7 Steps to Change Unhealthy Thoughts
Nico, you’ve been sitting here watching Netflix for the last 2 hours. What are you doing? You think this is accomplishing anything? You’re wasting time. You’re not gonna get this time back. How are you ever going to be successful when you’re this lazy?
When our thoughts become this muddled by our core beliefs, it can become difficult to see any normal situation in a positive light. Thoughts and emotions are deeply intertwined, making a pattern of negative thinking frustrating and numbing to deal with on a regular basis. I mentioned in a previous post that I would be sharing with you a technique to help you redirect your negative thoughts toward more positive thoughts. This is something I learned from a cognitive behavioural therapy self-help book called “Mind Over Mood, Second Edition” by Drs. Greenberger & Padesky (1) and it was a practice that was recommended by my psychotherapist for learning to think about situations in a more healthy and effective manner. Although it is certainly effective for those of us who may suffer from depression, social anxiety, or other mental illnesses characterized by strong cognitive distortions, it is not a technique that only individuals suffering from mental illness may use – I believe that building strong mental health is an important practice for everyone. But before we get into the strategy, let’s prep!
Prepping for Greatness: What’s Your Evidence?
A hard truth I learned from implementing this practice into my life is that it is not easy to get yourself to do it in the moment. But just like any habit that requires a bit of work to create (e.g., my annual New Years’ Resolution to make time for exercise everyday), this will change with your increasing commitment. How do you get yourself to commit? I can sit here spewing hot words like “find your inner strength!” and “have courage!” and “have faith!” but when it comes down to it, evidence is key. What is your proof that what you are doing is helping you?
Before doing anything, I want you to write down some examples of things you would see happening in your life if you are making positive changes in your negative thoughts. It will help if they are concrete, but don’t worry if they aren’t. Here, I’ll do the exercise with you.
- My loved ones will tell me that they’ve noticed a positive change in my overall energy and mood.
- I will see that I handle conflict better.
- I will have future hopes and goals that I feel excited about.
- I will find it less anxiety-provoking to speak to strangers.
With the formulation of these goals, you will be able to track your progress with more specific criteria that are personal to your own mental health recovery or maintenance. Everyone’s goals will be different, and there are no right or wrong goals as long as they are meaningful to you.
It is not just a practice for thought redirection for how you think of a specific situation. It is also a practice for thought redirection for the fundamental issue that we often get caught in – that nothing will get better or change, even if we try strategies or techniques to improve our thinking patterns (”hopelessness”). What is most important is that you don’t try to go through the following 7 steps in your head. You definitely want to write them down or type them out in a table while practicing. Whatever the format, the easiest way to see the progression in your thoughts and moods is by using a table (in my opinion).
You can write these out however much time after you experience a negative thought and unfavourable emotions, but ultimately, work toward being able to detect yourself exhibiting negative thinking patterns and complete the Thought Record in the moment. We are building a new thought path for your brain to follow, and your brain will associate better if you practice using the tool while you are thinking through your negative thoughts. Eventually, you’ll be able to do it in your head automatically, instead of having to use the table!
You can immediately get a free template of the thought record to use as a worksheet when you subscribe! (I included two examples that I had written out in the past, in case this gets confusing!)
7 Step Process:
1. What is the situation?
What are the circumstances behind your negative thoughts and emotions? Try to keep this section quite literal – just the bare bones. Who are you with? Where are you? When is it happening? What are you doing?
Here, you should list down the emotions that you are feeling in this situation that is negatively affecting you mentally/emotionally. These should be simple, one-word emotions. Beside each emotion, you should write down your perceived intensity for each emotion on a scale from 0 (not at all intense) to 100 (EXTREMELY intense). You may notice by doing this that the question, “how do you feel?” is not just simply, “bad”. That feeling of “bad” actually has a lot more descriptive emotions to pick at.
