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  • Writer's pictureKate Bradshaw

The Power of Thinking

Our thoughts – or the way that we interpret events in our life (past, present or future) – are integral to whether we emotionally feel stressed.

Most of our thoughts are unconscious (i.e., below our level of awareness); however, with practice and over time you can train yourself to be more aware of your thoughts.

  • When you are having a stress-related thought, ask yourself: “is this thought serving a useful function?”

  • Ask yourself how accurate & valid your appraisal is of a stressful situation.

  • When you have had this thought in the past, how often were you right?

  • Did what you worry or fear actually happen when you dealt with this stressor in the past?

  • What would you say to a close friend in a similar situation?

When we experience a stressor, our body undergoes a series of physiological changes (“the stress response”). There are 3 key stages to the stress response: Stage 1 – Energy Mobilization: The human body responds to stress by activating the nervous system and specific hormones. The adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, which leads to physiological changes such as increased heart rate, facial flushing, increased blood pressure, and increased rate of breathing. Blood vessels open wider (to allow more blood flow to large muscle groups, putting our muscles on alert). Pupils dilate (to improve vision). The liver releases stored glucose (to increase the body’s energy). Sweat is produced (to cool the body). All of these physical changes prepare a person to react quickly and effectively to handle the pressure of the moment. Stage 2 – Consumption of Energy Stores: If you do not for some reason move past the first stage, the human body starts to use existing energy stores (e.g., releasing stored sugars and fats). Side effects include feeling driven, pressured and fatigued. You may begin to engage in behaviours (drinking more coffee, smoking more, and drinking more alcohol) than is good for you. You may also experience ongoing anxiety, attention/concentration problems, some difficulty with sleep, and be more likely to get sick (colds or flus) more often. Stage 3 – Draining of Energy Stores: If stress is not resolved, your body’s need for energy will become greater than its ability to produce that energy, and chronic stress may result. You may experience chronic insomnia, ongoing errors in judgement, and changes in personality (e.g., increased irritability, frustration, anger, depression). You may also develop a serious health condition (e.g., heart disease, ulcers, clinical depression, or anxiety). Certain types or patterns of thoughts tend to trap us in anxiety. These are called Thinking Traps. Below are some common unhelpful thinking styles that keep people “trapped” in distress. ”It’s common to fall into these traps every now and then for brief periods of time. But if you experience problematic anxiety, you might find yourself falling into these traps frequently and getting stuck in them. Knowing your thinking traps gives you a quick way to know when not to trust what you think. We all do it sometimes, and recognising when we are using them is an important step for releasing their hold on us. Here are some very common types of thinking traps:

Catastrophizing Catastrophizing is when you think that a situation is going to have the worst possible outcome despite the odds of that outcome being quite low or despite there being little evidence to support the possibility of that outcome. For example, you are running late for work for the first time and you think, “I’m going to get fired.” This is catastrophizing because it’s highly unlikely that you will be fired from work for being late once, you’re thinking of the worst outcome for the situation. Similarly, probability overestimating is when you overestimate the likelihood of a particular outcome. For example, you may avoid leaving your house because you think there is a high likelihood that you will be accosted or mugged on the street when in reality this is a very rare occurrence. Overgeneralising Overgeneralising happens when you make a broad generalisation or label yourself or someone else using little information or when you see a pattern based on a single event. For example, you trip on the stairs at the shopping mall one day and think, “I’m such a clutz.” You are using this one instance to conclude that you are a clutz and ignoring all of the evidence suggesting that you are not a clutz (e.g., you walk upstairs every day without tripping), you’re overgeneralising. Filtering Out the Positive Problematic thoughts sometimes come up when we fail to recognize positive aspects of a situation and instead focus on the negative aspects or what went wrong. You may feel that one negative outweighs ten positives, and thus you disregard or “filter out” positive information. For example, you hold an important meeting at work to introduce a new project. The meeting goes really well and everyone seems positive about the plan. However, one employee has a question that you are unable to answer and you will have to get back to them later. You feel unhappy and frustrated with yourself that you were unable to answer the question, despite the fact that the meeting as a whole was a success. In this case, you’ve filtered out all the positive aspects of the situation and are focusing on a small negative. All-Or-Nothing Thinking Seeing situations in black and white terms, without acknowledging nuance or grey areas, is all-or-nothing thinking. For example, you decide to take a course at the local college and you get a B instead of an A, you think to yourself “I didn’t get an A, I’m a failure”. You didn’t acknowledge any grey area or consider other reasons for why you may not have gotten an A. Perhaps you had a difficult time balancing work and school or maybe you simply need to hone some of your study techniques. The automatic conclusion that you’re a failure is all-or nothing thinking. Mind Reading Mind reading is when you make an assumption about what someone else is thinking with little supporting evidence or confirmation from the person. For example, you make eye contact with someone who is laughing to herself on the bus, you instantly think “she thinks I look funny.” That’s mind reading because you are making an assumption about what someone else is thinking with no evidence or confirmation to support your assumption. When people engage in mind reading, they tend to overestimate the degree to which others’ thoughts and actions are directed towards them – more often than not, people are thinking more about themselves and their lives than they are about the strangers on the bus. Personalisation Personalisation is when you assign responsibility to people for something that is not entirely within their control or that are the result of many factors. This can include blaming yourself for something that wasn’t completely your fault or blaming other people for something that was, in some way, your fault. For example, your co-worker is unable to cover one of your shifts, you think, “it’s his fault that I can’t attend my friend’s birthday.” This is personalisation because it is not your co-worker’s responsibility to cover your shift and it is not their fault that you cannot attend your friend’s birthday party. Step 1: Identify Your Goal

