Negative or unhelpful thoughts can perpetuate harmful beliefs we hold about ourselves and our lives. This can be the basis for continuing to feel upsetting emotions, including depression and anxiety. Before we dive into some proven cognitive behavior strategies to reduce these thinking patterns, a disclaimer: Negative thinking can certainly be unhelpful and continue cycles of intense emotional experiences, but this does not mean positive thinking is the end-all, be-all. In fact, solely using positive thinking can be harmful in its own way, by not allowing us to acknowledge, validate, and move through painful experiences. Keep this in mind as we practice these strategies!
In dealing with unhelpful thinking patterns, there is a common CBT strategy called cognitive restructuring. This is a fancy term for “changing your thinking.” At its core, cognitive restructuring identifies the negative or unhelpful thoughts we have in different situations, and allows us to challenge the thought’s validity. Below are examples of helpful questions to ask yourself during these moments, so you can see that the negative thought doesn’t hold as much weight as we felt.
- Is there any truth to your thought?
- Is what your feeling a trauma response?
- Is there any evidence that this thought is true or false?
- Is there another perspective you can give to this situation?
- How likely is it that this thought will come true? Is this based on past experiences or any evidence?
- What would a friend think about this situation?
- What would you tell your friend if they were experiencing these thoughts?
- What’s the worst case scenario if this thought is true?
- What is most likely to happen in this situation?
- Will this thought still have significance to you a week from now? A month from now? A year from now?
- Is this thought based on facts or feelings?
- Is this thought black & white, when the reality is more complicated?
- Am I misinterpreting the evidence that I’m observing?
Using these questions can help move through challenging emotions and thoughts. Many people that have trauma, depression, or anxiety can benefit from these strategies, especially when accompanied with consistent practice and use of helpful coping skills. Day by day, with continued practice, you’ll certainly see a shift in your thinking and ability to deal with difficult situations.