Recognizing and dealing with 'Unhelpful thoughts'
Challenging unhelpful thoughts
The way that we think about things has an impact on our anxiety levels. Many of these thoughts occur outside of our control, and can be negative or unhelpful. It is therefore important to remember that they are just thoughts, without any real basis, and are not necessarily facts. Even though we may believe a lot of our unhelpful thoughts when we are anxious, it is good to remember that they should be questioned as they are often based on wrong assumptions.
Being judged negatively by others:
• They think I'm useless
• They won't like me Being unable to cope:
• I'll make a fool of myself
• I'm too anxious to manage that
• I'll have a panic attack
• Something terrible might happen;What if I have an accident?;What if I lose my job?
It is clear to see how this kind of thinking might make us anxious. Do you ever think in any of the ways outlined above?
Patterns of unhelpful thinking
First you need to be able to recognise an unhelpful thought. Then you can challenge it. Being aware of the common patterns that unhelpful thoughts follow can help you to recognise when you have them. Here are some of the common patterns that our unhelpful thoughts follow:
Predicting the Future:
When we are feeling anxious, it is common for us to spend a lot of time thinking about the future and predicting what could go wrong, rather than just letting things be. In the end most of our predictions don't happen and we have wasted time and energy being worried and upset about them. For example: • Assuming you will perform poorly at your job interview.
• Spending the week before an exam predicting you will fail, despite all your hard work studying and your previous good grades.
This means that you make assumptions about others' beliefs without having any real evidence to support them. For example:
• My boss thinks I'm stupid.
• People think I'm weird.
Such ways of thinking naturally make us apprehensive.
People commonly 'catastrophise' when they are anxious, which basically means that they often blow things out of proportion. For example:
• They assume that something that has happened is far worse than it really is (e.g. that their friend is going to dislike them because they cancelled a night out).
• They may think that something terrible is going to happen in the future, when, in reality, there is very little evidence to support it (e.g. I'm going to get into serious trouble for calling in sick).
Focusing on the Negatives:
Anxious people often have a tendency to focus on the negatives which keeps their anxiety going. For example: • They focus on the one person at work who doesn't like them, ignoring that they are very popular with the rest of their colleagues.
People often imagine how they would like things to be or how they 'should be' rather than accepting how things really are. For example:
•I should have got an A in History.
•I should never be anxious.
Unfortunately when we do this, we are simply applying extra pressure to ourselves that can result in anxiety. Instead it can sometimes help to accept that things can't always be perfect.
Based on one isolated incident you assume that all others will follow a similar pattern in the future. For example: • When enrolling on a college course, you meet a future classmate who you find irritating. As a result, you worry that everyone in the class will be the same and you won't make any friends.
What If Statements:
Have you ever wondered "what if" something bad happens? For example: •What if I have a panic attack at the party?
•What if I don't make friends when I start my new job?
This type of thought can often make us avoid going places or doing the things that we would like.
Do you find that you attach negative labels to yourself? For example:
•I'm a waste of space.
•I'm always anxious.
Labels like these really influence how we see ourselves and can heighten our anxiety levels.
Patterns of unhelpful thinking
First you need to be able to recognise an unhelpful thought. Then you can challenge it. Being aware of the common patterns that unhelpful thoughts follow can help you to recognise when you have them.
Once you have recognised an unhelpful thought the next stage is to challenge it. To do this, you can ask yourself a serious of questions. See the example below:
Situation: The end of year exams are approaching.
How you feel: Nervous, stressed and apprehensive.
Unhelpful thought: I'll definitely fail my exams miserably!
Challenges to an unhelpful thought
Now you can challenge your unhelpful thoughts by asking these questions.
Is there any evidence that contradicts this thought
• I've always done well in my previous exams.
• I've been scoring well in my coursework.
Can you identify any of the patterns of unhelpful thinking described earlier?
• I'm 'predicting the future'. I have no evidence to suggest I'll fail.
What would you say to a friend who had this thought in a similar situation?
• I'd say don't be silly, you've always done well. As long as you've studied hard, you should be fine. Besides, you can only try your best.
What are the costs and benefits of thinking in this way?
Costs: It's making me feel sick with worry.
Benefits: I can't really think of any.
How will you feel about this in 6 months time?
• I'll probably look back and laugh about how silly I was being.
Is there another way of looking at this situation?
• I've always done well in the past so I should be ok. I can only do my best anyway; after all I've studied hard. At worst, I'll just have to re-sit next year.
Once you have asked yourself these questions, you should read through your answers. Try to come up with a more balanced or rational view. For example:
Worrying about failing is doing me no good. I've always done well before so I should be fine, especially since I've prepared properly.
Try to apply these questions to the unhelpful thoughts that you notice. It can help to reduce your anxiety levels. You can use this technique to test your thoughts are realistic and balanced.