Thinking Strategies

A calming picture that represents being able to manage our thinking

I just can’t get me out of my head

Thinking Strategies: Twenty questions to help you to pause and unhook from your thoughts

This page looks at some simple questions you can ask yourself to help when you are struggling with difficult thoughts and emotions. These thinking strategies are not designed to solve problems, but as a way to allow yourself to pause, stop and think, and be aware of the effect your thoughts are having on you. They are one of a number of techniques taken from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

“We are addicted to our thoughts. We cannot change anything if we cannot change our thinking.” 

Santosh Kalwar, Author.

Have you ever responded in a way where you instantly regret it? Maybe you have snapped at someone, or said something hurtful. You may have felt pressure to agree to something you didn’t really want to do, but only realised afterwards.

Or maybe you have found yourself dwelling on something, a comment someone has made, or an activity you have to do that you don’t want to. You get caught in unhelpful thoughts, and think about them so much you start to believe them. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy describes this as getting ‘hooked’ with your thoughts. Once hooked, it is hard to let go.

In both situations, even though our thoughts are driving our responses, we can be completely unaware of what they are telling us.

What is a thought?

It is not easy to catch your thoughts or to distinguish them from emotions.

If you say it, it is speech, if you write it down, it is text, if keep it inside your head, it is a thought

Russ Harris, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Specialist.

The following videos offer helpful ways to understand thoughts:

One mindfulness exercise that I find helpful to practice becoming aware of your thoughts is called ‘Leaves on a Stream’. A version of this can be found here.

It can also be useful to understand the themes in your negative thinking – the errors which ‘trap’ you in a cycle of unhelpful thoughts. This article in Forbes magazine gives an overview of ten common thinking errors.

Thinking Strategies

Example thoughts:

“I am being so stupid, I can’t do anything right, everything is going to go wrong”

“I can’t believe they have done that! Nothing ever goes right, how dare they!”

“I know I am not going to be able to cope with this, I am too anxious, maybe I will make excuses to not go….”

Thinking Strategies

One simple tool to help you to take a step back and ‘unhook’ from your thoughts is to find one or two questions that you can ask yourself when you start to feel strong emotions. Try the following exercise:

  • Think about a recent situation where you felt strong emotions and reacted in an unhelpful way.
  • Stop, pause, take a breathe, and identify the thoughts you were having at the time.
  • Ask each of the questions below – see which ones work for you. It is not about asking every question every time, but finding the ones that are most helpful to you.
  • Note the useful questions down, and next time you start to feel heightened emotions, ask yourself them.
  • Repeat! The more you do it, the more automatic it will become.

**NB – it will be important to ask these questions when you have been able to calm a little and are alone. Using the techniques suggested in my blog about simple coping skills could help. If you try to ask them when you are still emotionally heightened you are likely to answer them in a way which agrees with your negative thoughts**

Twenty Questions:

Stop!! What unhelpful thoughts am I having right now?

Questions that focus on your perception of the situation:

  • Is there any other way to view the situation?
  • What is the evidence that my thoughts are true? What is the evidence that they are untrue?
  • What are the actual facts about the situation?

Questions about your thoughts:

  • How are these thoughts helping me?  How are they making things worse?
  • Am I jumping to any conclusions?
  • What is a nicer way for me to think about this?
  • Am I asking myself a question that has no answer?
  • What sensitivities is this triggering for me?
  • Am I expecting myself to be perfect? 
  • Am I focusing on how I want things to be, rather than accepting how they are?
  • What is the middle ground here?

Questions to put things into context:

  • How would a friend look at this?
  • Out of 100%, how important is this in the grand scheme of my life?
  • Does thinking like this fit with what is important to me in my life?
  • What is the bigger picture here?  What else should I take on board?
  • What’s the worst thing that could happen right now?  Why can I deal with this?

Questions to think about how you want to deal with things:

  • Why can I cope with the problem (that is causing the thoughts)?
  • What can I accept about the situation right now? (even if it is only a small thing!)
  • What is the best thing I can do right now to look after myself?
  • How can I feel in control right now, in a positive way?

Once you have found the questions that are most useful, you may wish to create an image so that you can prompt yourself at any time:

Thinking Strategies Card
Thinking Card

Have a look at my other blog posts:

Core Childhood Needs

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Coping Skills at times of distress

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Overcoming Procrastination

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