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Changing thought patterns

Some ways to change your thought patterns.
A young man looking confusingly at a laptop
© University of East Anglia

Unwanted thoughts can distract us from the bigger picture and affect our mental state.

Below are some steps you can take if you want to change thought patterns that may be causing issues.

Identify the troublesome thought

When you realize a thought is causing anxiety or dampening your mood, a good first step is to figure out what kind of distorted thinking is taking place. It will take time and effort to improve your awareness of your own thoughts. It’s not a natural practice for people to stop in the middle of experiencing an intense emotion and think about how they got to where they are! Although it is difficult, you will find that the outcome is worth the effort. You do this by creating a list of the troublesome thoughts throughout the day, as you’re having them.

This will allow you to examine them later for matches with a list of cognitive distortions. Begin looking for cognitive distortions by turning on your internal “radar” for negative emotions. Think about when your depression, anxiety, or anger symptoms are at their worst. If it’s too difficult to start with your emotions, start with behaviours instead. Ask yourself what behaviours you would like to change, then identify what triggers those behaviours.

You can think of these situations as “alarm” situations, or situations that alert you to the presence of one or more cognitive distortions. For example, you notice a feeling of anxiety before going out with friends. Your heart races, and you sweat. A thorough examination of an experience allows you to identify the basis for your distorted thoughts. If you are overly self-critical, you should identify a number of experiences and situations where you had success. You can record your thinking in a diary or alternatively there are many downloadable apps on which to record your worrying or troublesome thoughts. Keeping thought records is an excellent way to help you become aware of any cognitive distortions that went previously unnoticed or unquestioned, which is the necessary first step to restructuring them.

Do any of your unhelpful thoughts follow some of these patterns?

At the bottom of this page you can download a file where you can jot these thoughts down.

Try reframing the situation

Look for shades of grey, alternative explanations, objective evidence, and positive interpretations to expand your thinking. You might find it helpful to write down your original thought, followed by three or four alternative interpretations. An example of this is the semantic method.

The Semantic Method

When a person engages in a series of should statements (“I should do this” or “I shouldn’t do that”), they are applying a set of unwritten rules to their behaviour that may make little sense to others. Should statements imply a judgment about your or another person’s behaviour — one that may be unhelpful and even hurtful.

Every time you find yourself using a should statement, try substituting “It would be nice if…” instead. This semantic difference can work wonders in your own mind, as you stop “should-ing” yourself to death and start looking at the world in a different, more positive manner. Should’s make a person feel bad and guilty about themselves. “Wouldn’t it be nice and healthier if I started watching what I ate more?” puts the thought into a more curious, inquisitive phrasing.

Perform a cost-benefit analysis

People usually repeat behaviours that deliver some benefit. The cost-benefit analysis can be as simple as drawing a line down the middle of the page writing pros on one side and cons on the other, then brainstorming everything that comes to mind after that. This method for answering an irrational belief relies on motivation rather than facts to help a person undo the cognitive distortion.

In this technique, it is helpful to list the advantages and disadvantages of feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. A cost-benefit analysis will help to figure out what a person is gaining from feeling bad, distorted thinking, and inappropriate behaviour.

Re-attribution

In personalization and blaming cognitive distortions, a person will point the finger to themselves for all of the negative things they experience, no matter what the actual cause.

In re-attribution, a person identifies external factors and other individuals that contributed to the problem or event. Regardless of the degree of responsibility a person assumes, a person’s energy is best utilized in the pursuit of resolutions to problems or identifying ways to cope with predicaments. By assigning responsibility accordingly, you’re not trying to deflect blame, but ensure you’re not blaming yourself entirely for something that wasn’t entirely your fault.

Socratic Questioning

Socratic Questioning is a very effective cognitive restructuring technique that can help you or your clients to challenge irrational, illogical, or harmful thinking errors.

The basic outline for this technique is to ask the following questions:

  • Is this thought realistic?
  • Am I basing my thoughts on facts or on feelings?
  • What is the evidence for this thought?
  • Could I be misinterpreting the evidence?
  • Am I viewing the situation as black and white, when it’s really more complicated?
  • Am I having this thought out of habit, or do facts support it?
  • What would be so bad if my initial understanding proved to be accurate?
  • What could I do to cope if this really is the case?
  • What are the consequences of my believing my understanding to be accurate?
  • How can I change my understanding, after weighing up all the evidence, to make it less distressing?
© University of East Anglia
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