3 psychology techniques that I didn't believe in - then found out I was wrong about!

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Psychology comes in many shapes and size. The amount of techniques and skills on offer from different psychological models are endless. Some of them have thorough scientific/research backing and others little. Some of them I love and others I do not. Some of them I automatically assume are nonsense and then learn that they are excellent, effective tools.

I trial all potential psychological tools and strategies myself so that any work I do with clients is based on my tried and tested experience. The change of heart therefore usually occurs after having been beaten over the head time and time again by the physical proof of a psychological tool's efficacy.

Here are 3 of the psychological strategies I didn't believe in but really do work (to my judgemental surprise)!

1. Gratitude 

I have a problem with the idea that you can just "think your way to happiness". Its a nice idea. I just think life is more complicated than that.

When I heard about gratitude journalling I thought "here we go, another get rich quick psychology scheme". What I mean by this is... here's another get happy quick scheme that means you don't have to acknowledge anything serious in your life, or feel any difficult feelings. 

Luckily, I know I can be judgemental without good reason. I therefore use times of harsh judgement as an indicator that it is time to challenge my own beliefs, a time to test out my theories and those of others. So... I put gratitude journalling to the test. I did it myself and I dug up the literature written about it...

What did I find out?  I found out I was wrong!

What is it?

Gratitude journalling involves writing down three (or more) things that went well that day, or anything else you are grateful for. It doesn't have to be big. It could be that you were grateful for the smile someone gave you in the street, the dog you saw, or a friend of yours who text. It could also be something monumental and surprising.

Why does it make a difference?

Research shows that gratitude journalling increases people's self-reported happiness by between 2% (in a study looking at effects of this practice over one week) and 25% (in a study comparing outcomes of gratitude journalling versus factual journalling and journalling that focussed solely on the challenges of the day).

Why does this make a difference? Your brain has evolved to focus on looking for danger, remembering it (the danger) and the things that have gone wrong. It does this to help you stay safe, thinking that remembering these things will help in any future danger situations. 

By paying attention, on purpose, to the things we are grateful for we set up a new neural pathway in the brain (see this previous blog post for more information on neural pathways and the effect they have on the way we behave). The more we practice looking for the things we are grateful for, the more entrenched that neural pathway becomes. This means we are actively changing the structure and function of the brain so that it starts to find looking for the positive more easily. After a while your brain automatically starts seeing more of the positive and remembering it too.

I was amazed when I started to notice this happening in my life, AMAZED. 

Why not try it too?

2. Positive affirmations

Another one that got my judgey-side up. Again, remember, I am pretty aware of my own "stuff", so I gave it a try and did the research.

What is it?

An affirmation is a word or phrase you repeat to yourself. Usually something along the lines of: "I can cope", "I am who I want to be", "I'm fearless", "my strength is greater than any struggle". You repeat it to yourself during times of calm and so that you can use it more effectively during times of difficulty.

When I first came across this I couldn't imagine that saying something nice to yourself over and over would really change your life... Again... I was wrong.

Why does it make a difference?

We are constantly surrounded by messages that undermine us (read this post for more information on this and the effects it has on our self perception). These messages are internalised meaning we start to believe them deeply (read: they are learnt at an unconscious level).

This, coupled with our brains desire to constantly look for danger, means that we have automatic patterns of thinking which include looking for our faults and looking for the information that proves our fears that we have faults.

By repeating a positive, present tense and unconditional phrase to ourselves (even if you don't believe it at first) we teach our brain a new message. One that will become engrained in our unconscious. When practiced enough it will become as engrained as the negative messages. Your brain will start making you feel more confident and will find and remember more information that proves the affirmation to be true, ultimately changing your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. 

It is very important that the statements are positive, present tense and unconditional. For example, "I am successful" is a positive affirmation. "I will be successful" or "I will be successful after I get promoted" are not. Also, no negations please, such as "I am not a failure". Your brain will only hear "I" and "failure".

