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Reframing unhelpful thoughts

It's natural to feel worried every now and again, but our anxious thoughts can sometimes be unhelpful.

It can be beneficial to step back, examine the evidence for your thoughts and explore other ways of looking at the situation.

In time, this can really make a difference to our mental health and wellbeing.

Video: Reframing unhelpful thoughts

Check out our short video to get some practical tips on how you can challenge your thoughts and start to break unhelpful cycles.

The cycle of unhelpful thoughts

The way we think, feel and behave are all linked and continuously affecting one another.

Sometimes though we develop patterns of thoughts or behaviours that are unhelpful. And because these can affect how we feel – and how we feel can in turn affect how we think and behave – it's easy to find ourselves in a vicious cycle.

But many of us don't realise that we can influence this process ourselves and improve our mental health by doing so.

Catch it, check it, change it

Challenging and learning to replace these thoughts is one of the best ways to help us deal with stress and anxiety, improve how we sleep and really boost our mood. In time, this can really make a difference to our mental health and wellbeing.

If you can learn to take a step back and challenge unhelpful thoughts by thinking about what evidence really exists to support them, over time you can succeed in changing them into more positive ones.

We call this the "catch it, check it, change it" technique.

Steps and strategies to help you reframe unhelpful thoughts

1. Know what to look for

It's often the case that we are not even aware we're thinking in an unhelpful way. This can make it difficult to catch these thoughts in the first place.

However, if we know what sort of thinking is unhelpful, we may find it easier to spot.

Types of unhelpful thoughts include:

  • always expecting the worst outcome from any situation
  • ignoring the good sides of a situation and only focusing on the bad
  • seeing things as either only good or only bad, with nothing in between (black and white thinking)
  • considering yourself the sole cause of negative situations

2. Practise catching them

Try to keep the categories of negative thoughts in mind and, if you find yourself having an unhelpful thought as you go about your day, consider whether it fits one of them.

Learning to tune into your thoughts like this might feel difficult at first, but even just being aware of the types of unhelpful thoughts that exist should help you start to recognise when you're engaging in unhelpful thinking yourself.

As you practise reflecting on your own thoughts and assessing them, it should get easier. Over time, it may even become automatic.

3. Check your unhelpful thoughts

Once you have caught an unhelpful thought, the next stage is to check it. This means taking a step back and examining the situation.

For example, you might be worried about an important task you have to do at work, and are convinced it will go wrong and everyone will think you're a failure.

Rather than immediately accepting this thought and feeling even worse, take a moment to check it. Try asking yourself:

  • How likely is the outcome you're worried about?
  • Is there good evidence for it?
  • Are there other explanations or possible outcomes?
  • Is there good evidence for alternative ways of looking at the situation?
  • What would you say to a friend if they were thinking this way?

4. Change them

Finally, see if you can change the thought for a neutral or more positive one.

Think back over the questions you asked yourself when you were checking your thought and see how you can reframe the situation.

For the work example, this could be something like: "I'm prepared. I've put a lot of work in and I'm going to do my best" or "I've been in this job for a while and completed lots of important tasks before, so no one will think I'm a failure."

5. Use a thought record to help

Don't worry if you find the "Catch it, check it, change it" process difficult at first. Each step can take time to get used to, but with practice it will get easier.

Completing a thought record can help with any part you find tricky. This is a short, structured exercise that uses a set of 7 prompts to help you examine the evidence for your thoughts and feelings towards a situation, and how you can begin to reframe them.

6. Don't worry if you cannot change a thought

Sometimes you will be able to change an unhelpful thought to a positive or neutral one, but this will not always be possible.

Don't worry if you cannot change your thought: there are no right or wrong answers, and changing the thought is not the only way you can benefit from this process.

Reframing your thoughts is about learning to think more flexibly and be more in control. If you can learn to identify and separate unhelpful thoughts from helpful ones, you can find a different way to look at the situation.

This will not resolve the problems you face but can help break a negative spiral and give you a new perspective – things are often not as bad as we think.

More self-help CBT techniques you can try

Tackling your worries

Learn about the "worry time" technique, as well as other tips, steps and strategies you can use to help you manage and stay on top of your worries.

Find more ideas to try in self-help CBT techniques