Our brain generates thousands of thoughts each day. Some thoughts are really useful, absolute gold, while others are unhelpful and best left to one side. The trick is to learn to see these thoughts for what they are – thoughts only, ideas generated by your mind, and not reality. This can then allow you to get some distance from thoughts that are troubling, and to spend more time with the thoughts that are most useful and supportive of your life.
Every now and again we can all get into unhelpful thinking patterns. When someone has experienced significant trauma, or had a series of setbacks, unhelpful thinking patterns can become ‘locked in’, almost as an automatic response in unfamiliar or challenging situations.
Listed below are some unhelpful patterns of thinking to watch out for, plus ways to disengage and get you back on track. By naming these ways of thinking for what they are, you can step back from them and make a decision whether to put more energy into them — or not.
Stewing or ruminating
Stewing or ruminating is where you find yourself running things repetitively over and over in your mind, like a tape loop, without any fresh input or action being taken. Typically, stewing or ruminating leads to problems growing in size and appearing even more difficult to deal with.
Catastrophising and over generalising
Catastrophising and over-generalising is where you take a single event or limited piece of information, and see it as a global pattern (usually a negative one). If you hear yourself using words like ‘always’ or ‘never’, these are hints that you might be catastrophising or over generalising (e.g. ‘I’m always stuffing things up’, ‘I never get a fair go’).
All or nothing thinking
All or nothing thinking, or black or white thinking, is where things are either all good OR all bad. It’s either one extreme or the other; there are no grey areas.
Shoulds or Musts
Shoulding and musting is where you focus on how you perceive things ‘should’ or ‘must’ be, rather than how it is. Shoulding and musting can pressure you to do things one particular way or the ‘right way’. These might be pressures regarding yourself, or other people in your life.
Totalising or Labelling
Totalising thinking takes a single mistake, problem or shortcoming, and gets you to see yourself – your identity — entirely through that lens. (e.g. ‘I spilled my drink, I’m such a loser’). Common labels include ‘loser’, ‘idiot’, etc. Sometimes this pattern of thinking has you labelling others.
This is when you ‘know’ what someone else is thinking, even though you have no idea what they are thinking. It often takes the form of an assumption that another person is making a negative judgement about you.
Discounting the positive
You reject positive experiences by insisting that they “don’t count”. For example, if you have a positive interaction with someone, you write it off as a one-off, or attribute it solely to the other person’s actions and not seeing your own part. Discounting the positives takes the joy out of life and makes you feel inadequate and unrewarded.
When you predict that something will turn out badly, or you will stuff things up, without there being any evidence. Forecasting can get in the way of taking action to make things better.
Funnelling is when you interpret every difficulty as a result of the abuse you experienced. For example, if you feel stressed about something at work, funnelling puts this down to some personal failure resulting from the abuse, rather than identifying that there might actually be things that would cause most people to feel stressed.
You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are. “I feel guilty. I must be a rotten person.” Or, “I feel angry. This proves that I’m being treated unfairly.” Or, “I feel so inferior. This means I’m a second rate person.” Or, “I feel hopeless. Things must really be hopeless.”
Mis-attribution of blame and responsibility
Over-attribution of responsibility is when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control. Personalization leads to guilt, shame and feelings of inadequacy. Men who have been sexually abused often struggle with feeling responsible for things they are not.
Some people do the opposite. They blame other people or their circumstances for their problems, and they overlook ways they might be contributing to the problem. Blaming others often goes hand in hand with feeling powerless.
Apply some problem solving skills
Call it for what it is
If you find yourself getting caught up in these patterns of thinking, try to name the pattern. It might be one in the list above, or you may discover some other unhelpful patterns (which you can come up with your own name for).
Ask yourself: “Is this getting me anywhere?” If not, that’s a strong indication that it’s time to try a different approach.
Get out of your head. Take a walk, call a friend, or engage in some other activity to distract yourself, refocus, shake off and loosen the hold of unhelpful thoughts.
Worrying doesn’t only occupy the brain, it also impacts on the body: Our heart rate speeds up, and muscles tighten. Engage in deep breathing or a few yoga poses to eliminate that physical stress.
Step away from the thoughts
You could try a mindfulness exercise, or another strategy where you visualise yourself watching the unhelpful thoughts go past without getting caught up in them.
Define, don’t dwell
Much of our worry is based soundly in how we feel: We’re upset, we’re angry, we’re hurting. Instead of focusing on these feelings, try to describe and define the actual problem, and then accept it for what it is. From there, you can either solve it, or vow to move beyond it.