Emotional Toolkit: Seven Power-Skills to Nail Your Bad Feelings

Emotional Toolkit: Seven Power-Skills to Nail Your Bad Feelings

by Darlene Mininni

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312318888
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/24/2006
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 610,058
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Darlene Mininni has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a master's degree in public health. For fifteen years she was an educator and behavioral health specialist at the UCLA Arthur Ashe Health & Wellness Center. She is an experienced speaker and workshop leader.

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The Voices in Your Head

Tool 1: Thought-Shifting

Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling.

— Margaret Lee Runbeck, author

Have you ever noticed that it's easy to think positive thoughts when you're happy? If you try to think positive thoughts you're anxious, sad, or angry, they slip off your brain like a fried egg from a greased pan. Why can it be so difficult to think positively when you're distressed?

It's because thoughts exist in an associative network. Your thoughts are linked by a common emotion. Carol, a mother who felt insecure about job hunting, was having difficulty thinking positively about her impending job search. As soon as she had one negative thought ("What if nobody wants to hire me?") another would quickly follow ("I don't have much to offer.") These links, like bridges, made it easy for her negative thoughts to hop from one to another.

In this way, an anxiety-provoking thought will likely lead to another anxiety-provoking thought via their jointly associated emotion. When you're feeling distressed, those thoughts are just more available.

The intent of shifting your thoughts is first to stop the negative thoughts before they have a chance to jump further into the network of distressing thoughts and strengthen their links. The sooner you can stop the cycle of negative thinking, the sooner your unhappiness will be reduced. However, you should not try to will yourself to stop thinking negative thoughts. It doesn't work.

Not only that, it can increase your distress. If I were to tell you not to think of an orange, you'd probably have trouble doing that. The harder you tried, the more tension you'd feel as you tried to suppress your orange-thoughts.

The Goal of Thought-Shifting

Thought-shifting can help you increase your positive thinking and decrease your negative thinking in a way that works. It will not strengthen the network of distressing thoughts available to you or create the tension associated with thought suppression. It will allow your thoughts to leap into a new thinking pattern.

Keep in mind that the goal of thought-shifting is not to think happy thoughts all the time. Constant happy thoughts might block important messages you need to hear. However, if your distressing feelings are stubbornly hanging on long after your need for them has ended, it may be time to shift your thinking patterns. Let's begin by looking at rumination, a common form of negative self-talk.


Rumination occurs when you think over and over about your problems and how terrible you feel without taking action to shift those feelings. Women are more likely to engage in rumination than men, because women are more likely to focus inward when unhappy, and men are more likely to focus outward. When I talked to a male friend about the concerns many women have and the things that cause them distress, he said, "Do women really think about these things?"

"We do," I said. "What do you think about when you're upset?"

"I don't think. I play basketball."

That's a perfect example of how men use their outward focus as a way to distract themselves from their problems. Women are more likely to turn inward and ruminate. Women say they ruminate in order to better understand themselves or their problems. But here's the rub: research shows that ruminating may actually interfere with your ability to solve your problems. It also prolongs your distressed mood. Keep in mind that there's nothing wrong with introspection. It can be a positive thing. But introspection turns to rumination when you stay focused on your problems and ignore solutions.

How do you know if you're ruminating? Ask yourself these five questions:

1. Do you feel your distressing emotion more intensely the more you think about it, but continue to think about it anyway?

2. Do you replay upsetting events over and over in your mind?

3. Do you worry that others might reject you because of how you feel?

4. Do you focus on your bad feelings rather than on what you can do to feel better?

5. Do you focus on the body symptoms (tiredness or headache) of your distressing emotion without taking action to relieve them?

The Thought-Shifting Process

A key to reducing negative thinking, including rumination, is to create self-generated positive statements based on fact, not fluff If you just say to yourself what you think you should say or what someone else has told you to say — like, "C'mon, Mary, I know you can do it" — it's not likely to work, because you won't believe it.

In order for thought-shifting to work long-term, you must take the following four steps:

1. Become aware of your negative self-talk.

2. Directly examine and challenge your negative assumptions.

3. Generate new and realistic messages that you create.

4. Develop an action plan.

Let's look at how to do that.

Step 1: Become Aware of Your Negative Self-Talk

The first step in shifting your negative thoughts is to become aware of their existence. Sounds simple enough, but the presence of negative self-talk can be so subtle it's like noticing yourself breathing — you have to focus on it. Many people are surprised at the general negativity of their self-talk.

Distress gets created when negative thoughts are repeated on an ongoing basis. How often do you say things to yourself that make you feel bad about yourself, intensify your fears, or keep you in a bad mood?

