In order for us to become aware of and change stressful thinking we
need to identify and challenge our thoughts, to help do this we can use a 4-step approach.
Step 1. - Becoming Aware of our Automatic Negative Thoughts
Step 2. - Identifying Stressful Thinking Errors
Step 3. - Challenging Stressful Thinking Errors
Step 4. - Replacing Stressful Thinking Errors with Realistic
We have combined this 4-step process into a Cognitive
Step 1. Becoming Aware of our Automatic Negative Thoughts
The first step in reducing Stressful Thinking is to become aware of
our internal self-talk and our Automatic Negative Thoughts/Beliefs. Recording
our thoughts in a thought record/diary is a useful tool for this. When
we encounter challenging events, it is useful to write down our thoughts so we can start to tune into what we are saying to
ourselves in our internal self-talk. (During Cognitive Behavioural Therapy treatment
this record would be shown to the therapist.)
As we have previously discussed in The A + B = C Model of Stress, our
thoughts influence and play a powerful role in our feelings. Everybody has negative
thoughts but these increase when we are stressed. Our thinking style is a habit
and we can with patience and practice change a habit. (Ref: http://open-mind.org/SP/Articles/9c1.htm)
Step 2. Identifying Stressful Thinking Errors
The next step is to examine our Automatic Negative
Thoughts for Cognitive Distortions (Stressful Thinking Errors). After writing
down the thoughts we experienced during stressful events (Step 1), we than need to look at them to see which if our thoughts
match any of the stressful thinking errors (see the list of Stressful Thinking Errors that follows), writing down the stressful
thinking errors we have made.
As we have previously discussed stressful thinking
errors are not accurate and if unrealistic and rigid can not only cause stress, but also exacerbate any stress we are experiencing. The problem with our thinking is that we tend to believe it is accurate. We never examine our thoughts to see if they are unrealistic or inaccurate, we just accept them as being
fact which they may not be; and here partly lies the core of stress.
Identifying Stressful Thinking Errors
List of Stressful Thinking Errors (Cognitive Distortions). Use this list to help identify any Stressful Thinking Errors you may be making.
Step 3. Challenging Stressful Thinking Errors
Identifying stressful thinking errors is important but we have to then
begin to challenge them for their accuracy. If we have thoughts that we are a
failure we just tend to accept this, but chances are these thoughts are inaccurate and fuel the difficulties we are having. The problem with modern society is that it demands ever increasing excellence and
when we think we have not met up to these demands we then say to ourselves that we have failed.
Downward Arrow Technique
This is a useful method for challenging stressful thinking errors. The downward arrow technique consists of challenging statements to make about our
stress and the related thinking errors: we keep repeating the questions: If this
were true, why would it be so upsetting?
In another technique generic questions called Dispute Handles, originally
developed by Sank and Shaffer (1984), can be used to challenge stressful thinking errors in 2 ways. Questions about how certain we are a particular outcome will occur are referred to as Probability Dispute
Handles. Questions about the worst thing that could happen, how likely it is
to happen and how bad that is are called Coping Dispute Handles.
Probability Dispute Handles:
1. What are the other possible outcomes?
2. What evidence do we have that _____________ will happen?
3. Does ________________have to equal or lead to ____________?
4. What has happened in the past? Any exceptions?
5. What are the chances of it happening/happening again?
Coping Dispute Handles:
1. What is the evidence to suggest the consequences will be disastrous?
2. Could there be any other explanation?
Challenging Stressful Thinking Errors (Contd.)
Probability Dispute Handles
What are the other possible outcomes?
(How likely is what we worry about likely to happen?)
What evidence do we have that __________________ will happen?
Does _______________ have to equal or lead to _______________?
What has happened in the past? Any
What are the chances of it happening/happening again?
Coping Dispute Handles
What is the evidence to suggest the consequences will be disastrous?
Could there be any other explanation?
Is ______ really so important that my whole future depends on it?
Does _______________s opinion reflect that of everyone else?
Step 4. Replacing Stressful Thinking Errors with Realistic Alternatives
Often the replacements for automatic thoughts become evident in the
course of refuting the irrational beliefs on which they are based. The following
excerpt from a fictional case illustrates how this might happen.
Jim is a 25 year old male with a fear of negative
evaluation and rejection from females he would like to approach for a date. The
therapeutic contract he negotiated with his therapist established the following goals:
1. Increase the number of opportunities for meeting women by joining a health club, taking a course and
by participating in some functions of a local singles club.
2. Initiate conversations and engage in small talk with women he hasnt met before.
3. Initiate follow-up conversations with women he has met previously.
4. Ask a woman to join him in a social outing.
The following automatic thoughts were reported
by Jim in response to anticipating a role play of initiating a conversation with a woman.
Listed below his automatic thoughts are the underlying stressful thinking errors/beliefs, the rebuttal he used to challenge
these beliefs and the alternative beliefs he substituted:
Automatic thought: I wont be able to talk.
Stressful thinking error: fortune telling.
Rebuttal used to challenge the thought: Im able to talk to men and women for
whom I have no attraction.
Alternative beliefs: I have been able to talk just fine in other situations.
Stressful Thinking Errors
Automatic Negative Thoughts
We all have automatic negative thoughts but these increase
when we are stressed. Automatic negative thoughts as the term says, can be automatic. They are not based on logical reasoning, they just occur. Automatic thoughts are habitual ways of thinking.
Automatic negative thoughts usually occur spontaneously. When they dont, we can use any one of the following techniques to elicit them.
Focus on the other components of the problem (mood, behaviour) and notice
the associated thoughts.
Focus on an image and notice what words come to mind.
Use imagination in mentally recreating the situation, perhaps with someone
else in your role. Notice what thoughts you have.