Every so often I catch people around me, and sometimes even myself, engaging in less than healthy thinking styles. Most of the time it happens so quickly it’s not until we’ve had a moment to reflect back on the situation that we realize the inaccuracies with our thoughts. One of the most unhealthy styles of thinking I’ve experienced and have seen others around me suffer from are the thoughts that sound like, “He made me feel so awful!” or “She completely ruined my day!” or “You’re making me so anxious!”. This style of thinking is sometimes called catastrophic or ‘all or nothing’ thinking.
In the moment, our brains perceive and identify a source of distress, but the actual source of feeling down, anxious or awful really comes from our thoughts. Although others can influence how situations around us play out, no one else can control our thinking about these situations, except ourselves. With practice, new and healthier thinking styles can be developed, replacing negative thinking styles, helping you feel more in control of your emotions when triggers occur. Regaining the power and control over your thinking is the first step to turning up the volume on your confidence and motivation to achieve the goals that are most important to you.
- Monitor your thinking. Create a log of your thoughts in a journal, notepad app on a smartphone, wherever you like to jot down things you’re working on or need to do. Ask yourself the following questions: What was the situation? What was my thought about the situation? How did I feel after that thought? Was the thought helpful or unhelpful? These questions can be helpful to identifying common triggers for negative thinking, and can help you increase awareness about your emotions. Having it in writing can also be a powerful tool to identify repeating patterns and themes in your thinking styles.
- Stop the negative thought as it’s happening. Snap your fingers, clap, use a self statement like “Stop!” or “Cancel that!” or snap a rubber band on your wrist whenever you catch yourself. Thought stopping is essential to increasing your control over your thoughts and feelings. This can be challenging to do when stress levels are high and unmanageable. Take a minute and practice some relaxed breathing that focuses on slowing down your breath to help reduce stress in the moment.
- Replace the negative thought. What is a healthier, more accurate way to think about the situation? Look for evidence that challenges your negative thought. What are all of the alternative explanations for the event or situation? Using positive self statements or personal mantras that enhance strength and confidence can also help us feel more hopeful and calm in stressful situations.
As with learning any new skill, being patient and practicing regularly makes a big difference. Before you know it, you will be on your way to re-wiring your thinking and will be able to think about challenging situations in ways that empower you to keep your cool and minimize harmful emotional reactions that can really interfere with your life. If your negative thinking worsens over time or isn’t getting better getting help and support can go a long ways. If negative thoughts get in the way of your relationships, performance at work or school, and sense of self, therapy and counseling with a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approach has been found highly effective by a large body of peer reviewed research.