One way to become aware of your thought patterns is to notice the thoughts you have as you lay in bed at night. It's also particularly helpful to observe what thoughts you have just before you experience a strong emotion.

Think about an intense or distressing feeling you've had recently. Try to pinpoint the self-talk you had just before that feeling started. You may have said many different things to yourself, but focus on the one that seems to be most connected to your mood.


Dee was asked to give a speech for her company retreat. She'd never spoken in front of so many people before. She was nervous. As she lay in bed at night, she thought about her speech: I'm terrible at giving speeches. What if I mess up or bore people to death? I'm going to make a fool of myself. Then my boss will realize I'm not as competent as he thought I was.

As you can see, Dee's self-talk influenced her emotions and increased her anxiety. For her, this type of thinking was a habit. When she was in the seventh grade, she gave a speech in her history class. She stumbled over her words, and a few students laughed. Ever since then, she's internalized the notion that she is a terrible speaker. Any time she is asked to speak publicly, the negative self-talk about her speech-giving abilities is restimulated.


It was a beautiful day, and Gloria was on her way to work. She needed to stop at the store to pick up a few supplies for the office before the morning meeting. As she came out of the store and walked to her car in the parking lot, she saw her rear tire was completely flat. Here's what she thought: I can't believe this. What's wrong with tire manufacturers these days that they can't make a decent tire? Companies only care about the bottom line and not about people. And these store parking lots are a mess. You'd think these stores would have a little pride and keep this area free from the junk that causes flat tires. No one cares about anything anymore.

Gloria's self-talk was typical for her temperament. Her temperament assessment showed she had a strong emotional intensity, a hard time coping with change, and difficulty being distracted from her goals. This explained why she was often quick to anger. It is not likely Gloria will be able to change her initial reactions to situations, but she can become aware of how her thinking style affects her emotions and address that directly, so she can calm herself down more easily.

Once you recognize your thought patterns and their connection to your emotions, you're in a position to have power over your reactions. That takes us to step 2: directly examining and challenging your negative assumptions.

Step Two: Directly Examine and Challenge Your Negative Assumptions

A major problem with negative thinking is that we rarely question whether our thoughts are accurate. Instead, we reflexively believe our negative thoughts are facts. And the more negative thoughts we have, the more we believe them. After all, if there's so many of them, they must be true, right?

The first step to taking the bite out of a negative thought is to question it. Just because you think something, doesn't make it a fact. Question your negative thoughts as a trial lawyer would. How do you know it's true? What evidence do you have to support your negative assumptions? Examine your thoughts. Put them under the microscope. Break those associative links.

Your habits, patterns, or temperament may be clouding the facts. Only you can uncover the truth. In the following pages, we'll take each of the distressing gateway emotions—anxiety, sadness, and anger—and turn it inside out. You should do this any time you are experiencing one or more of these emotions.

Anxiety and Self-Talk

One of the hallmarks of anxiety is worry. Mark Twain said, "I have spent most of my life worrying about things that have never happened." If that's the case, then why do we worry? People worry for two reasons. One is psychological, and one is physical.


If anxiety were a mathematical formula, it would be:

Anxiety = A Threatening Scenario + A Belief You Can't Cope

One of the difficult things about a threat is the feeling that you have no control over it. People often worry as a way to gain control.

I've heard many women say that worrying helps them feel prepared, as if they are doing something in the face of an unforeseen problem. It makes them feel responsible.

But here's the interesting thing: worry is self-reinforcing, because most of what you worry about never happens. Each time you worry about a potential problem, and your worst-case scenario doesn't materialize, you may unconsciously conclude that somehow your worrying played a role in averting the crisis. Your worrying has been positively reinforced, and so you worry more the next time a threat arrives.

Worry is difficult to stop, because your associative links are strengthened by repetition so that worrying thoughts are now more available to you. In other words, the more you worry the more you worry With all your worrying, nothing about your problem or your ability to cope has been improved. You're still going around and around in your thoughts. You're still in the same boat dealing with the same threat.


For most people, worry is about thoughts not images. You talk to yourself about your problems: what they mean, why they are happening, or how upsetting they are. Studies show that there may be a reason why people tend to worry with the words of self-talk rather than with visual images.

When people visually imagine their worst fears coming true, the switch to their sympathetic nervous system gets turned on. When this happens, they experience the pounding heart, rapid breathing, or sweaty hands of anxiety. But when people think about their fears with negative self-talk, there is little or no nervous-system activation. Worry can actually suppress the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, leading to fewer body symptoms of anxiety. In this sense, worry becomes a calming coping tool.

