Happiness is a choice: Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy and Stoicism

Have you ever felt like your emotions are out of your control? Like you’re a victim of your circumstances, and there’s nothing you can do to feel better?

If so, you’re not alone. Many people believe that our emotions are simply reactions to what happens to us. But what if that’s not the case? What if we have more control over our emotions than we think?

Being defiantly happy

In his recent book of lockdown interviews ‘Faith, Hope & Carnage’, singer Nick Cave, when discussing the almost overwhelming impact of losing his son, says of himself and his wife:

I think we both worked out that we could be happy, and that happiness was a form of insubordination in the face of, I don’t know, life, I guess. It was a choice. That’s it, a kind of earned and considered arrangement with the world, to be happy.

No one has control over the things that happen to them, but we do have a choice as to how we respond. There was a defiance there, in the face of the world’s indifference and apparent casual cruelty.”

This idea that we have a choice, that when something happens to us, no matter how good or bad, we have the emotional choice and responsibility to decide how we go on to feel about it, is the central idea behind Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), one of the cognitive-behavioural therapies under the umbrella of CBT. REBT was developed by Dr Albert Ellis in the 1950s, and it’s based on the premise that our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours are all interconnected.

It is our thoughts, or beliefs, and our behaviours that help maintain our emotional state. If we can change how we think (and behave) about something, we can eventually change how we feel about it.

The power to choose

This is one of the key concepts in REBT, the idea that we are largely responsible for how we feel. This doesn’t mean that we’re to blame by the way. Responsibility means that we have the power to choose how we react to our negative experiences, and we do not have to be stuck in suffering.

For example, let’s say you lose your job, or like Nick Cave, experience a bereavement. These are undeniably negative events with potentially massive impact on our lives. It’s perfectly normal to feel emotional pain and be very upset about them. But you don’t have to let that feeling consume you, and you don’t have to remain ‘stuck’ in that powerful and negative emotional state.

The loss of a job or a loved one could lead to feelings of depression, believing that hope is gone and we will never recover from our losses. These, however, are unhelpful, untrue beliefs that keep us stuck in suffering. Instead, helpful or rational thinking, and REBT in particular, helps us accept the ‘badness’ of the situation including personal tragedies and their reality, whilst at the same time understanding that we can tolerate these hard times, and be able to carry on with our lives, even though they may be different. We can look for another, maybe better job. We can continue to think fondly and with love for the person we’ve lost, for example.

And from these decisions, eventually, happiness will return.

Of course, choosing to be happy isn’t always easy. Sometimes, it takes a lot of effort. But the good news is that it’s possible. And the more you practice choosing rational and helpful thinking, the easier it will become.

REBT and Stoicism

The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus was one of the first to write about the idea that happiness is a choice. Epictetus was a Stoic, and Stoicism is a philosophy that teaches us to focus on what we can control and let go of what we can’t control. It is a great influence on the thinking behind REBT.

Epictetus believed that our emotions are provoked by our thoughts and beliefs. So, if we want to change our emotions, we need to start by changing our thoughts.

One of Epictetus’ most famous quotes is:

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them”

This quote perfectly encapsulates the Stoic, and REBT, belief that we are in control of our own happiness.

Another important Stoic teaching is the idea that we should only focus on what we can control. We can’t control everything that happens to us in life. But we can control our own thoughts, our own actions, and our own reactions to events. Words echoed, thousands of years later, by Nick Cave, and every REBT therapist you will meet.

If we focus on what we can control and acknowledge what we can’t control, we will be much more likely to be happy.

How to choose happiness

So, how do we choose happiness? Here are a few tips:

Identify your unhelpful and unrealistic thoughts. The first step to changing your thoughts is to become aware of them. Pay attention to the thoughts that go through your head throughout the day. Are you thinking irrational things about yourself, others, or the world around you? Are you demanding things be other than they actually are?

Challenge your unhelpful thoughts. Once you’ve identified your unhelpful thoughts, challenge them. Are they really true? Is there any evidence to support them? Or are they just unhelpful beliefs? How helpful is it for you to continue to tell yourself these things?

Replace your unhelpful thoughts with rational ones. Once you’ve challenged your unhelpful thoughts, replace them with more true, rational and helpful ones. This may take some practice, but it’s important to be patient with yourself. Focus on accepting things as they really are, rather than how you might wish they would be.

Focus on what you can control. Don’t waste your time and energy worrying about things that you can’t control. Instead, focus on what you can control, such as your own thoughts, actions, and reactions.

Choosing happiness is a journey, not a destination. It takes time and effort. But it’s a journey that’s worth taking. Because when we choose happiness, we choose a better life for ourselves.

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When REBT and hypnosis meet, great things can happen

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and hypnosis are two powerful approaches for addressing a variety of life’s problems or mental health issues. Each of these approaches, when used alone, has been found to be effective for many people. However, combining the two appears to turbocharge the benefits of both, resulting in what is known as Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy (CBH). This of course needs to be clinically indicated for clients. This means that such an approach would be based on a collaborative agreement between the client and the therapist.

Here at the College of Cognitive Behavioural Therapies, many of our tutors, supervisors and lecturers are experienced CBH practitioners. We also train our students, on our final Advanced Diploma in Integrative CBT/REBT II, to become skilled and accredited Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy therapist themselves. We strongly believe that when used as part of the ongoing therapeutic process already utilising Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (and in particular Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, the modality we specialise in here at the college), the results can be powerful, delivering effective change for some clients.

