Our brains can do a huge number of truly incredible things and we have it to thank for pretty much everything we’ve ever achieved in our lives. If you didn’t have such an amazing brain then you wouldn’t be able to hold down a job, perform well in your studies or solve any problems that life throws at you. More fundamentally, you also wouldn’t be able to move, breathe, eat or do other basic things that are essential to your existence.
But while our brains are responsible for a lot of good, sometimes they can cause us significant grief. Most commonly, this occurs when we find ourselves in a stressful situation where our brain goes into overdrive thinking of all the ways we could mess up, embarrass, or hurt ourselves, leaving us feeling far from confident and capable. So, what can you do to fix it? Learn and apply CBT.
CBT stands for ‘cognitive-behavioral therapy.’ It is a psychotherapeutic approach that teaches people how to better manage their brains by observing and altering thought processes. This often revolves around cognitive restructuring, which primarily focuses on changing the way we think to impact feelings and our emotions. The reality is the cycle often goes something like this: we think a thought, then feel a feeling, then act in a corresponding way. However, if you alter your thought, you can appropriately manage your feelings, then act in a way that is aligned to your values, goals, or intentions.
The process starts with mindfulness, which challenges you to identify the negative thoughts that are impacting your performance or making you behave in ways that you do not want to. For instance, if you are someone who experiences social anxiety, then you might find yourself worrying that you’re going to stutter or say something stupid, or everyone will hate you when you interact with them. You might imagine everyone laughing at you and the pain that will come with being ostracized or mocked as a result. As you can imagine, this isn’t helpful and only makes your social anxiety worse. These thought processes may make you so nervous that when you do interact with others, you wind up stuttering or behaving awkwardly and the narrative becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, what you need to do is to assess the beliefs you hold and work towards changing them and how you are percieving the situation. This will help you reframe and address the thoughts that are causing you pain so you can move forward in your life and worry about a whole series of new things to which you can apply more CBT to overcome.
One way you will do this is with something called ‘thought challenging’. This simply means that you’re assessing how realistic your beliefs are. Let’s use the example of social anxiety again. Does it REALLY matter if you say something someone else perceives to be a bit odd? Is your audience really cruel enough to mock and laugh at you? If they did, would you even ever need to see them again? Do you really think one mistake would matter for ever and that everyone would be so shallow to not see any other things you do or say in a positive light? Do you really think people are that awful? Or, conversely do many have the gift of empathy and compassion? Might they share the same fear and anxiety as you? Maybe they too, are concerned about you feeling the same way about them? Perhaps they might even find your quirks sweet or endearing? When you look at your thoughts as the observer, you can often step back and see the majority of your fears and worries are unfounded, and you are probably unlikely to experience the consequences running through your mind. Better still, you can stop to evaluate whether you would want to impress or worry about the judgements of people who would respond in such an unkind manner or purposely cause you continued pain.
The really smart bit of CBT goes one step beyond just evaluating your thinking and thought processes to a thing called ‘hypothesis testing’. This stage requires you to test the theory that you have in order to see if it is justified. For example, if you’re worried people are going to laugh at you when you interact with them, hypothesis testing would involve you testing the theory. How? By going out to meet new people or participate in social settings on purpose. You can do this in a setting where it really doesn’t matter – such as in a shop that you’ll never need to visit again or at a gathering comprising a new group of people. Over time though, you’ll realize that there really is nothing to fear because you’ll have proven to yourself that your thoughts and fears are indeed, absolute nonsense. What’s more, your body will have become desensitized to the physiological stress associated with those situations – meaning that you can keep your heart rate calm any time you have to speak in public or meet new people!