Cognitive Reframing Part II

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Since many readers showed interest in last week’s topic, “cognitive reframing,” let’s dive a little deeper into the science supporting this psychological technique and introduce you to “conscious storytelling.”

To summarize, last week I told a story of how my grandparents used cognitive reframing to gracefully forgive the drunken driver who killed their 20 year old son, Peter. With God’s grace, and feeling Peter’s presence, my grandparents were able to reframe the horrible event as a tragic accident that their own children could have been capable of causing. Armed with this new perspective, my grandparents wrote to the boy, “Our prayers are with you. Don’t let this unfortunate accident overwhelm you. Trust in God. We love you.” Instead of carrying hatred in their hearts, my grandparents were able to find compassion, even love, for the boy- knowing his life was also forever changed.

Simply put, “cognitive reframing” is consciously reframing a difficult event into something with a silver lining. ie: I didn’t get the job, but that must mean there is another job opportunity that will be better for me.

“In the last few decades, psychology has started to seriously study the effects of story on the human mind, and they have found, unsurprisingly, that our attitudes, hopes and fears, and our values are strongly shaped by story,” explains Paula Wood in an articled titled, “Change Your Stories, Change Your Reality.” As seen in brain scans, our brains really can’t detect fact from fiction, meaning your brain will believe what you tell it. Wood continues, “In fact, as seen in fMRI scans, stories are experienced almost exactly the same as lived experience. Gut-level instinctive response to hearing a story can drive changes to how we act in the physical world.”

The way we tell the story (not the experience itself) leads to our emotional reaction. Timothy Wilson, Ph.D., social psychologist, believes the key to personal transformation is story transformation. Stories stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life. See example:

Life Event: Susie sits behind two girls on the bus, they both start giggling when she sits down.

The story Susie tells herself: Those girls are laughing at me.

Susie’s emotional reaction to her story: Susie sits quietly the entire bus ride, wishing she was back at home and now is nervous about going to school. 

It’s actually not Susie’s fault that her brain defaulted to think the worst. Research reveals that our brains are wired to detect unpleasant information faster than favorable information- it’s actually a survival technique. But now that we know this, we can thank our brain for it’s ability to detect high-risk situations and then we can intentionally focus on choosing to reframe.

There are many ways to teach cognitive therapy, or cognitive reframing, but I believe the easiest to understand- for adults and children- are the three C’s.

Catch it: Identify the thought that came before the emotion (Those girls are laughing at me.)

Check it: Reflect on how accurate and useful the thought is (Why would they be laughing at me? I didn’t do anything to cause them to laugh- it doesn’t feel good to think this way.)

Change it: Change the thought to a more accurate or helpful one as needed (They are friends, one probably told a funny story and they are laughing at it together.) Susie smiles at the next student on the bus and they take the seat next to Susie.

Kelsey Horton says in her article, “Seeking Healing through Conscious Storytelling, “Stories are the difference between “I am loved” and “There is nothing to live for.” In the retelling of our stories, we are capable of transforming our future.”

We are one story away from believing “I am unworthy” or “I am worthy.” Which version of the story will you chose to tell yourself today?

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