One of the most helpful things I think we can do for our wellbeing is knowing how to deal with negative thoughts because these are the thoughts that are associated with difficult emotions, in particular feeling down and anxious. It’s okay to feel down and anxious, these are, of course, normal human emotions. However, when these are persistent and intense, or our self-esteem is being affected, then we can learn how to respond to this in a helpful way. In this post I’ve described what these thoughts are, how to recognise them and what to do with them.
Our minds are constantly making interpretations of what is going on around us. This happens automatically and so we are automatically giving things meaning, whether we interpret things as good, boring, important and so on. This means that we don’t always choose how we interpret things, but we can choose how to respond.
These thoughts are called automatic thoughts and can often help us to form our opinions on what is going on around us. Our automatic thinking is based on the beliefs we have about ourselves and the world which are influenced by our upbringing, our culture, and many other things that make up our experience. The way we interpret things influences our emotions, so for example if I think that I will have a really good today then I will probably feel excited and happy which will influence what I do that day.
Sometimes however we can all have negative automatic thoughts. These happen more when we are feeling down or are having a bad day or in a difficult season of life and we start to interpret things more negatively and in a biased way. This also of course is happening automatically and influences our emotional state and because our interpretations are negative, this makes us feel more down and influences us to experience more difficult emotions.
These negative automatic thoughts are sometimes called unhelpful thoughts or thinking errors. Classifying them into subtypes can help us to understand when we are thinking in this way, to catch ourselves and to think about how to respond in a more helpful way. This will lift our mood and maybe even change the decisions we make about what we do in a response to a situation. In short, our negative automatic thoughts are automatic, believable, negative and biased. The more we use certain unhelpful thinking styles, just like repeatedly taking a short cut across a field, the more engrained this way of thinking becomes, just like a habit.
The first thing we need to do is to practice becoming aware of negative automatic thoughts. A lot of people find it helpful to use their emotions as a cue because most of us are much better at knowing when we feel down or sad than knowing when we are thinking negatively. If you seem to be upset at an event rather than a thought, you can ask yourself, how did I view this situation? What does it mean to me? and what am I thinking this means about myself?
Types of unhelpful thinking styles are;
- black and white thinking “I didn’t do as well as I wanted so I am a failure”,
- overgeneralising “I always make mistakes”,
- mental filter where we literally filter out the positive things and focus on the negative,
- disqualifying the positive, “that doesn’t count because someone helped me”,
- jumping to conclusions by either mind reading “this person really doesn’t like me and doesn’t want to speak to me” or by fortune telling “I will never get the career I want”,
- should statements where we criticise ourselves somehow, “I should have gone to the gym” or “I should do better”,
- personalisation where we fully take the blame or responsibility for something that is actually shared, labelling “I’m ugly, I am useless, I am worthless”,
- catastrophizing where we blow things out of proportion
- and lastly emotional reasoning where we are led by our emotions and think that because we feel a certain way, then what we thought must be true. So for example if we feel guilty then we assume we must have done something terrible.
All of these thoughts are so relatable because we all have them, and we probably have some thoughts more than others because they are habitual.
The good news is that we can do something about unhelpful thoughts to try and balance them. The first thing is simply to become aware of ourselves when we are thinking this way and to name it. All of these thinking styles are unhelpful and biased because they are not taking in all of the information available to us about a situation.
Ask yourself, what is the evidence for this thought? What are the facts? And then, what are the facts which go against this? Is there any past experience that tells me this is not true? Are there any alternative explanations based on all the facts? What would I say to my best friend if they came to me with this? Is there a more balanced way of thinking? And for when the truth is hard to get to, simply, what would be a more helpful way to interpret this?
After you have reframed, evaluated and balanced your thinking, now ask yourself, what can I now do that is more in line with my new way of thinking and my new perspective? So for example, if I think no one likes me I am unlikely to go to the party I am invited to, however if I am able to reframe my perspective to, I’m new and I haven’t had a chance to form good relationships yet, then I will probably go and then the likelihood is that I will get more evidence to confirm the new way of thinking.
Like with anything, the more you practice this technique, the better you’ll get at it. If you feel too upset in the moment to reframe your thought, you can always write it down and come back to it later.
You can find free resources about everything I’ve mentioned on getselfhelp.co.uk
MyNeedToLive Guest Blogger
Bio: I’m Angelica Miia and I am a trainee Clinical Psychologist and a professionally accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist working for the NHS. I am 29 years old and am married with two Bengal cats. I write about wellbeing on Instagram at @angelicamiia