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How can we challenge negative thought patterns?

August 18, 2021  |  by Dean McCann

Have you ever wondered how many thoughts you have in a single day? A recent study by a team of psychologists from Queen’s University in Canada found that on average humans have around 6,200 thoughts per day. In reality, there is no way we could possibly pay attention to this number of thoughts running through our minds and therefore, many of our thoughts become automatic thoughts. As a result, we are unable to consider the accuracy of these thoughts and we accept them as truth. However, just because we think something, that doesn’t mean it is true.

Cognitive behavioural theory suggests that the way we think impacts significantly on the way we feel and behave. Sometimes, our automatic thoughts can lead us to feeling a negative emotion without us even knowing why. We may not be able to stop each one of our automatic thoughts, but we can begin to challenge some of our negative thoughts.

Recognising negative thinking patterns

The first step in challenging our thoughts is to recognise any negative thinking patterns or self-defeating beliefs we have. Cognitive distortions or ‘thinking errors’ are the irrational beliefs we hold about ourselves or the world around us. Do you ever think you know what someone else is thinking, without having all the facts? Do you ever blame yourself when something goes wrong, even if it had nothing to do with you? Do you ever believe that your self-worth is defined by what you achieve in life?

These are some examples of common irrational thoughts, which, over time can become repetitive thinking patterns and can contribute to issues of low self-esteem, depression and anxiety. Our thoughts about ourselves and the world around us are usually interpretations or guesses based on our core beliefs and past experiences. Writing down your honest thoughts in a daily journal can help you identify some of these thinking patterns in your life.

Questioning negative thoughts

Once we have ‘stopped’ a thought in its tracks, we can then ask ourselves some of the following questions, in order to challenge the thought:

  • What is the evidence for this thought? What is the evidence against it?
  • Is there a chance I am misinterpreting the evidence? Am I making assumptions?
  • Is this thought a likely scenario, or the worst-case scenario?
  • Even if this thought does come true, what is the worst that could happen?
  • What advice would I give to a friend in the same situation?
  • What has happened to make me start thinking this way?

It may also be helpful to write down things that have happened which prove that these negative thoughts aren’t true. This could be something small such as when someone pays you a specific compliment.

Bringing negative thoughts into the courtroom

One helpful exercise is to imagine bringing a negative thought to a courtroom and putting it on trial. This will require you to fully weigh up the evidence for and against the thought. Remember, evidence in the courtroom can only be used if it is fact and therefore no guesses or opinions are allowed. In the end, having considered the evidence for and against, act like an impartial judge to decide the outcome.

Is the thought accurate and fair, or is there perhaps another way of thinking that best explains the evidence?

Final thought

Changing our thinking patterns doesn’t happen overnight. However, by consistently recognising, challenging and rethinking our negative thoughts and beliefs, we can start to shift our thoughts to more positive ones over time.

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