How many times have you told yourself, ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I’m hopeless’ or ‘I’m a failure’? Consider how many times your inner voice has said this versus the amount of times it has said ‘You’re great!’, ‘You’re amazing!’ or ‘You’ve done so well!’. I’m willing to bet that the former makes up the majority of your waking thoughts, especially if you are feeling low, stressed or anxious.
The way you think about things can impact massively on your mood, and it’s in those low moments that you not only have these thoughts, but you actually start believing them. It’s important to realise that you don’t have to give such importance to your thoughts, they are just thoughts. But more importantly, they are not facts. They are more likely to be assumptions, and that there are ways that you can start to control how you think about situations.
If you learn to recognise unhelpful thoughts when they occur, and start thinking in a more realistic way, it can really help to improve your mood and reduce anxiety.
How many of these unhelpful thinking patterns can you recognise in yourself?
Predicting the future, What if, Catastrophising
When you are depressed or anxious, it’s common for thoughts to go around in your head. You think about the future and what might go wrong instead of just accepting things for what they are. You might blow things out of proportion, so that the tiny concern from yesterday might become a full blown catastrophe by tomorrow-only in your mind, of course.
Examples of this type of thinking:
‘What if I go to a party and nobody talks to me?’
‘What if I start my new job and nobody likes me?’
Jumping to conclusions, Taking things personally, Mind reading
When you are feeling low and vulnerable, you can be more sensitive and take things to heart that you wouldn’t ordinarily. You can make assumptions and jump to conclusions about the behaviour of others towards you.
‘They must be laughing at me.’
‘She didn’t reply to my message; she mustn’t like me.’
Focusing on the negative, Ignoring the positive
When you are feeling down, it’s common to get into a spiral of negative thinking. You start focusing on the negatives, real or perceived, of any situation:
‘That person can’t stand me’- yet you focus on them despite having a lot of good friends.
Thinking in black and white, all or nothing terms
Sometimes people get into this way of thinking to maintain a degree of control over their lives and are intolerant of anyone/anything that doesn’t live up to the impossibly high standards that they set, though they set these standards for themselves as well.
‘That was a complete waste of time’
‘There’s no excuse, I should have got full marks on that test’
You predict what might happen in the future based on the outcome of isolated incidents. If this is a negative event, you assume that the negative pattern will continue, leading you to feel bad about yourself:
‘I failed my driving test, I can’t do anything’
‘That dog almost bit me. All dogs are vicious’
Hopefully, you have read all of these thoughts, recognised that they are unhelpful and have seen how they can lead to you feeling bad about yourself.
So what can you do about unhelpful thoughts?
You can learn to challenge them. They are assumptions, not facts, after all. This is not about positive thinking, it’s realistic thinking. The aim is to work through these steps each time you have an unhelpful thought, and challenge it so that you come up with a more balanced way of looking at things.
Thought challenging exercise
Below is a personal example of an unhelpful thought that I wanted to challenge. Ask yourself the same questions using an unhelpful thought you have identified, and notice how much more balanced your thinking becomes.
Example: ‘My friend didn’t reply to my text message; they mustn’t like me anymore’
Is there any evidence that contradicts this thought?
Yes, I have known her for a long time and we have never fallen out before.
Can you identify any unhelpful thought patterns, as we identified above?
Yes. Jumping to conclusions, mind reading and taking things personally.
What would you say to a friend who had this thought in a similar situation?
I’d say your friend is probably busy and she will no doubt be in touch later.
How will you feel about this in 6 months’ time?
I won’t even remember it.
What are the pros and cons of thinking in this way?
Pros- can’t think of any.
Cons- It made me feel worse about myself.
Can you think of a more balanced thought that would be more accurate?
Yes. She could be busy, her phone battery could be flat, she could be driving. Any one of these is more realistic than thinking that she has just stopped speaking to me for no reason.
It is easier said than done to control all of your thoughts and reactions, you are human after all, but being able to recognise when thoughts are unhelpful is an important first step towards mastering your own mind and winning back some control over how you feel.