Although worry may calm your body, it doesn't do much for your mind. Instead, it leads to distress. A better strategy is to use an Emotional Tool that will calm your body, such as Tool 2, belly breathing or meditation. These body tools also have the added benefit of reducing the worry in your mind.

Tool 1: Thought-Shifting for Anxiety


First, become aware of your anxiety self-talk either through your just-before thinking or simple observation. As noted earlier, this type of self-talk usually starts with the phrase "what if." It's usually focused on the future and all that could go wrong there. It will often be about the threat you fear, your perceived inability to cope with that threat, or both.


Once you've become aware that you're worrying, it's time to challenge your worries. Like a trial lawyer, your job is to examine the evidence. Break those associative links. Is the threat really as bad as you think? Are your coping skills really as poor as you believe?

One of the most common errors people make about a threat is to magnify it. People imagine the worst possible outcome of the threat and act as if it's already true. The fear of a missed employment opportunity leads to "My life will be ruined if I don't get this job," or the fear of a phone call not returned turns to "I'll die if they don't call me back." Will your life really be ruined? Will you really die?

Challenge Questions

Following is a list of questions you can ask yourself to challenge your anxiety-producing self-talk. You may have some of your own:

• What is the worst thing that could happen in this situation?

• How do I know that will happen?

• If it did happen, could I survive it?

• Have I ever had a situation in the past where I experienced this kind of threat? Did I survive it?

• Is there anything at all good about this situation?

• Can I view this situation as a challenge or opportunity rather than a threat? How?

• Is my worrying helping me deal with the threat?

These questions are helpful because they allow you to pick apart your worries instead of just slapping positive messages on top of them like Band-Aids. As you pick your worries apart, they become less powerful. Figuring things out for yourself leads to a greater emotional change than would occur if someone else figures things out for you.

Step 3: Generate New and Realistic Messages That You Create.

When negative self-talk arises, respond to it with a statement you have created. Think of a comforting or soothing statement to say to yourself. It needs to be right for you, not one that someone else told you to say. It needs to be something you can believe. Say this statement to yourself to create new and positive associative links.

Keep in mind that it took many years to create the thinking patterns you have now. Whether your anxiety-producing self-talk is a result of habit, unsupportive patterns, or temperament, changing thinking patterns takes time.

Following are some examples of things you can say to yourself when a worry arises. Use them only if they resonate with you.

• Just because I think it, that doesn't make it true.

• Look at this situation in another way.

• Stay in this moment, not the future.

• I'm going to change the channel.

• There goes my worrying mind again.

• One step at a time.

Step 4: Develop an Action Plan.

Once you've realistically assessed the threat, it's time to strengthen your coping skills. You can do this with an action plan. An action plan is your opportunity to mobilize your resources to address your fear. This plan may include emotional coping strategies such as gathering the support of your family and friends, meditation, physical exercise, asking for help, emotional writing, and/or psychotherapy It may also include such problem-solving strategies as making a phone call, confronting a friend, researching a topic, writing a letter, finally making a decision, or redesigning your schedule.

Remember, the pounding heart and muscle tightness of your anxiety is your body's way of giving you the energy you need to address this problem. It does not mean that you are unable to handle it. In certain situations, expect to feel fear. Don't try to fight it. The goal is to create an action plan so that your fears will become manageable.

Action Plan Questions

Here are some questions to help you figure out your action plan:

• What else can I do besides worry?

• What do I want to happen?

• How can I make this happen?

• What is the worst that can happen if I pursue my plan?

• What is the worst that can happen if I don't pursue my plan?

• What resources (family, friends, skills, time, etc.) can I use to make this happen?

Let's look at how Neda used the four steps of thought-shifting to help with her anxious feelings.

Neda's Thought-Shifting for Anxiety

As a little girl, Neda dreamed of becoming a painter. Colors and shapes and textures dazzled her. She relished the sensation of the paint gliding across the canvas. Although no one in her family had indulged in such "impractical" dreams, Neda became an art major in college.

In her junior year, Neda fell madly in love with a man fifteen years her senior. She made the difficult decision to drop out of school so she could move across the country to marry him. Her intention, however, was to continue to pursue her art.


Excerpted from "4 Tools to Boost Your Happiness and Beat Stress"
by .
Copyright © 2005 Darlene Mininni.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Voices in Your Head,
Tool 1: Thought-Shifting,
The Power of Quiet,
Tool 2:The Meditative Arts,
Finding Your Voice,
Tool 3: Communication,
Putting it on Paper,
Tool 4: Emotional Writing,

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