After you have developed the habit of writing down your negative thoughts on a daily basis and throwing them away, then you should check out the book, “Feeling Good” by David Burns. It provides an excellent format for you to apply the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy to yourself on your own time. (See David Burn’s Comments.)
I personally used the book extensively for many years. In 1997, I realized that it was a tool I could use in my own practice. I liked using the book clinically because it was much faster than trying to get someone to see a pain psychologist. They could engage almost instantly and often aggressively. This book was the entire component of mental health for the DOCC Project for many years. I originally told my patients that if they could obtain some stress management skills, they would cope with it better. I was very surprised to see many patients report both a better quality of life and a significant decrease in pain. However, it was puzzling why some patients would respond so much better than others. It eventually became clear that the patients who did well were the ones who participated in the writing process. Now, I try to convey the importance of writing more clearly. I’ll have my patients begin with just writing negative thoughts so the habit is really ingrained. I like to see a slight shift in mood and approach before I have them engage in the “Feeling Good” book.
The results have been consistent. Patients who commit to a daily writing process, based on the suggestions in the book always have a significant response.
Many patients will start for a few months and then lose interest, as they want quicker results. Re-programming the nervous system takes repetition over an extended period of time. It really should at some level never stop.
When I refer patients to this Burns book, I have them read only the first third of the book. In that first part of the book, David Burns describes in detail how cognitive behavioral therapy works. He outlines ten “errors in thinking.” They are excellent and cover the range of negative thinking. Some of the categories he describes are:
- “Should” thinking
- Minimizing the positive
- Emphasizing the negative
He then presents the “three column” technique. It is essentially the only technique I used for over eight years. It fits the model of processing stress very well.
In the first column you write down your “ANT”. That stands for “automatic negative thought. This step represents the first step of processing which is increasing the awareness of the disruptive thought.
In the second column, he has you write down the “error in thinking” that the thought represents. As you analyze the thought and see the effect it is having on your peace of mind, it diminishes the power of the thought. It is one way of detaching from the thought.
In the third column you then write down the more rational thought. The more specific you are the better. It is important to write the thought for the reasons we have already covered. This is the phase of burning a new circuit.
For example, your son may have just flunked a test. Your first response might be, “He is lazy. He is stupid.” You would then write those thoughts down in the first column. In the second column you would note that represents “labeling”. In the third column you might write, “My son just flunked a test. I wonder why. Is he being bullied at school? Could he be depressed? I am going to try to find out what is going on.
Positive thinking would be represented by, “He isn’t lazy. He is my son and I love him.” That might be it. Except, without writing the more specific rational response, your thoughts might start spinning around. By the time you actually talk to him, you might not be in a great frame of mind.
The nervous system changes slowly. The writing takes a daily commitment and discipline. My observation is that it takes about three to four weeks to notice even a little bit of a shift in mood and thinking. It takes about 12 to 18 months of 12-20 minutes a day before your own programming really starts to open up and change your life.
As our environment on a daily basis continually programs us, I feel that the re-programming process is a lifetime commitment.