One morning, traffic on the highway backs up much more than usual. Pam and Nancy both have important doctor appointments to get to and are now running late. 

Pam is concerned that she may be too late for her appointment. However, after calling her doctor’s office and advising them of her situation, she is now jamming out to tunes on her favorite radio station.  

Nancy, a few cars away, can be found yelling at other drivers, honking her horn, and driving aggressively. She is feeling anxious and angry. Both women are facing the same stressor yet they are responding quite differently. 

Which comes first … the thought or the feeling?

So humor me for a moment and simply think about a tree. Now, think about a chair.

Next, simply feel, and only feel, enraged. You may notice that you can only feel enraged if you first think about something that has resulted in you feeling this way. Thoughts always precede feelings.

Back to Pam who is jamming out in her car …

To better understand Pam’s and Nancy’s feelings and behaviors, it’s important to know their thoughts about the traffic jam.  Pam’s thoughts include that “traffic happens,” everyone else is stuck along with her, and beyond calling ahead to her doctor’s office, accepts that there is nothing else she can do about the situation.  As a result, Pam turns on music, which helps her cope with the challenging situation.

So, why is Nancy behaving so differently?

Nancy’s thoughts run along the line of “this always happens to ME,” “I am cursed,” and “I will never get in with this doctor.” With these thoughts, it is understandable why Nancy is feeling so angry and anxious. She expresses her feelings through yelling, horn honking, and aggressive driving.

The challenge and the good news

We all talk to ourselves. This is normal. The challenge is to be aware of this self-talk and question if our thoughts are helpful to us.

Do we talk to ourselves in the same way we talk to others?  If the answer is “no” and we find that our thoughts are not beneficial to us, then we have the power to challenge our thoughts.  This is not an easy task, and it requires repetition and patience.  However, once you are aware of your thoughts and gain practice changing them, you start to see the changes in your feelings, the intensity of your emotions, and the improvements in how you cope. 

More than traffic jams

While Pam and Nancy were challenged with their situation, many times in our lives we are faced with far more severe stressors than traffic jams or possibly missing appointments. Yet, the same principles apply. Even when facing severe or chronic stressors, our thoughts directly influence how we feel about and, therefore, cope with those challenges. 

If you struggle with noticing your thoughts and/or how to challenge them, a qualified mental health clinician can assist you in finding meaningful ways to discover the power of your thoughts.