When I started therapy last year, I went in with 4 specific things I knew I wanted to eventually work on: anger, relationship, self esteem, and trauma. It was important for me to have a clear idea on what I wanted to address so that I was better able to find the right person to help me.
In our very first session, to address my propensity for anger and being very cruel when angry, my therapist walked me through a method she developed from various resources and therapeutic approaches. I’m calling it the “Chain Reaction.” It is a way of addressing a negative behavior that you want to change by looking at what led up to it..
What external stimulus is the catalyst for the eventual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors you want to change?
We hear the word “trigger” a lot these days, often when addressing a topic that may be sensitive to some or that might inspire negative thoughts. In this sense, though, a trigger is the external stimuli that is the catalyst for the chain reaction which ultimately ends in some negative situation. This, along with the negative result, is often the easiest part of the cycle to pinpoint.
Example: Being accused of something I did not do (a common occurrence with my ex-BF.)
2. Physical Reaction
Try to pinpoint any changes in your body.
This part of the cycle took some time and practice to be able to hone in on. How does your body change when reacting to a particular stimulus or preceding specific emotions?
Example: When I get angry, my face gets flushed, shoulder and face muscles tense, spine gets straighter, palms get clammy and hot, breathing becomes quick and shallow, brow furrows.
3. ANTS – Automatic Negative Thoughts
What negative thoughts are cycling in your mind?
Anyone with anxiety or depression knows about the vicious cycle we get locked into when our mind takes over. When I first started talking about the difference between emotions and feelings, I showed how feelings are actually the response to our mind trying to understand the physical emotion generated by some stimuli. Our Cerebral Cortex is calling on our personal experiences, beliefs, and memories to try to understand what is happening and what we need to do to address it.
Example: Why does he always do this? How dare he question my integrity? Why won’t he trust me? Doesn’t he understand how hurtful it is to constantly be questioned and suspected of something? It’s like he doesn’t really know who I am and what I am about, Is he projecting and HE actually did what he is accusing me of?
What feelings are you having?
The result from overthinking things can be very negative feelings: fear, anger, sadness, worthlessness…
Example: My prevailing feeling when accused of something I did not do is anger.
What has all of this caused you to do? What behaviors are you exhibiting?
When we react from a place of negative thoughts and feelings, it is rarely a positive experience. We are in psychological distress, and our behavior is not grounded. We are REACTING to a situation, rather than responding to it.
Example: My anger is quick and fierce. Like an explosion, once I feel angry I am very quick to vocalize my feelings (often in a very targeted way meant to make the other person feel as bad as possible.) With a little time, that feeling dissipates.
What is the result from this chain reaction?
Inevitably, our negative reaction causes some negative result. We feel terrible. Those around us feel terrible. And, it can have long-standing effects, such as people’s perspective of our character changes, we self medicate, etc.
Example: His initial feeling was ignored, he felt minimized, we argued to the point of it getting physical.
Break the Chain
Looking at the graphic above, you can see how there is an opportunity to do things differently between every point in the cycle. There are many opportunities to shift what is happening in order to get a different result.
I find that some points in the cycle are more difficult to change than others. I haven’t really figured out how to easily or quickly change my action or a particular feeling. Our logical mind is not leading, so it’s hard to even know it’s a good time to stop and change behavior. And, as anyone with anxiety or depression can tell you, without practice it is extremely difficult to just stop a barrage of negative thoughts. It’s like trying to stop a break in a dam with a little bit of chewing gum,
It may take practice, but the easiest and most effective point in the cycle to start paying attention to is the physical changes. If we can know what changes in our body are the precursor to a negative feeling, we can immediately employ tools to help stop or shift that process.
Example: As soon as I notice the flushed cheeks and shallow breathing, I start doing my preferred method of deep breathing: breathe in slowly for 5 counts, hold for 5, breathe out for 7, repeat several times. Sometimes I have to really force it. My mind argues with itself – “a particular emotion is a valid response to that trigger!” versus “whether you like it or not things will turn out better if you calm the fuck down, so breathe damn it!”
I think it is important that we all have multiple self-soothing tools, especially if one of them isn’t giving you much of a result. I am expanding my toolkit by practicing 5 Senses Mindfulness. Regardless of what tools you use, they are vital because they allow us to calm our body and mind so the negative thoughts do not take over. It prevents the negative feeling and resulting action. Instead, with a calmer body and mind, we can be more objective, make fewer assumptions, ask different questions, and maybe see the situation from a different perspective. Rather than REACTING immediately in an an emotional and illogical way, we can take the time to consider what it is about the trigger that is cause for concern and then formulate a calmer and more compassionate way to RESPOND.
My ex-BF did a lot of group work using DBT (dialectical behavior therapy). It’s a form of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and gives tools to identify and change negative thinking patterns and pushes for positive behavioral changes. It’s my understanding that DBT is often used with people who have suicidal ideation, BPD (borderline personality disorder), PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), substance abuse, eating disorders, and severe anxiety or depression. DBT helps people learn to manage painful emotions and decrease conflict in relationships by focusing on 4 key areas: mindfulness (living in the moment), distress tolerance (ability to tolerate a negative emotion), emotion regulation (manage and change emotions that have caused problem’s in their life), and interpersonal effectiveness (strengthened communications.)
One of the activities in my ex-s DBT workbook was a DBT Chain Analysis. It is similar to what I described here, but more detailed and complicated. We actually sat together and worked through it one day after a pretty explosive verbal fight that he was caught unaware by. It was helpful to see how the entire day influenced what happened, and showed me where my thinking was a huge influence. DBT Chain Analysis is something I plan on exploring more down the road.