One of the ways that I unpack the details of an event or specific issue is with something called a formulation. I’ve plotted an example formulation diagram below in order to show you how we can unpack the different elements of what happens. You don’t have to get everything in there, just start with what you know and build it from there:

A circular diagram of the meaning of a toilet

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By unpacking a situation into these different elements, you can start to see the links between what happens and the stories or interpreta- tions that you might automatically jump to. This can then help you to target these areas in therapy in order to change what happens for you in future.

If you’d like to have a go at doing one of these for yourself, bring up the last time that something bothered or upset you. It doesn’t have to be something huge.

A diagram of a diagram

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In the circle under No. 1 (Situation/Context), enter where you were or what was happening. Add anything that helps to set the context. As you think about this event or experience, notice if you are seeing an image of what happened. In No. 2 (Images, memories), put a word or phrase that sums up this image.

Notice what is happening in your body right now. Even if it is slight, can you detect anything? Maybe a gripping feeling in your gut, or a heat in your face, or the slightest of pains in your head. Bring the image back up into your awareness and notice any shifts or changes in your body. Put whatever you notice, even if it doesn’t make sense, into No. 4 (Somatic). What label would you use to describe how you feel about this event? Put this into No. 5 (Emotions). As you notice this feeling and the things that bothered you about this situation, what thoughts go through your mind? What is the main thing that upset you about this situation? Put these into No. 3 (Thoughts). What did you do? For example, ‘I went home’, ‘I said nothing but kept thinking about it’. Put what you did into No. 6 (Behaviours).

As you look at this, what do you think is the main story that you were telling yourself about this event? For example, ‘I always mess things up’, ‘I can’t trust anyone’ or ‘I can’t cope’. Don’t worry about not having the right words: just put whatever snippets come to mind. Have a look at your circle, notice all the different elements that make up your experience in that situation. There are others that we could add here – for example, consequences of what you did, features of the space you were in at the time, past experiences with key people in your life. But we have to start somewhere, and this is a good place to start. As you look at this circle, notice all the different elements that you have unpacked, and the way that one relates to the other. For example, a certain thought makes you feel a certain way. Or when you feel a certain feeling, you tend to ‘do’ (a behaviour) a certain thing. Notice the way that the situation led to you seeing it in a particular way.

What you can do is complete one of these circles each time you feel upset or bothered by something. You will then have a collection and can look for patterns. Are there some meanings or stories that seem to pop up frequently? Do you notice that certain emotions always give you a particular sensation in your body? What tend to be the go-to things that you do when you feel upset?

For example, you could discover that certain situations always have a tendency to make you worry you are not good enough, or when certain feelings come up for you and you feel criticized, you always tend to ruminate and find it hard to shake the feeling. A therapist could help you take this further to see what significant people or events in your life have influenced these core ways of viewing yourself, others and the world, and help you to shift and change your stories and interpretations.

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