I. What are “irritating” thoughts?
It happened to me during an end of semester performance at music school. I’d been working all semester on three pieces that my teacher thought would showcase my talents and stretch me a little bit. I had two pieces down solid, but the third piece, a Chopin etude was not fully memorized. My teachers said I should go ahead and just play it with the sheet music out as it highlighted my technical skills at the piano.
On performance day I made one crucial mistake. I did not have someone act as my page turner for that etude. As usual, nerves were high. I knew I was being graded and judged, so I was more anxious than usual. The first two pieces went well but it all changed during that etude. It started out OK. But then about half-way through my performance, I heard a thump in the ceiling and then felt a warm gust of air wash over me and the piano. It was the heat system kicking in. The air caught the corner of the page I was reading and started turning it. Next thing I knew, I was staring at the next piece in the book five pages from where I was playing. Did I mention I DID NOT have the piece memorized? I lost my place and my fingers started stumbling over the keys like drunken Irish clog dancers.
It was terrible. Immediately, my legs started trembling. I lost sensation in my hands. My heart was beating so hard I thought it might burst out of my chest like that creature for the movie “Alien.” I was in full-on panic induced adrenalin dump. As I tried and failed to finish the etude gracefully this is the stream of consciousness that was running through my mind:
“#*&^$!! Oh no! I lost my place. My performance is ruined!! I’ve just been exposed as the worst pianist in the school. Everyone will know what a fraud I am. I’m going to fail this course. I’m going to fail the semester. I’m getting kicked out of school. I won’t be able to get a job. I’ll lose my apartment. My family will leave me. I will die alone and broke.”
Pretty crazy huh? In fact, everyone loved he performance and felt terrible that I had the bad luck to have my sheet music get disturbed by the heating vent. I got an A for the performance and kept my 4.0 gpa (I was never in any danger of failing anything). The thoughts that stampeded through my mind were examples of what I’ve come to call “irritating thoughts”
Cognitive behavior therapists call them “irrational” thoughts. I prefer to call them “irritating” thoughts, a concept I picked up from a fellow therapist. I find the former term implies something wrong with you while the latter term is more focused on what the thought does. We all have them. We pick them up throughout our lives like a long-haired dog picks up sticker-burrs running through a field. Sometimes they are thoughts that were necessary to mentally survive a particular situation that no longer fit the current circumstances For example, your thoughts on the opposite sex from when you are seven are not applicable to dating in your 30’s. Other times they are messages we’ve absorbed from other people in our lives. Often, these thoughts are sub-conscious and automatic. They pop in and out of our head without our being aware of them. But these thoughts impact our behaviors and emotions in subtle yet powerful ways.
II. Mountains and Mole Hills
In my piano performance, I experienced a cascade of irritating thoughts that took a small situation and a little panic was kicked up a notch by another thought that in turn led to more panic which led to more thoughts…with the whole thing spinning out of control in my head. It’s the classic “making a mountain out of a molehill” situation. It’s like your brain gets hijacked.
The problem is that when these cascades of irritating thoughts run amok, it activates the fight-flight-freeze reaction. The physiological response to this is fine if one is in a true life or death situation, but the limitations on language, planning, forethought combined with the effects of things like the stress hormone cortisol on our system are problematic when we are NOT in a life or death situation. In my case, while my disrupted performance was embarrassing, it was not life threatening. Reacting as if it were did not improve the situation and caused me undue distress. The fact of the matter is that many people have similar reactions all the time. In a sense, we pile unneeded distress and stress upon ourselves in addition to the actual stress that life throws our way as a matter of course. There is good news though. Just as our thoughts can trigger a stress response in our body, our thoughts can also trigger an anti-stress relaxation response. We can take control of that which feels out of control.
III. Thought stopping
Thought stopping is a technique used in Cognitive-Behavioral psychology to change these irritating thoughts and thereby change your mood and behaviors. It starts by identifying when these thoughts are present. As a rule of thumb, when you feel nervous, anxious or irritable (especially when these feeling are not in proportion with what is going on around you) you can bet irritating thoughts are present. Learn to identify the early warning signs of an activated nervous system (for me , I usually feel it in my stomach first). Once identified, check in with your thoughts and listen to your self-talk. What are you saying to yourself? Are the thoughts logical? Do they fit what’s going on? Are they leading to increased emotionalism or are they calming?
In my example, the thoughts of how bad I played and how that would destroy my career and life were clearly illogical. They were out of proportion with the situation. Not only that, they were totally unhelpful. I needed to calm my mind and focus on my performance, but the thoughts running through my mind made that task darn near impossible.
So, be critical of your thoughts. They might not be true. They might not fit the situation. They may be true, but also unhelpful. In any of these cases you need to stop cascade in its tracks. The procedure to do this is pretty straight forward. Once the irritating thought is identified, you need to mentally yell “STOP!” if you are someplace where you won’t be embarrassed feel free to say that out loud. To add an extra degree of impact, some people add a physical sensation to the stop to help interrupt the thought. I like wearing a rubber band on my wrist. I snap it a little bit as I think “STOP.” This serves to distract my brain briefly and stop the thought.
IV. Calming thoughts
The next thing to do is to replace the irritating thought with a calming thought. If you don’t, the irritating thought will just start-up again. By putting a competing thought in its place (one that is helpful and relaxing) you make it harder for that irritating thought to hijack your brain. For example, if the irritating thought is “I’m stupid. I can’t do this.” You should think about ways in which that thought is inaccurate (perhaps you’ve done this thing before with no problem so clearly are capable). In my example, the thoughts that I was a terrible piano player ere inaccurate because I had just played two pieces well…something a poor pianist could not do. If I’d tried to keep that fact forefront in my mind I might have been able to stay calmer and recover easier.
Admittedly, this technique takes some practice. If you are not used to thinking like this it will seem strange at first. For this reason, I invite you to take some time and practice it. Don’t wait until you are feeling anxious and out of control…take time to check in with your thoughts when you are feeling relatively calm. You’ll be surprised at what kind of automatic thoughts pop into your head. In doing this you will be able to start becoming aware of your irritating thoughts. Once identified, it is easier to notice when they are present. When you are calm, it’s also easier to figure out what kinds of calming thoughts will best take the place of your irritating thoughts. By practicing when you are calm, it will be easier to put this technique into practice when you are not calm.
One final note on thought stopping, you should combine this technique with the stress management skills I have talked about such as deep breathing and deep muscle relaxation. By combining calming techniques you will be better to reduce your current stress and inoculate yourself against future stress. All it takes is a little practice and patience to take control and improve your quality of life.
I hope you’ve found this information helpful. I invite you to comment on how irritating thoughts have impacted your life and ways in which you’ve managed them. I also welcome any questions you might have in the comments section. Until next time, remember, Breathe…You got this.
©2013 Erik Young, M.Ed., LPC