Dissolving Anxiety with Socratic Questioning

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I’ll explain 4 steps you need to convert anxious thoughts into positive constructive thoughts. Positive thoughts are not happy thoughts; they are useful thoughts. Anxious thoughts are loaded with negative emotions and have rigid errors in thinking, which have trickle-down effects like low self-esteem and confidence, difficulty dealing with stress and conflict, difficulty solving problems, difficulty focusing because they intrude, etc.

They are a sort of “habit” for the brain. Those habit-like thoughts can be changed by creating new perspectives using a core technique called Socratic Questioning and an add-on technique called Emotional Reframing.

Step 1: Identify Automatic Thoughts

A number of thoughts we experience are negative, automatic, or instinctive. These thoughts can be destructive, so the first step is to identify them. It’s not the easiest job, but there are ways to identify them. Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs) can take the form of repetitive remarks about yourself, such as, “I am stupid,” vague generalizations, such as, “My friends hate me,” or even negative predictions, such as, “I’m going to screw-up for sure.” NATs usually have a few common characteristics: They occur frequently, lack precision, describe events that haven’t yet happened, cause emotional distress, reference past bad experiences, intrude while doing other tasks, occur as a quick reaction, etc.

Note: My examples are summaries. You can have many varieties of these thoughts.

Step 2: Identify Cognitive Distortions

Negative thoughts are usually warped, biased, and inaccurate. Some of these are called cognitive distortions (disrupted, flawed, or misrepresented thoughts), and some of these are amplified by cognitive biases (rigid patterns in thinking).

Cognitive distortions are common in many cases of depression and anxiety and they perpetuate mental health problems by blurring reality.

Selective abstraction: Focusing on only one element of a situation.

E.g., You visit a party that is quite fun, but one particular person doesn’t talk to you. You fixate on that and judge you were an unwelcomed guest.

Magnifying: Heavy exaggeration of small events.

E.g., You feel your life is ruined because a favorite teeshirt got a hole in it.

Mindreading: Guessing what others are thinking even when there is a healthy chance that they are not thinking what you think they are thinking.

E.g., You think someone dislikes you or you did something wrong and bothered them because you were a little late to meet them, even though they say, “It’s ok, no problem at all.”

Personalizing: Believing that everything is directed at you even when it isn’t or believing that other’s behavior is a consequence of your actions.

E.g., Someone is not responding on chat, so you conclude it’s because your previous messages were offensive, even though they were just tied up with work.

Catastrophizing: Predicting negative outcomes and when they happen, thinking that they will be a major disaster. It involves exaggerating mildly unpleasant situations.

E.g., Worrying that if you do not meet a work deadline because you watched an extra episode of a TV show, and now, your company will suffer extensively, and you’ll be fired. While, realistically, there is wiggle room to finish the task.

All or None thinking: Black and white thinking, thinking in 2 extremes.

E.g., If I don’t come first in class, I am a total loser.

The goal of spotting distortions is to repair those patterns of thinking with Socratic Questioning. In a structured therapy format like Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), spotting problematic thoughts is a core activity. Once they are identified, they are reprocessed into a new pattern. We’ll see how in the next section.

Step 3: Socratic Questioning and Emotional Reframing

Socratic questioning

The Socratic Questioning is a direct reference to Socrates, a Greek philosopher from the 400 BC era (2400+ years ago). His analysis and unwritten commentary created the foundation of Western philosophy. His method was – asking deep, hard questions and analyzing the world around him. It was indulging in deliberate curiosity. Socrates had an overarching theme in his teachings – he wanted to help people acquire strong reasoning skills to lead a rational life. Since cognitive distortions and negative thoughts are often irrational and blur reality, his approach has proven valuable in therapy.

Now we get to the part where we deal with these NATs and cognitive distortions. A standard procedure is to ask yourself questions based on your thoughts. (You can use Chatgpt or a friend to ask these questions, too).

Here are a few examples:

  • Why do you say that?
  • How does it relate to your experience?
  • What assumptions are you making?
  • Is there any other way to interpret this?
  • How does this make you feel?
  • What do you believe this means?

Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder[1] categorize Socratic Questioning by purpose to explore thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a way you discover new interpretations. The authors suggest these are not just about mental health, but essential to education and lifelong adapting.

  • Questions for clarification: Why do I say that?
  • Questions that probe assumptions: What could I assume instead?
  • Questions that probe reasons and evidence: What is the evidence for this?
  • Questions about viewpoints and perspectives: What would be an alternative?
  • Questions that probe implications and consequences: What are the consequences of that assumption?
  • Questions about the question: Why am I asking this question?

Let’s work out an example. Tom and Liz are in their early 30s. They are in a monogamous relationship. Tom feels Liz is focusing too much on her career and ignoring the relationship. Liz feels it’s not true. This escalates into a squabble and both move on with their day. Both worry about their relationship’s stability.

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Here’s how Tom can resolve his worry with Socratic questioning.

  • Questions for clarification: Tom asks himself – What exactly am I basing this on? Is she really not prioritizing the relationship, or is she swamped with work? Am I just feeling lonely?
  • Questions that probe assumptions: Tom asks himself – Is the priority actually low or is she giving everything she can, just that it isn’t as it used to be?
  • Questions that probe reasons and evidence: Tom thinks – Can I actually list events where the relationship was not given importance for a week or two?
  • Questions about viewpoints and perspectives: Tom thinks – “Maybe the quantity of time goes down, but quality time should matter, we are both in our mid-career.”
  • Questions that probe implications and consequences: Tom asks himself – am I catastrophizing and thinking the relationship is in trouble?
  • Questions about the question: Tom introspects later at night – Is this really about the relationship? Or is it about my personal feelings?

Socratic questioning usually leads to gaining a new interpretation and perspective on an experience that previously generated Negative Automatic Thoughts.

Emotional Reframing

Another approach to add to Socratic questioning is emotional reframing. Socratic questioning handles the logical part of thoughts. Emotional reframing handles the emotional part of those thoughts. A technique I’ve seen help clients is about using words to separate emotional judgments from one’s sense of self. It’s a technique to convince yourself that you are not your feeling.

Here’s an example of separating an experience from your identity using words. The words change your perspective and interpretation.

  • I am anxious: Anxiety is upon me
  • I am sad: Sadness has arrived
  • I am toxic: I am displaying toxicity
  • I am a loser: I am on a losing streak
  • I am sick: Sickness is upon me
  • I am stupid: Stupidity boarded my brain

This linguistic change modifies the feeling of an experience by treating a negative experience as a separate thing outside your core sense of self. The I am… statements create the illusion that you are the problem. The reframing breaks that illusion to tell the brain that you are dealing with a problem. (You aren’t the problem you are facing.)

Reframing is a creative process.

Step 4: Accept Rational Conclusions

After Socratic questioning and reframing, you have to accept new interpretations and perspectives but you don’t need to accept them on pure faith. A useful strategy is to search for anecdotal or objective evidence to support a new positive interpretation of an event/experience. Talking with others and getting that new interpretation validated often seals the deal.

There are 2 very effective acceptance techniques:

  1. Repetition: Repeat rational conclusions to familiarize yourself with them. Repetition leads to acceptance and increases believability.
    The logic isRepetition reduces mental processing effort. Decreased processing effort increases believability, liking, and familiarity.
    • Say it out loud
    • Say it to a friend
    • Say it in your mind
    • Write it down in a journal
    • Say it to yourself in front of a mirror (while making eye contact)
    • Message it to yourself
  2. Opening the “latitude of acceptance”: People have a range of believability. Some ideas are more believable because they aren’t too different from what you already believe. Some ideas are so different that they don’t fit your existing beliefs. The latitude of acceptance is a range of flexibility in your thinking. E.g., If you hate your life, telling yourself you love it will not fit in the range. But telling yourself you have some things you like is believable because it is in your range. The trick is to notice your own comfort. If your thought feels comfortable, it is most likely in your latitude of acceptance. Take modest jumps in changing your internal thought narrative.
    The idea is that the positive thought you want to adopt is reasonable and believable, not extreme or opposite to how you feel about yourself.

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