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Anxiety & How to Reframe Your Unhelpful Thinking

Anxiety often stems from a complex interplay of various factors, including our thought patterns. Unhelpful thinking styles, also known as cognitive distortions, play a significant role in the development and maintenance of anxiety. These distorted ways of thinking can skew our perception of reality, making us more prone to worry, fear, and stress. Understanding the link between anxiety and unhelpful thinking styles is crucial, as it provides insight into how our minds work and offers a pathway to more effective management and relief. By identifying and addressing these unhelpful thinking patterns, we can begin to reframe our thoughts, reduce anxiety, and lead a more balanced life.

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What are Unhelpful Thinking Styles?

Unhelpful thinking styles, also known as cognitive distortions, are patterns of thinking that can reinforce negative emotions and exacerbate anxiety. These distorted thoughts often occur automatically and can feel convincing, making them challenging to identify and change.

We all have automatic thoughts – thoughts that happen so quickly and effortlessly that we might not even be aware we’ve had them. When we assume they’re true, we feel strong emotions (such as fear, anger, or shame) and can react equally severely. Automatic thoughts may feel convincing, but they are often exaggerated or distorted by certain biases, which psychologists call cognitive distortions or unhelpful thinking styles.

Here are some common unhelpful thinking styles:

1. Catastrophising

Catastrophising involves imagining the worst possible outcome in any situation. For example, if you make a minor mistake at work, you might immediately think you'll be fired.

2. Black-and-White Thinking

Also known as all-or-nothing thinking, this style involves seeing things in extremes with no middle ground. You might think, "If I'm not perfect, I'm a total failure."

3. Overgeneralisation

Overgeneralisation is making broad conclusions based on a single event. If something bad happens once, you might believe it will always happen.

4. Filtering

Filtering involves focusing solely on the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring any positives. For instance, you might receive five compliments and one criticism, but only remember the criticism.

5. Personalisation

Personalisation occurs when you blame yourself for events outside your control. You might think, "It's my fault that my friend is upset," even if their mood has nothing to do with you.

6. Mind Reading

Mind reading involves assuming you know what others are thinking, usually negative thoughts about yourself. For example, you might believe someone dislikes you without any evidence.

7. Should Statements

Using "should" statements can create unrealistic expectations and self-imposed pressure. You might think, "I should always be happy," which is an impossible standard.

8. Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is believing that your feelings reflect reality. If you feel anxious, you might conclude that you're in danger, even when you're safe.

Counsellors and psychologists commonly recognise several styles of unhelpful thinking, while the exact number can vary depending on the source, the most widely accepted and frequently cited list includes around 10 to 15 distinct cognitive distortions.

These cognitive distortions are addressed in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), where clients learn to identify, challenge, and reframe these unhelpful thinking patterns.

By doing so, they can develop more balanced and realistic ways of thinking, which can significantly improve their mental health and wellbeing.

How Unhelpful Thinking Styles Are Formed

Unhelpful thinking styles, or cognitive distortions, are habitual ways of thinking that can distort our perception of reality and contribute to negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, and stress. These thinking patterns often develop over time and can be influenced by a variety of factors, including past experiences, learned behaviours, and underlying beliefs. Here’s a deeper look into how unhelpful thinking styles are formed and some common types:

Past Experiences:

  • Childhood Influences: Early experiences, especially those involving trauma, criticism, or neglect, can significantly shape our thinking patterns. For example, a child who frequently hears negative feedback may develop a tendency towards self-criticism and catastrophising.

  • Significant Events: Major life events, such as losing a job, the death of a loved one, or a significant failure, can reinforce negative thinking patterns. These events can lead us to generalise our experiences, believing that similar outcomes will always occur.

Learned Behaviours:

  • Parental Influence: Parents and caregivers play a crucial role in the development of thinking styles. Children often model their thinking and behaviour based on what they observe in their parents. If a parent consistently engages in black-and-white thinking, the child might adopt a similar approach.

  • Social and Cultural Norms: Societal and cultural influences also shape our thinking patterns. Messages from media, societal expectations, and cultural beliefs can reinforce unhelpful thinking styles. For instance, societal pressure to be perfect can foster all-or-nothing thinking.

