This "cognitive model for moms" is a guide to help you understand your thoughts and their connection to how you feel and behave. It is based from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which is an approach often used in mental health counseling to help people understand their thoughts and how they are closely connected to emotions and behaviors. You may have heard it before called, CBT. In this blog post, my goal is to break down each component of the model by giving you examples relatable to motherhood. By doing this, I hope to help you understand the relationship between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, especially that negative self-talk in our heads, so common as new moms, or even seasoned mamas out there! By gaining insight into yourself and your thoughts, it can lead to empowerment and making actual positive changes in your day to day, bringing you closer to your values, and living a meaningful life. Isn't that what we all want??
“If our thinking is bogged down by distorted symbolic meanings, illogical reasoning and erroneous interpretations, we become, in truth, blind and deaf”. - Dr. Aaron Beck ("father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy")
Our thoughts can get the best of all of us from time to time. One second you are thinking about your 4 year old starting Kindergarten, and before you know it you are thinking about them driving, moving off to college, getting married, and having kids of their own. I'm sure you can relate. Sometimes we have intentional thoughts as we process certain situations. Other times, we have automatic thoughts that take us down a rabbit hole, and we can't quite figure out how we got here. Those thoughts can be so automatic that they are almost unconscious and unrecognizable when they go through your mind. Automatic thoughts can be both helpful and unhelpful. There can often be patterns to your unhelpful thinking. Learning about the 10 unhelpful thinking patterns can support managing your negative emotions. Thoughts can also be identified as how we perceive situations, our perceptions. Or, how we talk to ourselves about situations, our "self-talk." Whether automatic, intentional, perceptions, or self-talk, they all fall under the umbrella of thoughts, which can lead us either down the right path, or quickly take a left turn towards the wrong path.
Let's take the 4 year old going off to Kindergarten example. Say you are driving and pass a school on your left as you are on your way to the grocery store. If you have the automatic thought, "My daughter is starting Kindergarten soon." Then later that day you find yourself buying a new little backpack and matching lunch box. That automatic thought, that maybe you recognized, but maybe you didn't because of the busyness of the day, helped move you into action to prepare your daughter for the first day of school. That's a helpful automatic thought!
Sticking with the same example, imagine you have the same automatic thought, "My daughter is starting Kindergarten soon." Then, another automatic thought, "I can't believe she's growing up so fast." And then another one, "She's not ready for Kindergarten. She's so little! She's still my baby!" And yet another, and another, and another, until you end up with the thought, "The world is scary out there. How can I trust her teacher to keep her safe. What if the other kids are mean to her. What if she doesn't make friends." And the rabbit hole of thoughts consumes your mind, preventing you from focusing on the tasks for the day, keeping you stuck with an unsettling feeling the rest of the day. You notice you are quicker to become frustrated, less motivated, and feeling exhausted all day long. You may not even realize your thoughts, and more easily recognize the "yucky" feeling and negative behaviors. That's the power automatic thoughts can have on us. THOSE are unhelpful automatic thoughts that started with one simple thought, "My daughter is starting Kindergarten soon." Before you knew it, now you are overwhelmed with feelings of sadness, fear, and anxiety.
Now feelings can often be a bit easier to recognize than those sneaky automatic thoughts. We can typically notice if we are feeling some kind of way. What's hard is actually naming the emotion that is showing up. It's easy to chalk up how we feel into a few different categories: sad, happy, worried, and angry. But those don't always accurately describe how we feel. What's the actual emotion behind that feeling? Being able to identify and name the emotion is key to moving through the emotion, instead of getting stuck.
Whether we know the actual emotion we are feeling or not, we can typically tell something either feels good or not so good. And it can be pretty common to point back to a situation that caused those either good or not so good feelings. For example, the situation could be your son's 1st birthday and you remember feeling happy. Therefore, the birthday party causes the emotion of happiness. BUT, the missing piece, is the thoughts that happen in between the situation and the feeling. Because actually, it is not the situation itself that leads to emotional reactions, it's how you think about it.
