How many of us can honestly say that we welcome every challenge that life brings? In her new book Dr Claire Hayes demonstrates how each of us can use cognitive behavioural principles to help us cope. In a very clear, practical way she shows us how to make sense of our distressing feelings, to become aware of our unhelpful thoughts and our core beliefs, and most of all, to focus on what we can actually do to improve things for ourselves.
Someone once said ‘no-one gets out of here alive’. No one gets out of here without experiencing some of life’s challenges either. No one, so it is important that we develop our strategies for coping. In supporting people to cope with life’s challenges, small and large, I encourage them to welcome and acknowledge their feelings, become aware of their thoughts, question their beliefs and focus particularly on helpful actions they can choose to take. This approach has become my way of explaining the basic principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
While most adults have heard of CBT, there can be a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what it is and how it works. It is not a ‘quick fix’. It is not intended to suddenly make someone ‘feel good’. It is not about ‘thinking positively’ and ignoring emotions. CBT as I see it, is a wonderful way of understanding the link between our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and actions. The three step ‘Coping Triangle’ process I have developed to explain this, allows us to not only acknowledge our feelings but encourages us to focus on what we can do to improve things for ourselves. Regardless of how loudly thoughts might scream that ‘there is no point and everything is hopeless’ there are always helpful actions that people can choose to do.
So how can we cope well? Have a look at the following ten suggestions and see if there are three that you particularly like and would like to use more often:
- Recognise that life has challenges.
Sometimes accepting that life has challenges can seem too difficult and for some people can equate with ‘giving up’. There can be comfort though in recognising that challenges are part of life rather than proof of failure or inadequacy.
- Remember that everyone experiences life’s challenges.
This can be easier said than done. When things are going well for us, it is easy to forget that other people may be experiencing difficulties. Sometimes, I am reminded of this when I pass a hospital and catch a glimpse of people inside.
- Recognise how we are feeling.
It might seem strange to suggest that we recognise how we are feeling. There are times when we know immediately how we feel, regardless of whether that is upset, relaxed, worried, scared, excited, let-down, hungry, tired, angry or happy. There are other times though, when we might not realise that we actually feel any of those feelings and are surprised when we suddenly cry, laugh or explode.
- Remember that feelings are just feelings – in themselves they are neither positive or negative.
We are almost conditioned from a very young age to see feelings such as happy, pleased and rested as ‘positive’ and unhappy, sad and tired as ‘negative’. Why? When someone we love dies we may feel sad, upset and lonely. We may also feel angry and confused. We might feel relieved though, if we think that someone’s suffering is over. Those feelings may be difficult, they may be intense but they may also be very appropriate. Labelling our feelings as ‘negative’ somehow implies that we are wrong to experience them in the first place.
- Tune in to what you are thinking.
Thoughts can be like a radio that is playing in the background. We can be so skilled at operating on ‘automatic pilot’ we might not realise that our thoughts can taunt us for not being good enough or frighten us about what might happen in the future. When we realise what we are thinking we are in a much better position to choose to focus on more helpful thoughts just as we can turn a radio dial if we don’t like certain music.
- Be more than your thoughts and your beliefs.
It can be so easy to slip into believing thoughts and if they are unhelpful, being dragged down by them. A helpful thought can be to remind yourself that ‘I am more than my thoughts’.
- To cope well, we act well.
It can be tempting to focus on how we feel or on how others feel and wish that we’d all ‘feel better’. The more useful thing is often to pay attention to our actions and to realise which of them are ‘helpful’ and which are ‘unhelpful’. Helpful actions can include ensuring that we have regular exercise, eat healthily and have a good sleep routine.
- Choose support that is helpful.
There are always people who will give support but this support might not always be helpful! Some people who have come through an alcohol treatment programme are confronted with needing to change the people they rely on. If they are serious about not drinking alcohol, they may need to distance themselves from their old drinking buddies. This can be really difficult and it is important to look at other types of supports that are available, ask for and take them. Sometimes as we know, people who believe that there is no point in living consider suicide as an end to their difficulties. It is important to know that GPs, Accident and Emergency Services and organisations such as Aware, the Samaritans, Pieta House and Console, have people who are able and willing to give helpful support.
- It is our responsibility to take the support that is best for us.
The story about the person who is hanging off a cliff waiting for God to rescue him makes a lot of sense to me. You might know it. A number of people attempt to help him including people at the top of the cliff, people in a speedboat below and someone dangling from a helicopter. Each time he is offered help, he sincerely thanks them and says that he is ok as God is going to rescue him. When the inevitable happens and he falls and is killed, he arrives at God’s gates in a very angry state. ‘Why did you let me down’, he roars. ‘I believed in you and you did not rescue me’. God looks at him calmly and probably with compassion and says, ‘What more did you expect me to do? I sent you people to pull you up, a speedboat to catch you and a man on a rope to lift you up to a helicopter’?
- We can all learn to welcome and cope with life’s challenges.
The benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in helping people cope with a range of challenges are well documented. Now we can learn the basic principles of CBT easily. Aware has two Lifeskills courses that are free of charge and very enjoyable to do. Details of these are on www.aware.ie. My book, How to Cope: The Welcoming Approach to Life’s Challenges explains how we can use the basic CBT principles in a very structured and logical way in coping with challenges such as pressure, rejection, loss, failure, success and change. GPs can recommend professional therapists, counsellors or psychologists to help people who are struggling to cope and who would benefit from more professional support.
Let’s turn things around and rather than feeling ashamed of experiencing life’s challenges, let’s see them as opportunities for us to develop our abilities to cope. Just think of how the next generation will benefit!
Find out more in How To Cope. The Welcoming Approach to Life’s Challenges by Dr Claire Hayes, published by Gill Books and priced at €14.99. Also available as an ebook on Amazon.
Dr Claire Hayes has worked in a variety of roles over the past thirty years, including principal teacher, clinical psychologist, lecturer, educational psychologist, executive coach, researcher and clinical director. Dr Hayes’s work with individuals and organisations has evolved from ‘coping with life’s challenges’ to welcoming them as opportunities to learn, grow and respond proactively. She currently works as a Consultant Clinical Psychologist (www.drclairehayes.ie) and as Clinical Director with Aware (www.aware.ie).