Mental Health

Mandy Kloppers

How your thoughts create unnecessary worry

Negative Thinking


Anxiety can be useful to protect you from harmful situations.  Unfortunately, it may also have the effect of making you think negatively.  When you begin to have negative thoughts about situations, you will want to avoid them.  Avoiding a situation causes even more negative thoughts and, in turn, more anxiety and so on.


This vicious circle starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy:  “I know I’ll feel ill if I go out”.  The anxiety then increases so much that people are bound to “feel ill” when they go out, simply as a result of the uncomfortable symptoms of tension.  After the trip they’ll probably tell themselves:  “I knew I would feel ill if I went out”; and the damage will probably then be further reinforced by: “I can’t face going out again”.  This puts the person in the position either of having to get someone else to do all their errands for them – reducing their confidence, self-respect and independence still further – or go without!


Another common example occurs when people experience the physical sensations associated with anxiety.  They may worry that they are seriously ill, perhaps even dying, and nothing the doctor says can dissuade them from this depressing view, despite numerous tests.  The sad fact is that such people waste precious time feeling really miserable, when the unpleasant bodily feelings associated with anxiety are rarely dangerous and can be overcome.


Many of us probably fall into this trap from time to time when we’re feeling worried and upset.  So if you have recognised yourself in these descriptions, remember that you’re unlikely to be alone – the important thing is to question ourselves as honestly as possible so that the problem can be solved.  This takes real courage.


Negative thoughts are very persuasive


  1. They just “appear” in you mind, out of nowhere.


  1. They are not strictly true, and do not match the real facts.


  1. They are unhelpful – they stop you fighting the anxiety.


  1. They are seductive – it is easy to fall into the trap of believing them.


  1. They seem overwhelming, and very difficult to dismiss from your mind.



Irrational beliefs


Some of the beliefs we develop about ourselves, out relationships and roles within society are irrational.  They do not fit the true facts and may involve unreasonable expectation – either of others or ourselves.  Often, anxiety occurs as a result of people putting pressure upon themselves to measure up to an ideal or irrational belief that they hold deep down.  People scarcely ever question their irrational beliefs and so never escape from the demands these place upon them.


A common example of an irrational belief:


“If I make a mistake, it means I’m stupid/everyone will think I’m stupid.”


Obviously, this is simply not justified but so many of us cannot accept are own short comings in a realistic way.


Here’s how this irrational belief can be challenged:


Of course everybody makes mistakes and it’s best to be honest about it.  This does not indicate stupidity – just ordinary human error which even the most skilled/intelligent people are subject to from time to time.  Also, most mistakes can be corrected and anyway who’s perfect?  Who would want to be?


And here’s a more realistic alternative:


“I’d rather not make too many mistakes – but I can’t expect to be perfect – the odd slip doesn’t mean I’m stupid.”


Some examples of irrational beliefs:

1.    Unreasonable expectations


These are the should, musts and ought that we live by.  These are unreasonable when they are unrealistic and destructive either to others or to ourselves.  Examples are:


  • “I must always be a good wife and mother.”
  • “I should never allow myself to look foolish in front of others.”
  • “I ought to show people that I’m always on top of things at work.”


Notice how the words “always” and “never” make the statements even more pressurised and anxiety provoking – also more irrational, because in this world “always” and “never” hardly apply in personal matters such as these.


2.    Unreasonable assumptions


These are very similar to “unreasonable expectations” but often involve some kind of social element.  For example: “Caring mothers shouldn’t go out to work”;  “Strong men don’t cry”:  “It’s not polite to ask for second helpings” etc.… etc.  These assumptions keep us trapped in roles we may not care for, or which make uncomfortable demands on us that we feel compelled to try and meet.  These things can and must be questioned and challenged if it would lead to a happier and healthier way of life for ourselves and those close to us!  So what if the neighbours might not approve!


