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Tackling unhelpful thinking styles

August 15, 2022
By
ieso

We all get ourselves into patterns of unhelpful thinking at times – some more than others. First, it’s probably helpful to consider thoughts and what they are.

Thoughts are just electro-chemical impulses in our brains. We generate tens of thousands every day, in a continuous stream. If we’re caught up in a pattern of unhelpful thinking, we only tend to pay attention to those thoughts that distress us. There’s a sound reason behind this: our ‘fear brain’ is a lot more sensitive than our ‘rational brain’, and it’s constantly scanning for risks or problems that could pose a threat to us and whether we need to take action.

It's important to remember that thoughts are not facts – though they can have a big influence on an event or situation, and how we perceive or feel about it.

Once we can identify our unhelpful thinking habits, we can begin to become aware of them as they happen. We can then challenge them to help ourselves not to react or overreact, and to see the event or situation in a more helpful way.

Shoulds and musts: saying ‘I should’ (or shouldn’t) do something, or starting a sentence with ‘I have to’ or ‘I ought to’. This puts pressure on us, and can make us feel guilty, or like a victim rather than someone who’s in control. This could be due to expectations that we’ve picked up from school, parents, peers or society. It will help if we can replace the ‘shoulds’ with different words – such as ‘I choose to’, ‘I’m going to’ or ‘I will’. This will ease the pressure, while empowering you to take responsibility. For instance, replace the sentence 'I have to clean the kitchen' with 'I am going to clean the kitchen'.

Catastrophising: imagining and believing that the worst-case scenario will happen. For instance, if your dog is having a procedure at the vet and you’re waiting for an update, you might imagine that she’s taken a turn for the worse. The first thing to do is recognise that you’re catastrophising and resist the urge to keep fretting or to pick up the phone! Challenge your thinking with statements such as ‘The vet said they would ring if they wanted to talk to me about anything’, ‘It’s a minor operation that they do all the time, it’s unlikely something will go wrong’ and ‘It isn’t necessary for me to worry or call the surgery’.

Emotional reasoning: thinking that because you feel a certain way, it must be true; for example, ‘I feel anxious, so I must be in danger’, or ‘I feel stressed at work, so I must be bad at my job’. Our feelings are based on how we interpret the world, ourselves and others, rather than what’s actually the case. This can be influenced by many different things: what mood we’re in, how much sleep we’ve had, hormones, feeling under the weather, or even how we’ve been brought up. It helps if we can distance ourselves from the thoughts we’re having, by recognising that they’re about the meaning we’re attaching to the situation, rather than the situation itself. Is it a fact, or your interpretation? Do you have any evidence that what you think is true?

Mountains and molehills: exaggerating the negative aspects of a situation, or the risk of a threat. If your parents were very critical of you, for example, you might react strongly when a colleague says something along similar lines. Whereas others wouldn’t respond like this, your brain interprets the comment in the same way. Again, the key is to notice your thinking pattern, and then challenge it. Ask yourself: is that what’s actually happening? Am I exaggerating? What would someone else say in the situation? What’s the bigger picture? Is there another way of looking at this?

Critical self: putting ourselves down, blaming ourselves for things that aren’t completely our responsibility, or apologising when we’ve done nothing wrong! For example, someone might compliment us on a piece of work, and we respond with ‘Oh, no, it was nothing really, actually it didn’t go as well as I hoped, plus I had a lot of help’. Again, the trick here is to clock that it’s happening, and do something different; in this case, saying thank you and feeling pleased!

In all of these cases, the key to addressing the unhelpful thinking habit is to notice the emotional shift when it happens and catch it in the act. There’s sometimes a physiological reaction in the body, too, such as a tensing up of muscles. It can help when you first start tackling your thinking patterns to write everything down: the trigger, the emotional shift, the unhelpful thoughts, and the more rational thoughts you’re replacing them with.

If you’d like some support with addressing your thinking habits, CBT explores the link between thoughts, emotions and behaviour to get you thinking in a more helpful way. You can find out more about how online CBT with ieso works in this blog.

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