Self-confidence in coping skills (self-efficacy) can reduce stress and anxiety
Naturally, if our perceptions and thoughts determine our feelings, then it is a small step to seeking mind control methods, which the Greeks did 2000 years ago. If methods for altering your own thoughts are important, then your faith or self-confidence in using your mind logically and effectively becomes important. Bandura (1977, 1980, 1986) and his Social Learning Theory deserves much of the credit for highlighting the notion of self-efficacy. When cognitive psychology filled the void of behaviorism in the 1970's, the view of man returned to "man is a rational organism" (or, if not rational, at least controlled primarily by the mind). The conscious mind preoccupied psychologists, instead of Skinner's behavior and environment, Freud's unconscious instincts, or psychotherapy's emotions. A cognitive orientation suggested that solutions to our problems involve acquiring the skills, knowledge, and confidence necessary to handle the current situation. That sounded reasonable and hopeful. Thus, the big push arose in the 1970's for cognitive self-control and self-help. And that mental set determined that I sit here day after day summarizing how you can better use your mind to do what you want to do. Psychologists (Moos & Billings, 1982) have identified many coping skills; see the later section on "How to Handle Stress." We will look deeper into the role played by our self-confidence as a self-helper, called self-efficacy, later in this chapter and in chapter 14.
Do thoughts and ideas--cognitions--explain all fears and anxiety?
Cognitive theory says that intense, specific fears are not caused by something very painful or frightening being paired with the scary object or event (illustrated by Little Albert in chapter 4) nor is some vague or unconscious anxiety the source of a phobia. As we have seen, the cognitive explanations of unrealistic fears and anxiety are (a) that the perceived threat somehow becomes greatly exaggerated or (b) our capacity to deal with the threat is seen as very inadequate or (c) both. That is, we are saying, "This situation is horrible" and/or "I can't handle it."
It certainly is true that one doesn't have to have a traumatic experience to acquire a specific phobia or intense chronic anxiety. Yet, as already mentioned, basic learning principles could produce a phobia or serious anxiety without a painful trauma being involved. More examples: just imagining thousands of times making a fool of yourself by making comments in class can create a fear of speaking up in class. Avoiding approaching interesting people for years can make it too scary to do. Moreover, cognitive psychology still has no clear explanation of why the mind of a claustrophobic person exaggerates the ideas of suffocating, being trapped and closed in, and loosing control, while another person suffering from panic attacks fears open spaces and is convinced that heart palpitations means he/she is having a fatal heart attack. What makes the mind of a person with a fear of flying jump to the conclusion that a crash is imminent? (Maybe because his/her emotional system, based in part on non-cognitive conditioning, is responding like crazy, in spite of what the logical part of the mind is telling him/her.)
In any case, while the Social Learning theorists make a lot out of self-efficacy, it is no surprise that a person terrified by a large snake will say "I can't get close to that snake," and that this behavioral prediction is accurate. So what, if ratings of self-efficacy correlate remarkably well with actual behavior? Does that prove thoughts produce the fears? No, it's probably the other way around. Most people simply have a good idea of how well they can handle a situation. I'm pretty sure self-efficacy does not explain all behavior, but building our feelings of self-efficacy is surely one of our better methods for gaining some control over our lives.
This three way connection between (1) appraising the dangerousness of a situation, (2) evaluating our ability to handle the situation, and (3) responding with fear or confidence in that situation doesn't provide us with a complete scientific explanation of a phobia! How and why does the belief develop that this harmless snake will hurt me in some horrific way? How does the idea that a harmless snake might hurt me get translated into a false perception of the snake as life-threatening? Why and how does our cognitive estimate of our ability to handle a specific situation, such as flying, sometimes plummet suddenly? Science has not yet explained why and how exaggerated threats are learned and combined with fluctuating estimates of our self-efficacy in one specific phobic situation. And how do those "snakes are horrible" and "I can't stand it" thoughts produce sheer physical terror instantly?
Surprisingly, high stress people do not have a lot more stressful experiences than low stress people (except maybe the 10-15% who "gravitate toward" serious trouble, usually involving conflicts with people). It truly seems that stress for most people comes primarily from the person's own personality or general nature, i.e. they are the type, often with low self-esteem, that respond more intensely to environmental stresses that are common in everyone's life. As scientists trying to explain stress, however, it does little good to simply label these people as "high anxious" or "lacking confidence." Good explanations must be more precise and in more depth than that; we must understand exactly why some people get up tight and fall apart and others do not. Psychology is not doing a good job in this area, as yet.
