A note on thoughts and thinking

Thoughts are just thoughts. 

We have 60,000+ thoughts per day; this means between 35 and 48 thoughts per minute, per person! They just arise within us. They are there. There is nothing we can do about that. But we do not have to react to them or even believe them, as often they are not true. They are just thoughts, and just like clouds, they pass on by.

The important thing is to start to choose which thoughts you give the most attention to. This is important, as thoughts can create feelings. The quality of your life is dependent on the focus of your attention. For example;

  • How you see it; catastrophe. How you will feel; fearful
  • How you see it; problem. How you will feel; stressed out
  • How you see it; opportunity. How you will feel; curious

Our brains are hard-wired to be alert to danger. There is a TED talk online called 'HardWiring Happiness' by Rick Hansen which discusses this. This part of the brain kicks in and is useful when crossing the road, for example, or walking near a cliff. But when out of balance, we tend to think negatively, and our alertness to danger becomes so expanded that we expect and perceive danger when it isn’t even there, or it's only very minor.

Whenever we become aware that we are experiencing strong feelings of a particular emotion - sadness, anger, happiness, joy, or any other emotion - it may mean that we are paying too much attention to particular thoughts and that they have created this state. However, these thoughts may be exaggerations and might be overlooking important information. Choosing to believe thoughts that are 'catastrophic', 'black or white', or 'mind-reading' (or other unhelpful thinking styles; see below) is not useful, as sometimes these can create negative emotions. They are often irrational and fear-based due to past or imagined future experiences when we only ever need be in the present, but that's for another article!

False evidence appearing real - FEAR

The past is the past - it does not equal the future. Some very common unhelpful thinking styles include;

  • Mental filter - filtering in and out information but focusing only on the negative and overlooking positive information.
  • Predictions - making quick, negative assumptions without knowing for sure, e.g. "What if...? What if...?"
  • Personalisation - unnecessary self-blame, over-identifying, or a magnified sense of responsibility.
  • Black and white thinking - seeing only the polar extremes of any situation, forgetting the grey area, and overlooking the multitude of other possibilities that are often available, for example;
    • right or wrong
    • yes or no
    • good or bad
  • Catastrophising - making problems seem more horrible then they are in reality; "Making mountains out of molehills".
    • "It’s a disaster! It’s awful! Life will never be the same again!"
    • "It's so dreadful! I made a mistake"
    • "It’s horrifying - I missed the bus!"
    • "It was awful - I was in the queue for 20 mins!"
  • Overgeneralisation - making broad generalisations with little evidence;
    • "No one likes him" (how could you possibly really know that!)
    • "I never get anything right!" (oh come on!)
  • 'Should's' and 'must's' - putting unreasonable pressures and demands on ourselves or others;
    • "I should have known!" (well you didn’t, and that’s OK!)
    • "They should be more considerate" (why? Don’t make assumptions before knowing the facts! We don't know what anyone else is going through internally)
  • Labelling - making global statements labelling others and ourselves upon behaviour in very specific situations;
    • "I’m a failure" (we all have bad days! Don’t judge yourself on a snapshot of your day or life)
    • "She's horrible" (we all have bad days! Don’t judge someone else on a snapshot of their day or life)
  • Comparing and despairing - always finding yourself lacking in your comparison with others. We tend to look at the achievements of others (not their flaws) and compare this with our flaws (but not our achievements). That’s not fair!
  • Emotional reasoning - taking emotions as evidence of truth; "I feel anxious, so I must be in danger!"

This is not so - emotion is just thought in physical form. Just because we think and can feel something, it doesn't make it true.

By learning to become consciously aware of unhelpful thinking as it comes up for you, you will begin to recognise your patterns and tendencies and be better able to recognise that when you think in these ways, it can affect your mood negatively.

