My secret sauce to happiness – the circle of automatic thinking and CBT

So with Tony’s tools, I started to define more specifically the person I wanted to be.  As I strove to apply what I was learning, I was handed the opportunity of my lifetime, a continuing education opportunity on “becoming more efficient”, offered by IBM in France.  That classroom was led by Jean-Marc Leone, and the method he introduced in combination with what I learned from Tony Robbins has helped me fit these puzzle pieces into a vision for a better today, every day.  A today where stress and fear and anger, though still a part of my life, have taken a back seat to a sense of peacefulness with my life, the people in it and all the unexpected curveballs that make life so terrifying and amazing.

This post is very long – that is to allow me to share my sources of learning, specific tips I hope can be immediately helpful and the desire to be clear about the hard work that goes into the journey. Because this post is so long, I have tried to capture some of the key points in this Dos and Don’ts table. The good news is – over time you can learn how to master the Do’s and you can do them yourself.  The bad news is, having the tools isn’t enough – you have to use them over and over and over again in order to have lasting change, so the work never stops.

Many of the elements in the method described in this class are in some way or other in Tony Robbins book. I believe now that both Tony Robbins and Jean Marc Leone’s tools and tricks are based on the concepts of Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Both Tony and Jean Marc describe how to do situational analysis to identify triggers, beliefs and how to change them.

This is a straightforward CBT technique of dissecting a difficult situation to understand what happened – when you get good at it you can even start doing it before you let emotion carry you away and change the outcome.  You look at what happened, what emotion was triggered, what thoughts were sitting behind the emotion and consider what other outcomes are possible to your thoughts and attitudes (is there a more positive way to think about it, to act on it, to react to it……). It’s simple, it’s easy to do but you have to do it over and over and over and over again. After awhile, for me, the situational analysis started to happen at microspeed in my head as I catch thoughts or emotions creeping in.

The power in Jean-Marc’s approach was suggesting specific tools for each stage in the cycle to intervene and change the outcome wherever you catch yourself in the cycle.  Finally – someone else with concrete suggestions on how to change the outcome, even in the middle of a crisis.  This representation as a circle includes the physical stage where our bodies react to emotions, with an emphasis on relaxation techniques which wasn’t entirely new to me, but was again introduced as a specific tool through which to change the outcome.

Jean-Marc lays the circle out very logically as a process which the brain goes through.  Now there’s something I can relate to – a process! It looks something like this.

The circle starts with automatic thinking.  These are the thoughts that pass your mind.   I would start out to describe this with a quote from Buddha : “We are what we think.  All that we are arises with our thoughts.  With our thoughts we make our world.”  Thoughts are influenced by whatever happens to us, but every thought is colored with the experience of the perceiver. 10 people see the exact same event and experience it 10 completely different ways.

I read a book when I was younger which was all about the chatterbox in our heads.  And that’s it for me.  This voice in my head that never stopped.  But now, I know how to have a conversation instead of being on the receiving end of experience and emotion tinged commentary.  I know how to turn it off completely.  I know how it is influenced by my past but more importantly, by the beliefs that I have about myself, about others, about life.

The first step is to recognize that a thought has happened.  That may sound pretty banal but the trick is to catch it as quickly as possible before the emotion and physical reaction have set in, or despite the fact that the emotion and physical reaction have already set in. Because once you catch it, you can work through what you believe to be true and think through the alternatives.  Critical is recognizing that we often have thoughts that feel like facts but are really opinions. Knowing your triggers is something you can learn over time by examining situations which gave you a strong emotional reaction.

So first you can learn to turn off repetitive, negative thoughts. Here are a few visualization scenarios that work really well for me.

  1. If you are sitting around worrying yourself to death, imagining dire possibilities when your spouse or your child is late getting home, you can turn the thoughts off, like switching the tv station, or clicking to another song.

  2. If you are trying to work through a problem, and you are frustrated that you can’t find the solution, you can decide that you are going to put away the thoughts in a chest of drawers.  You imagine just setting them down there and coming back to them when you are rested and ready to work through the problem again.

  3. I you are having control issues, you can imagine that the thought is in a boat drifting down the river and you are on the shore.  The thought can’t control the direction it’s going, you can decide to let it float away and take another path.

