Tool 5: Consider More Helpful Thoughts

There are so many ways our thoughts can trap us in distressing feelings. Luckily we can learn how to get out of these traps.

Here are some tips.  

Tip 1: Use the Thought Diary to help you capture your thoughts about situations that come up in your daily life. Once you know what you are thinking, you can start to identify Thinking Traps and begin the process of freeing yourself from them. Find keeping a thought diary challenging? Check out the Troubleshooting tips. 

Tip 2: Take a step back and treat your thoughts as opinions you have about situations, rather than facts, even when they feel true. Recognizing thoughts as opinions helps to create some distance between you as an individual and your thoughts, therefore allowing you to look at your thoughts more objectively.

Tip 3: Be curious: observe what you think and consider different perspectives. After all, our thoughts are our perceptions about what’s going on, not necessarily what’s really going on. Consider the possibility that another person could have totally different thoughts about the exact same situation.

Tip 4: Take a moment (e.g., take a few deep breaths, listen to music, light a candle – see Taking Care for more ideas). Thinking differently is hard work, especially when emotions are running high. Some people find gaining new perspectives easier when they give themselves a chance to do something soothing

Tip 5: Don’t be discouraged if you did not feel much better after trying on the more helpful and balanced thought. The goal is not to have only positive thoughts and feelings. Having negative feelings and thoughts is part of being human. The goal is to learn to consider different perspectives and think flexibly. Increased mental flexibility has many benefits, including being less likely to stay stuck in thinking traps.  

 

Examples of more helpful thinking

 Thinking Trap Questions to Ask Yourself Realistic Thinking

Jumping to Conclusions
I’m not going to the local new mom group because I won’t fit in. Talking to other mothers will just highlight how little I know about being a mother.

  • What evidence do I have to support my thought?
  • Is there any evidence to suggest this might not be the case? 
I can’t really predict what’s going to happen. The first time is usually the hardest. But I don’t have any evidence that I definitely won’t fit in. It will likely get easier as I attend the group more regularly. If I don’t try, I’ll never know.
Worst-Case Scenario
I can't stop comparing my son to other children his age. If I find that he is developing slower, I worry that he’ll always be behind and won’t be successful in life … and I won’t know how to help him.

 

  • Am I assuming the worst-case scenario?
  • What is the more likely scenario?
  • Is there anything I can do to cope, if something bad did happen?
  • Have I coped with difficult life circumstances before? Am I underestimating my ability to cope with difficulties and challenges?
I am assuming the worst here. I am not an expert in child development. I don’t actually know for sure that my child is slower in his development in comparison to other children his age. Every child develops at his or her own pace. Even if my child is in fact a bit “behind” now doesn’t mean he’ll remain behind and not succeed in life. Although I can’t imagine being able to deal with the worst-case scenario right now, I’ve always surprised myself about how well I rise up to challenges.
 

It’s All My Fault
It must have been my fault that I ended up having an emergency C-section. There must have been SOMETHING I could have done to prevent it.

 

  • Am I taking on responsibility for things outside of my control?
  • Have I considered other factors or people that might influence the situation?
  • How much control do I really have over this situation?
  • Am I holding myself responsible for something not entirely within my control?

I did the best I could to prepare for the birth, but no one has control over every part of childbirth, not even doctors. I can hold myself responsible for this, but is it helpful? I can’t control what happened. The important thing is that both the baby and I are safe and healthy. It’s okay that I feel sad and disappointed about it. It is probably more helpful for me to acknowledge how I feel and start focusing on the present.

Harsh Critic
I SHOULD always be able to soothe my child right away when she is upset. I’m a bad mother for not being able to do so.

 

  • Would I talk to someone I care about this way? What might I say to them if they were in a similar situation?
  • Is this way of talking to myself or thinking about others helpful?
  • What would be a more objective or compassionate way of talking to myself or thinking about others?

It is unhelpful and unrealistic to expect that I should always be able to soothe my daughter right away. Sometimes she just needs to take her time to express how she feels. I am not a bad mother if she cried longer than I would have liked.

Black-and-White Thinking
My son’s birth was a horrible experience and I feel like a failure. I had an epidural even though I planned not to have one.

  • Is there a less extreme way of looking at this situation?
  • Am I ignoring information between the extremes? Are there some “greys” in the situation? 

Although I planned on having a natural, drug-free birthing experience, the epidural was something I really needed to cope with the pain. I know it’s important to let my “perfect birth” go. My labour was very long, and most women would have needed assistance with the pain at that point too. I have to remember I was in a completely different mind state then, and there was so much going on.

 

Confusing Thoughts with Actual Probability
I get horrific images of my child catching some disease and being very ill. This is a sign that it’s likely to happen and I need to be extra careful about cleanliness.

  • How many times have I thought _____ and how many times has it come true? What evidence do I have?
  • Have I ever thought something bad might happen but it never did? What about something bad that happened but I never thought about it?
  • (When appropriate, try Anxiety Experiments.)

Imagining my baby getting sick is scary, but it’s no more likely to come true than images or thoughts that do not make me anxious. My baby is likely to be just as healthy before I started my long cleaning rituals. I can take a small step to test this out. For example, for one week I can wash the crib sheets once every two days, instead of every day, and see what happens.

Confusing Thoughts with Actions
Whenever I feel frustrated with my daughter, I get scary thoughts about hurting her. What if these thoughts are trying to warn me that I could snap sometime and actually do it? I try to spend as little alone time with her as I can to make sure that I do not act on my thoughts.

 

  • Does having a thought equal to action?
  • Am I using a double-standard? If someone I knew well had the same thought, would I hold the same attitude towards that person?
  • If I were the prosecuting attorney and had to convince the court that someone is guilty, how would I do that? Would I need to produce hard evidence or simply argue how guilty I feel the person is?

Having these scary thoughts would be upsetting to anyone. But it does not mean that I will actually hurt my daughter or that I do not love her. When I shared these thoughts with a good friend, she was not at all worried that I would act on them. She also did not think less of me as a mother. She told me that she had similar thoughts when her son was young and that these thoughts are common for new moms.   

If It Feels True, It Must Be True
I feel unsure of myself, therefore I must not know what I’m doing as a mother.

 

  • Am I using emotions too much as a guide?
  • Am I telling myself that feeling anxious means something really bad is going to happen? Other than the feeling, what evidence do I have?
  • Have I felt anxious about things in the past and nothing bad came out of it? How is this approach working out? Has it helped manage my anxiety?
Feeling unsure of myself as a mother doesn’t mean I don’t know what I am doing. In fact, from my experience talking to other mothers, most feel the same way I do, even the ones I thought looked so competent. I need to remember that motherhood isn’t an exact science and there is no one right way to raise a child. Feeling unsure is normal, and probably just means I care.


NOTE:
While many people have found these tools to un-trap their thinking really useful, some people, particularly those who tend to overanalyze their thoughts, have not always found these tools helpful.

Give these above tools a good try for at least two weeks. The more effort you put in, the more likely you will see (and feel!) the results. If you don’t find them effective, try Tool 6, R.O.L.L with Anxious Thoughts. You might find learning to let go of your anxiety-provoking thoughts a better fit for the way your mind works.

Remember, there is no one size that fits all!