We all have thoughts that aren’t much fun. Having a constant stream of criticism or worry chattering away in our heads can have a big effect on our confidence and happiness.
Difficult thoughts can be unhelpful, scary and painful. But it’s important to remember that you don’t have to believe them. Sound easier said than done? Here are some ideas on how to handle difficult thoughts and build up your wellbeing.
Notice what you’re thinking
Thoughts come and go like clouds – but some of them can be pretty stormy.
One of the first steps to deal with the storm clouds is to practice looking at the sky. Notice all the things you’re thinking (taking a breathe can give you little more space to do this.) When some nasty self-talk pops up, it can be helpful to label it as ‘thoughts’ and remind yourself that all thoughts pass. Meditation is a great way to get better at doing this.
When we’re going through a rough patch, difficult thoughts can be more frequent and intense. Being tired, affected by alcohol or other drugs or in a low mood can all change what we think. What might be going on for you right now? Could something be changing the way you’re seeing things? Keeping this perspective in mind is really valuable.
It can also help to write your thoughts down. That way you can look at them more objectively. Which thoughts inspire you, or help you feel stronger? Which ones aren’t helpful, or could be exaggerations? Using a journal can help you look at your patterns of thinking over time.
Look at your thoughts and feelings separately
Our thoughts and feelings are deeply connected, and effect each other in all sorts of ways. But when it comes to dealing with difficult thoughts, it can be helpful to remember that they’re not the same thing.
Feelings happen in your body. Emotions like sadness, happiness or anger are made up of physical sensations – your heart beating faster, tears welling up in your face, warmth in your chest or butterflies in your stomach. In that sense, feelings are always real.
But that doesn’t always mean the thoughts connected to them are true. Thoughts happen in your mind. They’re statements about how things are – and they could be true or false, or you might not have enough information to really know.
The stronger our unpleasant feelings are, the easier it is to believe stuff that isn’t helpful or true. This is actually our mind trying to protect us, and not getting it right!
For example, someone stressed out about an exam might have a tightness in their chest and tension in their stomach. They might be having thoughts like ‘I’m terrible at everything’ and ‘I’m going to mess up my whole life’ – even though, realistically, they're not true at all.
If you notice yourself caught up in thoughts, take a moment to recognise what the feelings are in your body. Remember that when we’re upset or afraid, our mind focuses on the negative and makes problems seem bigger than they actually are.
Acknowledge what you're feeling, then look at your thoughts and ask yourself – ‘is that really true?’
Build up useful thinking
The goal is to replace unhelpful thoughts that put you down with helpful ones that build you up. It might help to ask yourself these questions:
- What would I tell my friend if they said they were having these thoughts?
- What are five things I’m proud of?
- What’s the worst (realistic) case scenario of this situation?
- What are some ways I’ve dealt with issues before?
- Who are three people I love?
- What are positive things would they say about me?
- What would I tell them if they were going through a tough time?
- What are three things I'm thankful for?
Difficult times can become a lot easier when we treat ourselves with compassion.