Before falling ill at the end of 2016, I’d not really given much thought to my thinking habits and the impact they were having on my mental health. We all know it’s better to think positively rather than negatively – who doesn’t prefer to spend time with a glass-half-full person rather than a glass-half-empty one, right? – but I guess I hadn’t realised how negative my thinking had become and how vulnerable to mental illness that had made me.
In hospital, I attended a workshop called ‘Anxiety Management: Your Safety System – A User’s Guide’. It took us through the impact anxiety can have on our lives; our threat system and survival instincts; the vicious cycles we get into; the role of memory and avoidance; some relaxation and mindfulness exercises, and finally unhelpful thinking habits. To quote from the handout:
Over the years, we tend to get into unhelpful thinking habits. We might favour some over others, and there might be some that seem far too familiar. Once you can identify your unhelpful thinking styles, you can start to notice them – they very often occur just before and during distressing situations. Once you can notice them though, you can challenge them and distance yourself from them and see the situation in a different and more helpful way.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s not so easy, though, when you’re in the midst of depression and anxiety. I totally understood what the psychologists were telling us, but it wasn’t until my mood was more stable that I started to see how I could achieve this ‘challenging and distancing’ thing. Before I talk more about that though, I’ll share some unhelpful thinking habits with you.
- Mental Filtering. We notice only what our mental filter allows us to notice. It’s like we’re wearing gloomy glasses. We dismiss anything that doesn’t fit with our outlook. We only notice the bad stuff.
- Mind-Reading. Assuming that we know what others are thinking.
- Predicting. Believing we know what is going to happen.
- Comparing and Despairing. Comparing ourselves negatively to other people.
- Criticising Ourselves. Putting ourselves down. Blaming ourselves.
- Shoulds and Musts. Putting pressure on ourselves and setting up unrealistic expectations.
- Catastrophising. Believing that the worst is going to happen.
- Emotional Reasoning. Believing our feelings: I feel anxious, so something bad must be about to happen.
- Making Mountains out of Molehills. Exaggerating the risks of danger or likelihood negative outcomes.
- Making Molehills out of Mountains. Minimising risks and the importance of feelings, tasks or events.
- Evaluating and Judging. Making judgments about ourselves or others rather than describing things as they actually are.
- Black and White Thinking. Believing that something or someone can only be good or bad, right or wrong.
- Ruminating. Thinking things over and over in the belief that by thinking about them, you’re actually solving problems. Reliving memories over and over.
Do you recognise some of them in your own thinking? I definitely do. Especially Mind-Reading, Shoulds and Musts and Ruminating. As I said, it wasn’t until my mood was more stable (thanks in large part to medication) that I started to see how I could challenge and distance myself from these habits. The first step, obviously, was to become aware that I was doing them. The workshop was great because it gave me the language to label my thinking habits and thus become aware of them. I really got to grips with it, though, through meditating using the Headspace app. The app introduced me to a technique called noting. During meditation, when you notice your mind wandering, you simple note that it has wandered, note what distracted it – a thought or a physical feeling – and then gently return your attention to the breath (or whatever the focus for your meditation is). There’s more detail here and here. I’ve been practicing this technique for a year now, and it has spilled over from meditation into the rest of my life, so much so, that I often find myself noting and labeling my thoughts. It hasn’t stopped me having unwelcome thoughts, but it has allowed me to step back from them and see them for what they are – just thoughts. Sometimes I even chuckle at them. What a relief!
Another technique for changing thinking habits, is asking yourself questions when you find yourself thinking in negative ways. Am I noticing only the bad stuff? Am I assuming what so-and-so is thinking? What is the evidence? How likely is it that X will happen? Am I comparing myself to others? Would I talk like this to my best friend? Am I expecting too much of myself? What is most likely to happen? Am I being realistic? Is this way of thinking helping me or hindering me?
This was just a whistle-stop-tour of where I am with thinking habits and how I got here. I hope you’ve found something helpful here, but if you need help with your thinking habits, please seek professional counsel. I’m not an expert! Just someone who’s been through some stuff.
Thanks for reading! See you soon. xxx