When most people hear the phrase “Fact Checking”, they assume it means to literally fact check an idea the way Snopes might, by finding out if it’s literally true, partially true, or if it is made up entirely of lies and fallacies.
A CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) approach to challenging your thoughts might sound something like:
- “What evidence is there to support my thought?”
- “What evidence is there contrary to my thought?”
- “Am I making assumptions about this situation without looking at all of the evidence?”
- “What would an objective person think/say about this situation?”
- “If I look at the situation while putting a positive spin on it, how is it different?”
- “Will this matter in a year? Will it matter in five years?”
A trauma-informed approach will prompt you to identify the history of the anxious thought pattern to understand using a compassionate lens why you are reacting in a particular way and then ask you to balance that recognition of history impacting the present moment by reminding yourself that this not necessarily the same thing as what happened before. While you may be predisposed to the urges that come with your present reaction, it does not mean that the reaction is working for you or serving you in an effective way based on your present needs.
DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) which has roots in CBT, takes the concept of “Fact Checking” to a whole new level which, like chips and dip, pairs nicely with a trauma-informed approach.
Fact Checking is most effective when the exercise is written out. Here are the steps:
- Write out what literally happened, just the facts (ONLY objective data).
- Write out what you perceived to have happened (just the subjective data).
- List emotions, thoughts, urges and actual behaviors that happened as the result of the situation.
- Using a 0-10 scale (0 = neutral or no disturbance, 10 = worst possible disturbance) rate the intensity of your reaction (#3).
- Assess the intensity of your reaction (#4) to determine whether it is justified based solely on the objective data (#1).
- If you aren’t sure, have three objective people read what you have written and give you feedback.
When I am teaching this skill to clients, I add extra steps.
I ask clients to read aloud what they have written for each step before moving on to the next step. So, they write out Step 1 and then read it to me. Write out Step 2 and then read it to me again starting from Step 1; so on and so forth until we get to the end.
Dana, why do you want us to do this? Are you just trying to drag one skill out for the whole session? Are you trying to make it awkward?
Typically, when we tell a story, especially one with drama, we add pitch, tone and context but usually the context is there to ensure that the listener will arrive at the same conclusions that we already have. We also tend to tell stories in a linear fashion and get ourselves emotionally worked up while we do it.
By disrupting the timeline while re-telling the story, and by reading aloud what is written, we reduce the likelihood of getting emotionally ramped up again during the exercise. It helps to create enough emotional distance that the situation can be processed more effectively. And we hear things with our ears differently than we think them.
The benefit of separating the objective from the subjective data is that we can identify what we are actually reacting to. We may be reacting just to our assumptions or perceptions of what happened but may have been mistaken in our assumptions or perceptions. If we know what we’re actually reacting to, we can plan for how to cope with it.
I also ask clients to use the 0-10 scale to rate the intensity of their reaction at the time the situation happened and the intensity of their feelings about the situation now that we are talking about it. This helps us to reflect on what might have changed to help reduce the intensity of the reaction, or to identify if the situation is just as painful now as it used to be and then we can talk about why it might still be just as painful.
We also use this as an opportunity to identify what coping strategies could have been used to intervene (if a maladaptive behavior resulted from the stress of the situation) or talk about how they were able to avoid acting on urges to lash out by using skills instead.
We use this as an opportunity to plan ahead for how they can cope with situations that might come up in the future.
This also creates an opportunity to practice self-compassion by understanding where the assumptions or perceptions came from, and what the urges are really about.
Fact Checking is my most favorite skill. If I could pick one and only one to carry with me and could never use another coping skill again, I would keep this one. It has been the most impactful and effective for me to process my own emotions and I have found to be very helpful with clients as well.
I actually learned about Fact Checking before I became a therapist and before I knew anything about DBT. A very dear person taught it to me when I was struggling with something and since that time, I have used it consistently. I still write it down. I still practice it the same way that I ask clients to do it in sessions and on their own (because it’s important to practice skills in all relevant contexts).