cut through noise of mental chatter

Photo credit: Julie Hutchings

When I studied cognitive-behavioural therapy (and later used the techniques in practise) one of my key starting points was to look at a persons unhelpful thoughts.

There are a lot of different “categories”, but at their core, these are unconscious or subconscious thoughts which arrive in our head without any real planning. We have very little control over them entering our mind.

However, the key is to control what happens once they have arrived.

Some common examples of these less-than-helpful thoughts may be about ourselves:

“I’m doing it wrong”
“I’m embarrassing myself”
“I chose the wrong thing”
“I can’t escape”

Equally, they may focus on the situation or world outside of us:

“Life is so unfair”
“This always happens”
“This is just my luck”

Finally, these thoughts could focus on another person.

“You never listen to me”
“He shouldn’t have said that”
“What a complete idiot”

Some thinking styles are Unhelpful.

In CBT, we call these Unhelpful Thinking Styles, and usually, when we’re stressed, a few ‘types’ will tend to be our default thoughts.

For example, when I get angry or stressed out, my brain fills with SHOULDs and MUSTs. I HAVE TO do this. When I notice myself muttering to myself or even saying to a friend “I can’t do that because I have to do ___”, that’ a sign that an unhelpful thought has arrived.

Another example might be that of generalisation: taking the pattern of an event or two, and applying them to every situation. These are often denoted by use of ALWAYS and NEVER in your thoughts or speech.

The next step is to pause.

Identifying these thoughts takes a bit of time to do easily. I’ve been studying my mental language since 2005, and I’m certainly far from perfect – but it can be done, and even though we may never escape it, in just a few weeks, we can improve that inner noise.

This pausing is a behaviour, and that can take it’s own time to change.

Pause, and just question the thought. It may not be true, in which case you can pretty much discount it and move forward.

  • Will this matter in five years time? In a week’s time?
  • Is this thought worth it? How much time and energy am I spending on this?
  • Am I right to think that….? Does the evidence support this? Is it true?
  • What would a friend say to me if I told them this?
  • Is this a helpful way to think?
  • Would I be thinking this if I weren’t stressed, overwhelmed or anxious?

These questions won’t change the thought or stop it being thought, but rather than follow those unhelpful phrases; seeking out proof or distracting ourselves, we can say “huh, turns out it’s not really true and if it were, I’d do this. Cool, I don’t need to worry then, I’ve got a plan.”

What key thoughts come to your mind when you’re stressed?

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