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Becoming Free: Challenging Unhelpful Thoughts

One of the biggest lightbulb moments I have had in life was coming to the realisation that my thoughts are actually not 100% true. Like many others, I had believed the misconception that because I think something, and this feels very true, then must be true. However, this is very much not the case!

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is one of the most evidence-based therapies in the world of psychology. CBT works off a model which suggests that when situations occur, we have thoughts about the situation, and our thoughts go on to influence our feelings and behaviour. However, these thoughts are an interpretation of events, and thus, subject to inaccuracies. 

Thoughts influence feelings…

For example, let’s say you’ve planned to catch up with a friend at a cafe, and they are running late. How you feel emotionally about the facts of this situation depend on how you interpret them. I.e., why do you think your friend might be running late? If you think they are just stuck in traffic, then you are likely to feel relaxed and unbothered. If you think something bad might have happened to delay them, you might be anxious or worried. If you think maybe they just don’t value your time, you might feel angry or disrespected.

All three outcomes are very different ways to feel about the same basic fact; your friend is late. And how you get there depends on how you interpret the facts. This is useful when we think in a balanced, helpful, or realistic way. However, as you can imagine in the above example, various contextual factors might influence how likely you are to interpret things a particular way. For example, is your friend often late? What has your baseline level of anxiety/anger etc. been today? What’s your history of being stood up by friends?

…but feelings influence thoughts too

These last two questions are particularly important, as feelings influence thoughts too. If you’ve had a more stressful, anxious morning where lots of things have gone wrong for you, you might be more inclined towards worry-based thoughts. And if you have a hurtful memory of being stood up before in the past, you might be more likely to fear that history is repeating itself.

For these reasons, sometimes our thinking can fall into negative or unhelpful thinking patterns, where our thoughts aren’t fully reflective of the facts of a the situation. This can then go on to impact our feelings and behaviour (to see an example of what CBT can look like in more detail, click here). However, we can dispute our unhelpful thinking through a CBT strategy called Thought Challenging (also known as Cognitive Restructuring).

How to Challenge Your Thinking

As the name suggests, Thought Challenging is all about challenging our unhelpful thinking so that we can learn to have more balanced, realistic, and helpful thoughts. Use the following steps to learn how to become more aware of your thinking, reflect on how this impacts your feelings, and see if there are any other ways to interpret the situation.

Step 1: Identify the Situation

The situation is always the event or the facts of what has happened. It’s important to note this down as this is objective information. To identify the situation, we can ask ourselves “What happened?”, and answer as factually as we can.

Example: You see a friend walking down the street, you wave to them, but they don’t wave back 

Step 2:  Identify Your Thoughts

Next, we want to become aware of what we are thinking. A useful question to ask ourselves is “What am I thinking?”. It’s also important to note that our thoughts can also occur in the form of images, and so, for those who are quite visual, this is the step where we would also write down any images that may have also come to mind.

Example: You notice that you are thinking “What have I done? They don’t like me anymore” 

Step 3: Identify Your Feelings

Here, we want to acknowledge how we are feeling – we can do this by labelling what emotions we may be feeling, as well as any physical sensations we are aware of.

Example: You become aware that you start to blush, there are butterflies in your stomach, and your heart starts to race. You identify that you are feeling anxious. 

Step 4: Challenge Your Thoughts

Now, we get to the main (and probably the hardest) part of the strategy, actually challenging our thinking. We can do this by exploring our thoughts identified in Step 2 with the following:

  • Explore the evidence for and evidence against the thought: Our brain is very good at collecting evidence (things that have happened in the past) that support our unhelpful thinking and is usually good at turning a blind eye to any evidence that may go against our thoughts (this is called confirmation bias). Try and see if you can think of evidence that may actually disprove your thinking!
  • See if you can think of any alternative explanations for the situation.
  • Consider what is the worst that could happen and how would you cope with this. What is the best thing that could happen? What is the most realistic?
  • How would you speak to a friend going through the same situation?

Example: You challenge your thought of “What have I done? They don’t like me anymore” with the following: 

  • Evidence: 
    • Evidence For: It’s been a while since I saw this friend  
    • Evidence Against: We had lots of fun when we last caught up, this friend has let me know in the past when I have done something wrong, we have been friends for years. It was a busy street and I was a fair distance away.
  • Alternative/more realistic Explanations: Perhaps they didn’t see me, maybe they were distracted, I know they don’t have good eyesight – perhaps I was too far away, they might have thought I was waving to the person behind them  
  • What could happen? 
    • The worst thing: I have done something wrong, and they are upset with me. If this is the case, we have always worked out our disagreements in the past, I am sure we can do that again now.  
    • The best thing is that they just didn’t see me.  
    • The most realistic thing is, for whatever reason, they didn’t see or notice me  
  • How would I speak to a friend in the same situation? “You have been friends forever, you know they are going through a difficult time, I am sure that they just didn’t see you in the moment”

Step 5: Rebalance Your Thought

After completing all the challenging exercises in Step 4, now is the time to reflect and consider whether there is a more realistic or balanced way to think in this situation. Consider if your initial thoughts about the situation encompass all of the points explored in Step 4 or are your thoughts only see things from one angle. If so, you can find a way to rewrite the initial thought to include a more whole-picture approach.

Example: After challenging your thinking, you realised that your initial thought was biased – it was not considering the whole picture of what was going on. You rebalance your thoughts by thinking “They probably just didn’t see me”, you notice feeling less anxious and end up reaching out to your friend to check-in

It’s Not as Easy as It Looks

Like many skills, thought challenging can take practice. It’s usually quite hard to do in the moment to begin with, and so, to start it can be useful to practice on situations that may have recently occurred instead. Another useful tip is to actually write out the steps and your responses, rather than trying to do it all in your head. This helps activate many parts of your brain that assist with language, memory, visual processing, planning, and building connections, which makes the task easier.

If you are intrigued to learn more about CBT strategies, or feel like you would like some support managing unhelpful thoughts, talking with a psychologist is a great place to start. You can reach out to our support team today. All of our psychologists are highly trained in CBT, as well as a range of other types of therapies, and are happy to tailor treatment to suit your needs.