Practicing Happy

Image of a blue sky and some light wispy clouds.

Last week I had my first session with a local therapist.

It was good. I felt prepared. 

It had been months since my last therapy session, back before the move, and I had had plenty of time to reflect on what I was thinking and feeling, and where those feelings were coming from. 

For a first appointment, I was impressed with my own willingness to open up and be vulnerable. 

Then again, I had known for a while that I needed to talk some things over.

My emotional roller coaster had been a particularly rough ride recently, and I was just coming up from a low point on the day of our meeting. 

Since my appointment, I have been repeating one thing in particular that my new therapist imparted. 

“We get better at what we practice.”

Well, of course. It seems obvious. But I had never thought to put it into the context of emotions or thought patterns. 

Emotions, like any physical sensation, tell us something. Hunger means we need to eat. Fatigue means we need sleep. We are trained from a young age to notice when we need to use the bathroom, when we are thirsty and need a glass of water – it takes practice to learn those things and give our body what it needs.

When it comes to emotions, there aren’t always such “simple” fixes. We aren’t trained to ask for quiet, or time to be alone. Asking for those things in a professional environment feels, well, unprofessional. How do we even know we need those things?

Two weeks ago, I was sitting at my desk and felt a pressure rising in my chest. I could feel my breath quicken, my heart beat pounding loudly in my ears, and I felt tears swimming behind my eyes, ready to fall.

On instinct, I got up from my desk, made my way to an empty back hall in the building where I work, curled up in a ball, and choked back my sobs until I could slow my breathing, refocus my gaze, and walk to the bathroom to dry my eyes. 

I’m not a trained specialist, but I know how to recognize a panic attack when I feel one.

There was nothing distinctly “off” about that day – no undue stress, or harried schedule. I was well hydrated, had food in my belly, and my first reaction is to think back on that moment in time and wonder what in the world I had to be panicked about. To criticize myself for being so overcome and unable to control my emotions.

That is one of the most frustrating parts of anxiety. There doesn’t always feel like a clear reason behind it. There is not a clear solution, and there is very little anyone who I love or who loves me could have done that would have changed the course of events at that moment. 

But, I can practice for next time.

In the time between my appointments, I have been tasked with reviewing a list of cognitive distortions and comparing them to my own thought patterns and tendencies to notice which ones I gravitate towards. 

For the past week, I have tried to practice approaching each day with optimism, assuming best intentions (of myself, and of others), and trying my best to be aware, but not judgemental, of the filter I am using in a given moment to view myself and those around me. That is often easier said than done, but sorting through negative thoughts and being able to label them as one cognitive distortion or another has helped me calm the (sometimes cruel) chorus inside my head.

I have found the past week surprisingly comforting, and I encourage you to try and practice bringing awareness to your internal filters too. I’ve listed them below, in case you’re curious. 

For anyone who is struggling, or who could use someone to talk things through – there are so many resources to find a therapist who will fit your needs, whether that is in the topic(s) you wish to discuss, your financial constraints, or your geographical location. 

Everyone should be in therapy. Life is a marathon, and nobody just gets up one day able to run the whole of it. A good therapist is like a coach for your emotional ability to handle all the hurdles that life throws your way. 

It’s scary starting out, it can be a daunting task to sift through your most vulnerable, hidden, or hated parts of yourself, but it can be oh so rewarding. 

Some days I leave therapy feeling like I have just discovered a new facet of myself, other days I feel like a lump of coal. It sometimes take a few steps back to gain enough momentum to move forward again. 

Friend, it is worth it. 

Here’s a link to get you started. You might not find exactly what you’re looking for, but the search is also worth it. Knowing it has begun is a good first step.

(This was just the first link after googling “How do I find a therapist?” But it’s what worked for me!)

Cognitive Distortions (link to full list)

  1. Filtering – A person who takes the negative details and magnifies them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. 
  2. Polarized Thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking) – A person who thinks of things as all or nothing. We are either perfect or a complete failure, there is no middle ground. 
  3. Overgeneralization – A person who comes to a conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, it will happen over and over again. 
  4. Jumping to Conclusions – A person who is sure they know what other people are feeling and thinking, and exactly why they act the way they do. 
  5. Catastrophizing – A person who expects disaster to strike no matter what. Often, this type of thinking poses a lot of “what if” questions.
  6. Personalization – A person who assumes that everything others do is some sort of direct, personal reaction to them. Often comparing themselves  to others, trying to determine who is smarter/better/prettier/etc.
  7. Control Fallacies – A person who feels externally controlled (a helpless victim of fate), or that they have internal control (responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around them.)
  8. Fallacy of Fairness – A person who feels resentful because they think they know what is fari, but other people won’t agree with them.
  9. Blaming – A person who holds others responsible for their emotional pain. Alternatively, a person who blames themselves for every problem.
  10. Shoulds – A person with a list of “should” statements that act as ironclad rules. “I should…” or “I shouldn’t…”
  11. Emotional Reasoning – A person who takes their emotion or feeling and believes them to be true. ex- I feel stupid, so I must be stupid.
  12. Fallacy of Change – A person expects that other people will change to suit them if they pressure or cajole enough. 
  13. Global Labeling – A person generalizes one or two qualities into a negative global judgement about themselves or another person.
  14. Always Being Right – A person who continually puts others on trial to prove that their own opinions and actions are the correct ones.
  15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy – A person who believes that sacrifice and self-denial will eventually pay off, as if a global force is keeping score. 

Everyone – I repeat, EVERYONE, probably thinks in at least a few of these ways at some point in their life. It doesn’t mean you are broken or wrong or bad. It is just something to practice being aware of. 

Being aware of our cognitive distortions can help us manage them and recognize them for what they are, or so I am told. 

For me, recognizing when my thoughts are spiraling and my anxiety is rising is a practice in happiness. Getting better at seeing those things are signals for needing quiet, or space, or a trip to the water fountain and back, it is getting better at holding the things that bring me joy in perspective. 

I am practicing my happiness in the hopes that it becomes easier, more present, and more pervasive than the thoughts that bring me down.

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