A negative thinking style can hurt your mood and well-being. Where should you start if you want to develop a more helpful, balanced thinking style in 2024?
CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) places much emphasis on catching, challenging and correcting negative, unhelpful thoughts. Everyone is prone to thinking errors – cognitive distortions, as they are known in CBT – and it’s crucial to become more aware of these thinking traps.
Obvious thinking errors to look out for include black-and-white thinking (“If I win, I will be such a success; if I don’t, I will be a failure”, over-generalising (“I always get it wrong”, “Nothing ever works out”), catastrophising (“The boss was annoyed, he’s going to fire me”, “My daughter didn’t answer the phone, maybe she’s been attacked”), disqualifying the positive (“She didn’t mean it when she said I was good, she was only being nice”), mind-reading (“He thinks I’m useless”), and labelling (“He is a scumbag”, “I got it wrong, I’m such an idiot”).
When you become more aware of these thinking errors, you will start spotting them everywhere – in political arguments on social media, in casual pub chats, in conversations with friends and family, and in your own inner dialogue with yourself, particularly when feeling emotionally aroused.
Spotting and labelling distorted or exaggerated thinking is useful in itself, but sometimes it’s necessary to go a little deeper and to more closely investigate our thinking by using thought diaries. Maintaining a daily journal where you document situations, thoughts, and mood will help you to step back and reflect on things.
Here’s a simple example:
Event: I said hello to an old friend in town but she ignored me.
Thought: She thinks she’s above me since she took that high-flying job in London.
Mood: Angry, upset, sad.
Rate belief in the thought: 90%.
In cases like this, people often assume their mood is dictated by the event, but CBT emphasises that our thoughts and perceptions are often more important than events. People are, as the late psychologist Albert Ellis used to say, ‘disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them’.
In this case, it’s perfectly possible the person is right, that her old friend ignored her because she has become a snob who thinks she is better than her.
Of course, she could also be wrong. None of us can read minds. Maybe her old friend didn’t see her; maybe she didn’t recognise her; maybe she did recognise her but she didn’t want to stop because she had something on her mind, or was in a terrible hurry, or, well, any number of other scenarios.
You don’t have to go with the positive scenarios. Such situations are inherently uncertain, but it’s good to allow for this uncertainty and to remain open to other possibilities, as opposed to always going with the negative automatic thought (NATs).
Thought records help you to play detective with your thoughts and beliefs. It can be helpful to consider the following categories when writing thought records:
EVIDENCE: What is the evidence for my thought and belief? What is the evidence against it? What makes me think the thought isn’t true or is not completely true?
ALTERNATIVE: Is there an alternative explanation? Is there another way I can look at this?
OUTCOME: What’s the worst that could happen? Would I still live though it? What’s the best that could happen? What is the most realistic outcome?
EFFECT: Is this thought useful? Is it helpful? What are the pros and cons of believing this thought? What will happen if I keep telling myself the same thought?
PROBLEM-SOLVING: Of course, a negative thought may well be true or realistic. If so, get into problem-solving mode and ask yourself what you can practically do now about this thought or situation.
DOUBLE STANDARD: What would I say to a friend in my situation?
Finally, on a scale of 0-100, rate how much you now believe your initial negative thought.
Filling out a thought record won't always erase negative emotions, but it often does dampen them, making difficult thoughts and situations seem more manageable.
Remember, most of our thoughts are opinions, not facts. Just because you think something doesn’t mean it’s true.
(First published in Southern Star on 4/1/2024).