Our minds are incredibly creative and resilient, but when we struggle with issues like anxiety, or low self-esteem, our thought patterns, in the form of rigidly held irrational beliefs, can often be the biggest culprit in maintaining these problems. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and REBT especially, helps us to examine our beliefs and thoughts objectively, rationally, and honestly, allowing us to identify which patterns are leading to problematic behaviours, thoughts, and feelings. We are then able to formulate healthy, rational believes and behaviours and begin the process of replacing one with the other.

When we combine this approach with hypnosis where clinically indicated, we can integrate these new ways of thinking at a deeper level. Our subconscious minds hold all our habitual thoughts and responses, and when we relax with hypnosis and enter a more receptive state of consciousness, we can bypass our critical conscious mind and directly access our subconscious. This makes it easier for new ways of thinking to take root and results in quicker change for most people. The hypnotic process does not create these new beliefs, nor does it embed any that the client does not already know to be true and understand to be helpful. It simply helps strengthen the new beliefs and bolster our commitment to act on them.

While hypnosis alone can be effective in helping people ‘feel’ better, it may not address the underlying faulty thinking patterns that are contributing to the problem. That’s where Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy comes in – it is specifically designed to help people overcome emotional, behavioural, and symptomatic problems in the longer-term by addressing the often deeply-held irrational beliefs that have provoked the problems in the first place. Our goal is to help people get better, not just feel better.

Combining these two powerful approaches has proven to be highly effective for some people dealing with a variety of mental health issues, ranging from anxiety to depression to phobias. Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy offers a unique and dynamic approach to address the root causes of our problems and achieve lasting change.

If you are interested in learning more about CBH or training to become a qualified and accredited CBT or CBH therapist, take a look at our range of courses available, no matter what your current experience level may be.

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Rational coping statements: more than just ‘live, laugh, love’

If you’ve ever read any self-help books or looked online for ways to boost your mental health, you might have come across affirmations and heard about how they can be helpful in promoting a positive mindset.

These affirmations often take the form of positive but somewhat generic phrases such as “I find joy in everything I do”; “My body is healthy and my mind is at peace”; “Opportunities come my way easily and effortlessly”, or “I am confident and I am enough.” Sometimes they may be accompanied by a calming photograph of a stream, or someone climbing a mountain. Perhaps a kitten hanging from a washing line.

While affirmations can be helpful in the short-term, they aren’t always enough to get rid of negative thoughts and feelings. That’s where rational coping statements come in. In this blog, we’ll explore why these statements can be even more effective than general affirmations, especially in cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), which is what we practice here at the College.

Rational coping statements were first introduced by Dr Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT). The basic idea behind REBT is that our emotions are largely influenced by our beliefs, not just by what’s happening in the world around us. If we can change our beliefs from irrational, unhelpful ones, we can change our thinking, our behaviour, and therefore our emotions.

At the heart of REBT are the ideas of acceptance of the world how it is, not how we’d like it to be, and an understanding of our ability to tolerate the discomfort this reality can sometimes bring.

An example healthy, rational belief, based around one of the affirmations above might be: “I would like to feel confident at all times, but I accept that sometimes I won’t. This would be bad, but not awful, uncomfortable but I could tolerate it (and it would be in my interests to do so), and this simply means I am a fallible but worthwhile human being.”

This is perhaps not the catchiest of phrases, but hopefully you can see how it is flexible, realistic, logical and helpful. Once a healthy belief is identified, clients are encouraged to come up with their own personal, specific and meaningful ways of reinforcing it, especially when they are in situations that may provoke their old, unhealthy beliefs.

This is where rational coping statements come in. Unlike general affirmations, which are often vague and unrealistic, rational coping statements are specifically designed to challenge the individual’s negative thoughts and beliefs. They’re like little mental tools that help you to reframe your thinking and view things from a more balanced and realistic perspective.

For example, let’s say you have a thought like “I can’t handle this situation.” A rational coping statement in response to this thought might be “I have handled difficult situations before, and I can handle this one too.” This statement helps you to question the negative thought and recognize that you have the ability to handle the situation by accepting its difficult reality and recognising your existing ability to tolerate the discomfort.

Now, you might be thinking “but aren’t affirmations supposed to be positive? Why not just repeat positive affirmations instead?” Well, the problem with general affirmations is that they can be too unrealistic, and our brains often reject them as false. Deep down we understand that they are simply not true. This can actually make negative feelings and thoughts stronger, rather than weaker. Have you ever been told to ‘just try looking on the bright side’ when things were going wrong? Did it actually help?

To tell yourself that you are feeling confident when you actually aren’t is not accepting the reality of the situation. To tell yourself you feel nervous but you can tolerate it, and things don’t have to go perfectly is much more honest. And therefore, much more helpful.

In contrast to generic affirmations, rational coping statements are based on reality, and in particular the lived experience of the individual, not just on wishful thinking and vague generalities. They give you a more accurate understanding of your abilities and strengths, and help you to develop a more rational and resilient outlook that’s grounded in reality.

Rational coping statements can be more effective than general affirmations in cognitive behaviour therapy and REBT because they’re designed to challenge negative thoughts and beliefs, rather than just try to replace them with positive ones. If you’re looking to improve your own wellbeing and mental health, incorporating rational coping statements into your daily routine can be a great place to start.

What might some of yours look like?

Nick Jones
REBT/CBT Therapist

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