Underlying Beliefs:

  • Core Beliefs: Core beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world form the foundation of our thinking patterns. These beliefs are often deeply ingrained and can be positive or negative. Negative core beliefs, such as "I am unlovable" or "The world is a dangerous place," can lead to cognitive distortions.

  • Automatic Thoughts: Our core beliefs give rise to automatic thoughts, which are the immediate, reflexive thoughts we have in response to situations. These thoughts are often negative and distorted, perpetuating unhelpful thinking styles.

The Impact of Unhelpful Thinking Styles

Unhelpful thinking styles can significantly impact mental health by perpetuating a cycle of negative emotions and behaviours. They can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and stress, making it challenging to cope with everyday life. Recognising and addressing these thinking patterns is essential for improving mental wellbeing.

Changing unhelpful thinking styles involves a multi-step process that requires awareness, effort, and practice. The first crucial step is becoming aware of these thinking patterns. This can be achieved through mindfulness and self-reflection, which help you notice when you're engaging in distorted thinking. Once identified, the next step is to challenge these thoughts by examining the evidence for and against them. Ask yourself questions like, "Is there concrete evidence supporting this thought?" and "Are there alternative ways to view this situation?" This critical examination helps to break down the automatic acceptance of negative thoughts.

Reframing is another essential technique, where you replace distorted thoughts with more balanced, realistic ones. For example, instead of thinking, "I'll never succeed," reframe it to, "I can learn from this and try again." This shift in perspective can significantly alter your emotional response and behaviour. Practicing self-compassion is also vital. Recognise that everyone makes mistakes and experiences negative thoughts, and treat yourself with the same kindness you would offer a friend.

Self-compassion helps to counteract harsh self-criticism and fosters a more forgiving attitude towards oneself.

Additionally, maintaining a thought journal can be an effective tool for tracking and analysing your thoughts. Writing down situations that trigger anxiety and noting the accompanying thoughts can help you identify patterns over time. Seeking professional help, particularly through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), can provide structured support and strategies to change these patterns. A qualified counsellor can guide you through tailored techniques and offer the necessary support to implement these changes effectively. Engaging in regular practice and being patient with yourself throughout this process is crucial, as changing deeply ingrained thinking styles takes time and perseverance.

Unlocking the Path to Peace: The Benefits of Seeing a Counsellor for Anxiety and Unhelpful Thinking

Seeking the guidance of a counsellor can be transformative for those struggling with anxiety and unhelpful thinking styles. Counsellors are trained to provide a safe, non-judgmental space where you can explore your thoughts and feelings. Through techniques like cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), a counsellor can help you identify and challenge cognitive distortions, replacing them with healthier, more balanced thinking patterns. This process not only reduces anxiety but also enhances your overall mental well-being. Counsellors offer personalised strategies and coping mechanisms tailored to your unique situation, empowering you to manage anxiety more effectively. Additionally, having a professional to support and guide you through this journey can increase your self-awareness, build resilience, and improve your ability to navigate life's challenges. Ultimately, seeing a counsellor can unlock the path to a more peaceful, fulfilling life, free from the grip of anxiety and negative thought patterns.

ABOUT PRUE LONGSTAFF, COUNSELLOR Prue Longstaff, a mental health specialist and registered counsellor based in Mansfield, Victoria, is a member of the Mental Health Academy, an organisation that ensures ongoing professional development. Additionally, she is accredited by the Australian Counselling Association (ACA). Using the most recent evidence-based research and her professional connections with top organisations such as the Australian Institute of Family Services (AIFS), Emerging Minds, Black Dog Institute, Melbourne University's Tuning into Teens (TINT) program, and many more, Prue offers her practice a wealth of experience and knowledge. Prue's sympathetic manner and customised interventions demonstrate her unwavering dedication to promoting clients' wellbeing. Prue's work is informed by a profound comprehension of the distinct obstacles encountered by her clients, guaranteeing that her clients have the necessary care and support to flourish.


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