Test thoughts for their validity or truth, especially if they contain the following words:

  • "What if..."
  • "Always"
  • "Never"
  • "Everyone"
  • "Nobody"
  • "Should/should not"
  • "Must/must not"
  • "Cannot/can't"

Why? These are very restrictive words, and they are untrue. Never and always indicate that we are using generalisations, for example;

"I never have fun" sounds untrue - it would mean that one has never experienced fun. "I always have fun" also sounds untrue - it would mean that one has never experienced not having fun. A fairer version of this idea would be "I often have fun but sometimes I do not have as much fun".

"What if" indicates that our thinking is 'predicting' - looking into the future, telling ourselves stories, and creating pictures in our mind to scare ourselves with.

Now I don’t know about you, but I cannot tell what is going to happen in the future - can you?

To improve the emotional state, one can start replacing unhelpful thinking with realistic, balanced, fair, truer thinking.

We can start using more flexible words like "often", "sometimes", "could", "would", and "might". By giving ourselves more flexibility in our thinking, we are opening up possibilities and choices. We can question our thoughts by simply asking, "Is this true?".

A note on moods

Our moods change like the weather, just like our thoughts. Moods and thoughts pass-on-by like clouds! Everybody experiences the whole spectrum of moods, ranging from low to high;

  • When we are in a low mood, we tend to see things negatively/narrowly, and we may feel weak (as our thinking affects our physical being too). If we are hungry, tired, or stressed out, we are more likely to be in a low mood.
  • When in a high mood, we are more robust and able to get perspective; to see the bigger picture, feel good, and have energy!
  • Sometimes we are in a medium mood, with not too much of this or that. The middle ground - the grey - can be a content place to be. Sometimes it is good to acknowledge that you're OK. Remind yourself often that moods change, just like thoughts change, and just like the weather changes.

Check-in on yourself - what kind of mood are you in? If you're in a low mood, it may not be the time to make important decisions. Remember that we lack perspective when we are in a low mood; we often see the glass half empty.

  • Remember - thoughts are just thoughts. We can choose not to engage with a particular thought. We convince ourselves that it is people, trains, or spiders that make us anxious, but actually, it is our thinking about it - not the thing itself.
  • Remember - if you are having a strong feeling (sadness, anger, etc), it’s a good indication that you are thinking in a particular way and that you have created the feeling.
  • Remember - if you have created a strong feeling by thinking in a particular way, use some tools; breathe, relax, rationalise, and ask if this thought is true.
  • Use your imagination differently. Tell yourself some more realistic stuff, and use evidence from history to challenge any negative thoughts. Poke some fun at these thoughts - "Oh it’s you again!"
  • Remember - you are only ever one thought away from being OK.

To understand how your thinking affects your moods and to develop your understanding of the above, you could try some of my favourite suggestions below, or there is plenty of information on the Counselling Directory, Youtube, TED Talks, Getselfhelp, etc.

Recommended reading

  • 'How To Make Yourself Happy and Remarkably Less Disturbable' - Albert Ellis
  • 'Self Compassion' - Dr Kristin Neff
  • 'Mindful Path to Self Compassion' - Germer
  • 'The Power of Neuroplasticity' - Shad Helmsetter
  • 'What to Say When You Talk to Yourself' - Shad Helmsetter
  • 'The Gifts of Imperfection' - Brene Brown
  • 'The Four Agreements' - Don Miguel Ruiz
  • 'Mindful Way Through Depression' - Jon Kabatt Zin
  • 'Inside Out Revolution' - Michael Neill
  • 'The Power of Now' - Eckhart Tolle

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Claire M Deane BSc.(Hons) Dip CBT. Reg. MBACP

Degree level BACP registered Counsellor I provide private support to long or short term clients weekly, face to face and over skype. Clients can self-refer or access support via healthcare providers or EAP. I work with mild to moderate mental health issues including substance use and co-morbid disorders.… Read more

Written by Claire M Deane BSc.(Hons) Dip CBT. Reg. MBACP

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