I think, I feel, I do.
Memories of my childhood keep me young and hopeful. I continue to think about those broken relationships with people I have met and loved along the way. I do find it hard to weave through certain memories of my college days. Thoughts about what the future holds for me, makes all of this all the more enthralling. The good times alongside the heartbreaks have made me who I am today.
How do such thoughts impact my attitude? How can I let go of these thoughts that haunt me? Can I control my emotions and actions?
In a previous article, we have discussed about the influence of moods and feelings (affect) on domains such as logical reasoning, prosocial behaviour, and forming impressions of others. In this piece, we are going to explore the impact of thoughts on affect and attitude.
In a research study in 2012, participants were asked to write down their thoughts about their body image on a piece of paper. Half the participants were asked to tear up this paper and throw it in the trash, whereas the rest were asked to keep the paper and check for spelling or grammatical errors. Then the attitudes of the participants towards their body-image were recorded on a scale.
Results revealed that when participants kept their thoughts with them, those who wrote down positive thoughts had a more positive body image compared to those who wrote negative thoughts. Participants who physically threw their thoughts (positive or negative) away did not show any difference in their evaluation of their body image. In a follow-up study it was found that physically disposing a thought (even moving a file to the recycle bin on a computer) was more influential than mere imagination.
This shows us that considering our thoughts as material objects can change the influence they have on our ability to make evaluations. We tend to rely more on thoughts remaining with us, while forming attitudes and making judgements. Physically discarded thoughts have a lesser impact on these factors.
Ruminating about arguments such as when you fought with your partner about the amount of time you spend with another friend, misunderstandings with your mother when she felt you were not being open about your future plans, disagreements with a close friend when he feels you are being too hard on yourself about your past mistakes, all these thoughts impact the way you think, feel and act in these relationships. Retaining positive thoughts appear to impact us in a positive manner compared to negative thoughts. Literally discarding such negative thoughts seem to ensure we are discarding them mentally as well, reducing their impact on our feelings and actions.
I urge you to try this technique and observe whether you feel lighter and better after physically eliminating unwanted thoughts. Such methods have been a significant part of *(1) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, *(2) Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and *(3) Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.
Let’s take a look at how our thoughts help us control our feelings. We all have a pattern or set of activities that we engage in (despite knowing it’s bad for us) when in a bad mood. I for one eat plenty and tend to get ticked off easily. Why do we engage in such tempting activities?
During a research study in 2000, participants read a story that either put them in a bad mood (storyline: you skipped a red light and caused the death of a child) or good mood (storyline: you saved the life of a child). One group was told that their mood has the ability to be altered over time and the other group was informed that due to an aromatherapy candle, their moods were ‘frozen’ and cannot be altered. Next participants were informed that they would be doing an intelligence test and receive feedback on their performance. Before the test, they had a 15 minute break where they had materials that can help them prepare for the test along with “distracters.” Half the participants had access to fun and tempting distracters (new magazines, video games, challenging puzzles) while the rest had boring ones (old magazines and simple puzzles).
Results revealed that people in a bad mood engaged with more distracters (procrastination), especially when they were told their moods can be altered. This goes on to show us that engaging in ‘unhealthy habits’ such as eating junk food/ice cream, drinking alcohol or smoking, and other forbidden pleasurable activities are not us merely yielding to our temptations. It is a calculated, conscious, strategic choice made by us to lessen negative feelings of distress, loss, pain and so on.
When discussing about such coping mechanisms with the people in my life, many of them said they shop online or go to the parlour, others said they sleep or stay alone, to shut themselves away and ignore the issue. It is important to identify some healthy coping mechanisms as well, that can help alleviate your mood and sense of self. Some people dance, cook, bake or write, others listen to music or play a sport. Speaking to a confidant is a popular one that helps to shed one’s worries. Exercising and cleaning also seem to help. As mentioned in the first study, writing negative thoughts on a piece of paper and discarding them seems to be an effective method. People also have access to professional services to guide and support them (please feel free to contact me if you would like to be referred to a therapist).
In this piece we have understood the interplay between our thoughts and feelings, how they interact and influence our way of thinking, feeling and acting. We have also looked at ways in which we can take control of our thoughts and emotions.
*(1) "Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) focuses on exploring relationships among a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. During CBT a therapist will actively work with a person to uncover unhealthy patterns of thought and how they may be causing self-destructive behaviors and beliefs.” (as defined by National Alliance on Mental Illness)
*(2) "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) teaches mindfullness skills to help individuals live and behave in ways consistent with personal values while developing psychological flexibility. Practitioners of ACT help individuals recognize ways in which their attempts to suppress, manage, and control emotional experiences create challenges...individuals can become better able to make room for values-based actions that support well-being."
*(3) ''Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a modified form of cognitive therapy that incorporates mindfulness practices such as meditation and breathing exercises. Using these tools, MBCT therapists teach clients how to break away from negative thought patterns that can cause a downward spiral into a depressed state so they will be able to fight off depression before it takes hold.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). (n.d.). Retrieved December 10, 2018, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/acceptance-commitment-therapy
Baron, R. A., Branscombe, N. R., Byrne, D., & Bhardwaj, G. (2009). Social Cognition. Social Psychology. India: Pearson Education.
Beilock, S. (2013, January 16). Throw Those Nasty Thoughts Away. Retrieved December 10, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/choke/201301/throw-those-nasty-thoughts-away
Bothered by Negative, Unwanted Thoughts? Just Throw Them Away. (n.d.). Retrieved December 10, 2018, from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/bothered-by-negative-unwanted-thoughts-just-throw-them-away.html
Briñol, P., Gascó, M., Petty, R. E., & Horcajo, J. (2012). Treating Thoughts as Material Objects Can Increase or Decrease Their Impact on Evaluation. Psychological Science,24(1), 41-47. doi:10.1177/0956797612449176
J. (2017, April 03). What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? CBT’s Definition & Meaning. Retrieved December 10, 2018, from https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/what-is-cbt-definition-meaning/
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. (n.d.). Retrieved December 10, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/therapy-types/mindfulness-based-cognitive-therapy
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