Building Personal Resilience  |  Self-Care

Changing Unhelpful Patterns of Thoughts

BY KHOO TECK PUAT HOSPITAL THRIVE

21 January 2021  |   7 min read

On a daily basis, the human mind has on an average 25,000 to 50,000 thoughts running through it. Understanding that negative thoughts are a normal aspect of human behavior, it is therefore important for us to consciously change the way we think for the better.

Thoughts lead to feelings which lead to behavior. These three abilities- thinking, feeling and our behavior are interlinked and they all affect each other.

Thoughts and behavior

When we think positively, we tend to be more confident about our tasks, smile more and radiate positivity wherever we go. On the other hand, when you are feeling low, you realize that you want to do fewer things, and tend to withdraw more.

How you think affects the way you feel as well. For example, think of an embarrassing moment. If you think about it for a while, you’ll probably find that you start to sense the feeling of embarrassment. Maybe you even get a little embarrassed. You are obviously not doing anything embarrassing right now. The thought alone makes you feel embarrassed! Therefore, you can see how we think affects how we feel.

Behavior also affects our thoughts

Getting approached by someone who is asking for money to buy food can give rise to thoughts about poverty and injustice. Watching a relationship drama on TV may provoke thoughts about your own family. As you can see, behaviors, thoughts and emotions affect each other. If you can change any one of them, it will affect the other two. Each time a change occurs in the system it can be expected to lead to a “ripple effect” throughout the system. Although nothing has changed in the “real world”, your thoughts create very different feelings. It is therefore important to realize the power of thoughts. Research tells us that emotions are difficult to change immediately even if you want to. It is therefore important to learn how to deal with negative thoughts and change our patterns of thinking. Since thoughts occur spontaneously and habitually, we often forget that they are simply personal interpretations and not factual truths.

To be able to change your thoughts and patterns of thinking and thereby gain more control over your emotions, it is necessary that you learn to identify and challenge your thought habits. The more time you are willing to invest in this, the faster you’ll notice a change!

Common Styles of Negative Thinking

  • ALL OR NOTHING: You place things into black and white categories, ignoring the exceptions and subtle shades of gray, “It’s perfect or defective”, “I’m lovable or unlovable”, “I either succeeded or failed.”
  • OVERGENERALIZATION: A few (or even a single) bad experiences makes you believe that all similar situations will turn out badly. You see a never-ending pattern, where exceptions could still exist; “Since I’ve made several bad decisions, I’ll always fail.”
  • LABELINGLABELING: A form of overgeneralization, often in the form of ‘name calling’; “I’m a loser”, “I’m a failure”, “I’m unlovable.”
  • DISCOUNTING THE POSITIVES: Positives are explained away, they “don’t count.” You minimize or entirely disqualify your resources, your ability to cope, possible help from others, alternative opportunities, etc.
  • JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: Mind Reading: You assume that you know why and what others are thinking, feeling and doing, without proof.
  • MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHIZING): You focus on what might be lost and exaggerate either how likely it is to happen or how terrible it will be when it does: “I’ll probably be rejected, and that’s terrible”, or “it’s horrible that I lost.”
  • EMOTIONAL REASONING: You reach conclusions based on your feelings, “I feel this way so it must be”, “it feels terrible, so it must be terrible”, “I’ll wait until I feel like doing this.”
  • ABSOLUTE THINKING: A rigid and inflexible type of thinking. It takes the form of demanding (within yourself) that things should be what they are not. You think with over-simplistic phrases such as – “shoulds, musts, have-tos, oughts”.
  • MENTAL FILTER: You find and then dwell on negatives and other losses. Information that confirms your negative views are seen as proof, while facts that don’t fit are seen as rare exceptions and ignored; “nothing good ever happens to me”, “I will always lose”, “no one cares about me.”
  • PERSONALIZATION: You mistakenly believe you are the cause of events and that you’re the reason people act and feel as they do; “I was rejected because of my looks or my job.”
  • BLAMING: The opposite of personalization, the reason bad things are happening is because of what the other person is doing or not doing. You overlook your own contributions to the problem.

Skill to develop

The following method is for you to learn how to change your thoughts and patterns of thinking. Begin to realize that you are in control of the way you think and are therefore responsible for your thoughts. You can also work with a loved one or a family member on the following model to improve your thought patterns.

  • Track it! Keep a record of your negative thoughts using a thought record or journal
  • Identify particular situations that trigger negative thinking
  • Challenge the negative thought with truth and fact
  • Replace the negative with positive thoughts
  • Make the choice to stay positive as you face the situation

Exercise

Think of a situation you are not looking forward to. For example, you are going to travel alone to a new place. Let’s apply the following steps to our thought pattern:

  1. Bring yourself to imagine the situation that you are about to face.
  2. Allow yourself to experience the thought that runs through you as you process the whole encounter in your mind.
  3. Identify the thought that comes to mind. You probably think that you are going to be scared, you imagine getting lost, and you feel nervous and anxious and may even start to sweat a bit.
  4. Next, ask yourself how much of these feelings are based on actual truth and fact. When you realize that most of the negative feelings are just baseless and just passing, you can choose to ignore it and begin to counter act it with positive thoughts such as excitement, anticipation and looking forward to the adventure.
  5. Decide to focus on the positive outcome that this trip may bring rather than the negative which are not real anyway.
  6. Talk to a loved one you trust as you work through changing your thought patterns.

Changing your pattern of thoughts

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall

~Confucius.

This is republished with permission from Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH) THRIVE.

It is part of Achieving Happiness in Singapore, a toolkit by the Ministry of Health and Agency for

Integrated Care under the THRIVE-ASCAT Community Mental Health Programme.