Spring clean your thinking

* spot unhelpful thinking * learn how to adopt more helpful thinking *

March 2018

“What disturbs people’s minds is not events but their judgements on events”

(Epictetus)

When we feel stressed or anxious, it can be incredible helpful to step back and investigate our thinking.  We usually accept our thoughts as true and helpful.  In reality, just because something feels true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is true.  Have you ever thought that someone is ignoring your messages, only to find that they hadn’t received them?  Recognising that thoughts are not the same as facts can be liberating.

When we take time to reflect on our thoughts about a difficult situation, we can often identify patterns of unhelpful thinking which are fuelling our distress.  

Here are five common thinking patterns to watch for.  If you notice them, there are some simple “thinking swaps” you can try.

Instead of thinking....

I should/ I must/ I need/ I have to...

I must pass my exam (...or else my life is ruined)

Try thinking (or saying to yourself)....

I want/ would like/ prefer to...

I want to pass this exam (but, if I don't, I'll cope)

Psychologist Albert Ellis famously referred to this type of thinking - where we put inflexible demands on ourselves - as “musterbation”.  If we step back and truly question the demands we put on ourselves, it’s nearly always the case that they aren’t as set in stone as we imagine.  Re-framing these inflexible demands as flexible preferences or choices puts us back in control.

Instead of thinking.....

Others should/ must/ have to

He should call me back straightaway

Try thinking (or saying to yourself)....

I'd prefer it if others... 

I'd prefer it if he called me soon

Although it sounds obvious, it's easy to forget that we cannot control others.   Thinking that others should behave in a certain way often leads to frustration and upset.

Instead of thinking.....

In all or nothing, or "black and white" terms...

It was a complete disaster because I made a mistake

Try....

Looking for the shades of grey

Even though I made a mistake, it went okay

Thinking in all or nothing terms leaves no room for anything other than perfection.  Remind yourself that things are rarely 100% bad or 100% good, they are usually somewhere in between.

Instead of thinking.....

Always/ never/ everyone/ no-one...

I always mess things up

Try thinking (or saying to yourself)....

Sometimes/ some things/ some people...

Sometimes I make mistakes

Watch for these words - they are often a sign of all or nothing thinking, or over-generalising (when we make a sweeping conclusion based on a single incident).

Instead of thinking.....

Its my fault

Rob didn't say much at lunch, I must have upset him

Try thinking (or saying to yourself)....

There are many possible reasons why

There are lots of possible reasons why Rob didn't say much at lunch.  Perhaps his mind was on other things

Note: this isn’t about fantastical, over-the-top positive thinking (“I’m absolutely wonderful in every way!“), it’s about developing more realistic, helpful thinking that allows you to cope better with difficult situations.

If many of these unhelpful thoughts sound familiar, don’t worry!  These thinking patterns are normal, albeit unhelpful, and have evolved to help us deal with potential threats.  In fact, there are several other common unhelpful thinking biases, but if I’d included them all you would probably have stopped reading by now!  Although these thinking patterns have served us well evolutionarily, in modern life they can cause a lot of unnecessary distress.

So, how do you swap your thinking?

A first step is to distance yourself from your current, unhelpful thinking.  One straightforward way to do this is simply to write the thoughts down – this helps you to consider your thoughts more objectively.  Labelling your thinking can also help you distance yourself from it: when you become aware that you are having an unhelpful thought, such as “I’m a failure“, you could try saying to yourself “I notice I’m having the thought that I’m a failure“.

Now it’s time to try out your new thinking.  Close your eyes and imagine a difficult situation which brings up your current, unhelpful thinking.  Imagine things through your own eyes, as if you are there right now.  Begin repeating your new, helpful thinking to yourself – say it like you really mean it, and notice how that changes things, how your feelings about the situation and about your ability to cope with the situation are different.  The more you practice this, the more the more these new ways of thinking become embedded in your mind, influencing your feelings and your behaviour.  

Hypnotherapy and mindfulness can be incredibly effective at helping us notice unhelpful patterns of thinking and develop new, more flexible ways of responding to difficult situations. Mindfulness can be particularly helpful in allowing us to become aware of, and “unhook” from, unhelpful thinking.  Hypnotherapy allows us to condition our mind and body to new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving when facing difficult situations so that we develop new ways of coping.

To find out more about how hypnosis can help you achieve change in your life, contact Mimi at Relaxed Mind Therapy.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”

(Shakespeare)