Thursday, March 21, 2013

Questioning Your Thoughts

Lately I have been studying the work of Byron Katie, a psychologist with a very different approach to overcoming fears, anxieties, anger, and other negative thoughts. In her method called "The Work", she advocates self inquiry as a means to reduce the effect that these negative thoughts have on our minds and bodies. The reason I was drawn to her in the first place was because of her own personal past. Byron Katie worked in a very stressful job, was unhappy in her marriage, and allowed her negative thoughts to rule her life for many years. Eventually, she fell into such deep depression and chronic fatigue that she spent an entire year in bed.

There is no doubt in my mind that stress and years of negative thoughts and fears is what led to the initial break down of my body. As I progress further in my journey of feeling, I realize more and more how strong the mental component of this illness really is. We don't think about it much at the time, but emotions and thoughts really do effect the body. Just think of how your body feels when you are mad, sad, or afraid. Everything tenses up as the body gears itself up to fight the threat or run away from it. If this becomes a chronic happening, eventually the body just can't take it anymore and something is bound to break down.

The thing I love about Byron Katie's approach is that it is not clinical at all, and doesn't involve numerous steps to remember. I've tried several different types of negative emotion reducing techniques and none of them have really stuck. Most of them have way too many steps to remember, or they are just not practical enough to employ in a spur of the moment situation. EFT worked to a degree, but it was still too many steps to remember. And also if the anxiety hits you in public you look like even more of a loon as you tap different parts of your body, mumbling various phrases to yourself that end with the words "I love and accept myself completely". Not saying that EFT doesn't do any good, but it's really not practical at all times.

So "The Work"'s really just 3 easy steps to remember.

1. Question your thoughts. Ask yourself " Do you believe that thought?""Can you absolutely know it's true?"

First thing to do is identify the negative thought that is upsetting you. Then question it. Do you really believe that thought? Do you absolutely know for a fact that it's true? I'll give an example of something that personally happened to me recently:

The other day I got a call from my vet. He told me that my beloved cat Maslow was having kidney issues. After hanging up the phone I immediately panicked. I jumped right on the emotional roller coaster of anxiety (fear), sadness, and anger. My body tensed and trembled, my chest tightened, and the tears flowed like an uncontrollable flood. I immediately began to visualize false memories that had not even happened- watching Maslow suffer, seeing him being euthanized at the vets office, waking up in the morning to find him dead. Meanwhile in reality, he's on the floor in front of me playfully batting around his favorite catnip toy, care free and happy as can be. 

I watched him for a minute and stopped to think about the initial thoughts that were upsetting me. First thought was "Maslow is going to die soon. I am going to lose him." Then I questioned myself. Do I really  believe that? Not really. Here he is in front of me, playing with his favorite toy. 7 months ago I thought I was going to die too and I'm still here. Next thought- "His condition is incurable." Do I really believe that? NO! They told me that my RSWS was incurable too, yet here I am 2 weeks without any salt water or medication and doing fine! 

Next I asked myself, "Do I absolutely know that Maslow is incurable and going to die soon? Do I know for a fact that it's true?" No I really don't know if that's true. I can't predict the future. I have no crystal ball. I can think those things to be possibilities, but I can't absolutely know if its a true fact. So I'm worrying about something that I don't even know for a fact is really going to happen. 

2. How do you live with or without that thought?

Next thing is to notice what the thought does to you. How does it make you feel? What does it do to your body? The thoughts about Maslow being incurable and dying made me feel afraid. They made me feel sad and hopeless. I felt angry at the idea that there is nothing I can do to cure him. My body was tense and my head felt heavy. My chest felt tight and it was hard to breathe. My eyes burned from the tears and every muscle hurt. I thought about how I feel with this thought both physically and mentally. No part of it was good at all! 

Next, think about how you would feel without that thought. If it had never crossed your mind. This part is not about whether or not its true, its about noticing what the thought really does to you. If I hadn't have had those negative thoughts about Maslow, I would still be going on with my evening and getting myself ready to see a friend. I would have kept laughing at my silly kitty entertaining himself with his toy. I would have continued to feel the warm, loving feeling that I have while watching him play. I would have stayed relaxed and happy. 

3. Turn the thought inside out and around

Finally, take the thought and turn it inside out. Turn it around in as many ways as you can. This helps to see all the different angles to the situation. It makes the original negative thought seem much less untrue, which in turn makes it much less threatening and in many cases will even make you realize how silly and unreasonable it is. Take my original negative thoughts for example:

"Maslow is going to die soon. This incurable disease is killing him."


1."Maslow is NOT going to die soon. The disease is NOT killing him." (He's still alive, right here right now. He's playing and happy. Maybe the vet misdiagnosed him. You already know how doctors are notorious for that! He's not in any pain, and he's not acting any different than normal.)

2. "Maslow is killing the disease". (With the proper care and diet, many cats live a long and happy life with kidney disease. Some even over come it. Maslow is young and healthy overall. His body is still strong and he can heal. Maybe we caught it early enough.)

3. "Maslow's disease is killing me" (If I drive myself crazy with worry, panic, and negative feelings I am only going to make my own health worse. I will undo all the work I have done so far in my recovery, because the root of my health problems is stress.)

4." I am killing Maslow's disease" (I will take the best care of him as possible so that he can heal.)

There are probably more turnarounds, but even these few make the original thought seem much less believable. I have shown myself that there are many possibilities to this situation, lots of them very positive. My mind is now much more at ease, and I don't feel as afraid anymore. 

Some turnarounds can even make you see the positive in a thought that started out to be very negative. For instance, take the thought "I am going to lose my job." This thought is very common, and no doubt has crossed our minds at least once. At first its really bad and scary. But then a few turnarounds can actually make it seem like a good thing (believe it or not!) If you lost your job, that gives you the freedom to look for a job that's more fulfilling. A place where you're treated better and appreciated more. Or maybe losing that job will motivate you to get into a career that you've always wanted. Now that you're not stuck in that office anymore you can pursue your dream of helping special needs children. Perhaps now that you don't have to spend 9 hours a day at your former job, you can now have a job that requires you to be there less. Now you can spend more time with your family.

Those are just a few examples, but you get the picture. Negative thoughts can really put a chokehold on our lives!  They affect our health, relationships, productivity and emotional well being. They cause us to miss out on so many wonderful things that life has to offer!

I spent years swimming in a sea of negative thoughts. I walked around afraid, angry, and depressed. It got so bad that it became complete habit for me to automatically jump to negative conclusions. It was only when I learned to question my thoughts, notice what they do to me, and then turn them around that I started to realize how completely irrational and even down right ridiculous most of my thoughts and perceptions were. Like any factor of true healing, it has not been an overnight success. Old habits die hard, and its taking a good amount of effort to sort out years of a bad wiring job. But I can honestly say that having the courage to stand up to these "monsters" and question them in their face has brought me new found peace of mind that I have not felt in years. 

If you want to read more about "The Work" of Byron Katie, I highly recommend her book "Loving What Is". You can find it on used for as little as $1.00- a worthwhile investment if you ask me! 

The simple method can be applied to any negative thought in any situation. I encourage you to give it a try and I hope that it brings you as much peace as it has brought me :)

Peace and Love,

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