The Thoughts We Think
How changing our minds can change our lives
Last week I completed a new coaching training. There was a strong focus on Cognitive Behavioural Coaching (same same but different to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy); some of the content I was familiar with, some was brand new to me. All of it was very helpful.
Inspired by that, I thought this week it might be good to share two of my favourite psychological coaching tools - the ones that I believe anyone can use to create a better relationship with their mind. (Tbh, I share this kind of stuff most weeks, just in a less explicit way.) Also, I’ve just remembered it’s Valentines Day! So a perfect time to remind ourselves that the relationship we have with ourselves and our own mind is the most important relationship of our lives!
I’ve always loved the analogy that humans are like bridges – we can all carry different loads and all have different breaking points (which of course change throughout our lives, depending on what else is going on).
Our wellbeing, ie. how strong we are as a bridge, depends on a balance between the resources we have (internal and external) and the challenges we face - what life throws at us. And since we can’t control what life is gonna throw, it’s a good idea to strengthen our internal resources, so that we can face the inevitable ups and downs.
MODERN LIFE, AGAIN!
As I may have already mentioned (A MILLION TIMES), modern life creates unique conditions that exacerbate our emotional responses to situations, and our ancient brains (or more specifically, the pre-historic part of our brains, the limbic system – resp for triggering our feelings of stress and anxiety) struggles to respond appropriately.
Essentially, this ancient part of our brain is incredible - it’s programmed to react, involuntarily, to any perceived threat or sense of danger. Meaning it will respond before we’ve even realised we’re in danger, (hence you hear of people jumping out of the way of a car without even knowing they’ve jumped).
As you probably know, this is called the fight, flight, or freeze response, and it evolved as a survival mechanism. Unfortunately, the brain often overreacts to modern stressful situations and thoughts which are not life-threatening, from the banal (traffic jams) to the more emotionally taxing (relationships with colleagues).
There are two ways we can help the brain to react in a different way. We can teach the ancient part of the brain to stay calm (also known as activating the parasympathetic nervous system), or we can increase and bolster the newer part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex. This is the part that is responsible for reasoning, thinking, and rationality, and that’s what I’m going to focus on today.
Here are two of my favourite, pre-frontal bolstering coaching tools to empower you to strengthen that bridge…
The next time you find yourself in a stressful or anger-inducing situation, I’d like you to ask yourself 4 questions about your thoughts.
Is this a real problem or a hypothetical one? Is there something immediate that is affecting me in the here and now, or is it something I’m thinking about which might happen in the future.
Is what I’m thinking right now logical? Would a scientist agree with me? Where is the evidence for this thought? Does it follow reason?
Is what I’m thinking rational? Does it make sense? Is it realistic? Is it proportional?
Finally, is my thought helpful? Ie: where is this thought getting you? Because if it’s not helping you move through a situation with more clarity, compassion, and understanding, if it’s not helping you move closer to your goals in life, if it’s not creating an internal mental environment which is nurturing and supportive, then it’s probably harming you. It’s probably holding you back.
I believe this final question is the SINGLE most important question to start asking yourself about your thoughts in order to create a happier, healthier mind.
THINKING ERRORS V.S. THINKING SKILLS
Psychologists have identified 15 unhelpful ways of thinking (aka ‘thinking errors’ or ‘stress inducing thoughts’) that frequently contribute to stress and anxiety, as well as hinder successful problem solving and general happiness. If you’d like a more comprehensive list you can download it here, but for now I’m going to focus on 3 unhelpful thoughts and their helpful counterparts (aka ‘thinking skills’).
Thinking Error 1: All or Nothing thinking
Viewing things in absolute, extreme terms without any shades of grey. For example:
My friend always makes the same mistakes
I am always stressed
Thinking Error 2: Catastrophising or Awfulising
Blowing the significance of events out of proportion. For example:
If I lose my job, it will be the end of the world
If I don’t recover quickly from this illness, everything is going to go wrong in my life. I will never get better and I will feel awful.
Thinking Error 3: Mind Reading
Inferring from people’s behaviour (or simply deciding without even seeing any behaviour from them!) that they are either thinking or reacting negatively towards us. For example:
My friend just cancelled my call, she must be angry with me. What have I done now?
I’m sure I’m going to get fired because my boss ignored me this morning.
Does any of that sound familiar so far…? I know it does to me! Now let me show you the three corresponding thinking skills, those that we can replace our thinking errors with, in order to give our minds less mental kindling for the emotional fires.
Thinking Skill 1: Relative Thinking
If you’re perceiving events in extreme terms, try to introduce shades of grey. Find some middle ground and keep things in perspective. For example:
My friend sometimes makes that mistake, but she also tries not to. I also make mistakes.
Yes there are stressful events happening in my life right now, but there are moments (even if they feel brief) where I do not feel stressed and instead feel relaxed.
Thinking Skill 2: Demagnify or de-awfulise
Whatever the situation, if you blow it out of proportion you are very likely to make it worse. Remember the last of those socratic challenges: Is this thought helpful?? Of course an event or situation may be difficult to deal with, and it may be painful or terrible, but seldom is it ‘the end of the world’. Distance yourself so that you can see the wood from the trees. For example:
If I lose my job, it may be awful for a little while. But I am good at what I do, and I will find another job (perhaps an even better one!)
I would like to get better quickly, however if I don’t then the best thing I can do is listen to my body and treat myself with care. I don’t know what will happen in the future so I will not try to predict it (unfavourably) now.
Thinking Skill 3: Seek Evidence
Avoid mind-reading or making assumptions by looking for the evidence for and against your stress or anxiety-inducing ideas. This may involve asking someone to share their thoughts with you, or challenging your thinking behaviourally. For example:
My friend just cancelled my call, I’ll send her a text to let her know I’m thinking of her & to ask her to call back when she’s free.
My boss ignored me this morning. Maybe she’s stressed and it has nothing to do with me, but I’ll make sure to keep working hard and check in with her casually later to be sure.
To not accept the thoughts that arise in your mind as fact, or truth, is hard. It’s not a one time thing, but rather a life’s work. I know from personal experience that I still have to challenge my brain on certain subjects, beliefs and thoughts. Especially when I am more stressed, tired or overworked than usual – my brain gets lazy and returns to old thought patterns which I know don’t serve me!
But it’s also immensely rewarding. While you can’t control everything that happens to you, you can shape the way you think, and in doing so build a happier, healthier mind.
Hopefully one of those tools resonates with you. I’d love to hear your feedback, &/or if you have any other tools you love to use!