By Dr. Jan Hittelman

When we experience feelings like anger, depression, and anxiety in response to situations that we encounter, we typically assume that those feelings are the result of those situations. Furthermore, we blame those external events for our resulting mood. What most people don’t realize, however, is that there’s an intervening variable that actually results in our emotional response. That variable is our evaluation of situations that we encounter. It’s not the situation itself but the way we think about it that determines our emotional response. Consider the following example:

You’re driving down the highway and someone cuts you off. You think to yourself how rude that is and how no one should treat you this way. The more you think about it, the angrier you become. At this point, you may honk, try to cut them off, or offer up a nonverbal hand gesture. Now consider the same scenario but this time you think to yourself that perhaps the other driver may have had a really bad day and is not thinking clearly. Better yet you may think to yourself that it’s simply not worth you getting all worked up about it. Either way your emotional reaction will be far less extreme, even though the situation was exactly the same. The only difference is your thinking or evaluation of the event. This treatment strategy is known as Cognitive Therapy.

Cognitive Therapy is research proven to be one of the most effective psychological treatment approaches to a wide variety of emotional challenges. For reasons that are not known, human beings naturally think negatively about themselves, others and external events in their world. Without making a conscious effort to evaluate our thinking to make sure that our thoughts are healthy, logical and reasonable, our natural tendency is to make ourselves miserable!

We’re thinking about what is going on around us all the time. As young children we often talked out loud to ourselves. As we got older, however, we needed to silence this voice as it no longer appears cute but starts to be seen as crazy. This voice then becomes internalized and is referred to as “self-talk”.

The danger is that most of us are unaware of this process, which results in unhealthy illogical thoughts being accepted as facts. This can lead to significant emotional and even physical illness.

While we may not be able to control others’ behaviors or various life events that occur, there’s a lot that we can do to be more aware of our self-talk and more in control of our thinking. One way to do this is to keep a journal and write down events that evoke strong emotions, the resulting feelings and most importantly, the thinking that led to those feelings. Once we become more aware of our thinking we can challenge it and try to replace those unhealthy, irrational thoughts with more reasonable and healthier ones. Effective use of this strategy can dramatically affect your emotional life as well as your physical health.