How to Change Stressful Thinking
. . . perhaps the most significant discovery of the late 20th Century is the realisation that our attitudes and
beliefs shape our perception and our lives, and that we can become aware of and change these perceptions, producing profound
effects on the physical body . . . . (Emmet. E.
In order to change
our stressful thinking style we use the four steps as outlined below.
Step 1: Become Aware of Automatic Negative Thoughts
The first step in
reducing stressful thinking is to become aware of our internal self-talk/automatic negative thoughts. We all have occasional automatic negative thoughts but these can 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.
Elicit Automatic Thoughts
are habitual ways of thinking. Together with images, dreams and memories they
form the cognition part of social phobia. The other 2 components of social phobia
are avoidant behaviour and anxious mood. An example of an automatic thought,
in the case of a secretary who is having trouble speaking up to her boss, might be, If I say the wrong thing, she will think
I am incompetent and fire me. As in this example, the automatic thoughts of people
with social phobia tend to contain cognitive distortions.
of overt motor activity, physiological responses and verbal responses. Examples
of behaviour, in the case of the secretary, might be taking sick days, palpitations and sweating. Mood is the subjective emotional experience of a person and can include physical sensations. The secretarys mood is probably fearful and angry. As a result
of the cognition, behaviour and mood components being interdependent, a change in one is expected to produce a change in the
usually occur spontaneously. When they do not, any one of the following techniques
may be used to elicit them.
Focus on the other components of the problem (ie.,
mood, behaviour) and ask for associated thoughts.
Focus on an image and ask for whatever words come
3. Use imagination in mentally recreating
the situation, perhaps with someone else in the role of client. Ask what thought
comes to mind or what they might be thinking.
Step 2: Identify Underlying Irrational Beliefs
Examine the automatic
thoughts for any cognitive distortions that may be present. These cognitive distortions
usually occur as 1 of the 12 unrealistic or irrational beliefs described below. These
irrational beliefs are all based on flawed or faulty logic and have the potential to be highly maladaptive for the person
who holds them. One of the typical maladaptive consequences of these irrational
beliefs is a negative mood state such as anxiety, depression or anger. Other
maladaptive consequences are the fact that these beliefs often interfere with our ability to solve problems and may lead to
behaviours that get us into trouble or create other difficulties.
commonly used to help identify irrational beliefs are the downward arrow technique and the use of thought records to find
common themes. The downward arrow technique consists of challenging statements
people make about what they think is causing their negative mood states by repeatedly asking the question, If that were true,
why would it be so upsetting? Thought records are a common form of homework given to people in cognitive behavioural therapy
that requires they record their automatic thoughts associated with problem situations (e.g., social avoidances or fears) during
As weve learned
our thoughts play an influential role in the perception of the stress that we are under.
Some of these stressful inducing thoughts are called Cognitive Distortions and it used to be believed that there were
only a few of them but we now know that there are far more than this. You will
find below some of the most common of these thinking errors.
1. Black and White Thinking (All or Nothing
tend to see things as being all wrong or all right, for example, if we make one mistake we see ourselves as having failed. We see things or people as being all good or all bad.
We are a total success or we are a total failure. We are either completely
100% right or we are 100% wrong. The reality is we all make mistakes. Life is a learning process and nobody is perfect.
When we experience a single,
negative event such as not getting a job that we applied for, we tend to think we will never get a job ever again. We make a mistake and we think we can never do things right. We
make conclusions based on single events. Everything I do turns out wrong.
automatically think the worst is going to happen and it will be awful and we wont be able to cope. My relationship broke up, so nobody will want a relationship with me.
4. Mental Filter
filter out all the good things that life has and overly focus on negative parts of life.
We pick on a single negative detail and dwell on it. We overly dwell on
the negative and totally ignore the positives. We make predictions about what
will happen to us in the future based on little information. ie Someone says
we have done well, but we discount this because we say it was only said to be nice, it wasnt really meant, or 100 good reviews
and one bad review and we focus on the single bad review.
5. Magnifying or Minimising
blow things out of proportion. We make mountains out of molehills. We tend to
minimise our and others strengths and qualities and magnify and exaggerate the supposed weaknesses, mistakes and errors of
ourselves and others.
6. Personalisation and
something bad happens we assume its our fault. We tend to blame ourselves solely
for situations and events that we were not entirely responsible for. On the other
hand we take no personal responsibility, we blame other people and situations.
statements, we believe things must or should be done in certain ways. We use
should, must, ought, shouldnt statements about ourselves and other peoples behaviour.
We feel guilty when we dont do things we think we should and get angry and frustrated when others dont live up to our
8. Labelling and Mislabelling
call ourselves and other people by negative names for supposed shortcomings, such as Im an idiot, Shes a moron,, Im stupid. These are not based on the facts, but on only one or two negative incidents.
9. Jumping to Conclusions
We tend to make a negative interpretation even though we dont have all the facts to support our
a. Mind Reading We think we know what other people are thinking about us, for example,
that they think we are stupid, incompetent, and may disapprove of us; we dont bother to check this out. If a friend walks by on the other side of the street we mind read and think we may have offended them and
they are ignoring us because of this.
b. Fortune Telling We anticipate that things will turn out badly and are convinced that
our prediction is an already established fact.
10. Emotional Reasoning
We let our feelings guide our interpretation of reality. We may be so
stressed that we have difficulty with our emotions and therefore conclude that our marriage isnt working, when in fact it
is our blunted emotions that are causing the problem. We reason from how we feel,
I feel an idiot, so I must really be one.
11. Discounting the Positive
Here we trivialise the positive
things about ourselves and others saying that they dont count.
Step 3: Challenging the Irrational Beliefs
Once the irrational
belief underlying an automatic thought has been identified from the list above, it is important to refute these beliefs by
examining the evidence for them and by looking for alternative explanations. Generic
questions called dispute handles originally developed by Sank and Shaffer (1984) can be used to refute irrational beliefs
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 and how bad that is are called coping dispute handles. Refer
to the lists below for examples.
Probability Dispute Handles
1. What are the other possible outcomes?
2. What evidence do we have that ________
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
Coping Dispute Handles
1. What is the evidence to suggest
the consequences will be disastrous?
there be any other explanation?
3. Is ________ really so important
that my whole future depends on it?
4. Does ________s opinion reflect
that of everyone else?
Step 4: Replace the Irrational Beliefs with Suitable 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.
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.
conversations and engage in small talk with women he hasnt met before.
follow-up conversations with women he met previously.
4. Ask a woman to join him in a social
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 irrational beliefs, the rebuttal
he used to challenge these beliefs and the alternative beliefs he substituted.
Automatic thought: I wont be able to talk.
Irrational Belief: Fortune telling
Rebuttal: 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.