Thinking Errors


These are:














All or nothing thinking

Personalization and blame


Emotional reasoning

Should or must statements

Mental Filter (selective abstraction)

Disqualifying or discounting the positive Overgeneralization

Magnification and minimisation


Jumping to conclusions (arbitrary inference)

·      Mind reading

·      Fortune telling



1.    All or nothing thinking (also known as dichotomous thinking)


This is where someone evaluates him/herself, other people, situations and the world in extreme categories.  This type of thinking tends to be absolutist and does not allow for shades of grey.  An example is the young mother who views herself as all bad because she becomes frustrated with her young child and views other mothers as always being patient with their children. She sees other mothers as all good and herself as all bad, which is unrealistic.


2.    Personalization and blame


Personalization is a thinking error in which a person totally blames him/herself for all that goes wrong and relates this to some deficiency or inadequacy in him/herself.  She holds him/herself personally responsible for an event which is not entirely under her control.  An example is the young trainee who believes her trainer is brusque with her because she made a mistake.  She overlooks the part others may play and confuses the possibility that she may have contributed to what happened but was not totally responsible.


The opposite is to blame others.  She blames others for the problem or circumstances and does not believe she has contributed to the problem.  An example is the woman who totally blames her husband for the break-up of their marriage.


3.    Catastrophizing


This is where the person predicts the future negatively and believes things will turn out badly.  This thinking error is common with anxiety problems where clients tend to dwell on the worst possible outcome of any situation.  An example is the successful manager about to make a presentation for the company.  He becomes preoccupied with thoughts that he will make a mess of this presentation, let down his company, lose his job and become destitute.


This simply describes how “mountains can be made out of molehills”.  Catastrophising is most unhelpful because it exaggerates and distorts the facts and also makes people miserable.  Often we don’t ask ourselves whether things really are as bad as all that – we just accept out own unrealistic assessment of the situation and seek whatever sympathy we can get.  The danger is that this might have the effect of putting people off since they probably will find it difficult to understand why we are blowing things up out of all proportion and using this as an excuse to lean on them.  When they finally get fed up of being “used” in this way, we will probably get offended because they’ve been unkind enough to desert us in our hour of need!


4.    Emotional reasoning


This is where a person draws conclusions about an event based entirely upon their feelings and ignoring any evidence to the contrary.  For example, the young man who has been waiting thirty minutes for his new partner to arrive feels sad and rejected. he says to himself “I’ve been ditched” and fails to consider that his partner may have been delayed at work, missed the bus, got a flat tyre, etc.


5.    Should or must statements


This is where the person has a fixed idea of how she, others or the world “should” or “must” be.  Preferences or expectations are elevated to rigid demands.  When these demands are not met the person feels emotionally distressed and overestimates how bad it is that her expectations have not been met.  For example, the gymnast performing a difficult manoeuvre on the parallel bars said to herself, “I really shouldn’t have made so many mistakes.”  This led to her feeling so angry and frustrated with herself that she did not practise for may days.


6.    Mental Filter (selective abstraction)


The person pays particular attention to one negative detail and dwells on it endlessly, regardless of any other positive aspects.  She does not view the picture as a whole and concentrates on the one negative aspect.  For example, a young woman receives many positive comments about her now hairstyle form friends, but one friend said she did not like that particular style.  She had this comment on her mind for days and wore a hat.


7.    Disqualifying or discounting the positive


This is where people ignores the positive of any situation and tells himself that these positive experiences do not count.  For example, a man produces excellent meals on most occasions, but does not give himself any praise.  He produced a nourishing but unappetising meal on one occasion and thought of himself as being an awful and unimaginative  cook.


8.    Overgeneralization


The person thins that because an unpleasant experience happened to him once, it will always happen.  This is where  he makes sweeping gerernalized conclusions on the basis of one situation. The man who attended a job interview but did not get the position believed he would be rejected for every job.


9.    Magnification and minimisation


The people who make this thinking error when evaluating themselves, other people or situations will tend to exaggerate or magnify the negative components and minimise or play down the positive.  When being appraised a work she overestimates the importance of some areas where change is needed and pays little attention to a considerable range of positive aspects highlighted by the appraisal.  She concludes that this shows how inadequate she is.


