As a Mental Health Practitioner, I have been experimenting with well-being exercises that support my writing, and I want to open up discussions about writer’s well-being.
Well-being is defined as “the state of feeling healthy and happy” by the Cambridge Dictionary. Thus, there are multiple facets to our health and happiness than just our mental health, which can impact each other.
Today I want to discuss Thoughts.
[Usual Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and please see your GP if you feel you require any form of support for your mental health. If you live in England, every county has access to a free IAPT psychological therapies service. Additionally, The Samaritans are a free, confidential listening charity, and you can contact them on 116 123 if you need to talk.]
Mental Health :: Negative or Unhelpful Thoughts
Thoughts are an interesting concept, and one that often feels out of our control. Sometimes our mind is blank when we need the answer to a question, and at other times, those thoughts may race around, like a monkey angrily flitting around a pen.
Using a framework based on the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy research, there are two aspects of our well-being we can (to some degree) control: our behaviours, and our thoughts. Our thoughts are particularly important because, if you saw the posts on being active and balancing behaviours, Burra, Javiada, Jella, Werner-Seidlerb, and Dunna (2017) found that negative thoughts while completing those behaviours stops them from being so effective.
Everyone experiences automatic thoughts; these are often those immediate responses to a situation. Examples might be that something happens, and we think “oh, this ALWAYS happens,” or “Now my day is ruined!” Maybe you feel a lot of pressure to fix things that go wrong, feel there’s only black or white in the situation, or that other people manage to deal with this and you don’t.
We all experience some of these unhelpful thinking styles, but while experiencing either low mood or stress and anxiety, these thought patterns can become overwhelming. Humans under stress have a ‘negative bias,’ meaning we notice negatives more and those negatives seem stronger than usual. This takes up a lot of our energy and with such ‘convincing’ thoughts repeatedly occurring, we’re bound to believe them.
So what can we do?
Rather than try to make things positive, it’s important to note that thoughts are not facts. Just because we tell ourselves something, that doesn’t mean we can predict the future, other people’s reactions or that we don’t exaggerate in our own heads.
When faced with Unhelpful Thoughts, ask yourself “am I right to think that; is there evidence to support that thought?” Perhaps, if being critical about yourself, ask if your friend would say that about you, or if you’d say it about a friend? This can help us to see how unfair some of the automatic thoughts are.
Rather than ignore, deny or shout back at these thoughts, it’s helpful just to question them.
- “I should have known better.” – Should you? Why? Are you psychic? Is this 100% your responsibility, or did someone else’s actions / a natural event also contribute?
- “They’re all coping with this higher workload.” – You don’t know that. ALL of them? How can you know that? What if they lied? Aren’t you coping – you’ve still got up today, and you’re breathing and may have eaten something or got the kids dressed. You may not be coping AS YOU WOULD LIKE, but that doesn’t mean you’re not managing this stressful situation. If your friend were in your shoes, would you tell them they weren’t coping?
- “I’m a failure.” – What, in EVERYTHING? Have you ever succeeded? This blanket “catch-all” phrase makes it sound like you, as a human being, ARE a failure. Perhaps you failed one test, or did not manage to complete something. Does that define 100% of your worth?
Get Self Help have a useful sheet detailing some common automatic thought patterns and questions to as yourself.
Worries and Rumination
Aside from automatic thoughts, we also have conscious thoughts, which are often a result of a behaviour. In it’s own way, “worrying” is a behaviour. Similarly, thinking back to memories and what happened before is another behaviour, called ruminating.
Since these are behaviours – rather than ask ourselves questions, one option is to minimise the amount of time you spend focusing on these negative thoughts. One way is to schedule in a “worry time” or “rumination time” every day or week. Take a look at the post on balancing behaviours for a quick-start guide to scheduling activities.
Although it may seem odd to add this to a day’s plans, if you’re already spending an hour a day worrying about things you can’t change, putting a 15-minute slot dedicated to this, means you can say “hey thought, not now, come back at 6pm” and distract yourself with something else. For more information on worry, check on this Get Self Help sheet.
Much like writing milk on your shopping list – you may still remember every few hours to get it, but being able to reply “it’s on the list, I won’t forget, thanks brain” means your brain stops telling you quite as often. In time, this will happen with worries and memories too.
If your worries are practical, don’t procrastinate – make one tiny step to solve it. Again, you can tell your mind “hey, I’ve booked tomorrow’s lunch break with “call garage” to get the car fixed.
How do you manage negative thoughts?
Burra, L., Javiada, M., Jella, G., Werner-Seidlerb, and A., Dunna, B. D. (2017). Turning lemonade into lemons: Dampening appraisals reduce positive affect and increase negative affect during positive activity scheduling. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 91, p91–101. Accessed here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005796717300207
Get Self Help Automatic Thoughts Sheet: https://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/unhelpful.htm
Get Self Help Worry Sheet: https://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/gad.htm