How to maintain Rational Thinking during emotional distress

by Jo Flack | 30 Apr 2020

One of our Trainers, Jo Flack, explains how to maintain Rational Thinking during emotional distress.

During difficult times, we no doubt all find it harder to meet our Emotional Needs. But we are all equipped with the innate resources to help us get our needs well met, even in times of adversity.

One of these resources is Rational Thinking, which can help us to plan, analyse and check out our feelings. At times when emotions are likely to be running high, it can be a real challenge to think clearly. When we are emotionally overwhelmed, our ability to think rationally suffers. This is because our ability to think can become ‘hijacked’ by strong emotions and reduce us to thinking in ‘black and white’ where there are no shades of grey. In other words, our thinking becomes narrowed, pessimistic and focused inwards instead of being broad, open and exploratory.

As a resource, Black & White Thinking is helpful in an emergency when we just need to act and don’t have the luxury of thinking things through. But when strong emotions reduce us to Black & White Thinking all of the time, we can find ourselves stuck in three ways of thinking:

  • pervasive thinking, that’s the one that goes ‘everything is wrong’
  • permanent thinking, i.e. ‘nothing is ever going to change’
  • personalised thinking, such as ‘I am useless’

When looking at these statements you can see how disempowering and unhelpful they are. We need to do what we can to lower strong emotions so that we can access our Rational Thinking resource and see, for example, that:

  • maybe some things are ok
  • that change will come
  • even if I think I’m useless, that doesn’t make it true because thoughts are not facts – especially thoughts that have been narrowed by high emotions.

So how can we help maintain our Rational Thinking mind during emotionally distressing times? The key is to lower our emotional arousal by taking measures to calm ourselves down. Once we are calm our thinking will become clearer, and we can utilise the full power of our Rational Thinking resource to get our needs met.

Top tips to try:

  1. Use your rational mind to plan ahead, which will help give you a sense of security and feel more in control
  2. Shift your thinking from the frustration of the things we are not able to do, to looking forward to the future
  3. Challenge worrying thoughts by telling yourself you are doing the best you can in the situation you are in
  4. Find ways to lower stress. This will not only help you think more clearly but will also help keep your immune system at its best, so it is more efficient at fighting off infection
  5. Think about how you speak to a pet or someone you care about. This can give you a gentler tone to adopt when speaking to yourself
  6. Finally, if you find yourself in the grip of Black & White Thinking – relax, calm down and remind yourself that you have the innate resources to help you meet your needs.

Updated July 2023

by Jo Flack
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