Antidotes for Unhelpful Thoughts

by Ann Koplow

  1. Identify the Cognitive Distortion.  Write down a negative thought and name the cognitive distortions that apply. This gives perspective on the thought, which can otherwise feel like “the truth.”
  2.  Examine the Evidence. Instead of assuming your negative thought is true, look at the evidence. For example, if you think “I never do anything right,” list some things you do well.
  3. Use Helpful Reminders.  Use helpful phrases to challenge habitual distortions. For example, for mind-reading or fortune telling, remind yourself “I’m not psychic.” Make a list of other phrases that help you, such as “I am doing the best I can,” “One step at a time,” etc. Consider sticking these reminders where you can see them.
  4. The “Double-Standard” Method. Instead of judging yourself harshly, talk to yourself as compassionately as you might to a friend with a similar problem. Also, ask yourself, “How would I react if somebody else did this?”
  5.  Thinking in Shades of Grey. Instead of thinking in all-or-nothing terms, evaluate a situation on a scale of 0 to 100.  Instead of absolute words like “never”, “always,” and “completely,” substitute modulated words like “seldom”, “often,” or “somewhat.” Consider the concept of “good enough” (e.g., “I am doing a good enough job at this”).
  6. List the positives. To deal with the tendency to focus on the negative, make lists of good things that are happening, good things about yourself, and things that you are accomplishing (even little things). Focus on what you ARE doing, rather than on what you’re NOT doing.
  7.  Reality testing.  Ask people questions to find out if your thoughts and concerns are realistic or true. This is a particularly effective response to the distortion of mind-reading.
  8. Challenge Labels.  If you label yourself negatively, such as “a fool” or “a loser,” remind yourself that such absolute terms are subjective and meaningless, and that human beings are too complex to be reduced that simplistically. Also, consider the possibility that  somebody else may have given you that idea about yourself, and that they were wrong.
  9. The Semantic Method.  Substitute language that is less emotionally loaded and less judgmental.  For example, instead of telling yourself, “I should have known better,” you could say, “I didn’t know that.”
  10. Look at the Context.  Instead of automatically blaming yourself for a problem, think about the other factors that may have contributed to the situation. If you regret a previous action, consider that you might have been doing the best you could at the time.
  11. Cost-Benefit Analysis.  List the pros and cons of a negative thought (like “I always screw up”) or a behavior pattern (like isolating when you’re depressed). A simple version of this is to ask yourself, “Does this [thought or action] help me?”
  12.  The Perfectionism Cure.  Allow yourself a quota for mistakes. Recognize that we will all make some mistakes, every day.  Consider this quote from the book Self Esteem: “Between one and three out of every ten decisions people make are ‘wrong’.”
  13. The Equal Time Rule.  To be fair, why not balance out the time spent on negative thoughts with positive thoughts?  For example, if you spend a certain amount of time worrying or catastrophizing about something that then turns out okay, consider spending that much time feeling good about the outcome. Or, if you are focusing on a negative, critical person and worrying about how they might affect you, try to give equal time and power to a positive, supportive person.
  14. The “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass” Technique. Prepare for the possibility that when you are feeling at your worst, coping strategies and solutions might be difficult to remember. Write down a couple of things that might be helpful to remember when you are feeling bad, and put that in a special place. Also, consider telling somebody else about these “emergency messages,” so they can remind you.
  15. The So What? Technique. Consider that an anxiety-producing possibility (even the worst case scenario) might not be as bad as you fear. For example, “So what if this one person doesn’t like me? Not everybody is going to like me.” or “So what if I lose my cell phone? It’ll be an incredible hassle, but I’ll be able to deal with it.”
  16. Thought stopping.  If you notice an unhelpful thought, cut it off immediately. Typical techniques include visualizing a big stop sign, saying “STOP!” to yourself, and giving yourself a sensory cue (e.g., snapping a rubber band you wear around your wrist). A “gentler” version of this is to notice an unhelpful thought and tell yourself, “That’s just a thought.”

What works for you?  Are there strategies that you use that are not on this list?  Which ones of those listed would you like to try?