One afternoon, a recently divorced client came to my office in distress. She was pacing back and forth and described having a racing heart and sweaty palms. She explained that she had just seen a picture on Facebook of her son hugging a dog.
To give you a bit of a back story - she now shares joint custody of her son with her ex-husband after a lengthy and messy custody battle. She stated, “I can’t believe he bought him a dog without asking me,” “He never asks me my opinion and I get stuck with the consequences,” “He always does this to me,” “He always makes me look bad” and so on. She expressed feeling angry and scared that her son will like his father more than her. She told me that she sent her ex-husband angry and aggressive text messages in response to seeing the picture.
I asked the client, how do you know that your ex-husband bought your son a dog? She looked stumped. She said, “well… I saw the picture.” I rephrased the question and asked “What about the picture leads you to the draw the conclusion that your ex-husband bought your son a dog? “Is there a possibility that your ex-husband didn’t buy the dog and you developed an interpretation of what the picture meant?” She continued to look stumped. She said “I guess so…” After inquiring about the photo, she learned that the picture was of her son with a friends dog. Her ex-husband did not buy their son a dog.
This example illustrates that the moods we experience often depend upon our thoughts, and it is our interpretation of an event that can lead to different moods. In this example, the client’s interpretation of the picture caused her to feel angry and scared. This example also illustrates how distressing moods can lead to a behaviour with consequences (sending aggressive text messages) and unpleasant physical reactions (pacing, sweaty palms and racing heart).
You may be reading this example and think to yourself, “Whoa, I wouldn’t jump to conclusions like that… that seems extreme.” The reality is, some people are more prone to certain thoughts and moods than others due to our environment and life experiences, both present and past experiences that stretch from childhood until now. In this example, the client’s recent experience of getting divorced and a messy custody battle influenced her thinking patterns.
As you can see, our thoughts about an event or experience powerfully affects our emotional, behavioural and physical response to it. In fact, our thoughts, moods, behaviours, physical reactions and life experiences/environment are all interconnected. Understanding how these 5 parts of our lives interact can help you better understand and treat mood problems, such as anxiety, depression, anger, panic, jealousy, guilt and shame. It can also help you with relationship problems, to handle stress better, to improve your self-esteem, and to become less emotionally reactive.
Do you notice that your thinking influences your moods, behaviour and physical reactions? Is your thinking influenced by your life experiences/environment?
If you want to better understand the problems in your life and feel better, our thoughts are often the place to start.
Thanks for reading, Kaleigh