Don’t worry about finding a perfectly descriptive number for each emotion. Just think carefully. I know that one pitfall for me in the beginning was putting 100 for every negative emotion. No, no. You want to build up the life skill of being able to understand and connect with yourself emotionally, because by doing this you will be able to discern between them and set a weight to each, and thus gain more control over your emotions.
Here are some examples of emotions/states of mind: lonely, inferior, restless, disappointed, angry, frustrated, agitated, fearful, anxious, guilty, jealous, hopeless, helpless
3. Automatic Thoughts
Oh, now we are getting into the meat of things. This is finally where you can write down all those thoughts that plagued your mind in this situation. The very thoughts you want to remove and replace with more positive thoughts. Write all these thoughts – particularly the ones that appeared right before you remember yourself feeling your negative emotions you just wrote.
Now, there are variations in CBT as to what to do next, but I liked the example that was used in “Mind Over Mood” by Drs. Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky. In their book, they introduce the concept of a “Hot Thought”. This thought is the one thought out of all that you have just written that you believe had the most impact on developing your negative emotions/state of mind. Scan through and highlight one of them.
4. Evidence that Supports the Hot Thought
Here is where you write any evidence (that is, factual evidence, not your interpretations) that increase the degree to which that thought you highlighted is actually true.
Building the ability to discern between factual evidence and interpretations is difficult, and Dr. Greenberger and Dr. Padesky explore this to great detail in their book. However, what I like to do is to step outside of myself and pretend I am Ms. Literal. This means I do not stray into emotional writing, but rather pretend I am a robot that only sees facts. This may help prevent you from making overgeneralizations or write ‘evidence’ that is not fact.
5. Evidence that Does NOT Support the Hot Thought
As you may have guessed, this is where you write all the factual reasons you can think of that your Hot Thought is fueled more by strong emotion and not rational thought.
I’m not going to lie – this column was freakishly difficult for me the first few times I did this exercise. After all, I spent most of my life thinking that these negative thoughts were true – how could I suddenly find counterarguments to my own typical thoughts? If you are having trouble finding evidence, don’t worry. It’s normal for difficulty in this step in the beginning. Just keep trying and eventually your Ms. or Mr. Literal will help you see the facts.
6. Find your Positive Alternative Thoughts
This is where the magic happens, everyone! Here is where you pretend your best friend or loved one is presenting this situation and initial thoughts and emotions to you. What would you say to them? How might you suggest that they look at the situation? This is the place where you give yourself the benefit of the doubt – just like your best friend and loved one always does.
You can write how much you believe your new thoughts on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 100 (completely). This would act as a measure of how your thoughts are shifting over time with repeated exercises. Don’t get perfectionistic here – it will take time for you to believe the thoughts. Just write the positive thoughts anyway.
To give you some perspective, I’ve been using this exercise for about two months and even now I usually still do not believe my alternative thoughts. Of course, the great thing is that what I describe to be “I still do not believe my alternative thoughts” is probably not the same number as you. No standard but your own here! Keep writing and thinking of positive thoughts, and you will see yourself believing in them more and more with time.
Re-write the emotions you listed in step 2, and see if your perceived intensities for each have changed after completing the previous steps. Also, write new emotions or states of mind that may have arisen through the exercise (hopefully positive emotions!) and write their intensity as well. Hopefully you will have seen an improvement in your emotions!
How do I know that this works?
Well, beyond the fact that this technique is commonly taught through CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), the simpler explanation is that automatic thoughts become automatic after a great frequency of use. The key here is that you are trying to make the more positive automatic thoughts overpower the negative ones, so that you are more likely to take the positive thought path. I cannot stress this enough – this takes time. So be patient with yourself and do the practice and commit to it. Revisit your goals periodically and track evidence that you are reaching these goals, however steadily or rapidly.
Always remember to love (ARTL),
Books used in this post:
- Greenberger D, Padesky CA. Mind over mood: change how you feel by changing the way you think. Second edition. New York, NY: The Guilford Press; 2016. 341 p.