If you don’t know your fundamental beliefs that are influencing your thoughts and your emotional reaction to thoughts, you can’t work to change them.  It may seem impossible to change beliefs.  They are built on our core experience.  They are carved deep into our DNA.  But you can reprogram your beliefs .  I used to believe I needed to be in control of everything.  I finally changed that belief to one that says the only thing I control is the way I choose to live and think and feel in my life. This one belief set me free from so many things I was chained to before.

Differentiating between fact and opinion is another powerful tool for relationships.  It used to be so easy to get my goat.  I would get angry, I would feel personally attacked somehow for opinions other people had that I violently disagreed with.  Opinions can feel offensive – and they are never more so when people are discussing them as if they are truths.  I’ll take the facts.  The key to this one, which is still sometimes a challenge to me, is accepting others’ right to opinions that feel offensive and letting it go.

So those are some of the ways to intervene at the stage of a thought.  Moving on to emotions.  It all starts with, guess what, recognizing the emotion.  (Starting to see a trend here?) Recognize that you are feeling something strong and put a name on it.  It’s important.  Did you know that anger and fear trigger very animal instincts and push the brain into reptile mode?  That’s the mode of flight or fight. There is nothing else.  Adrenalin surges, instinct takes over.  This part of the brain is NOT the thinking part of the brain.  The only way to take back control is to get the brain out of the frontal lobe.  Ask yourself an open question.  Why am I so – angry, afraid? The brain starts to think of the answer and is immediately out of that reptile mode.

Just as with thoughts, it’s good to understand your emotional triggers.  Quite simply, the more you realize the things that trigger positive emotions, the more often you can leverage those things, do those things.  Changing your negative emotions is one of the harder things.  Many of the negative thoughts and emotion triggers we have are based on past experience which has formed a belief.  Do you believe you are smart or stupid?  Do you believe anything is possible in life or it just isn’t worth it to try?  Do you believe you can handle whatever comes your way or convinced that you aren’t equipped to handle life on your own?  Any one of these types of beliefs is forged by specific things that happened in our lives.  Something someone said or did to you (probably over and over) as a child. The example set by the people around you as you were growing up.  Whatever tragedies happened to you – and everyone has them.  These things influence our beliefs and then the way our brain thinks.

Believe it or not you can change what you believe.  It’s a very “thinking man’s” process, I will admit which isn’t for everyone.  I had two beliefs which were crippling me in anxiety and depression when I was younger.  On the one hand, I believed I needed to, was responsible for solving everyone’s problems.  I also believed I shouldn’t feel happy, ok when someone I loved and was close to was feeling down (my child, my husband).  Well I lived at the time with a troubled, unhappy child and a troubled unhappy husband.  You can imagine just how stressed and unhappy I was, trying to fix things, to make them alright, feeling sucked into their unhappiness.

I recognized, with the help of Tony Robbins’ and Jean Marc Leone’s advice (and ultimately cognitive behavioral therapy, partially from Jean Marc and partially more tools I found online studying CBT) that I could change those beliefs.  That I could liberate myself from the weight of trying to own other people’s problems, even the ones I love the most, by realizing that I am only responsible for myself.  I can offer my help, my opinion, but I can’t expect others to take them or to even have the right answer to solving other people’s problems.  My way is good for me.  Others need to take their own path. I realized that I could allow myself to be ok even when my husband or my child was not.  By being ok, by refusing to get sucked into whatever pain they were experiencing, I was able to provide a calmer port in the storm.

The final stage is the physical and overall reaction to the thought and the emotion.  What Jean-Marc taught us is that if you use relaxation techniques, you can change your physical state from one of anxiety or stress to one of calm (or calmer). Deep breathing and visualization are two ways to do this. At any stage in the circle you can intervene by stopping and taking a moment to calm down and relax. It sounds basic, but it’s fundamental to defusing yourself when the cycle has already taken hold.

Once I learned to intervene at all stages of the circle, I was able to manage stress and to stave off depression much more often than before. Depression is, for me, the result not only of emotional and physical stress and distress, but also of chemicals and hormones.  No matter how much I have learned to manage stress, there is still a place for medication in my personal case.  I have tried more than once to go off Prozac because I was convinced I could manage with my methods. I won’t be trying again……

But even in the midst of depression, I am true to myself and I am at peace. I am happier than I have ever been in life and I hope that sharing the many things that worked as “keys” to my own happiness will help at least one other person take a step towards a happier life. I hope to hear your stories and tips for lasting happiness and change.