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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: -2°C

Lifehack: Here's how to change your thinking to help protect your mental health

Banish those negative thought spirals.

THE AVERAGE PERSON has 65,000 thoughts per day. Up to 95% of these are the same thoughts as yesterday.

That’s a lot of thoughts – and every single thought means an associated change in mood.

So if you think something positive, you feel better and if you think something negative… you feel worse.

Many famous people throughout history have spoken on the importance of thoughts and how they can affect us and our lives. Mahatma Gandhi said:

A man is but the product of his thoughts; what he thinks, he becomes.

What influences our thoughts?

Our thoughts can be affected by outside influences – such as our environment, financial situation, relationships, job stress or our physical circumstances.

During hard times – for example, financially – we can think, ‘This is hopeless’. This will lead us to feel down and even depressed. As a result, we can neglect to do things that make us feel better such as eat properly, sleep well, exercise or even see friends or family.

Not doing these things makes us feel worse, and a downward cycle has begun.

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So what can we do? While we can’t always control our environment, we can control our thoughts and how we react to our environment.

It may seem like you have no control over your own thoughts – you just think them spontaneously after all, right? But that’s not true. You have a lot more control than you would imagine.

What kind of thoughts are there?

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First, let’s have a look at the type of thoughts that we have on a daily basis. There are three kinds of thoughts -

  • Automatic
  • Assumptions
  • Core beliefs

Automatic thoughts - We are constantly thinking about things, all day long. These are automatic thoughts. There is no inherent problem with these thoughts unless they are persistently negative.

Assumptions - Assumptions are the rules that we live by – they involve conditional statements (if… then…) or demand statements – ‘People should be nice to each other’, ‘I should be perfect’. They are restrictive and not always true.

Core beliefs - These are strong absolute statements we make that we take as fact. They include – ‘I am…’ ‘Others are…’ or ‘The world is…’

Here’s an example of how different thoughts in reaction to one event can affect your thinking – and how you feel:

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Identify the type of thinking that causes negative emotions

There are a number of different types of thoughts and ways of thinking that can cause us to feel bad or negatively.

  • Demands – ‘I have to do that…’ or ‘I should have done that…’ or ‘He/she should/shouldn’t do that…’ 
  • Catastrophising – Thinking things are going to turn out in the worst possible way
  • Self-downing  - ‘I’m such a loser…’ 
  • Low frustration tolerance – ‘I can’t bear this…’

These ways of thinking are rigid and can negatively affect us.

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How do we overcome rigid thinking?

The best way to overcome this type of thinking is to challenge the assumptions and rules that we hold in our minds. 

There are a number of ways to do this, but one of the best is asking yourself these three questions about what you’re thinking:

  • Does it make sense?
  • Is it helpful?
  • Is it true?

These three questions can help you to logically examine the thoughts you are having and help you to see that you could be thinking in a different way – one that benefits you rather than hurts you or makes you feel bad.

How to change your negative thoughts

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Depending on the type of negative thoughts you are having there is a specific way to turn them around.

Demands - If you’re making demands on yourself ask, ‘Does it have to be this way or is this just how I want it to be?’ Even relabelling a demand as a desire – from ‘I have to do this’ to ‘I want to do this’ – can help us to feel less angry, hurt or resentful when things don’t go the way we want them to.

Catastrophising - When you imagine a disastrous outcome to whatever event you are thinking about, take a moment to ask yourself, ‘What evidence do I have that things will turn out as badly as I’m predicting?’

Remember that things rarely turn out as badly as we envisage, and that predicting disaster only creates anxiety, which makes us less able to cope if something bad actually does happen.

Self-downing - Putting yourself down never makes you feel good. Make sure that you are not taking a specific thing that you have done and generalising it to be representative of you as a person. Anyone can make a mistake – it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.

Low frustration tolerance - Most people can bear most things if it’s in their interest to do so. Not liking something is very different from not being able to bear it. Ask yourself next time you feel that way, ‘Is this really unbearable or do I just not like it?’

There will always be things in life we don’t like, so building our tolerance to them is useful as you might not be always able to avoid or change them.

CPD Sessions / Vimeo

What do you do to make yourself think more positively? Let us know in the comments below.

Learning to change your thoughts, while not easy, is definitely doable and with consistent practice you should find yourself feeling more positive on a daily basis. Suicide or Survive run free Wellness Workshops online which teaches you how to apply these skills to your daily life. Head to Suicide or  Survive to find out more or check out the workshop here

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