hopelessness, confusion, doubt, anxiety, despair, estrangement, insecurity, ignorance, or incompetence, none of which come from God.”

Let’s look at an example. Your boss asks to meet with you on Friday without specifying the reason for the meeting. How does your inner voice narrate this situation?

Here’s one option: “Is she mad at me? Did I do something to upset her? What if she fires me? I don’t need this kind of stress!” This is an example of a “false” thought—not because it is inaccurate, but because it doesn’t help you deal with the situation. You can tell this thought is not from God because it leads to worry, hopelessness, and despair, none of which do anything to help you.

Here’s another option: “I wonder what she wants to meet about? I guess I won’t know until Friday. I’ll just have to wait and see what happens. I’m a little nervous, though; maybe I need to pray for peace.” This thought is “true” because it provides a helpful path forward.

Let’s take another example. Martha looks at her calendar for the week; it’s crammed with medical appointments, school events, and work obligations—and that’s on top of her usual busy routine.

Her interior narrator might respond negatively: “I am so overwhelmed! There’s no way I can juggle all this. If one more person puts one more thing on my plate, I’m going to scream.” Those thoughts are “false” because they don’t lead to more peace. They don’t come from God; in fact, they obscure God’s will for Martha’s well-being.

On the other hand, her internal narrator might respond more “truthfully”: “This is way too much for one person to handle. To get through the week, I’m going to have to drop some of these commitments or hand them off to someone else. I need a plan!” This way of narrating her situation might not make it magically better, but it provides a more hopeful path forward.

Tuning into God’s Grace

Both of these scenarios illustrate the power that our internal narration—what psychology calls our “automatic thoughts”—has over the quality of our day-to-day lives. False thoughts send us down a path where we waste energy, spin our wheels, and stew in stress. Worse, these noisy thoughts often distract us from the help and comfort God offers us. True thoughts, on the other hand, help us tune into God’s grace. And when we’re tuned into God, he opens our eyes to new possibilities and strengthens us to get through tough situations.

The key is to be more intentional about what our internal narrator is telling us. Like Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction, we need to confront our own personal narrators. If they’re not reading from God’s script, then we need to change that.

Poor Harold Crick had to get hit by a bus in order to get a new script. Thankfully, most of us won’t have to go to such lengths. If you need some professional, faith-based help, though, connect with a Catholic counselor at CatholicCounselors.com.

Overcoming Your Inner Critic

Have you ever felt held back by thoughts such as “I can’t,” “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not doing enough,” etc.? The emotional part of our brains is wired to think these hurtful thoughts as a feeble attempt to protect ourselves from potential threats. However, when we listen to these reactionary thoughts, it’s easy to begin to believe these hurtful statements about ourselves.

The Theology of The Body reminds us that we live in tension between what it calls “Historical Man” and “Eschatological Man” That is to say, we’re caught between the person we are and the life we have today, and the whole, healed, godly, grace-filled person we’re called to be and the more abundant life God is calling us to live. Through his grace, God is working to make all things new–starting with us, our lives and relationships! Of course, the enemy doesn’t want any of this to happen. He is constantly whispering in our spiritual ear, telling us that “thus-and-such isn’t possible,” or “who do we think we are?” or “you can’t do that!” or, “that’s never going to change” or even, “why bother trying.”

St Ignatius of Loyola called these kinds of messages “desolations.” Desolations represent the voice of the Enemy, who is trying to tempt us away from doing what God would have us do and having the life and relationships God wants us to have. The more we listen to these desolations, the more we block God’s grace from having the effect it could on our life and relationships. Desolations make us feel stuck, demoralized, undermined, and thwarted–often before we even start. It takes a lot of work to rid ourselves of desolations and learn to be guided by the consolations of the Holy Spirit, but the more we do this work, the more confident we become in the face of the various challenges we encounter in every part of our life. Even in the face of big, serious, persistent problems, we can feel confident, powerful, and effective, because we are confirmed in the knowledge that all is possible with God.

Here are a few ways that we can move towards consolations and overcome our inner critic.

  1. Acknowledge Daily Successes—When desolations are taking over, we often think about the things that we didn’t do well or “should” have done better. Especially at the end of the day, we reflect on the things we didn’t get to on our to-do lists or the things that we wish we had said or done. But this type of daily reflection causes us to feel powerless, defeated, not good enough. Instead, write down the things that you do well daily. Did you reach out to a friend? Hold the door open for someone? Clean up the pile of papers on the counter? Finish a project? No matter how big or small, write down at least one success, accomplishment, or thing you did well each day. This helps us to lean into consolations by recognizing what we are capable of and what we did well which replaces those hurtful thoughts with helpful thoughts. 
  1. Recognize Your Strengths—When you acknowledge your successes each day, ask yourself, “What strength or virtue helped me do X well?” Identify the strengths or virtues that you used to help you accomplish that task. Were you thoughtful, determined, patient, etc.? These are the strengths that you have, that make you who you are, and that you can use to help you be effective in any situation you may face. 
  1. Use I Am Statements—As mentioned previously, the enemy uses desolations to make us focus on all the things we are not and all the things we “can’t” do. The Holy Spirit, however, uses consolations to remind us who we are and all the things we are capable of. Once you have identified your strengths as described above. Write them down in a list and remind yourself of them every day by saying, “I am thoughtful,” “I am determined,” “I am patient,” and so on. Fill in your strengths into those I Am statements and use them as a reminder of who you are and who God created you to be. 

For more support on overcoming your inner critic, reach out to us at CatholicCounselors.com.

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Quick Links and Resources:

Unworried—A Life Without Anxiety

A Great Day For A New You—When Its Time To Make a Change 

Broken Gods—Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart

Can We Decrease Anxiety by Changing the Tone of Our Inner Voice?

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Shutterstock

We all have an inner voice. I’m not necessarily referring to the “Jiminy Cricket, conscience” type of inner voice, but rather, an inner sense that helps us identify emotions, opinions, make decisions, and so on.

Because we have this constant inner voice, however, it is easy for us to get caught up in our personal monologue which could cause unnecessary anxiety.

A new study by Dr. Mark Seery, an associate professor in the University of Buffalos Department of Psychology, found that switching from first to the third person as the framework for our self-talk “can help us see ourselves through someone elses eyes and can lead to improved confidence and performance.”

For instance, if your name was “Pat” and you were to use the technique to help decrease your anxiety about an upcoming job interview, you might write, “Pat feels nervous about his upcoming job interview.”  It may seem silly, but this study found that writing or speaking about feelings in the third person actually activates the para-sympatheric (or “calm down”) nervous system in powerful ways that puts the breaks on the physical experience of fear, worry, and anxiety. Most significantly, people who used this technique had much greater control over their heart rate in anxiety situations than people who simply spoke of their feelings in the first person.

This type of third person self-talk is referred to as “self distancing,” or taking a “distance perspective.” Dr. Seery states that “Being a fly on the wall might be the way to put our best foot forward.” By inserting our name where we would usually simply say “I” allows us to gain a new perspective and “see ourselves as an outside observer.” As Dr. Seery found, this seemingly minute change can make a big impact on decreasing anxiety and gaining a healthier, more balanced perspective on both the big and small issues that we encounter in our lives.

For more tips on decreasing anxiety, check out my book God Help Me! This Stress Is Driving Me Crazy! and tune in to More2Life, weekdays at 10am E/9am C on EWTN Global Catholic Radio Network!