Cognitive (self-efficacy) theory says, as we've seen, that individuals interpret the same situation differently; they use different schemas or interpretations--some see the problem as a minor nuisance while others see it as a major catastrophe-and assess their ability to handle it differently--"I can handle it" vs. "it's hopeless." Thus, the level of insecurity differs from person to person. Okay, that sounds good, but still the question is why? Some of us deny problems, while others exaggerate problems. But, why? Some of us overestimate our ability to handle a threatening situation, some are accurate, and some grossly underestimate our coping skills. But, why? An effective theory should be encouraging scientists to explore these whys in detail: what causes the mental processes that lead, in part, to secure coping and to overwhelmed panic. What are the origin and history of the specific thoughts involved in exaggerating a threat? What is the learning history of the thoughts, beliefs, skills and expectations involved in becoming good self-helpers? (Limited ideas about how to build self-efficacy are in methods #1 and #9 in chapter 14.) What kind of societies, teachers, parents, and people, in what circumstances, find this kind of information interesting and worthwhile...and who do not...and why?
Since Cognitive therapists believe that unwanted emotions are caused by thoughts, this theory emphasizes the need to change or remove the harmful thoughts, like self-doubts. (Besides, it's easier to change thoughts than emotions.) But, when faced with the therapeutic task of changing these thoughts, many Cognitive therapists turn to a behavioral method, such as asking the patient to expose him/herself to the scary social situation, etc. That is, it is easier, in turn, to change behavior than thoughts (and perhaps it is more accurate to say that an idea or a belief isn't really affirmed by the person until he/she acts upon it or tests it out in real behavior). Thus, the Cognitive therapist asks the patient to behaviorally check out his/her dire "it's hopeless" predictions or conclusions, or the Rational-Emotive therapist directs the shy client to find out it isn't awful to be turned down for a date, or Bandura helps a snake phobic with a "I can't do it" attitude to gradually approach a small snake and learn for certain "I can handle it," etc. Thus, these therapists, especially the Social Learning theorists, concentrate on building a sense of mastery (by increasing actual behavioral competence), rather than focusing on reducing the anxiety or correcting irrational thoughts or changing the self-talk involved in self-efficacy.
More specific directions for reducing fears, phobias, and self-criticism are covered in the "Ways to handle stress and anxiety" and the "Special anxiety-based problems" sections. How to stop destructive self-criticism is discussed in Method #1 in chapter 14.
Thoughts, emotions, and actions are all interrelated
As you can see, all three modalities--emotions, behavior, and cognition--become impossibly enmeshed in most real life situations, much like classical, operant, and observational learning are complexly intertwined (see chapter 4). Therefore, any theory which attempts to explain any one of the three modalities, say an emotion like anxiety, without referring to both of the other two is probably questionable. It is quite believable that our feelings are partially based on our views of the world--our thoughts, our beliefs. But our thoughts, views, beliefs, expectations, etc. are surely influenced by our emotions...and our behaviors. It is not a one way street. Indeed, Bandura himself provides an impressive list of ways we mentally justify being behaviorally unkind to others (see chapter 7). These self-serving cognitions (or excuses) are surely influenced greatly by emotions and needs. So, which comes first or which is most powerful: the selfish thoughts, the greedy emotions, or the mean, self-serving behavior? It is a foolish question. We can assume all three complexly interact and grow together. As we accept more of the complexity, we may be on our way to understanding ourselves. I never told you that humans were easy to understand.
It will interest some of you that brain researchers, such as Joseph LeDoux, believe that emotions and thoughts operate on two almost entirely different nerve pathways; thus, we can fear a snake while knowing it can't hurt us. The emotional "startle" reaction to a snake might even be faster than the mental awareness of what it is that scared us. He also says it is likely that recognizing a person is processed by a different set of neurons than the ones that produce an emotional dislike for that person (and, of course, we may like or dislike a person without knowing why). It is also possible that early emotional memories are, for this reason, powerful without any cognitive memories of those experiences. So, we simply don't know much yet about the interconnectedness of emotions and cognitions. There are researchers who doubt that fears and anxiety are produced by cognitions alone and that fearful emotions can be reduced by only changing our thinking. Thoughts, emotions, and actions are so intertwined that possibly you can't change one without modifying the others, but there is no guarantee that changing one, say your thinking, will always change another part, such as your fears (Beidel & Turner, 1986). For self-help, you'll need to use all the methods--cognitive, emotional, and behavioral.
Next we turn to a much older and more complex theory explaining anxiety. It is partly cognitive too; it involves very intricate mental processes, including coping and moral judgments. But, it also recognizes innate biological drives, strong emotions, and unconscious mental processes. No one can thoroughly explore and understand human behavior, especially anxiety, or their own psyche without knowing a little about Freudian theories.