Why Cues Count.

One of the first skills I go over and practice with clients is mindfulness and anyone who knows me probably finds this laughable.

You don’t have to play baseball well to coach it, so get off my back.

An early application of mindfulness in my work with most clients has to do with becoming aware of cues in relation to distress; whether the distress is related to anger, anxiety, depression, urges to relapse….whatever.  Being aware of our cues can serve us in different ways and today we are going to focus on using them as part of an early warning system for maladaptive behaviors (outbursts, isolation, panic attacks, relapse, self-harm etc..). Being aware of our cues can help us identify when we are escalating to our “tipping point”.  The tipping point is where you become highly vulnerable to feeling like you’ve lost control.  It’s where you still feel sort of okay in backing out of a situation but you’re not quite sure you will.

At the bottom of this post is a distress matrix I developed for clients I work with.

“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”

Actually, Morpheus is wrong. I’m going to go over what each of the items on the matrix are, how to complete the matrix and how to apply it.

It may be helpful to print the sheet out so you can refer to it while reading this post.

Explanation of Categories

Triggers- Triggers are people, places, things, thoughts (including memories) and emotions that create or amplify the distress.  This may require some thought as what we believe created the distress may not really be the trigger; when filling this portion of the matrix out be aware of the chain of events regardless of how minor they may seem that led up to the event you identified as the trigger.  After completing this analysis write the trigger you feel is most connected to your distress in this area.

Intensity- Examine the intensity of your distress (how bad or strong it feels) and try to place a value on  it using a scale of 1 (lowest) to 10 (the worst it’s ever felt). When starting out don’t worry so much about getting it right; you probably have not examined your distress to this degree. It may be hard to come up with a rating because you have little to compare it to.  As you use the matrix more, you’ll be more comfortable in assigning a number to your intensity. For now compare your current distress to other times that come to mind and try to take an educated guess.

Physical Cues- Try not to confuse this category with behaviors; these are not willful actions on your part, this is more about what your body does as an automatic response to the trigger.  Sweating, headaches, other pain, heart rate, shaking and heavy breathing are all automatic reactions of the body and are appropriate for this category.  When completing this category scan your body up and down and notice what it’s doing; jot down anything that feels different or unusual.

Behavioral Cues- These are actions that you take in response to the trigger, things like pacing, making a fist, sighing, rolling your eyes, hitting are all appropriate for this category.

Emotional Cues-These are the emotions or feelings that are prompted by the trigger; avoid writing down secondary emotions such as anger and dig to the primary feelings – fear, humiliation, jealousy.  Some folks have a difficult time identifying emotions, if you’re one of them use this list to help you out.

Cognitive Cues-This is the stuff that your brain is spitting out, the thoughts that automatically pop up in response to the trigger; “I can’t stand this.”, “I hate her.”, “I won’t let them get away with this.”, “This is going to ruin everything.”. Try not to regulate it, just be aware – watch it like your watching a movie and take notes.

How to complete the Matrix

When you’re starting out don’t worry about organizing events in order of intensity; just use it to collect data about yourself.  It’s important to remember that low levels of distress are very important to track for several reasons.

1. You probably already know what the higher numbers sort of look like.

2. Catching distress at the bottom gives you the best opportunity to understand how it escalates.

3. Recognizing low levels of distress can create better opportunities to cope prior to further escalation.

So if something triggers you to an intensity of 1 or 2 complete a row on the matrix.  Complete the matrix during the event; step back and examine what’s going on with you across these categories in the heat of the moment. This not only provides you with the best shot at good data but can also work to mitigate some of the distress that you’re feeling.  Really, that’s what the initial phase is all about, just collecting data about your distress while giving you an opportunity to delay reaction with a task. Speedometer display dial

Once you feel you have enough data (maybe a solid week or two of daily sheets) you can begin to organize it all.  Try to identify trends and develop a master sheet of triggers and cues and organize them according to the level of distress they are associated with.  For example gather all your 3’s and create one row containing all the associated triggers and cues.

How to apply the Matrix

There are a million things that’s done with this thing in therapy, for our purposes here we are going to keep it to just this tool.  Begin by looking at the data and seek to understand how cues change as your distress escalates.  Identify the tipping point and pick a point one or two notches before that; this will be your action point.  The action point is where you begin to use coping skills to actively de-escalate; this can mean stepping away from the situation and revisiting it later.

So if your tipping point is a 7 your action point could be a 5.  A 5 could look like this:

Trigger- When someone goes after the last piece of bacon after I called it. When I get cut off on the parkway, When I have to watch “Ever After”………..again.

Physical – Breathing becomes slightly more rapid

Emotions –  anxiety, irritation

Behavioral – hands tense up, my voice begins to rise,

Cognitive – “I’m not going to let this happen”, “This is dead wrong”, “Here we go again”, “I am so tired of this shit”, “Can’t Drew Barrymore just not win this one time?”

So the next time I’m confronted with these horrors, I’ll try to be really aware of the cues associated with a 5 so if they start happening I can engage in whatever plan I’ve developed to de-escalate.

The matrix is a working document; feel free to add or change it as needed. Overtime becoming aware of your cues and reacting to them adaptively and ahead of the impulse will probably become more natural to you; even for triggers you haven’t identified or curve balls that come your way.  Thanks for checking in.

Distress Matrix (pdf)

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