Look at it this way - when you think about your son's 1st birthday and feel that emotion of happiness show up as you begin to smile and feel warm inside. I wonder what is going through your mind? Is it, "Wow the party went so well! He behaved so well, and it was adorable when he smooshed cake all over his face. I'm so pleased how it turned out and we will all remember laughing, smiling, and celebrating him together as a family!" Those are all thoughts that lead to that happiness feeling!! Because if you think about it from the opposite perspective, let's say same situation, different thoughts: "The party went okay, but the bakery spelled his name wrong on the cake, and when he smooshed the cake all over his face, it made such a mess! I forgot the cute napkins, so we had to use paper towels. How embarrassing! I can't believe it! I just feel like such a terrible mom." Same situation, different thoughts; you can imagine the feeling is most likely not happiness, but more like embarrassment, guilt, and shame.
"We can't control what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond."
When these unhelpful thoughts sneak in and attack, they can lead to pretty yucky feelings. These feelings can then lead to some unhelpful behaviors as well. Keeping with the same example of the 1st birthday party. If you are feeling happiness, you might create a mini scrapbook or print out photos from the party and share with your coworkers when you return to work the following week. But, if you are feeling embarrassment, guilt, and shame, you might end up seeming gloomy and exhausted, just trying to make it through the work day, hoping no one asks you how the party went and avoiding casual conversations with people at work you care about.
Our thoughts can influence how we feel and how we feel can impact how we behave. It's all connected! When we are feeling anxious, worried, guilty, angry, or overwhelmed because of our thoughts about a situation, or even our self-talk, we are likely to act based on those feelings. Some common behaviors that are results of those feelings are avoidance, withdrawal, yelling, and crying. Just like the example of the 1st birthday party. The mom with the unhelpful automatic thoughts led to an increase in those yucky feelings, which then led her to withdraw and avoid her coworkers all day following the party.
Other feelings get in the way of our behaviors too. If we feel irritated with our kids, we may yell at them. If we feel down and depressed about ourselves, we may have uncontrollable crying spells. If we feel guilty as a mom, we might internalize situations and talk negatively to ourselves. If we feel anxious about the scary world out there, we may avoid certain situations. If we feel sad and disconnected from our husbands, we may withdraw further. I think you get the picture. Our feelings impact our behaviors.
"And the rabbit hole of thoughts consumes your mind, preventing you from focusing on the tasks for the day, keeping you stuck with an unsettling feeling the rest of the day. You notice you are quicker to become frustrated, less motivated, and feeling exhausted all day long. You may not even realize your thoughts, and more easily recognize the "yucky" feeling and negative behaviors. That's the power automatic thoughts can have on us."
The "Never-Ending Cycle" of the Cognitive Model
The point of all this is to not feel worse about yourself. But to learn the cycle and see how much our thoughts play a role in how we respond to situations, both emotional and behavioral. It can even influence how our body reacts to things (physiological response) such as headaches, stomach pain, tight muscle, and nausea. All three components, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all connected! And sometimes it can feel like a never-ending cycle. Maybe you are having the automatic thought right now, "Well, how to do stop it? If I'm feeling down because of a thought, and it's leading me to withdraw from my support system, yet withdrawing from my support system is now a "situation" causing more unhelpful thoughts, leading to unhelpful feelings, and unhelpful behaviors. I don't know how to get out of this rut."
The most effective place to break the cycle is at the "thoughts" component because as we see, it has the most impact on all the other components. And as much as I wish I could wave a magic wand for you and say all situations moving forward are going to be great! I can't. Situations are often outside of our control. There are going to be times in life where we are faced with uncertainty, stress, and grief. We can't change or eliminate those from our life. But what we CAN do, what is WITHIN our control, is paying attention to how we think about different situations. Working to eliminate any unrealistic thoughts or talking back to unhelpful thoughts that could lead us down the rabbit hole to negative emotions and unwanted behaviors. It is definitely much easier said than done. So, give yourself grace as you begin this new practice of being more aware of your thoughts, naming your feelings, and behaving with more control.
"SO, now what do I do??"
Start paying attention to what goes through your mind. What are you thinking? Are there any unhelpful thinking patterns to break?
Then, try reframing unrealistic thoughts. Or talk-back to negative thoughts. Replace unhelpful thinking with more helpful realistic thought patterns. Remember, it's all connected. SO, if we can change the automatic thoughts, it will impact your emotions.
Start shifting your mindset and watch as the emotional responses begin to shift as well. Which will then lead to less of those unwanted behaviors.
Lastly, find support! Cognitive restructuring, mindfulness, and positive self-talk can be hard to do all on your own. Whether that's a mentor, a friend, a partner, or a therapist. You don't have to go through this alone.