Schema Therapy – Its Use in Overcoming Stress and Anxiety

What are schemas?  

Schema therapy was developed by Jeffrey E Young. It was originally derived from cognitive behaviour therapy to help people change long-term patterns, including how they interact with other people. (YouTube Interview with Jeffery E Young)

Schemas are conceptual frameworks of core beliefs that have been developed to assist in determining a person’s thoughts and feelings about themselves and the environment, which they accept without question. These beliefs are extremely stable and enduring that develop during childhood.

Usually, they operate in subtle ways, out of your awareness, and can be triggered by events. Your thoughts and feelings are often dominated by your schemas, and you may have unhelpful thinking styles and struggle with logical thinking. You also might struggle with negative interpretations and predictions of life events because of how your schemas shape your interpretation of your experiences.

The schema will highlight or exaggerate information that confirms the representation and will minimise or deny information that contradicts it. The discounting evidence contradictory to the schema maintains the schema. For example, children who develop a belief system that they are incompetent rarely challenge this belief even as adults. As an example, overwhelming success in people’s lives is often still not enough to change the schema and they may seek help to feel happy and more fulfilled.

Your schema type will also affect how you behave. For example, a young man with a Defectiveness/Shame schema would have thoughts and behaviours in line with the schema. At a party he would have thoughts such as “No one here likes me” and “if people here really got to know me, they would reject me.” Behaviourally, he would be more withdrawn and less outgoing. Another example is a woman with a Failure schema, who might avoid taking a difficult new job because she believes that she would only fail the challenge of the new job. By avoiding the challenging situation, she avoids pain, anxiety and discomfort which could be generated by her deep-seated core belief system. (Attachment Project – Maladaptive Schemas)

Life Stressors

Psychologists are aware that factors like uncertainty, lack of control and unpredictability are some of the most significant stressors that people can experience. Given the experiences of the last two years, we can appreciate that, now more than ever is a time when people’s usual coping mechanisms have been challenged.

Even though Western Australia has been less impacted by COVID itself, people have described those secondary impacts, such as not knowing when or how our families living elsewhere may have been affected, which has produced a significant toll. Furthermore, our ability to make decisions and accompanied by not knowing when life would “go back to normal,” has been an ongoing stressor.

What we do know, is that whether a person is facing a real-life danger or is anticipating a perceived stressor, the effect can be very similar on the mind and body, setting off the body’s physiological alarm response of fight/flight.

Processing a Stressor

Your perception, thoughts, beliefs, expectations, and attitudes play a significant part in determining your stress response. Interestingly, a situation only becomes a stressor if you see it as one. Once you have decided that a situation is a stressor, you will have expectations about whether you can cope with it. Additionally, if you don’t expect to be able to cope, you build up the expectation of the resulting consequence of not coping.

An important part of managing stress effectively involves changing your behaviour to replace old habits of stress-inducing, self-defeating, and avoidance behaviours. For example, changing avoidance behaviours such as reducing alcohol, drug-taking, or binge eating can help you step out of a cycle of stress. Avoidance behaviour increases stress over the longer term, instead learning to deal with the initial stressor for what it is, is often much more helpful.

 Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – The Groundwork for Schema Therapy 

Research has shown that how people feel about situations depends largely on how we think about them, not the event itself. Put simply, it is your interpretation of the event, based on your attitudes and past experiences that will determine how you feel about it. The key to whether your thinking is unnecessarily increasing your stress level is based on how realistic it is. Unrealistic and exaggerated thinking plays a major role in stress. Unhelpful thinking is characterised by the exaggeration of the importance of things and the consequences of those events, and sometimes by setting impossible goals and standards.  Altering your thinking to be more realistic is a central part of effective stress management and this is where schema therapy can help.

Schema Therapy – A Helpful Way to Learn and Grow

Even though schemas persist once they are formed, they are not always in our awareness. Schema therapy can help you understand and change long-term life patterns and can be used alongside Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Schema therapy can help people understand and change long-term life patterns. The therapy consists of identifying early unhelpful schemas, whilst working together with your psychologist to weaken and systematically confront and challenge them.

Here at Revive, psychologists will conduct a psychological assessment to identify your schemas, in conjunction with a schema questionnaire completed online. These assessments will determine which schemas you have and how important they are in your psychological makeup. There are 18 specific schemas and most people have at least three to four dominant schemas and often some less dominant ones.

There are many techniques which a therapist can use to help clients chip away at their schemas, allowing the schemas to become more flexible, and allowing for healthy change. Revive psychologists use therapy techniques, such as EMDR (eye movement desensitisation reprocessing) or imagery rescripting where memory is used as content to help process and shape the memory for new learning.

Speak to your psychologist today about Schema Therapy.

Written By Linda Johnson, Clinical Psychologist

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