Problematic Thoughts

This section covers the role of thoughts in your anxiety, including negative automatic thoughts and thought traps. We look at how these concepts affect you, often without even being aware of it. We also look at how to change your thinking in a helpful and sustainable way, so that you can better control your anxiety and enjoy life more.

We have come almost full circle in looking at the thoughts, emotions and behaviors that affect us, when dealing with various problems in life. In this section, we’re going to focus on thinking and how non-effective thinking can affect us, and even make us feel worse. We will also look at the subconscious effects that problematic thinking patterns can have, and how positive and realistic thinking can help to improve your frame of mind. Don’t worry, we are not going to tell you to “just think happy thoughts.” Instead, you will discover research-supported strategies to change the way you think.

Damaging negative automatic thoughts

Thinking is something that we all do. Sometimes our thoughts are accurate and helpful; they often are not. Often without realizing it, we consistently reach conclusions using a variety of different thinking habits, which, in some cases, can be negative. When used too often, these thinking habits can be extremely detrimental, since they skew our perspectives without us knowing.

Negative automatic thoughts are realizations or thoughts that tend to jump into one’s head automatically. However, when we’re having a bad experience, these negative automatic thoughts tend to be extreme and very unhelpful. They are often distorted and present a vision of something that isn’t entirely true. Negative automatic thoughts are such a natural part of our thinking, that we don’t even notice them. Therefore, they can be hard to detect. Learning about the most common negative automatic thoughts, is vital to better controlling your thoughts.

Identifying your negative automatic thoughts

Negative automatic thoughts are often triggered by an experience, such as an image, sound, smell or memory. By noticing these thoughts and their "triggers", you can effectively start to understand how they are leading to your emotional distress. It’s then possible for you to judge whether or not that belief is valid and effective, or unhelpful and causing problems. How we interpret events is what causes us to experience emotions. In other words, the meanings that we assign to things predetermines the way we feel and behave about something. It’s now time for you to identify your negative automatic thoughts!

 Worksheet: Identifying your negative automatic thoughts

Thought traps

You have now identified some of your most significant negative automatic thoughts, by looking at trigger scenarios. However, negative automatic thoughts only occur when you’re suffering the effects of your problem. They are things that everybody experiences from time to time.

Negative automatic thoughts can lead to thought traps, or ineffective and problematic patterns of thinking. These thought patterns are often distorted and don’t take all the facts into consideration. They lead to the falsification of reality, which can result in overreaction or unnecessary emotional distress. Even if thought traps aren’t always problematic, it’s a good idea to pay attention to them and gradually learn how to deal with them.

Falling into thought traps is a common trait. Even the smartest people use them, without even being aware that they are. One of the most powerful tools that CBT provides, is teaching us how to think effectively and objectively about our behaviors and emotions. It also helps us to stop thinking from a skewed or unrealistic perspective. By organizing one’s thinking patterns, we can make our lives much happier and more stress free.

In the upcoming worksheet, you will dig deeply into how you’re using the most common thought traps, which are:

  • Catastrophizing
  • Extreme thinking
  • Demanding
  • Predictive thinking
  • Mind reading
  • Emotive interpretation
  • Labeling
  • Selective Observation
  • Anti-Positive
  • Personalization

Let’s get started looking into these thought traps!

 Worksheet: My thought traps

Challenging your problematic thinking

You will now focus on how you can challenge your negative automatic thoughts and thought traps. This will allow you to change them into more helpful ways of thinking. To accomplish this, you will first explore proof that supports your thinking, as well as evidence that contradicts your thinking. This will help you to see the inaccuracy of some of your thinking. You will then develop alternative thoughts that are more accurate and helpful.

When writing down the proofs that support your negative automatic thoughts, consider what is making you think your negative automatic thoughts are true. Do you think that everybody would see them as proofs? If your closest friend came to you and shared these thoughts, would you agree with him/her? When establishing any proofs, try to only include objective facts rather than assumptions. Since this is a new skill, it may be challenging in the beginning. Remember, the more you practice a skill, the easier it gets.

When looking at the disproofs, consider any evidence which goes against the idea that your negative automatic thoughts are true. This can be difficult, since when we think negative thoughts, we seek information that confirms them. However, the key to changing your problematic thinking, is to see what’s going against your automatic thoughts. To do this, consider the following questions:

  • What do the objective facts say?
  • Has what you fear ever happened? If so, what can you learn from prior experiences?
  • If you look back on the situation in five years, do you think that you will look at it differently?
  • How would someone you admire look at the situation?
  • When you don’t have all these strong emotions, do you think differently about the situation?
  • Is your thought consistent with any of the thought traps described earlier? Could it be that your thought isn’t true but rather an example of you getting caught in a disadvantageous thought trap?

When you have written down your negative automatic thought proofs and disproofs, you will begin to realize that sometimes the proofs for your negative automatic thoughts aren’t as strong as you have imagined. In this case, write down a sound alternate thought. If the proofs both confirm and contradict your negative automatic thought, write down a balanced thought that summarizes the proofs for and against your negative automatic thought.

It’s now your turn! Choose one or more negative automatic thoughts that you have decided to work with. we tend to think differently, when our emotions are high. Therefore, this exercise is even more effective, if you complete the worksheet when you’re in the middle of a situation that has triggered your anxiety, rather than at a time, when you have had time to cool down. Therefore, you should always have a notebook with you, so that you can write down your negative automatic thoughts in an anxiety-creating situation. Since your new alternative thoughts aren’t automatic like your old negative ones are, it will take time and practice to get used to this new way of thinking. It is important to remember that the more you work truthfully and diligently with the worksheets, the better the results. Let’s get started!

 Worksheet: Challenging your negative automatic thoughts

In this section...

  •  We have taken a deep dive into your thinking process, which includes negative automatic thinking and thought traps.

  •  You identified your negative automatic thoughts and the thought traps that are often used. You then challenged these problematic thoughts, in order to form a more helpful way of thinking.

  •  Remember that you have had your whole life to learn and unconsciously process negative automatic thoughts. It will take time and practice to reprogram your frame of mind into thinking positive automatic thoughts.