My last post was about our faulty thinking (cognitive distortion) such as all-or-nothing thinking, over-generalization and magnification or minimisation, which are commonly associated with lots of mental health disorders. I think we’d all agree that this unhelpful faulty thinking is just like any other automatically occurring bad habit, something we want to change.
Did you know — with practice and effort, you can become more aware of what is happening in your mind and change how you are thinking for the better?
Although it may seem overwhelmingly difficult to change your own ways of thinking, it is actually comparable to any other skill – it is hard when you first begin, but with practice, you will find it easier and easier to challenge your own negative thoughts and beliefs. Think about it; you wouldn’t expect to drive a car onto the motorway if you’ve only ever practiced driving once.
Today we’ll look at our both our Automatic Thoughts (download a worksheet here) and Decatastophising (download a worksheet here). These models come from cognitive behavioral therapy, which aims to change our thought patterns, our conscious and unconscious beliefs, our attitudes, and, ultimately, our behavior, in order to help us face difficulties and achieve our goals.
Automatic Thought Records
The Automatic Thought Records worksheet is an excellent tool for identifying and understanding your cognitive distortions. Our automatic, negative thoughts (ANT’s) are often related to a distortion that we may or may not realize we have. An ANT might occur when a friend on the opposite side of the road passes by, your first ANT might be “She just ignored me.”
Completing this exercise can help you to figure out where you are making inaccurate assumptions or jumping to false conclusions.
The worksheet is split into six columns:
- Automatic Thoughts (ATs)
- Your Response
- A More Adaptive Response
First, you note the date and time of the thought.
In the second column, you will write down the situation. Ask yourself:
- What led to this event? i.e. “Friend walked past.”
- What caused the unpleasant feelings I am experiencing? i.e “She ignored me.”
The third component of the worksheet directs you to write down the negative automatic thought, including any images or feelings that accompanied the thought. You will consider the thoughts and images that went through your mind, write them down, and determine how much you believed these thoughts.
After you have identified the thought, the worksheet instructs you to note and write down the emotions that ran through your mind along with the thoughts and images identified. Ask yourself what emotions you felt at the time and how intense the emotions were on a scale from 0-10 (0 = barely felt it and 10 = completely overwhelming).
Next, you have an opportunity to come up with an adaptive response to those thoughts. This is where the real work happens, where you identify the distortions that are cropping up and challenge them.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Which cognitive distortions were you employing?
- What is the evidence that the automatic thought(s) is true, and what evidence is there that it is not true?
- You’ve thought about the worst that can happen, but what’s the best that could happen? What’s the most realistic scenario?
- How likely are the best-case and most realistic scenarios?
Finally, consider the outcome of this event. Think about how much you believe the automatic thought now that you’ve come up with an adaptive response, and rate your belief (on a scale of 0-10, with 0 being ‘don’t believe the automatic thought at all’ and 10 ‘believe entirely’). Write this on your Thought Record.
Determine what emotion(s) you are feeling now and at what intensity you are experiencing them (you can use a scale of 0-10) Write this down too.
This is a particularly good tool for talking yourself out of a catastrophizing situation.
The worksheet begins with a description of cognitive distortions in general and catastrophizing in particular; catastrophizing is when you distort the importance or meaning of a problem to be much worse than it is, or you assume that the worst possible scenario is going to come to pass. It’s a reinforcing distortion, as you get more and more anxious the more you think about it, but there are ways to combat it.
Once you have articulated the issue that is worrying you, you can move on to thinking about how this issue will turn out.
Think about how terrible it would be if the catastrophe actually came to pass. What is the worst-case scenario? Consider whether a similar event has occurred in your past and, if so, how often it occurred. With the frequency of this catastrophe in mind, make an educated guess of how likely the worst-case scenario is to happen.
After this, think about what is most likely to happen–not the best possible outcome, not the worst possible outcome, but the most likely. Consider this scenario in detail and write it down. Note how likely you think this scenario is to happen as well.
Next, think about your chances of surviving in one piece. How likely is it that you’ll be okay one week from now if your fear comes true? How likely is it that you’ll be okay in one month? How about one year? For all three, write down “Yes” if you think you’d be okay and “No” if you don’t think you’d be okay.
Finally, come back to the present and think about how you feel right now. Are you still just as worried, or did the exercise help you think a little more realistically? Write down how you’re feeling about it.
This worksheet can be an excellent resource for anyone who is worrying excessively about a potentially negative event.
So today we’ve looked at our automatic negative thoughts and decatastrophising. Did you complete any of the exercises? If yes, what did you learn. If no, why not — what stopped you from completing them?
I’d certainly be interest in your thoughts.
Much of this post has been adapted from Positivepsychology.com and therapistaid.com two self-help sites that have science-based online resources, techniques, tools, and tips. I’ve borrowed their worksheets but you can also take a look at the sites where you’ll find lots of great info to help your mood.