Challenging Thoughts

The way we think can have a huge impact on the way we feel. While positive thoughts can help us to feel empowered and happy, negative thoughts can often cause distress or anxiety. Although it can be difficult to make those unwanted thoughts stop coming to mind, it is possible to learn how to challenge these thoughts and identify when they are unhelpful and have no factual basis. This article will discuss some of the following ways that you can learn to challenge your thoughts to have a more realistic and balanced interpretation of events.

Before we begin to discuss how to challenge an unhelpful thought, it is important to recognise and acknowledge some of the common thinking patterns that we can often fall into. Some of the common patterns that we may have can include:

Black & White Thinking (e.g., "I should have got an A+, why do I even bother?")

This thinking pattern is often common with people who struggle with perfectionism and people who can only see things as being black and white. This way of thinking can often be harmful as it can lead people to become overly judgemental and critical of themselves. In addition, people who experience this common thinking pattern also often have difficulty recognising their accomplishments because of their incredibly high standards.

Catastrophising (e.g., my friend hasn't replied to my texts or calls in the last hour, they must hate me")

When we are feeling sad or anxious, it makes it us more emotionally vulnerable and sensitive. Often these feelings can lead us to jumping to conclusions rather than taking time to consider other possible alternatives or the evidence for this thought.

Ignoring the positives and focusing on the negatives (e.g., I was only able to do that because I had help")

Sometimes, despite many positive aspects in our life, it is easy to get caught up on one negative thought or situation. For instance, regardless of how many times someone may have complimented us, if someone has said something that has negatively affected us, it can often be easier to remember. This form of common thinking is detrimental to our well-being as it can wear down our confidence and resilience. It can also cause us to dismiss the positive things that we have accomplished.

Over-generalising (e.g., my first appointment was horrible! This is what it's always going to be like from now on")

This type of common thinking often causes us to assume that one negative situation or experience will be the norm for future experiences. This kind of thinking can be dangerous as it can cause us to feel nervous about trying something again, or stop it altogether.

I should (e.g. I should be a better by now and not rely on other people to help care for me)

At times, it can be difficult to be compassionate and kind to ourselves. Sometimes we might even stress ourselves out with all the things that we should be doing or how we should be feeling. This kind of thinking is unhelpful and can cause us to feel negative about ourselves, and also may stop us from acknowledging our accomplishments.

Mind-Reader (e.g., my friends don't care about me! Or else they would be here for me!)

It is easy to make assumptions on what other people are thinking based on how we perceive their actions. However, this form of thinking can be problematic because it means we assume what people are thinking rather than knowing what they are thinking. Thinking we know and actually knowing, can be two very different things.

Now, that we have discussed some of the common thinking patterns we can practice challenging our unhelpful thoughts. To challenge a thought, it is often useful to ask ourselves some questions about this particular thought. Here are few questions which some people find helpful to ask themselves when they are ruminating.

  • 1)Am I using _______ thinking?"(e.g., am I using Mind Reading thinking? For instance, is my friend not replying to my message necessarily mean that they hate me or could it because they have work all day?)
  • 2)What evidence is there to support that this true?
  • 3)What evidence is there to support that this false?
  • 4)Am I 100% sure that this will happen?
  • 5)Are my thoughts based on how I feel rather than the facts?
  • 6)What would I say to a friend who had this interpretation of events?
  • 7)Is there a chance that these certainties could be possibilities?
  • 8)Is there a different way to look/approach this situation?

In summary, this article has highlighted some of the common thinking traps we fall into when we experience an unhelpful thought. In addition, we have discussed some of the ways we can learn how to challenge these thoughts by asking ourselves certain questions. While this is not a quick fix solution, it can be a useful tool to learn in order to gain a more balanced interpretation. 


Image from Unsplash by fotografierende

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