Irritability means letting small things that happen to all of us everyday set off a train of upsetting thoughts. Last week I posted about the negative effect of obsessions and ruminations on brain fitness – some researchers now call them unconstructive repetitive thoughts, or URT (for that post, click here). I wrote about the process of thinking about things that cause negative emotions.
It’s likely that this kind of thinking is associated with increases in cortisol and immune system markers associated with inflammation. The whole “chemical soup” is neurotoxic. The same chemicals are associated with mental and physical decline in older persons. Younger persons aren’t off the hook, though, because research increasingly shows that cognitive decline starts in early life. As several researchers remarked at the Cognitive Aging Summit two weeks ago, “Aging begins at birth.”
One of the things that sets off URT for many people is a random or casual event or thought. Someone cuts you off on the freeway, or you get stuck in the wrong line at the grocery store, or a co-worker makes a comment that upsets you. It’s at that point that the URT gets going, and it’s at that point that you can do something to stop it.
From the point of view of cognitive therapy, the actual event isn’t so important. It’s the fact that it sets off. or activates, a underlying pattern of thought that some people call a schema.You have a choice: (1) go with the URT, and feel upset, and activate a set of chemical processes that are bad for your brain, or (2) stop by the process and move on (in your mind, or in your life) to something else.
In my previous post, I laid out a three-step plan for dealing with URT. Those steps emphasized being aware of the thoughts, deciding whether thinking about the upsetting event was going to resolve anything, and then making a commitment to dealing with the thoughts.
Here are 5 more steps to deal with irritability and improve your brain fitness:
- Assign yourself homework: Commit to noticing when you engage in URT at least once a day for a week.
- Pay attention to the event that set you off.
- Decide what the event means to you. Did the comment from a coworker set off worries about how good you are at your job? Did the person on the freeway make you feel as though everyone was down on you? Did the line at the grocery make you feel panicky about getting everything you had to do done?
- Come up with a more reasonable response to what you’re thinking. Maybe say something like, “That person probably didn’t mean to upset me,” or “Even if he or she did that to make me feel bad, I get to choose how I react.”
- Repeat each step at least once a day. The way you think is a habit, and the only way to change a habit is to practice doing something different.