We all have negative thoughts, it is a fact of life. However, sometimes they start to get in the way of what we want.
Negative thoughts are essential – imagine if you looked at every situation with 100% positively – you would put yourself in a lot of danger. For example – “I’m going to walk out into the road and I’m positive it’ll turn out really well”. You need to be able to consider negative outcomes or other’s intentions for your own safety.
I want to introduce you to the idea of thinking traps.
They are exactly what they say on the tin – traps that your brain might fall into that lead you to negative interpretation of situations.
As I said before, we should always be able to consider the negatives of a situation, but when we do this repeatedly, this then leads us to a more negative state of mind.
Interestingly the solution isn’t the opposite – complete positivity - but rather examining whether the thought is actually helping you, and if not, then considering a more balanced interpretation of the situation.
For example, “this situation is a disaster” is as unhelpful as “this situation is 100% perfect with sprinkles on top” – we are looking for the age-old “there are positives, negatives and unknowns”. A lot of our anxiety can be based on “unknowns” – we as humans like to know things – but we can’t know what the world, including people, are going to say, do or think. One thing we have to work on is our tolerance of the unknown.
If you google “thinking traps” – you’ll find there are lots, and sometimes they are called different things. This can be confusing, and therefore unhelpful, so I’m going to stick with 6 of the more common ones. I’m going to give more extreme or text book examples, but you may find you fall into these traps in more subtle ways sometimes. Also, some of them will cross-over from time to time.
This is a trap that happens when we believe that we know what others are thinking and assume that they are thinking the worst of us. The problem is that no-one can read minds and we can never really know what others are thinking!
Examples: “They’ve put me on furlough because they want to fire me”. “They are doing this on purpose”.
You may be correct, but you also might not be. The difficulty here is that we believe we do know, we believe that what we think is fact, and it begins to impact on our mood.
Filtering involves only paying attention to the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring all the positive. When you only focus on the negatives, you end up viewing the entire situation as negative and so, in your mind, everything is negative. This stops us from looking at all the aspects of a situation and drawing a more balanced conclusion.
Example: Noticing only the people wearing their masks incorrectly, not all of those who are wearing them. With the jobs market feeling unsteady at the moment, we may focus to the times we have not performed to our best and ignore the times we’ve done well, or even just done neutrally.
Personalisation is where you believe that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to something you’ve said or done. You end up taking everything personally when in reality it’s nothing to do with you.
Example: “My partner is upset, I must have done something wrong” when in reality they are just tired from work. During covid-19 lockdown our living arrangements became a lot more confined and in that kind of setting, it is really common for people to do that more.
This trap involves imagining that the worst possible thing is about to happen, and predicting that you won’t be able to cope with it, when in reality the worst-case scenario usually never happens and even if it did you’d probably be able to cope.
Example: “I’m not going to be able to cope with lockdown or a second lockdown”, “Although I’m good at my job, everyone else is better and I’m going to lose my job”, or “I’m going to fail and then I’ll have a breakdown”.
This is when you have ironclad rules for how you, or others, should and shouldn’t behave. When our expectations fall short, we feel disappointed, frustrated, anxious, even angry with ourselves.
You might think that these shoulds and shouldn’ts ‘rules’ are helping to motivate you but in reality they end up stressing you out and adding to the pressure rather than contributing to the solution.
Example: “I should learn a language” “I should be coping” “I should make the most of XYZ” “I should be in the best physical shape”.
When someone falls into this trap, they tend to find evidence to prove that their own opinions and actions are the absolute correct ones. When we are really anxious and already feeling out of control, it is extra hard to consider that we might be wrong about something.
Example: People beliefs that how they behave or the information they have is the correct and only way, and therefore others are wrong.
This one always sounds intense and some people struggle to believe they actually do it – but trust me, we all do it at some point. Even basic things like whether you put jam or clotted cream first on a scone – very political I know.
So what can you do?
Firstly, if your negative thoughts are significantly impacting on your mental health, so much so that it interferes with your daily activities, you feel low/anxious a lot of the time, or you are avoiding certain things/people/places – then please consider talking to your GP about your struggles.
If the above is not you, then you could consider firstly practicing acknowledging which traps you feel into once – perhaps keep a diary for a couple of weeks? See if there is a pattern. Once you feel able to notice and name the traps, you can begin to think of more balanced interpretations of those situations.
Situation --> Somebody is staring at you
Thought --> They think I look stupid
Trap --> Mind Reading
- Perhaps they are looking at me but I don’t truly know.
- Perhaps they are looking in my direction but not me (like when your eyes glaze over).
- Perhaps they recognise me.
- Perhaps they are checking me out.
Try this out for a few weeks - writing a diary, making notes, finding patterns, re-balancing, and see if it makes any difference.
It’s a tough rule of thumb, but a lot of our anxiety comes from focusing too intensely on ourselves – what others think of us, how we will cope, what is in our future, our health, our safety etc.
Sometimes in those moments it can be helpful to try to think outside your experience and focus on others to manage a bit of the anxiety. For example, that person staring at you – maybe they think you’re staring at them? Maybe they’ve are thinking about a person they have just lost? Maybe they aren’t wearing their glasses and are trying to work out how far into the distance they can see without them? Maybe their eyes are getting dry from not blinking in so long. Pushing your attention away from yourself can sometimes help in a moment when you aren’t sure how to re-balance a thought.