The Art of Talking Back: How to challenge negative thoughts?

Challenging negative thinking

Thinking realistically involves looking at all aspects of a situation before making an evaluation. This includes looking at the positives, the negatives, and the neutral aspects of a situation, in order to see yourself, other people, and the world in a balanced way. 

How to think more realistically:

Focus on your self-talk

  1. How we think has a huge impact on how we feel. When we think that something bad is going to happen we tend to become anxious. When we think something great is going to happen, we tend to feel excited or happy. Our thoughts shape our emotions and our physical sensations.

Often we are not aware of our thoughts and we do not realise how much they affect how we feel. Therefore, it is important to start focusing on what we say to ourselves and when. This is why most therapists ask clients to keep a thought diary in the first few sessions of therapy. 

2. Notice thoughts that lead to feelings of anxiety

Firstly, it is important to pay attention to your periods of anxiety. Notice when you get more anxious and begin asking yourself the following:

“What thoughts am I having right now?”

“What is making me feel anxious?”

“What am I worried will happen?”

“What bad thing do I expect to happen?”

Some examples of anxious thoughts to be mindful of are:

“I’m such a failure”

“I’m going to pass out right here right now”

“They will think I am an idiot”

“He really doesn’t like me so why bother”

3. Begin challenging thoughts that lead to anxiety.

Often our thoughts are not facts and we actually need to challenge them or test them out in order to determine their validity. 

Here are some questions to help you challenge your anxious thoughts:

  1. Can I identify an unhelpful thinking style or pattern?
  2. What is the evidence that this thought is true?
  3. What is the evidence that this thought is not true?
  4. If a friend was having this thought, what would I say to them??
  5. What would a friend say to me about my thoughts?
  6. Out of 100, how sure am I that X is going to happen?
  7. What is the worst that can happen?
  8. If it did happen, what can I do to cope with it?
  9. Is my judgement based on the way I feel instead of facts?
  10. Am I confusing the possibility of X happening with certainty?

Here is an example to help you challenge your negative thinking:

You have an important class speech tomorrow and you are feeling anxious about public speaking. You may think: “I am going to make a fool out of myself in front of everybody and fail my HSC”. 

An example of how you would challenge this thought

  1. Can I identify an unhelpful thinking style? Yes, I have fallen into the trap of catastrophizing predicting that I will fail my HSC if I mess up my speech. But I still feel like I will definitely make a fool out of myself and fail the assignment. 
  2. Am I basing my judgement on the way I “feel” instead of the “facts”? I might feel like I am going to make a fool out of myself, but there is no evidence to support it. I have made speeches in the past and they have generally gone well. I have also practiced the speech multiple times and am familiar with the topic. 
  3. Am I 100% sure that I will make a fool out of myself? No, but what if I make a fool out of myself THIS time? It might actually go well. Maybe 50-50 that I will make a fool out of myself. 
  4. Well, what is the worst that could happen? If the worst did happen, what could I do to cope with it? The worst that could happen is that I make a mistake and people laugh. It will be embarrassing, but people will forget it and I can apologise and start that sentence again. I can always ask for feedback to see whether there is anything that I can do to improve my speech if I don’t do as well. 

By going through the above questions, anxiety levels may reduce and you may begin to think more realistically about a situation. It may also help you problem solve more effectively. For example, you may be anxious about a particular part of the speech so you decide to practice that part two more times before the speech. 

More helpful and realistic ways of thinking

  1. Statements to help you cope: Try coming up things you can say to yourself to help you cope. For example, “If I get nervous, I will try the five senses mindfulness exercises”, “I just need to be gentle on myself and take a breath before I start”, “People will forget if I make a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes”, or “My anxiety will not last forever”.
  2. Self-statements that are positive: Regularly practise self-compassion, rather than beating yourself up over your anxiety or past mistakes. Instead of saying “I will mess this up”, say something like “I can do it” or “I can try my best”. Even using statements that normalise your anxiety such as :everybody experiences anxiety at some point in their life” can be helpful in reducing your anxiety and increasing your self-esteem and confidence. 
  3. Come up with a balanced thought: Once you have challenged your thinking and identified that you are using an unhelpful thinking style, come up with a more balanced thought. For example “There is a chance that I might make a fool out of myself in tomorrow’s speech, but making a mistake in the speech does not mean that people will think that I am an idiot. It also does not mean that I will fail my HSC. Even if I do not do well in this speech, it does not mean that I am not going to do well in all of my HSC assignments or exams. I have always passed my subjects when I have studied or put in the work.”

I hope the above lists help you on your way to tackling your anxious thinking. It is always easier said than done but we can find positive progress by taking one small step at a time.