Today I’m testing a new series I’m calling “therapy hacks,” where I breakdown a technique that is quick and easy to implement starting NOW.
Let me start by saying this: there is nothing that can replace therapy, and this is not meant to. However, I think there are TONS of tips and tricks one can do on their own to help quell anxiety, improve negative mood states, and strengthen relationships.
Today’s topic: Reality testing
Reality testing is exactly what it sounds like, but it’s more difficult than you think.
Every day, we interpret millions of situations from the external world. However, our internal interpretation does not always match reality.
You may be sitting there thinking, “Well, if I’m SEEING it or FEELING it, then that means it IS reality, right?”
First of all, watch your tone.
Second of all, not necessarily.
We all have pre-existing biases about…well…pretty much everything. Our past experiences, our upbringing, our insecurities; all of these can cause us to misinterpret a situation or feeling.
I understand concepts a lot better when I see them applied to real life, so let me give you an example:
You walk into work one morning and smile at a coworker, who promptly looks the other way and continues walking. Your brain goes to these places:
- “OMG, is Stacy mad at me?
- “Why would/could/should she be mad at me?”
- “Is it because of the comment I made 6 weeks ago about croissants being bad for you? I mean they ARE bad for you but I don’t want to make her feel bad for eating one?”
- “Am I a terrible person?”
You see, we usually try to search for an answer that involves US, because humans are naturally self-involved. However, rarely do we pause and think of other possible, less dramatic scenarios.
If we applied reality testing to this situation, it would go something like this:
- Maybe Sarah is on her way to the restroom after her morning coffee and croissant, and isn’t’ feeling like making eye contact with someone right now?
- Maybe Sarah got in a fight with her boyfriend and is so wrapped up in her feelings that your face didn’t even register?
- Maybe Sarah forgot to wear her contacts today and she’s just a blind bat manuevering around the office?
Reality testing requires taking a step back and analyzing a situation as if you were a third party. Putting yourself in this position takes away those biases we discussed earlier, and you’re able to see the situation more clearly (and more often than not, for what it ACTUALLY is).
You can imagine how picking a scenario from the second set of bullets above would have a drastic effect on your mood. Instead of panicking all morning about whether someone is upset with you or not, you simply chalk it up to Sarah have a tough morning, and move on with your day.
Thought: “I failed this exam, so now I’ll probably fail all of my other exams this year.”
Reality: Failing this ONE exam does not mean you are doomed for all exams for the rest of your days. In fact, maybe failing this one will cause you to study more, and you’ll actually do BETTER on the next one.
Thought: “My boyfriend stared at that girl, that must mean he thinks she’s pretty and I look nothing like her so I’m not pretty”
Reality: 1. Some people have staring problems, whether they stare at males or females. Maybe your boyfriend thought she looked like someone he knew? Maybe he thought she had weird hair? 2. The fact of him staring at someone says NOTHING about his feelings toward you, or your beauty.
Practice, practice practice
This may seem like a very small, possibly insignificant change in our thoughts. However, with practice you will strengthen this particular thought process, and soon it will no longer require concerted effort. It will just happen.
Something amazing I learned through working with patients on this: Every single person was able to come up with a HIGHLY plausible, realistic thought to replace their negative or anxious thoughts when asked to do so. Every. Single. Time.
So get out there, people! Start challenging your thoughts. Eat a croissant while you’re at it.