Think of yourself as a balanced person? And yet have you listened to your thoughts lately?
It can be surprising to hear what our mind has on repeat. Taking the time to tune in, either with a practice such as mindfulness or working with a therapist, you might find more negative thinking than you reckoned for.
This is especially true if you are prone to low moods.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) recognises that negative thoughts are often the trigger for anxiety and low moods. By learning to change your thoughts, with a process designed to create balanced thinking, depression can be arrested in its tracks.
‘Distorted thinking’ – does this sound familiar?
Distorted thinking is just that – when your thoughts have skewered your experience of reality to one extreme or the other yet you take it as truth. In psychology, these sorts of thoughts are often called “cognitive distortions“.
Cognitive distortions include such thought patterns as black and white thinking, overgeneralising, personalisation (making everything about you), and jumping to conclusions. (Read our piece on common cognitive distortions for more about this).
So are you saying I just need to think positive?
Positive thinking is usually a form of distorted thinking too, just gone the other direction. It can similarly be a way to avoid reality and avoid taking responsibility for your experiences.
So no, just chanting positive affirmations to yourself rarely solves anything.
Well what is balanced thinking, then?
Just like it sounds, balanced thinking is a way of seeing things that is realistic and in the middle. It’s like learning to see all the shades of grey in life.
It might sound boring at first. This tends to be because thinking in extremes can be rather exciting with all the drama it creates. Even if you protest you don’t want drama, the adrenaline rush it causes can be addictive.
But thinking ‘in the middle’ is proven to alleviate cycles of low moods and see you making better decisions. And long term, that is a far more exciting prospect than living life like you are in a soap opera.
Balanced thinking – a quick ‘how to’ guide
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has created a system called a ‘thought record’ to help you attain balance thinking for difficult situations, or ones you wished you handled differently.
*A CBT’ thought record’ usually has seven steps. What we’ll look at here is just part of the process, to give you a ‘taster’.
- Identify the situation as clearly as possible. Who, what, where and when?
- List all your thoughts around it and pick the ‘hot’ one. Put down any and all things that come to mind, and find the thought with the biggest emotional charge.
- Find proof to support your ‘hot’ thought (what facts do you have to prove it?).
- Then list facts that disprove the ‘hot’ thought (what facts support the other side of the argument?).
- Come up with a statement that is between these two extremes and now feels the most true for you. This statement ideally acknowledges the evidence that supports the ‘hot’ thought, but also the evidence against it.
An example of balanced thinking in action
So how might this work in real life? Let’s take a look, with an example of someone anxious they are going to lose their job.
The situation – “I think my boss hates me and I’m going to get fired. The who is my boss, the what is I’m scared of being unemployed, the how is I’ll get fired for not being good enough, the where is at work.”
All thoughts then ‘hot’ one– “I’m no good at this job, my boss likes everyone else but me, I’m unlucky, nobody likes me, I am lazy and no good, if I have no job I’ll be lost, I need to work harder, my boss just really hates me. Writing this I feel ‘my boss just really hates me’ makes me feel worst, that’s the ‘hot’ thought for me!”
Proof you have to support negative thought – “Well, my boss pointed out the mistakes I made on my last report in a really mean voice, he definitely talks to others on the team more than me, he never smiles at me, and I know for a fact he goes out with other staff members for drinks sometimes.”
Proof you have to support the opposite – “My boss points out errors in reports to everyone now and then and I did make errors, I did win this job out of ten candidates and if he found me really unbearable I would not have been chosen, and then I did notice it’s only the other men he talks to, he tends to also ignore the other women on staff.”
Balanced thought –”While it does seem I’m not my bosses favourite employee, he might just feel intimidated or nervous around women and that might be part of the problem, over my work performance or personality. I could, however, do with upping my game at work, this is true and might make me more confident.”
The pitfall of making assumptions
Note that it’s important when seeking a balanced thought to watch out for assumptions. The proofs you find must be provable facts.
So, in the example above, you could not include as proof, “I saw him talking to my manager and I was sure it was about me”. He could have been talking to the manager about anything at all.
That’s a lot of work just to get to a new thought. Is it really worth it?
Studies show that the more you practise this process of reaching a balanced thought, the more it becomes an automatic process for your brain. And given the proven benefits of balanced thinking, this is more than worth the effort.
The benefits of balanced thinking
Balanced thinking stops “negative mood cycles”, a spiral that CBT Therapy has identified as leading to depression.
The concept is that a negative thought leads to a negative emotions, which causes a negative action, which then causes another negative thought, and the cycle goes on. Once started, the spiral is hard to break. But stopping long enough to catch the negative thought and replacing it with a balanced one is one way to do so.
Other benefits of balanced thinking are as follows:
- lower anxiety and frustration
- increased feelings of calm
- more able to see the bigger picture
- better decision making
- improved capacity to see the perspective of others
- which then improves your relationships.
Is this all cognitive behavioural therapy is about?
No, cognitive behavioural therapy does not just teach balanced thinking, although this process is a useful part of working with a cognitive behavioural therapist. It also, for example, focuses on how your behaviours are creating your moods.
Should I try CBT therapy?
If you are struggling constantly with low moods and have negative thinking, CBT therapy is a great place to start.
Now recommended by the NHS here in the UK, cognitive behavioural therapy is a shorter-term therapy. This can feel less overwhelming to commit to, especially if it’s your first time trying counselling or psychotherapy. CBT is also evidence-based (proven repeatedly to work by research studies) for alleviating depression and anxiety.
Harley Therapy can connect you with cognitive behavioural therapists (CBT) in three London locations or worldwide via Skype counselling.
Still have questions about balanced thinking? You can post in the comments below.