Do you sometimes find yourself getting caught up in a storm of negative thoughts? Thought challenging might be just the anchor you need.

What is a thought?

Thoughts are mental events that happen in our minds. They can take the form of an image, words or even sounds. Thoughts are sometimes referred to as cognitions.

When we’re feeling bombarded by negative thinking, it can be tempting to try to shift things with a giant dose of “positive thinking”. We might tell ourselves to look on the bright side or go searching for the silver lining. While whipping our thoughts into shape with this glass-half-full approach can sometimes be just the antidote to our monkey-minds, sometimes it gets a little old…and frustrating… and hard to believe.

Enter thought challenging…

Thought challenging is a simple and effective Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) technique. Thought challenging isn’t about thinking positively in a negative situation. This technique will help you to consider things from multiple angles, using actual evidence from your life. It involves looking at the whole picture and weighing it up.

Thought challenging will help you consider things from a more objective perspective, rather than just assuming that your thoughts are the facts or “the truth” (even though some thoughts really do feel like they are facts!).

In short, thought challenging is an untangling technique, for the mind.

Now the beauty with this approach is its simplicity. This technique involves asking yourself a series of questions that ultimately open up your thinking.

So, how do you challenge your thoughts?

Here are 12 simple questions to get you started.

  1. Have I had any experiences that show that this thought is not completely true all of the time?
  2. When I am not feeling this way, how might I think about this situation differently?
  3. Does anything contradict my thoughts that I might be discounting as not important?
  4. Am I jumping to any conclusions that aren’t justified by the evidence?
  5. If someone who loves me knew I was thinking this thought, what would they say to me about this thought? What evidence would they point out to me that would suggest that this thought is not 100% true?
  6. How might someone else view this situation if it were happening to them? For example, my mother, my friend or a colleague?
  7. What happened last time I was worried about this?
  8. Do I know that this thought is true or do I just feel that it is?
  9. If this thought was true, what is the worst thing that could happen? What are some of the ways that I could cope with that?
  10. Is this the only way to think about this? What are some other ways?
  11. What are the disadvantages of thinking in this way versus trying to adopt a more balanced and helpful thinking style?
  12. Even if there is a grain of truth in this thought, is it helpful for me to think this way?

Summarising some of your new thoughts

After asking yourself the questions above try summarising the new perspective you have on your thought.

For example, for the thought “I’m going to feel awful after I hang out with Andrea” you might write something like…

Last time I saw Andrea I did feel pretty unsettled in the lead up. On the day though I actually ended up enjoying hanging out with her. We had an awkward moment where I wondered if we might be about to have an argument, but we moved through that and ended up having some laughs and fun together. In the end I was glad I went.

A few things to keep in mind when practising thought challenging

  • Thought challenging often feels forced and unnatural at first. It can take practice before it starts to feel genuine and believable.
  • To build your confidence it’s a good idea to practice with thoughts that feel a little more flexible and less upsetting. Initially it also helps to try this technique when you’re feeling reasonably neutral. It’s a big ask to try it after a tough day or when you’re feeling tired or stressed.
  • When you first try thought challenging it’s useful to jot down your responses. Often when people try to do it in their head they wind up going around and around in circles, which sometimes actually just makes the thoughts feel more intense and believable.
  • The other benefit to writing things down is that if a similar thought comes up in the future, you can refer back to your notes to try to tap into a more balanced way of thinking.
  • It can also be a real eye-opener doing thought challenging with a family member or friend you trust and don’t feel judged by. They might be able to help shed some light on some of the blind spots in your thinking (we all have blind spots by the way!) or offer a different perspective.
  • When practising this technique it’s best to focus on a single thought, rather than a series of thoughts. For example, “It’s obvious they don’t think I did a good job with the project” or “I’m never going to find a way through this”. Break your thoughts down into single sentences and challenge these individual sentences. Trying to challenge a pile of thoughts at once doesn’t really work and ends up being confusing.
  • Plan to do something distracting after you’ve worked your way through some thought challenging questions. It’ll give your mind time to allow some of new thoughts to settle.

We all have thoughts that feel particularly painful and powerful, and that just won’t budge. If you notice thoughts like this coming up it can help to have the support and guidance of a psychologist as you work through this process. As well as providing an objective perspective, they may be able to suggest other approaches, such as Schema Therapy. Schema Therapy can help you to delve a little deeper into your thinking and explore some of the emotions and past experienced linked to these recurring thoughts.

To learn more about thought challenging and other evidence-based techniques for improving your mental health and wellbeing, make an appointment with one of our experienced psychologists.