Past experiences and current triggers
Cognitive Behavioural Therapists look for links between past experiences and current triggers of anxiety and depression. We all have thought systems or schemas – these are a set of thoughts that become a habit. We tend to see the world within a frame of reference and that is made up of our past experiences.
For example: depression is characterised by schemas/thought systems about loss, deprivation and failure. Anxiety is characterised by schemas about threat or fear of failure. Each of us looks at our experiences in terms of these habitual patterns of thinking. One person might focus a lot on issues of achievement (unrelenting standards), another around issues of rejection and someone else on fears of being abandoned. Let’s say that your schema – your particular issue or vulnerability – is related to achievement. Things can be going well for you at work, but then you have a setback that activates your schema about achievement – your personal issue about needing to be very successful so that you will not see yourself as a failure. The setback at work might lead to the schema about being a failure (being seen as a failure) and then you get anxious or depressed. The current trigger would be a setback at work. The intensity of your reaction will, to a large degree, be influenced by your thought system and beliefs about yourself. Positive beliefs about yourself will lead to a less intense emotional response.
We often try to compensate for our schemas. For example, if you have a schema about failure or that being average is bad, you might work excessively hard as you are trying to compensate for your perception that you might turn out to be inferior or not live up to your standards of perfection. You might compensate by checking your work over and over again. You might have a hard time relaxing because you are worried that you are not working enough. It might also manifest as a lack of discipline to avoid the possibility of failing if you really do put all your effort into it. With a lack of discipline, it serves as a fallback plan/reason if you aren’t successful and you can then comfort yourself by telling yourself that you would’ve done better if you had put all your effort into it.
Often we engage in behaviour in an attempt to avoid what we fear coming true. If we fear abandonment, we might engage in behaviours that we believe will make it less likely for abandonment to happen. This is false thinking though because, often, our schemas are not based on reality and are more a product of our own thoughts, perceptions and past experiences.
And the most important thing about these compensations is that we never really address our underlying thought system. (ie. I have to keep up standards of perfection so as not to be seen as a ‘failure’). This is a rigid rule which will be tough to live up to in reality. Rigid rules get broken more easily (the key to happiness is psychological flexibility) and this will lead to higher levels of anxiety and/or depression.
How we avoid facing our schemas:
An example to do with failure: If your view is that deep down inside, you might be really incompetent (a thought), one way you might avoid testing out this schema is to never take on challenging tasks or to quit early on tasks. Another way people avoid their schemas is by emotional escape through substance use or through extreme behaviours such as drinking too much, using drugs to dull feelings, binge eating.
Where do schemas come from?
Parents, siblings, peers and partners. Parents might contribute to negative schemas by making you feel that you are not good enough unless you are superior to everyone, comparing you to other children, intruding on you and ordering you around etc
“You could do better – why did you get that B?” schema about the need to be perfect or avoid inferiority
“Your cousin went to Harvard, why can’t you be more like him?” schema about inferiority and incompetence
“Why are you always complaining? Can’t you see that I have problems taking care of you?” schema about the selfishness of needs
We internalise schemas from popular culture, such images of being thin, having the perfect body, “what real men should be like”, perfect sex, lots of money and enormous success. These unrealistic images reinforce schemas about perfection, superiority, inadequacy and defectiveness.
It’s also important to mention the importance of needs in schema formation and perpetuation. Schemas are formed when needs are not met during childhood and then the schema prevents similar needs from being fulfilled in adulthood. For instance a child whose need for secure attachments is not fulfilled by his parents may go for many years in later life without secure relationships.
Even though schemas persist once they are formed, they are not always in our awareness. Usually they operate in subtle ways, out of our awareness. However, when a schema erupts or is triggered by events, our thoughts and feelings are dominated by these schemas. It is at these moments that people tend to experience extreme negative emotions and have dysfunctional thoughts.
Schemas are obstacles to reaching goals but they do not tell us what we need to be happy. Develop a set of life goals – develop a strategy to outline where you want to go with your life. The clearer the objectives, the easier it is to define steps to achieve your vision.
Discover your natural inclinations – each person has an innate set of preferences. The best clues are found in our emotions and bodily sensations. Unfortunately, many of us are trained as children to disregard our natural inclinations and to do what is expected of us. We are forced to be tough when by nature we are sensitive, forced to pursue medicine when our natural preference is for outdoor activities…it is important to find a balance between the needs of society and our personal fulfilment.
The areas of change and focus – relationships, autonomy, self esteem, self assertion and self expression, concern for others.
Try having empathy for yourself and remind yourself of the origins of your schemas. Surrender the security of childhood patterns in order to grow into the adult you want to be.