Troubled by upsetting thoughts?
Dwelling on the negative?
Finding it hard to see things positively?
If you feel this way, you are not alone.
We all find ourselves coping with troubling thoughts from time to time—especially when we're going through changes in our lives or when we feel depressed, anxious, sad, angry or stressed out.
What is healthy thinking?
Healthy thinking does NOT mean positive thinking! No one can look at things positively all the time. Sometimes bad things happen, like getting fired at work, having an argument with a friend or losing someone you love. It's normal and healthy to feel upset and have negative thoughts when these things happen. Healthy thinking means looking at the entire situation—the positive, the negative and the neutral parts—and then coming to a conclusion. In other words, healthy thinking means looking at life and the world in a balanced way, not through rose-coloured glasses.
Did you know that your thoughts have a big influence on your mental health?
That's because what you tell yourself about a situation affects how you feel and what you do. Sometimes your interpretation of a situation can get distorted and you only focus on the negative aspects—this is normal and expected. However, when you interpret situations too negatively, you might feel worse. You're also more likely to respond to the situation in ways that are unhelpful in the long term. Fortunately, there are specific coping strategies to help manage difficult thoughts.
For more information about the connections between thoughts and other aspects of mental health, see our other Wellness Modules at www.heretohelp.bc.ca.
What are common thinking traps?
Everyone falls into unbalanced thinking traps from time to time. You're most likely to distort your interpretation of things when you feel sad, angry, anxious, depressed or stressed. You're also more vulnerable to thinking traps when you're not taking good care of yourself, like when you're not eating or sleeping well. See if you can recognize your own thinking traps in the list below.
Thinking that a negative situation is part of a constant cycle of bad things that happen. People who overgeneralize often use words like "always" or "never."
I wanted to go to the beach, but now it's raining. This always happens to me! I never get to do fun things!
Black and white thinking
Seeing things as only right or wrong, good or bad, perfect or terrible. People who think in black and white terms see a small mistake as a total failure.
I wanted to eat healthier, but I just had a piece of cake. This plan is a total failure!
Saying only negative things about yourself or other people.
I made a mistake at work. I'm stupid! My boss told me that I made a mistake. My boss is a total jerk!
Jumping to conclusions about what others are thinking, without any evidence.
My friend didn't stop to say hello. She must not like me very much.
Predicting that something bad will happen, without any evidence.
I've been studying hard, but I know that I'm going to fail my test tomorrow.
Focusing only on the negative parts of a situation and ignoring anything good or positive.
I met a lot of great people at the party, but one guy didn't talk to me. There must be something wrong with me.
Believing that bad feelings or emotions reflect the situation.
Discounting the positives
Believing that positive things that happen to you don't count.
My friend complimented me on the meal I made, but she was just being nice.
Telling yourself how you "should" or "must" act.
I should be able to handle this without getting upset and crying!
How do I get out of a thinking trap?
Here are helpful strategies to challenge common thinking traps. Many people find their mood and confidence improve after working through these skills. You can also find worksheets to help you go through each step at www.heretohelp.bc.ca.
Don't try to get out of a thinking trap by just telling yourself to stop thinking that way.
This doesn't let you look at the evidence and challenge the thinking trap. When you try and push upsetting thoughts away, they are more likely to keep popping back into your mind.
1. Try to separate your thoughts from actual events
Ask yourself the following questions when something upsetting happens:
What is the situation? What actually happened? Only include facts that everyone would agree on.
What are your thoughts? What are you telling yourself?
What are your emotions? How do you feel?
What are your behaviours? How are you reacting? What are you doing to cope?
2. Identify the thinking traps
Take a look at the thoughts you've listed. Are you using any of the thinking traps and falling into distorted thinking patterns? It's common to fall into more than one thinking trap. Go back to the thinking trap list on page 2 and identify which ones apply to you and your current situation.
3. Challenge the thinking traps
The best way to break a thinking trap is to look at your thoughts like a scientist and consider the hard facts. Use the evidence you've collected to challenge your thinking traps. Here are some ways to do that:
Examine the evidence
Try to find evidence against the thought. If you make a mistake at work, you might automatically think, "I can't do anything right! I must be a terrible employee!" When this thought comes up, you might challenge it by asking, "Is there any evidence to support this thought? Is there any evidence to disprove this thought?" You might quickly realize that your boss has complimented your work recently, which doesn't support the idea that you're a bad employee.
Ask yourself, "Would I judge other people if they did the same thing? Am I being harder on myself than I am on other people?" This is a great method for challenging thinking traps that involve harsh self-criticism.
Find out whether other people you trust agree with your thoughts. For example, you might have trouble with one of your kids and think, "Good parents wouldn't have this kind of problem." To challenge this thought, you can ask other parents if they've ever have any problems with their kids.
Conduct an experiment
Test your beliefs in person. For example, if you think that your friends don't care about you, call a few friends and make plans to get together. If you assumed that they will all say no, you may be pleasantly surprised to hear that they do want to see you.
Aim for a balance in your thoughts
Once you have worked through some challenges, try to think of a more balanced thought to replace the old thinking traps. Let's use the following example:
My friend didn't text me back right away.
She's so rude. She doesn't like me anymore.
Examine the evidence: She has never been rude to me in the past. I don't know if she even has her phone with her.
There could be lots of reasons why she didn’t text. Maybe she's busy and can't check her phone or maybe her battery died. I'll wait until the next time we meet before I jump to any negative conclusions about our friendship.
Are all negative thoughts unhealthy thinking traps?
No—there are times when negative thoughts are realistic.
No—there are times when negative thoughts are realistic. It can still be helpful to find different ways of looking at the situation, though. Try to find a meaningful personal challenge in the situation. See if you can find any opportunities for personal growth or skills development. Many people coping with difficult situations find that their upsetting thoughts improve when they work on other coping skills, such as identifying the main sources of stress in their lives, problemsolving issues that they can control, and finding social support. For more on coping with stress, see www.heretohelp.bc.ca.
Help with healthy thinking.
There are workbooks and other self-help materials to help you challenge thinking traps and build up your healthy thinking skills. We have listed some examples for you below. Healthy thinking is a key part of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is an effective treatment approach for many mental health and substance use problems. Seek a qualified CBT practitioner like a psychologist or clinical counsellor if you need help developing your healthy thinking skills.
Frequent distressing, unwanted or strange thoughts may be a sign of a mental health or substance use problem.
If you or a loved one struggles with upsetting or unusual thoughts, it's best to talk to a doctor or mental health professional.
Practice your healthy thinking skills with our online worksheet at www.heretohelp.bc.ca!
About the authors
Canadian Mental Health Association BC Division helps people access the community resources they need to maintain and improve mental health, build resilience, and support recovery from mental illness. CMHA BC has served BC for over 60 years.
Anxiety Canada promotes awareness of anxiety disorders and increases access to proven resources. Visit www.anxietycanada.com.
Select sources and additional resources:
Visit psychhealthandsafety.org for The Antidepressant Skills Workbook by Dan Bilsker and Randy Paterson.
Visit www.anxietycanada.com for Anxiety Canada's Helpful Thinking guides and worksheets and to download the free MindShift CBT app.
Visit www.heretohelp.bc.ca to read the CBT issue of Visions: BC's Mental Health and Substance Use Journal.
Burns, D.D. (2008). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York: Plume.
McKay, M., Wood, J.C. and Brantley, J. (2015). The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation, and Distress Tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Greenberger, D & Padesky, C. (2015). Mind Over Mood, Second Edition: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think. New York: Guildford Press.