The reason for positive and present tense? Our brains don't know the difference between facts and the things we tell ourselves. If we tell ourselves we worry about something bad happening in the future our brain interprets this as a threat that is happening right now (and initiates the fight or flight response). If we tell ourselves that we CAN and ARE doing something right now, our brain hears that as there is already proof of this and starts to believe it. 

The fine print

As expected just telling yourself you are great, perfect etc may not always work. Why? If we feel like we are lying to ourselves or don't really want to the affirmation to be true in some way, then we are just going through the motions with these statements. Have a look at this article for more information regarding what can get in the way of a successful affirmation and what to do about it.

3. Journalling

Not quite sure why I didn't believe in this one at first. Maybe I just thought it was too lengthy an activity to be involved in. Or maybe it reminded me of being a teenager and having a diary. Either way, this activity is one of the things I wish everyone would do. It's something I often recommend to people during (and outside of) therapy. It is also the one thing that (almost) without fail no-one ever does. EVER! Seriously, I have almost stopped suggesting it as so few people I have ever met actually trial it. 

What kind of journalling am I talking about? 

My favourite kind involves short-term journalling, writing about a topic only for a short time period, i.e. never staying on the same topic for more than a few days (absolute maximum 2 weeks).

It involves starting the page with something like: "today ... (insert event here) happened and when it did it made me feel....". Then you just go for it: Writing freely, without thinking, frantically if it feels good! No filtering. Allowing whatever pops up to pour out onto the page, even if it in no way relates to the topic, even if it feels angrier than you could have predicted (caveat: if you become too distressed, stop, take a break, do a breathing or grounding exercise). After 15-20 minutes stop this and write a few (at least 3) sentences about what has gone well, or what you have learnt from this. Then re-read it. Then tear it up! 

Why does this work?

The evidence around the effects of journalling are weirdly strong. Pennebaker, for example, found that writing for 15 minutes each day about a difficult experience led to improved feelings of well being AND improved immune function, general health and fewer trips to the doctor (who'd have thought!)!

The exact link with immune health isn't understood. However, the positive effects of this kind of journalling are thought to link to the fact that when we have strong emotions we often do one of two things: 1. Push the emotions away; 2. Believe the first worry, fear, anger thought that arises without investigating further. The latter means we often don't really know or understand what happened or what we feel about it.

This kind of journalling gives us an opportunity to learn about and release our complicated emotions. Re-reading our writing usually gives us a chance to look at our thoughts from a distance. Over a few days of this practice it means we start noticing patterns coming up, helping us understand what is happening for us. We then get a choice...  what do really think about these worries and thoughts? Are they what we thought they were? Are there things we can do about them? Is it time to let them go?

My favourite part of this kind of journalling? Ripping it up! Why? It gives me the feeling that I am letting go of those thoughts and feelings (it also means no-one will read them!).

Journalling is like therapy or talking to a friend, however it's free and without judgement (hmm... if you are like me the inner critic may get in the way at first - it takes practice to get to a place where your writing comes with an interested but impartial observer's eye). 

I now use this technique during times of stress or when something has happened that made me feel angry, sad, uncertain. It has had one of the biggest effects of all psychological strategies I have trialled... I really recommend it!

That's it

I am going to hold my hands up. I am judgmental. I try not to be. However, my brain (as with all yours too) jumps to conclusions as soon as it gets the smallest amount of information... It tells me things are wrong, stupid and/or illogical in a heartbeat. My job is then to discern the reality of the situation and whether I should listen to my brain, or take a different route. As you can see this list evidences some of the times I have had to do that!

If any of these techniques interest you, have a go! Let me know what you think.

P.S. If you are experiencing significant distress and need to talk I recommend therapy over these techniques. These will help for short term distress but nothing compares to the relationship created in therapy and support offered in that setting. 

 

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I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get effective psychological advice out of the therapy room and into everyday life. I do this by offering free advice on my blog and on Instagram. I also offer private therapy online (over video link).

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Sophie Mort