  • Pick a specific behaviour to change. Start with no more than one to two behaviours to change at a time. Define in exact terms what you would like to change.

  • Ensure that your goal is measurable. To change your goal, you will have to know where you are headed, and how to determine if you are getting/have gotten there.

  • Pick an attainable goal. The goal should be something that, based upon the life you are living, is something that you can achieve.

  • Ensure the goal is realistic. You may want to lose 10 kgs, but a realistic goal may be to lose 5 kgs this year and 5 kgs the following year.

  • Ensure the goal is time-limited. Set a specific period of time in which you will accomplish your goal. Behavioural change takes a series of steps, and those steps can each be accomplished over a specific period of time. As you accomplish your time-limited steps, you can reward yourself for successes.

Step 2: Identify your Readiness to Change

  • Before you begin, ask yourself questions such as “how ready am I really?”... “is this the right time for me to make a change?”...”what are the pros and cons of changing?”.

  • Consider the benefits of the change. How can you begin to make the change in a realistic fashion? What would life be like if you didn’t make the change? Is the change worth it? How or why? How would the change impact your life in a positive manner?

  • Consider how the change fits in with other important life values that you hold. Prepare to change. Gather the information and tools that you need. Anticipate setbacks. Remember that small change is better than no change. Get support as you start to make the change.

  • As you start change, consider how to build upon the behaviour over time. What other behaviours can you add in?

  • Once the behaviour change has been made, consider how to transition to a long-term maintenance plan. How can you sustain this behaviour change over time?

Step 3: Identify Barriers

  • Anticipate setbacks. If you have tried to make this change in the past, what got in the way of the change being successful before? Problem-solve the barriers that you have encountered in the past.

  • Identify the pros of not changing the behaviour (this can often help you appreciate why the change has not yet happened). Identify the cons of changing (the reasons the change may be difficult to do).

  • Establish a specific contingency plan for each of the barriers you identify

Step 4: Implement Change

Identifying the following cognitive processes of change can help increase the likelihood of behavioural change:

  • Barriers/traps: identify the common barriers you may encounter.

  • Increase knowledge: obtain the background information you may need to make the change.

  • Identify the consequences of changing and not changing – what are the potential impacts if you both did and did not make the change?

  • Understand the benefits of the change – how would the change impact your life in an immediate/meaningful way?

  • Identify options – what are the various options you have for change? There are often several paths to the same end goal.

  • Identifying the following behavioural processes of change can help increase the likelihood of behavioural change:

  • Substitute alternatives: be flexible and identify different ways you can achieve your overall goal.

  • Enlist supports: find a friend or co-worker that may also want to make the change. It can often be easier to make change when you are making the change with someone else.

  • Reward yourself: make sure that you reinforce and reward yourself for small successes.

  • Set triggers & reminders: when life gets busy and other stressors enter our lives, it can be easy to let good self-care fall behind.

  • Obtain a baseline of your behaviour. Track your usual activity for a week. This can often help you to identify patterns in your day and help identify times when it would be easier to implement the change.

  • Be aware of the powerful impact that conditioning plays in activity and behaviour. Actively work to change habits that you may have gotten into that are not conducive to achieving your goal.

  • Approach behavioural change gradually. Make small, specific changes.

  • Make a schedule with yourself to build the activity into your day-to-day life.

  • Follow the “double-time” rule where you schedule double the time you think it would take to achieve the change.

Step 5: Revisit & Revise

  • Do not get discouraged by setbacks. If you are not on track with the changes you identified, work to identify the barriers. Were your expectations too high? Was the specific goal you set too ambitious?

  • Revise your goal as necessary.

  • Expect & visualize success.

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