Southern Star: CBT and the burglar in the bedroom

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on CBT and the burglar in the bedroom.
CBT suggests we are largely disturbed not by events, but by the view we take of them.

In last week's Southern Star, I explored one of the key messages of CBT: the idea that emotional distress is caused more by how we see events than the events themselves.  If you disagree, please read the column, which I hope will give you some food for thought!


Here’s a question to ponder: are your emotions guided more by events and situations, or by how you see the events and situations?


One of the key messages of CBT is that people ‘are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them’, as the late psychologist Albert Ellis put it. The idea is not a new one – the Stoics of ancient Greece had a similar philosophy. Nor is it debated solely by psychologists and philosophers: ‘The problem is not the problem’, says Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. ‘The problem is your attitude about the problem’.


Is it true? Well, consider the following examples (continued below...)

 You’re in bed at home and hear a loud noise, a thud, in another bedroom. You think ‘Is that a burglar?’ Feeling anxious and fearful, you might curl up under the covers or call the police or shout a warning.

Alternatively, another person is in bed at home and hears a loud noise, a thud, in another bedroom. They think, ‘Did I leave the window open? Something must have blown down’. Casually, they go downstairs and see what happened.


Another example: You’re at work and see two office colleagues giggling at their desks. Your first thought is negative: ‘They’re laughing at me’. Feeling angry and defensive, you ignore your colleagues and keep to yourself for the next few hours, complaining to your partner about your job and colleagues when you get home.

Alternatively, you might think, 'I wonder what the joke is?’ This leads to different feelings (curiosity, possibly mild annoyance), which leads to a different behaviour (you keep talking as normal).


A third example. In 2009, a plane crashed in the Hudson River in New York in 2009. The pilot’s skill meant all 155 people came out alive. How did those people feel? Some might have been distressed and anxiety-ridden – they nearly died. They might say, ‘I’m never flying again, it’s too dangerous, I’ll never get over the shock.’ Others might feel huge relief and happiness. Others might feel exhilarated. They might say: Life is short, carpe diem, seize the day! Travel the world while you still can!





Final example. Some people were anxiety-ridden as Storm Ophelia ravaged West Cork. Others lost the cool at having their routines so badly disrupted. Others cheered the community spirit they witnessed. Others passed Father Ted memes on Twitter and joked about how it gave Irish people an excuse to talk about their favourite topic of conversation – the weather.


Jokes aside, in all these cases, it is not the event that is governing people’s emotions: it is the meaning being given to the event.


Does this mean certain negative events are not actually negative, that we can smile our way through the most difficult of situations? Of course not. Certain events – the loss of a loved one, a relationship breakdown, losing one’s job, having one’s home repossessed, etc – are universally agreed to be major stressors that negatively impact our lives. To pretend otherwise is denial, and denial is not a useful way of resolving personal problems.




That said, it’s important to remember our thinking can get skewed in times of major stress, resulting in us making a bad situation worse. For example, anyone will be very down if a loved one dies or if a close relationship ends. However, even in grave situations like a bereavement, we are not powerless: our thinking can help alleviate distress, or it can add to it. One person might say, ‘Life will never be the same again. This loneliness will never lift. It’s hopeless.’ They might withdraw from friends and social activities. They might feel guilty about enjoying themselves, seeing this as some sort of betrayal. Another person might also feel incredibly lonely and lost, but they might seek solace in friends and social activities, feeling their partner would have wanted them to be happy.


Many things – our beliefs, biases, thoughts and values – inform our reactions to events. Some events are inherently difficult to manage but it’s consoling to remember that others are molehills rather than mountains, made better or worse by the meaning we give to them. 






Why CBT?