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Asking yourself Socratic questions can calm your irrational thoughts

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Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, help is available. Dial or text 988 or visit 988lifeline.org for free and confidential support.

Do irrational thoughts sometimes crowd your mind, leaving you feeling worried or maybe even on the verge of a panic attack?

What may calm your nerves is asking yourself a series of questions that challenge those disquieting thoughts’ legitimacy and perspective — this process is known as Socratic questioning. Named after Socrates, the influential Greek philosopher known for asking others questions to help them refine their thinking and arrive closer to the truth, it’s a common technique therapists teach patients in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Restructuring your mindset is important because “the strong influence your thoughts have on your emotions is because you believe the thoughts, not because they are necessarily true,” said Dr. Daniel R. Strunk, a professor of psychology at the Ohio State University, via email.

“So if we allow ourselves to believe upsetting things that aren’t fully true, that makes our emotional life more difficult,” he added.

Though Socratic questioning is a tool used in CBT, you don’t have to have a therapist to practice and benefit from it — but a professional can be helpful for working through problems and toward goals in a way that’s difficult for many people to do alone, said Dr. James Overholser, a clinical psychologist and professor of depression and suicide at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, via email.

Here’s how to walk through some questions commonly used in the Socratic method. The questions and wording can vary depending on the resource, therapist or patient’s experience, experts said, but the aim is the same.

Work through your personal perceptions

The lesson of Socratic questioning doesn’t suggest that emotional distress is only or always a result of inaccurate perspective — just that this bias can intensify and contribute to the distress, according to Strunk.

Individual subjectivity is why two people experiencing the same challenge can have different emotional experiences and responses — one may feel negative and defeated while the other perceives the situation as an opportunity for personal growth or showing grace.

When you want to apply Socratic questioning to bothersome thoughts or beliefs, start by writing the thought down.

Maybe you’re worried you’re going to embarrass yourself or somehow fail during your upcoming presentation at work.

To better understand the thought and the beliefs underlying it, ask yourself what’s so upsetting about the scenario, Strunk said. Maybe you think people will think you’re incompetent, or that you’ll get fired.

Then consider the first question: What’s the evidence for or against this thought?

Research has shown that people with mental health challenges typically have certain biases and inaccuracies in their ways of thinking, Strunk said — those with depression, for example, may perceive events in an overly negative manner, while people with anxiety often see threats as more likely and more catastrophic than they actually would be.

“In CBT, clients learn that their thoughts at times of strong emotion are quite important,” Strunk said. “By learning to recognize these thoughts and subject them to careful scrutiny, clients learn a very important coping strategy in managing negative emotions: sizing up their situation accurately rather than accepting their initial views in the heat of the moment without question.”

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Recall how often people have been fired for poor presentations before. You might consider what positive feedback your boss or colleagues have given about your contributions in the past, or even ways they have responded to your mistakes.

You might tell yourself, “My co-workers know that I contribute positively at work in lots of ways. I got a good performance review last quarter and Sally just thanked me for helping her so much with the Jones account last week,” Strunk said. “It helps to be specific and make a strong case. You want to look for evidence that would convince you even when you are most pulled into your negative views.”

Adjust your perspective

Secondly, ask yourself whether there is an alternative way to view the situation.

“Attitude is important in influencing our emotions and our behaviors,” Overholser said. “We interpret situations, we have expectations for the future, and we have personal views about ourself and our abilities. All of these cognitive factors are central to most aspects of our lives.”

In this case, you might remind yourself that getting nervous before a presentation and the possibility of being evaluated by others is normal, even for seasoned speakers.

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Additionally, what would you tell a loved one who came to you with the same thought?

“You might say something like, ‘You know you’re a good employee for them — and they really value your work. Lots of people worry about presentations. You’ll do better than you think,’” Strunk said.

By getting your views in check, Strunk said, you often can undercut the severity of your emotional reactions and then be able to better cope with difficulties.

Practice Socratic questions regularly

Other common Socratic questions can include the following, though some may be tailored to a patient’s experience:

● Am I basing this thought on facts or feelings?

● Am I jumping to conclusions or resorting to the worst-case scenario?

● Could I be misinterpreting the evidence? Am I making any assumptions?

● If I look at this situation more positively, how is it different?

● Will this matter a year from now? Five years from now?

● Might other people have different interpretations of this situation?

The therapist resource site Therapist Aid has a free printout with 10 Socratic questions you can use to challenge irrational thoughts. Another way to learn about the approach is by reading the book “Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think” by Dennis Greenberger and Christine A. Padesky, Strunk recommended.

Practicing the questions also can help you become more mindful overall if you keep at it consistently.

“I’d encourage people trying to learn to re-evaluate their thoughts to experiment with different questions,” Strunk said. “You may find that some (are) particularly effective for you.”

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