Our brains are wired to look for danger and threats; it’s a remnant from our caveman days. Luckily for us we no longer have to contend with Sabre-Tooth Tigers or the odd T-Rex, which is why it’s important to know how to challenge negative anxious thoughts.
We can certainly relate to getting wrapped up in negative thought patterns. Are you someone who experiences them on a regular basis? Do you find that you can start off with a seemingly small negative thought about a situation, and it quickly spirals out of control into something resembling a disaster movie? We’ve been there too.
Unhelpful thinking patterns
There are a number of unhelpful thinking patterns which people may use when faced with certain situations. Different people may use different thinking patterns, but from our experience here are the more common ones:
Predicting the future
If you’re worried about something, you may spend a lot of time running it round in your mind. You can end up thinking about the future and predicting what you think is going to happen, and often you believe it’ll be a negative outcome. For example, “If I don’t get this report done I’ll lose my job”.
Jumping to conclusions
This thinking pattern might also be known as ‘mind reading’. You assume you know what someone else is thinking. You might make assumptions about why a person says or does certain things, and you may wrongly assume that you’re the focus of what other people say/do. One example might be “My friend hasn’t rung me back, so she must be angry with me”.
Focusing on the negative
You may dismiss the positive aspects of situations and/or relationships and focus only on the negatives. This could lead to you losing your self-confidence or even avoiding certain situations or people. So you might beat yourself up over an activity you’re not very good at, whilst dismissing all the skills you do have.
Black and white thinking
You might think in ‘all or nothing’ terms. So, something is either “all good” or “all bad”, but when you think like this you potentially miss all the grey areas in-between. You may be overly-critical of yourself or others, when what’s often needed is some self-compassion and empathy towards the situations of others.
With this thinking pattern you might have a negative experience, but then label all future events as being negative as well. For example, you fail an exam so you then believe that you’ll fail at everything else you do.
6 Questions to challenge negative anxious thoughts
Whilst our brains are wired to pick up on threats, it IS possible to challenge negative anxious thoughts and re-frame them into more balanced ones. Here are some questions to ask yourself if those negative thoughts come knocking on your door:
1. Am I mistaking a thought for a fact?
One of the most useful phrases I heard was “Thoughts are not facts”. This is so true, yet we often believe thoughts as readily as if the evidence had been physically placed in front of us.
What evidence do you have for your negative thought? Is it based on fact or something you ‘believe’ to be true? If it’s the latter, then you’re probably giving too much weight to something which may not even be true.
2. Am I jumping to conclusions?
Are you assuming something about someone or a given situation?
Jumping to conclusions can come from us basing what we think on poor evidence, or ‘beliefs’. For example, you might think certain people are talking about you, but where is the evidence? Unless you know for sure, you cannot know.
3. Am I assuming that my view is the only one possible?
Would you have viewed the situation differently a few months’ ago when you were perhaps feeling better? Our frame of mind at any given time can really impact upon the way we perceive a situation.
How do you think would someone else view the same situation? Why not ask them?
4. Do my negative thoughts help me?
Be realistic and assess whether your thoughts are helping you or getting in your way. What impact are they having on your life? Are they getting in the way of things like relationships or work?
If they’re doing more harm than good, then it’s time to challenge them.
5. What are the pros and cons of thinking this way?
As odd as it sounds, there might be some benefits (albeit in the short-term) to thinking negatively. For example, perhaps you’re worried about being hurt in relationships and while negative thinking might keep people at arm’s length it also protects you.
However, ask yourself whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? In the long-term, would your negative thinking stop you from forming potentially positive relationships with others?
6. Am I asking questions that I cannot answer?
It can be hard to accept when the past can’t be undone. It’s natural to wish that certain events hadn’t happened, but tying yourself up in mental knots when the situation cannot be changed will only have a negative impact on your well-being.
If you can get the answers to your questions then that’s great, but take the time to recognise when it’s time to walk away and let go of those questions in order to look after yourself.
We hope you’ve found these suggestions for how to challenge negative thoughts helpful.
Do you have any other ideas for how you can deal with them? Let us know in the comments.