Yesterday, I wrote about using confirmation bias to put a positive spin on things. Today, I’m bringing things back down to earth and talking about how we can apply more common sense and rationale to our negative thought patterns.
When I had my course of CBT years ago, my therapist introduced the idea of completing a ‘Thought record’ when facing challenging situations. It’s a brilliant activity that made a huge difference to my perspective and levels of fear before stressful situations. It’s an activity that I go back to time after time, whenever I feel that my confirmation bias is leaning towards the negative. Essentially, you write down what negative thought/belief is going through your head, measure how bad it is, then find evidence for and against it. Once you’ve weighed up the evidence like a rational observer, you re-evaluate your level of fear and decide on a more realistic belief.
As someone who lives on the right side of the brain, I’ve never really been one for common sense or logical thinking. But here, I’ve found that taking a rather scientific approach to my thoughts and emotions strangely comforting. Using thought records has allowed me to really see that the thoughts I once believed to be absolute truths, were often significantly lacking in evidence.
Here, I’ve attached an old thought diary relating to anxiety surrounding a meeting with a parent at school. At this stage in my career, when my anxiety was very much in the driving seat, any contact with parents sent me into a panic. Click here to see my ‘Thought Record’ for this situation. I’ve covered the name of the pupil to maintain confidentiality, but everything else here is a true reflection of what went on in my head before, during and after this situation.
The more I practised breaking down thought and beliefs, and weighing up evidence to see if they were indeed true, the less I trusted my own perspective of other people, their assumed opinions of me and my beliefs about challenging situations.
Often, I found that I couldn’t find any evidence to actually support the negative belief; yet I had countless examples of an alternative, more positive theory. Even as a fairly illogical person, I was forced to accept that my thoughts were deceiving me. I was going to have to start examining what I was thinking more closely, and deciding whether it came from a place that could be trusted. In the case of ‘fake news’ and thoughts rooted in long-held feelings of unworthiness, low self-esteem and self-sabotage; they were acknowledged and ignored.
I still suffer with anxiety – I’ve accepted that I always will. But I’m in the driving seat now. And the vehicle? It’s these thoughts records. It’s the distance that I now maintain from the words in my head. I listen to these thoughts now, like I’d listen to the news… nodding along where I agree, or scoffing loudly in disagreement where I don’t. I don’t take in the negativity like I used to, reacting immediately and emotionally; because it might be utter nonsense. I’m just a lot more skeptical of what I hear from inside my mind.
While I haven’t found a way to shut out the nonsense: “She didn’t text back! Why hasn’t she text me back? She must be upset with me! What could I have done to upset her?! Urghhh!” I now at least know that my brain sometimes does this. In situations like this, I think about the evidence for and against this, and remember that my friend is incredibly busy and often doesn’t text back for days. I also remember that part of why I love this friend, is that she’s really straightforward. I know that if she ever did have a problem with me, I’d know about it. Even when I return to the thoughts, stuck in a negative thought loop, I just repeatedly focus on the evidence I’ve found.
I make myself follow one rule: I’m only allowed to worry about something if there is a substantial amount of evidence proving that it’s an actual situation to worry about.
So, for example, in the situation above – if I did receive a text from this friend, describing why she was upset with me…. then it’s okay for me to worry. I’m allowed.
Of course, that’s never happened yet. Because reality is apparently much less frightening and dramatic than my imagination.
Have you filled out ‘Thought Records’ before? I’d love to hear if you’ve had any success with this! If you haven’t tried it, please try it – I just cannot recommend this enough! Comments welcome as always: