We all have negative thoughts from time to time and sometimes we’re unsure why we think that way or even how we started thinking that way. Sometimes these thoughts will come and go, but in some cases they can overpower us. Our subconscious, negative ways of thinking are called “thinking traps” and our brains, over time, have become conditioned to use them due to a variety of factors including negative experiences, childhood experiences and trauma. If we do not get a handle on these thinking traps, they can lead to sleep deprivation, stress and mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. The first step to overcoming them is to recognize which ones we fall into. Then, we can practice relevant techniques to try to prevent them from ruling our lives. In this blog, we will define 5 possible thinking traps and teach you a few ways that you can begin to overcome them.
Do you find yourself using phrases that start with, “I should be…”, “I have to…”, “I must…”? Then you may be falling into the thinking trap of word prisons. You have immovable rules for how you, or others, should and shouldn’t behave. When you, or others, do not conform to these rules, you can experience negative emotions like frustration, resentment, anger and disappointment. This “black and white” thinking can be detrimental and prevent you from experiencing life to the fullest. For example, “I should be able to do everything on my own, I shouldn’t need help”.
You fall into this thinking trap if you find yourself always focusing on the negative and neglecting any positive. For example, in a performance review, if your boss praised you for 5 things you are doing right but constructively criticized you on 1 aspect of your work, you would focus on the 1 area of criticism and let that cloud all the positives that were pointed out.
Blowing things out of proportion
You fall into this thinking trap when you assume the worst possible scenario will happen to you, without considering any alternatives. For example, “I’m never going to like our new house”, “I’m never going to find a partner”. Over time, thinking this way can create “self fulfilling prophecies''. These occur when what you believe actually comes true because you have told yourself something so often, that you subconsciously accept that as your fate and engage in behaviors that will make that come to fruition. For example, if you believe you will never find a partner, you may reject all romantic advances or make no active attempts to find a partner and thus, the prophecy comes true.
You can fall into this thinking trap when you mistake your emotions for evidence of the truth, ignoring any contradictory evidence that does not support the emotion. For example, if you feel stupid then that must mean that you are stupid, no matter what evidence there may be to the contrary. This way of thinking can lead to poor decision making as you trust your emotions more than you should.
Now that we have covered 5 common thinking traps, we will move on to explaining how you can begin to overcome these thinking traps. Patience is a valuable asset here as these techniques will take time and practice to have the greatest impact.
Evidence for and against
As soon as you notice yourself falling into a thinking trap, begin by making a note of how strongly you believe the thought that you are having using a scale of 0-10. For example, “I haven’t been to the gym in three days, I’m never going to reach my fitness goals – 8/10”. Then write down a list of all the evidence that supports that negative thought followed by all the evidence against that thought. Evidence for, in this case, might be that you once reached a fitness goal but you believe it was only because you went to the gym every day. The evidence against this thought might be that you recognize the importance of rest nowadays based on a fitness course you took and your muscles are still sore from an intense workout so training again would be unwise etc. Then follow this by coming up with a more balanced thought. For example, “I am allowed to have rest as this is just as important for my fitness goals as exercise. I will resume my fitness routine when it is safe to do so”. To finish, re-evaluate how strongly you agree with your original thought; Chances are that this rating will have decreased.
Helpful thoughts are mantras that we create and repeat to ourselves when we fall into a thinking trap. For example, let’s say that during a particularly stressful work period you find yourself thinking, “I don’t know how I’m going to cope”. This would be called an unhelpful thought as this way of thinking is incapable of leading to a positive outcome and will keep you trapped in your thinking trap. However, if you shift your focus and remind yourself of the other stressful events you have overcome, then you are likely to cope better and reduce stress. In this example, a helpful thought like, “I have dealt with other stressful periods and coped well” would be beneficial. A good way to begin is to keep a thought record for a couple of days and write down the common unhelpful thoughts that you have. After this, you can begin to draft some helpful thoughts to override these unhelpful thoughts. Then, as soon as you notice your unhelpful thoughts in the future, you should repeat your helpful thought, out loud if possible, for as long as you need to reduce stress. You could also write your helpful thoughts on sticky notes and stick them in places you will see often e.g. your laptop, your desk or your bedroom mirror.
Sometimes you can lose sight of the bigger picture, especially when you fall into your thinking traps. This is why writing lists can help you view a situation more objectively and help you shift your focus. For example, if you find yourself falling into the negative filter trap and focusing solely on the negative of that day, you could write a list of the good things that have happened that day to counterbalance this e.g. the hug from your partner this morning, the coffee you friend surprised you with or the afternoon sunshine. Similarly, if you find yourself falling into the thinking trap of emotional reasoning and you feel like a bad person, write a list of all the good deeds you have done and remind yourself that you aren’t. For the thinking traps of jumping to conclusions and blowing things out of proportion, try writing a list of all the times the outcome has been better than you anticipated. The more you write these lists, the easier it will become to think in a more well balanced way in your daily life.
Training your brain to think in a different way takes time, patience and practice so be kind to yourself on your journey to better thinking. However, if you feel that your thinking traps have already resulted in a mental health condition, please consult your doctor about seeking professional help. You are not alone and you can overcome it!
We hope you've enjoyed reading this blog. If you have, please share it with anyone else who may be struggling with their thinking traps and leave a comment to let us know which technique you'll be trying first.