Have you ever found yourself thinking that something tragic has happened when your child was late coming home from the movies? What about believing you have the worst luck when it comes to relationships or life in general? How about feeling that no matter how much you studied, you probably failed your final exam?
You’re not alone!
Why negative thinking is common
All of us have moments of thinking the worst and jumping to conclusions. Even when logic might tell us there’s no evidence that something terrible has happened to our child or that we’ve failed an exam or had bad luck, we can’t help but default to a negative conclusion. It’s natural for our minds to search for negatives and likely dates back to the days when we had to be on high alert for wild animals and anticipate danger or threats – our survival depended upon it!
Today we don’t have to worry about our survival from the wilds, but we often find ourselves stressed and overly anxious about life. And, if you’ve struggled with depression, stress or anxiety, you understand how difficult it is to flip those negative thoughts into more positive ones.
10 common negative thinking patterns
Aaron Beck, a US psychiatrist, recognized that there were specific patterns to negative thinking. As he met with his patients and allowed them to talk freely about their depression and struggles, he began to see 10 different types of negative thinking emerge. These patterns are called “Cognitive Distortions” or “Distorted Thinking”.
This negative or unhelpful thinking is based on faulty logic, irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time. Negative "distorted" thinking can trigger depression, anxiety or self-doubt, relationship challenges, and interfere with our ability to stay balanced and resilient in times of stress.
Here are ten negative thinking styles (Cognitive Distortions) to watch out for:
5 Steps to Change Your Thinking
Distorted thinking or beliefs can make us more vulnerable to mistakenly seeing situations as catastrophic, labelling things as all good or all bad, or that believing that an event we didn’t have control over was all our fault.
Our thoughts create our feelings. Changing our thoughts changes how we feel.
This simple and yet challenging formula is what will turn these Cognitive Distortions around. Try the strategies outlined below to challenge each one so that you can begin to think more effectively and realistically. As you practice these, you’ll find yourself feeling better – about yourself and others.
Step 1: Identify Your Distortions
Keep a journal. As you become familiar with the 10 Cognitive Distortions, notice which ones you seem to favour. Writing down your thoughts and the corresponding distortions in your journal help you keep track of what you’re thinking about and how you’re feeling.
Step 2: Challenge Your Thinking
It’s important to challenge your thoughts because not all of our thoughts are true. As you are working to change your thinking to improve how you are feeling, focus on creating a balanced thought. A balanced thought is a thought or belief that considers all the facts, objective information and evidence (good, bad and neutral), and viewpoints. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to open up your thinking:
Have I had other experiences that show that this thought is not entirely true all of the time?
Is there any information that contradicts my thought that I might be ignoring or discounting?
Is this the only way to think about this situation? Are there other’s ways I can think about it?
Do I know this thought to be accurate, or do I feel it’s true?
If this thought was true, what is the worst thing that could happen? What are some ways I could cope with that?
What would a friend or family member think in the same situation?
Then, take a step back and assess the situation again. What evidence supports the thought? What evidence does not support the thought? Can you revise your initial thought to take into consideration all of the facts or available evidence? Finally, combine the supporting and non-supporting statements into a complete thought. This becomes your new balanced thought.
Step 3: Be Compassionate in Your Self-talk
We are often extremely hard on ourselves. Our self-talk is harsh, negative, and sometimes abusive. When you think about how you would speak to a good friend, chances are you’d never say the things you say to yourself to your friend.
For each distortion you’ve identified, write down how you would respond to a good friend. Then, practice using this more compassionate self-talk with yourself.
Step 4: Seek Support
Find a friend or someone you trust to help you challenge your assumptions and distortions. The right questions can help you shift your perspective from black or white to shades of grey! Creating some flexibility in your thinking can help you lower your stress, feel less anxious and shift away from depression.
Step 5: Positive/Negative Outcomes
Self-assessment is key to finding the mental and emotional freedom you’re looking for as you challenge your own cognitive distortions. By asking yourself to assess the positive and negative, short and long-term outcomes of sticking with your perspective, you’re able to decide whether it’s worth keeping or changing it.
Asking these questions will help:
How will it help me or hurt me if I believe this distortion?
Will it move me closer to being the person I want to be or farther away?
If I dig my heels in and continue to believe this thought, how will it impact my relationship(s)?
How do I feel about myself?
Does believing this distortion help or harm my depression, confidence, self-worth, anxiety, etc.?
Challenging your cognitive distortions does take practice and patience, but research shows that your life will become so much better as you take control of your thoughts instead of allowing them to control you.
If you or someone you know has trouble with negative thinking patterns, reach out to your EFAP for support. The EFAP offers personal counselling, which can help you identify automatic negative thinking that may impact your self-esteem or mental health.
David Burns’ book Feeling great: the revolutionary new treatment for depression and anxiety
Worksheet to help you identify which distortion has you feeling stuck here.
A 5-minute video “How to stop cognitive distortions here.