I had a challenging thing happen recently.
Lots of uncertainty. Big consequences. Abundance of anxiety.
At first I fell into a vortex of stress.
Then I started asking: How can I turn this around? How can I deal with this situation rather than feeling like I’m about to be swallowed up by it?
I remembered behavioural experiments. Behavioural experiments are a key part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
CBT is useful because you can do it yourself.
You can also pay a counsellor to walk you through the process (and that can be really helpful), but for those of us who can’t afford a counsellor every time something goes sideways in our lives, CBT can be great DIY therapy
As soon as I set up an experiment (it only took a few minutes), I felt calmer.
I was able to approach the situation with a new perspective.
Here’s how I did it.
Change. Behaviour. Experiment.
A behavioural experiment sounds like something you’d need a lab coat for, but really it’s just a simple plan designed to test out thought patterns (and the feelings and behaviours that go with them). It is especially useful as a strategy for testing out thought patterns that are holding us back and keeping us stuck.
In my case the thoughts were:
- This is probably the end of the world.
- My life is just one long series of catastrophes.
- Other people have normal lives: what’s wrong with me?
- This is too overwhelming. I can’t cope!
- I’m alone in the world. No one will help me.
Woe is me, right?
My behavioural experiment enabled me to test out those thoughts, to see if they were true.
It let me do that in a series of bite-sized mini-tests so that I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by tackling the whole situation at once.
I could have tested out each one of my negative thoughts individually, but instead I decided to reframe and test something positive.
I decided to test the following thought: I can fix this situation and become stronger in the process.
Become Stronger in the Process...
That second bit was important.
I’m good at fixing stuff. But my pattern has always been to fix things no matter what the cost to myself.
I no longer want to do myself harm while I save the world. So, my behavioural experiment was designed to test these two separate but connected thoughts:
- I can fix this situation; and
- I can become stronger in the process.
Could I? I had no idea. But now I was running an experiment rather than drowning in stress and my own negative self-talk.
I created a simple hand-written worksheet for myself. You can find a version of it here.
At the top I wrote: I can fix this situation and become stronger in the process.
Then I started documenting each activity I undertook in my attempts to deal with the situation.
Those activities included things like:
- Calling people to get information.
- Finding stuff.
- Moving things from one place to another.
- Meeting with people. Explaining.
- Hanging out in the rain waiting for people who might stop by.
- Creating a newsletter for my online business in a tiny store on the edge of the North Pacific ocean with VERY SLOW wifi.
I wrote each of these activities down in the first column of my worksheet.
Since I was experimenting to see if could become stronger during this process, I added self-care activities to my worksheet, too. Things like:
- Mediate for 2 minutes before the meeting.
- Get out and walk on the ferry.
- Drink water.
- Buy kale for supper.
For each action I listed in my worksheet, I used the other three columns to track:
- What actually happened;
- How I felt afterwards; and
- How much I currently believed the overarching idea that I was testing. What % (from 0-100) did I believe that I can fix this situation and become stronger in the process. This number varied wildly (from 22% to 83% and back again) over the space of a few days.
As it turns out, I couldn’t fix the situation. But I was able to become stronger in the process.
Once I was stronger, it mattered less that I couldn’t fix it, because I could see new possibilities.
My behavioural experiment didn’t enable me to save the world. But it did enable me to reduce my stress so I could think straight. I t also allowed me to continue to heal and develop despite adverse circumstances.
My initial thoughts were:
- This is probably the end of the world (It wasn't).
- My life is just one long series of catastrophes (Actually, good things happen to me all the time).
- Other people have normal lives: what’s wrong with me? (A lot of people are struggling and suffering).
- This is too overwhelming. I can’t cope! (I totally coped. And became stronger in the process.)
- I’m alone in the world. No one will help me. (People helped me. I'm not the least bit alone. Unless I choose to be).
If you decide to run a behavioural experiment, I'd love to know how it goes. Drop me a line in the comments!
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If you learn (and change) best in a supported environment, our new program is for you.
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