Your thinking in any given moment is affected by a long list of factors. Some of these factors are in your control, some of them not so much.

The thoughts that run through your head are a unique and ever-changing product of:

  • How you are feeling emotionally
  • Your past experiences and assumptions
  • The environment and people around you
  • Whether you are tired, thirsty, warm enough (if you live anywhere near Melbourne) or hungry (hangry anyone?)
  • Situational factors such as going through a break-up or becoming a new parent
  • Your hormones and physical health
  • Your general mental health

Your thinking can become particularly affected if you are mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, stress, grief or trauma. In fact, significant changes in thinking are key symptoms for each of these mental health issues.

That said, regardless of whether you are experiencing mental health issues, at times pretty much all of us experience unbalanced, biased or distorted thinking. It’s an unavoidable part of being human!

But…if you can name it, you can tame it…at least a little.

Here are some of the most common thinking traps:

#1 “What if” thoughts

When you feel stressed, overwhelmed or scared do you notice an endless string of “what if” thoughts? What if I don’t end up getting this done on time? What if I run out of money? What if she feels let down by me? What if I can’t cope? What if I never feel better?

#2 Predicting the worst (or catastraphising)

You predict that the worst-case scenario will unfold without considering other potential outcomes. For example, you have a disagreement with your partner and decide that this means you are not suited to one another or that you will break up.

#3 Black and white thinking

Thinking about people, situations or yourself in a polarised, all-or-nothing way. This type of thinking excludes a “grey” or middle ground perspective. For example, if you didn’t do as well as you liked on a task you say to yourself, “I’ve completely failed”.

#4 Biased filtering

Honing in on information that is negative and filtering out information that is positive. This thinking is a type of tunnel vision. For example, you focus in on all of the areas of life you want to improve or change without considering the parts of your life that bring you joy or a sense of achievement.

#5 Emotional reasoning

You “feel” and believe that something is true, so you tell yourself it must be. For example, you come out of an interview “knowing” it didn’t go well before you have confirmation of the outcome.

#6 Discounting positive information

You discount, ignore or reject positive information. For example, you receive positive feedback from colleagues about a project, but conclude that it was a fluke or that they were just being nice.

#7 Should-ing and must-ing

You create hard and fast rules for yourself and others based on unrealistic expectations. These rules create excessive pressure and demands for yourself and others. For example, “I should always be productive”, “we must always get along”, “people should always agree with me”, or “I must always be a good parent”.

#8 Personalising

Assuming that situations or people’s reactions relate to you without considering other potential explanations. For example, your friend is irritable when you chat on the phone so you assume she is annoyed at you (when there are many other potential reasons she could be feeling this way).

#9 Jumping to conclusions

This involves basing your thinking on a small amount of information. For example, you notice a lump in your neck and you assume that you must have a serious medical condition or your child is late coming home so you assume something terrible has happened.

#10 Mind-reading

Feeling that you know what another person is thinking. Usually when we mind-read we assume that the other person is judging us. For example, you might convince yourself that your partner thinks you are being needy or that a friend thinks you are boring. 

Getting to know your own thinking traps

Next time you notice a sudden shift in your emotions experiment with tuning into the thoughts that are making you feel this way. What is it that you are saying to yourself that’s leading you to feel hurt, angry, scared or lonely (insert any emotion here)?

We all have “favourite” thinking traps. Those thoughts that we just can’t help but be sucked in by when we feel sad, rejected, jealous or ashamed. If you notice particular thinking styles popping up again and again for you, you might find a particular Cognitive Behaviour Therapy technique called thought challenging useful. This technique helps you to unpack your thoughts in an objective, balanced way.