10. Labelling


This is where the person views him/herself or others in all or nothing terms but goes beyond this by applying a label which is usually derogatory.  For example, the mother we referred to in item 1 might label herself “a heartless bitch”.  When this thinking error is applied to others the person dislikes or disagrees with, he may say to himself, “He’s an arse”.  The person using the labelling thinking error will see the other person as globally bad and may then feel angry and hostile.  The person who makes an error at work may label him/herself as ”totally stupid”.


11. Jumping to conclusions (arbitrary inference)


A person whose thinking is distorted in this way infers that a particular outcome will be negative, without having any evidence, or even if the evidence points to a positive outcome.  There are two main types of this thinking error.


Mind reading


The person thinks she knows what others are thinking and does not consider other more plausible or likely possibilities.  An example would be the client with social anxiety who thinks her work colleagues see her a inadequate in a wide rage of situations.


Fortune telling


A person predicts that events in the future will turn out badly.  For example, a person attending form a routine chest X-ray assumes he has cancer (see catastrophiziing, where fortune telling is greatly exaggerated).




So what can you do about it?


Learn to recognise your negative thoughts.


Challenge then!  Are they really accurate, helpful and necessary?


Learn to replace them with RATIONAL thoughts.


Just as negative thinking can increase your anxiety, rational thinking can reduce it and put you in a more relaxed frame of mind.  It also helps to divert your attention from building up your anxiety level which happens when you focus on the stressful situation and negative thoughts.  If we know we have a difficult task ahead, we could either start thinking negatively about how difficult task ahead, we could either start thinking negatively about how we are bound to make a mess of it (with the accompanying increase of anxiety we are more likely to make a mess of things!) Or, we could build ourselves up with positive thinking – perhaps we could take the attitude that this is a chance to show how well we can do, and our performance will improve as a result.









Guidelines on challenging faulty thinking


  1. When you are worrying about something, try to isolate the underlying unreasonable belief you hold concerning the worry and re-evaluate it. For example, you may be thinking: “it would be terrible if I made a fool of myself in front of people – I could never face anyone again.”  Ask yourself whether it would really be so terrible as all that.  After all, everyone is entitled to the odd slip now and then.


Often you’ll find that it might be “unfortunate” or “inconvenient” if such and such happened, but rarely a disaster.  Can you be sure that the worst is certain to occur in any case?  Take a deep breath and get yourself thinking rationally.


  1. Once you realise that you can be the author of your own anxiety, it puts you back in charge. It might be a bit hard to allow yourself to accept this at first.  One reason might be that most of us prefer to blame other people or things and events outside ourselves for our difficulties.  While we all suffer misfortunes that are out of our control, more often there is plenty that we can do to ease problem situations ourselves.  Being in control of your anxiety  is better than being at the mercy of it.


  1. Use your new found control: Challenge faulty thinking – be objective. Don’t put things off – tackle problems quickly and with all your energy. Don’t give yourself a chance to change your mind!


  1. Tell yourself that you can handle the situations you worry about. When you find that your fears are not rational, be positive and face up to them.  While you are in the feared situation keep reminding yourself of the rational facts to help you cope, e.g. “People are not looking at me, thinking I’m stupid/I won’t collapse”.  Then practise, practise, practise over and over again until you’ve mastered your fear of the situation.  You’ll feel so much better, so much more in control, if you do.  The alternative is for your anxieties to continue torturing you at the same pitch indefinitely.


  1. Stop yourself briskly if you find yourself worrying about the same thing over and over again – actually say to yourself: “Stop!”. Then allow yourself some positive, rational thoughts – these are usually more comforting at the very least!


  1. Don’t worry about why you became anxious in the first place – you may never know. What really matters is dealing with the anxiety now.


  1. Don’t expect to master your anxiety in five minutes – a great deal of practice will be needed. Setbacks must be expected too so don’t let the odd slip make you so disheartened that you give up completely.  After all, you may have had your anxieties for some time – they’ll take time to conquer and you can’t reasonably expect yourself to find things that easy.


