How Does Therapy Help Challenge Negative Thoughts?

Learning to control your thoughts and reframe the negativity into a more positive outlook can improve your mental health. Negative thoughts are often automatic and we can’t do much to stop them from forming. What we can do is challenge them and stop them from persisting in our minds, occupying our thoughts while we try to go about our daily lives. Negative thoughts can cycle and begin to control the way we see everything around us. If left unchallenged, negative thoughts can become a real problem as they trigger physical responses, leading to conditions like anxiety and depression. To help regain control back from these negative thoughts, therapy helps to identify the thoughts and their patterns while giving help on how to challenge them.

Identifying unhelpful and negative thoughts

During a stressful situation, negative thoughts make matters a lot more difficult. A lot of the time, we can work through them and dismiss them as thoughts getting in the way of you dealing with the situation with a clear head. Part of therapy involves recognising when your feelings and reactions towards a situation stem from negative thoughts and learning to catch a negative thought before it spirals. It takes some practice and first, you need to know how negative thoughts are categorised so you recognise them.

  1. Catastrophizing
    This is when we try to prepare ourselves for the worst by assuming the worst case scenario is going to happen. For example, if you make a mistake at work, you may try to prepare yourself for the worst and think you’re going to get fired. While it’s a natural response for us to try and prepare, it’s not a helpful outlook when there’s no real evidence to support your thought.
  2. Black-and-white thinking
    Also known as ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking. This is where things are either absolutely marvellous or utterly terrible. If you make a mistake, you feel like a failure. There’s no middle ground which makes you set unrealistic expectations of yourself – and unfair self-judgments.
  3. Overgeneralization
    This pattern is where something bad happens and we then assume that it will keep happening. For example, if you fail a job interview, you believe that you’re not going to get a job. It’s unlikely that’ll be the case, but when negative events happen, we feel the need to prepare ourselves for rejection before it happens.
  4. Personalisation
    This is where you feel like everything is aimed at you and that you’re the source of the problem. An example would be if a friend or loved one is angry towards you or says something cutting, you immediately assume that you’re to blame. Instead, the case could be that something else got them in a bad mood and it’s not about you at all.

How to challenge negative thoughts

Thought challenging is a technique most often taught during Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as it’s an essential tool for people who have conditions where negative thoughts cause problems – such as anxiety and depression. However, finding ways to challenge negative thoughts is a part of most therapeutic approaches and there are some techniques that you can also practise yourself outside of therapy. Whilst it may not address the underlying reasons or be a substitute for talking with a therapist, training yourself in learning to catch negative thoughts, challenge them and then change them can potentially help towards feeling more positive.

Notice your thought

When negative thoughts appear, pay attention to them and categorise them. You can write it down to make it easier to identify them.

Analyse and question your thought

Once you’ve written down the thought, start to interrogate it. Ask yourself questions such as ‘do I have any evidence to support this?’ or ‘is this really true?’. Question whether or not there are any other outcomes than the one that you’ve thought for yourself. Also consider how likely your thoughts are. If you’re catastrophizing, for example, be realistic about your thoughts.

Adopt a different perspective

Put yourself in the shoes of a friend. If they had that thought, what would you say to them? Would you believe that their thought was realistic? Similarly, imagine what your friend would say to you if you told them that you feel a certain way. Would they agree with you? Are you right to feel the way that you do?

Reframing negative thoughts allows you to still deal with the situation and not dismiss it. Try to think of a way to resolve the negativity in a positive light. If you’re under a lot of stress at work and you feel like you’re not going to meet a deadline, instead of thinking that you’ve failed before you’ve started, break down the job into smaller steps. Remind yourself that you’ve worked to tight deadlines before and succeeded. Give yourself some credit and remind yourself of past achievements rather than dwell on past failures.

Record your thoughts in a diary

Keep track of your thoughts and how you challenge them. There are worksheets available with questions that you can use to break down your negative thoughts. A thought diary is a helpful resource to have on you because you will start to find that your negative thoughts form a pattern. Once you find that you managed to successfully challenge a previous thought, the process of catching your thoughts and changing them into a positive will go faster. With more and more practice, you’ll be able to train your brain into processing negative thoughts in a healthy and positive way.

Understanding the root of your thoughts

Where does therapy come in? While you can challenge negative thoughts yourself with CBT skills, having therapy will help you to further understand your negative thoughts. They don’t come from nowhere and more often than not, there is something unresolved that you need to address so you can have a much more positive opinion of yourself. Sometimes, challenging thoughts isn’t as easy to some people, especially if they are in a low place. Therapists can help you to work through your thought diary in instances where you struggled to challenge your thoughts. Keeping track of your feelings and thoughts will help you to better understand your mental health.

If you feel like you’re constantly spiralling down a hole of negativity and struggle to compartmentalise your thoughts, speaking to a therapist may help. If you would like to book an initial consultation you can do this online using our booking system or contact us using our form. We’ll do our best to help.

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