Our thoughts can sometimes be unhelpful, even downright harmful. They can lead us into depression, despair, self-harm, harm of others, even suicide. Often, unhelpful thoughts can drive us down well worn pathways, over and over again into states where we just feel bad and believe the worst about ourselves.
Examples: I’m hopeless. I’m useless. I’ve screwed up again. I will never be well. I will never achieve anything. Everything bad happens to me. What’s the use in trying. Etc. Etc.
Such thoughts need to be managed so that we don’t drive ourselves downwards.
Here are some ways to manage unhelpful thoughts:
- When you find yourself thinking unhelpful thoughts, imagine a picture of a STOP sign in your mind:
See the stop sign stopping the thoughts – bang! You can even say STOP out loud, if you wish (though people may look at you funny if you do this in public!)
- Ask yourself the question: “What happens next?” The answer is – if I keep thinking like this, I am going to “crash and burn”. Do I want this to happen? No.
- Distract yourself. Trying to think and analyze your way out of your difficulties is not a good tactic. It usually makes things worse. Far better to distract yourself by going for a walk, doing some gardening, listening to music, talking with a friend. (Don’t drink alcohol or take drugs. That really will make things worse.)
Replace the unhelpful thought with a positive thought. This may well involve refuting or reversing the unhelpful thought – “Actually I’m not hopeless”. “I am getting better”. “Actually I don’t always screw up – everyone makes mistakes from time to time”. Etc. This “positive self talk” can be very effective.
Move. Don’t just sit and brood, get up, change location, go out of the room, look up instead of down. Move positively as well as think positively.
- If the unhelpful thoughts begin to return, (and they quite probably will – you’ve probably had lots of practice at thinking these thoughts) STOP them again and keep working on the strategies mentioned above. Another useful tactic is to imagine yourself holding up a hand to these thoughts and saying firmly: “No I don’t want to go down that path any more”
No! I don’t want to go down that path any more.
The image of a road or pathway that unhelpful thoughts take us down is quite a good one. Sometimes it is a very well worn pathway, one we have been down many times before. But we can also see that if we don’t use that pathway, then the weeds and the trees grow over it, so that in time we just don’t use it any more.
- Take action early. If you wait until you are driven into depression, despair or self-harm, then it is very difficult to pull out and take positive action. If, on the other hand, you take positive action as soon as you are aware of unhelpful thinking, then it is much easier to reverse the thoughts and put them out of your mind.
- When your are feeling down, it can be helpful to remind yourself that it will pass. “I have felt this way before, but it has passed. This too will pass, I will not cling to my unhelpful thoughts and I will soon feel OK again.
- Practice. Practice. Practice. The more your practice stopping and replacing unhelpful thoughts, the better you will get at it and the faster they will pass away. If you do fail, don’t despair, use it as a learning experience and resolve to be better prepared next time. When you succeed, tell yourself you did well and allow yourself to feel good!