With some simple exercises, you can focus on what's really behind unhelpful thoughts, and defuse worry, feel calmer and more in control
"Man can alter his life by altering his thinking." William James (philosopher and "father" of psychology, 1842-1910)
It is very common to have "unhelpful thoughts" - and it's not something that ends after adolescence; adults get them, too. Often, people will use the same unhelpful thinking style again and again throughout their lifetime. Unfortunately, not everyone becomes aware of their own thinking patterns, and they repeat thinking styles which are just not helpful.
Becoming aware of any unhelpful thoughts is a great step to make some really positive changes in your life. Ask yourself, while reading through some examples of unhelpful thinking styles below, why they may have a negative effect on someone. Also consider whether any sound familiar to you and whether you have a tendency to overuse any of these.
Types of unhelpful thoughts
Labelling: Attaching rigid labels to ourselves or others; e.g. "I'm so stupid"; "They are perfect".
Should/Must: Using these words about ourselves or others, leading to high (sometimes quite unrealistic) expectations.
Catastrophising: Thinking the worst of a situation, blowing things out of all proportion, and not seeing things logically or with realistic perspective.
All or nothing: Also called "Black and white thinking", this is an inability to see nuance or the "grey" complexity of life, e.g. "If I fail this exam, my whole life is over".
Mental filter: Paying attention to just some evidence, ignoring the full picture. Our filters naturally lean towards ignoring positives and noticing negatives, so we may be more likely to see our failures but disregard our successes.
Mind reading: Thinking we know what someone else is thinking, e.g. "I know he hates me".
Personalisation: Unfairly blaming yourself or others for something.
It's likely that you will have recognised a number of the above thinking styles as things you do, and that's to be expected. What's important, however, is to consider how often you tend to use any one style of thinking, and how well (or not) this is serving you in your everyday life.
Defusing - a helpful method to put your thoughts in perspective
Defusion is a really helpful tool which allows us to acknowledge our thoughts without being sucked into them.
As an exercise to understand why we should defuse unhelpful thoughts, imagine your hands are your thoughts. Now put your hands in front you, about 30cm from your face. Slowly move your open hands towards you, until they cover your eyes. What can you see around the edges of your hands? What would life be like if your hands always caused you to miss out on seeing and participating in things around you?
Now remove your hands from your face. Your hands are still part of you, but are not obscuring your vision or stopping you from interacting with the world. Until you next need them, your hands can rest. In the same way, your thoughts can be a part of you without having to barge in on every aspect of your life.
So how do we stop our thoughts making our lives difficult? One defusion technique is to simply notice what the unhelpful thought is, and change our language around it. Instead of saying "I must ace this exam", try distancing yourself from the thought by saying "I'm having the thought that I must ace this exam".
Another option is to laugh at the thought, and put it in its place. By doing this, we can take away some of the power the negative thought may hold over us. So with the thought "I'm rubbish at everything", say it in a silly voice (try different voices to achieve its full comedic potential). Singing it to a tune like Happy Birthday diminishes and ridicules the thought, which, when you think about it, was a pretty ridiculous thought in the first place.
These techniques take practice, and won't change things for you overnight. In our case study opposite, Ka Yan found she was able to get out of her rumination loop by using defusion techniques every day, until she was able to have a thought but be able to observe it from a distance rather than get caught up in it.
Rumination is another unhelpful thinking style. It describes a situation where you're stuck on a loop, and the same thought or thoughts are repeated. Ka Yan*, 15, realised she was dwelling on things she was worried about, to the point where she could hardly think of anything else at all.
Of course almost everyone thinks about problems - we need to, if we want to solve them. The most helpful way, which leads to a resolution, is by asking "How" questions of ourselves, like "How can I improve this situation?". Sometimes there is nothing we can do to change a situation, in which case, a helpful action is to accept the situation as it is.
Unhelpful rumination is when people ask 'Why' questions, such as "Why is this happening to me?". These kind of thoughts, if they get stuck in a loop, can cause high levels of distress, and can lead to negative thinking, inactivity and even depression.
Ka Yan thought she was becoming depressed, and was worried about how little sleep she had been getting over the past three months. It seemed that her mood and sleeping habits had changed quite suddenly, so she started a "Thoughts journal" which we then discussed in our sessions.
It was by reading back through her journal that we were able to see how much Ka Yan was ruminating on the same issues in her life, without either accepting or changing her situation. On reflection, she could see how these thoughts were causing her to lose sleep, and were making her feel low, as she felt stuck in her situation and helpless to get out of her cycle of thoughts. She was ready to escape this rumination loop, and here's how she did it:
You may like to try what Ka Yan did, and start a thoughts journal. By doing this, you can start to recognise if you have a particular thinking style that keeps cropping up, which you realise is not helpful. Another option is to work with a counsellor or psychologist, and with their help, discover what thoughts are helping you, and which aren't.
Just because you have a thought, it doesn't mean it is true. Pick one thought, which may be negative or unhelpful, and list the evidence for it being true. Next, list the evidence for it being false. What might be a more balanced, or more helpful thought? It may also be helpful to consider what you would tell a friend or someone you admire if they had this thought.
3 Don't resist or fight
It is completely normal to have negative or unhelpful thoughts, and we all have them, many times, in each and every day. Instead of running away from unhelpful thoughts, or distracting yourself from them (which can be useful, but only really in the short-term), look to defuse them. See the box (bottom, far left) for tips on how to do this.
4 Notice what else is around you
When we get sucked into a negative thought, it can be difficult to be present in the moment. As well as using defusion techniques, exercises in breathing and grounding can be helpful to make sure your focus is not completely taken up by unhelpful thinking styles. (Look out for our article on Anxiety to see how you can do this.)
5 Pay attention to sensations
Thoughts can affect our emotions, which in turn can affect us physically. For example, when we feel scared we will often tense up, and perhaps our breathing patterns will change.
Instead of trying to push these sensations away, make room for them. Notice where in your body you feel a change, and imagine breathing into this space. Feel a knot in your stomach, caused by worry and anxiety? Try closing your eyes, and as you inhale, imagining you're sending fresh air to that body part. This action is very nurturing and healing, and will help you physically as well as psychologically.
Essentially, by allowing room for difficult emotions, we are taking back control of our thoughts and letting them exist without allowing them to take over and hurt us.
* Ka Yan is not her real name
If you're looking for a counsellor or psychologist to help you with your unhelpful thoughts, you might like to ask them a bit about what kind of interventions they use and are trained in. For example:
• Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) can be effective for challenging unhelpful thinking styles.
• Mindfulness Therapy can help us be in the moment and be aware of our reality outside of our negative thoughts.
• Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) uses defusion techniques (among others) to unhook us from unhelpful thoughts.
Edited by Karly Cox