  1. Be kind to yourself. This is part of taking control over your own life to – it’s not all hard work!  Give yourself a treat now and then, take responsibility to reward yourself when you’ve achieved something rather than expect others to do this.  If you’ve really tried to follow the guidelines given so far on this course you certainly deserve a treat!  How about now!



Challenging Questions Sheet


Below is a list of questions to be used in helping you challenge your maladaptive or problematic beliefs.  Not all questions will be as appropriate for the belief you choose to challenge.







  • Is it logical?
  • Would a scientist agree with my logic?
  • Where is the evidence for my belief? What is the evidence for and against this idea?
  • Where is the belief written (apart form inside my own head!)?
  • Is my belief realistic?
  • Would my friends and colleagues agree with my idea?
  • Does everybody share my attitude? If not, why not?
  • Am I expecting myself or others to be perfect as opposed to fallible human beings?
  • What makes the situation so terrible, awful or horrible?
  • Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?
  • Will it seem this bad in one, three, six or twelve months’ time?
  • Will it be important for me in two years’ time?
  • Am I exaggerating the importance of this problem?
  • Am I fortune telling with little evidence that the worse case scenario will actually happen?
  • If I “can’t stand it” or “can’t bear it” what will really happen?
  • If I “can’t stand it” will I really fall apart?
  • Am I concentrating on my own (or others’) weaknesses and neglecting strengths?
  • Am I agonising about how I think things should be instead of dealing with them as they are?
  • Where is this thought or attitude getting me?
  • Is my belief helping me to attain my goals?
  • Is my belief goal focused and problem solving?
  • If a friend made a similar mistake, would I be so c critical?
  • Am I thinking in all-or-nothing terms: is there any middle ground?
  • Am I labelling myself, somebody or something else? Is this logical and a fair thing to do?
  • Just because a problem has occurred does it mean that I/they/it are “stupid”, “a failure”, “useless” or “hopeless”.?
  • Am I placing rues on others or myself (e.g., shoulds or musts, etc.)? if so, are they proving helpful and constructive?
  • Am I using words or phrases that are extreme or exaggerated (for example: always, forever, never, need, should, must, can’t and every time)?
  • Am I taking things too personally?
  • Am I blaming others unfairly just to make myself (temporarily) feel better?
  • Am I confusing a habit with a fact?
  • Are my interpretations of the situation too far removed from reality to be accurate?
  • Am I thinking in all-or-none terms?
  • Am I taking selected examples out of context?
  • Am I making excuses (for example: I’m not afraid, I just don’t want to go out; The other people expect me to be perfect; or, I don’t want to make the call because I don’t have time)?
  • Is the source of information reliable?
  • Am I thinking in terms of certainties instead of probabilities?
  • Am I confusing a low probability with high probability?
  • Are my judgements based on feelings rather than facts?
  • Am I focusing on irrelevant factors?



Common Thinking Distortions At a Glance


All-or-nothing thinking


Thinking in absolutes, as either black or white, good or bad, with no middle ground.  Tendency to judge people or events using general labels, for example, “He’s an idiot”, “I’m hopeless. I’ll never learn to drive”.  You may condemn yourself completely as a person on the basis of a single event.




Tendency to magnify and exaggerate the importance of events and how awful or unpleasant they will be, overestimating the chances of disaster; whatever can go wrong will go wrong.




Taking responsibility and blame for anything unpleasant even if it has little or nothing to do with you.  “It’s my fault.”


Negative focus


Focusing on the negative, ignoring or misinterpreting positive aspects of a situation.  Your focus on your weaknesses and forget your strengths, looking on the dark side.


Jumping to conclusions


You make negative interpretations even though there are no definite facts. You start predicting the future, and take on the mantle of ‘mind reader’.


Living by fixed rules


You tend to have fixed rules and unrealistic expectations. Regularly using the words ‘should’, ‘ought’, ‘must’ and ‘can’t’.  This leads to unnecessary guilt and disappointment.