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Developing Healthy Thinking Skills

Last week I posted an article on the hazards of unhealthy thinking styles. Cognitive distortions can strongly impact the way we feel, respond and behave on a daily basis. These are traps that manifest front and centre in trying times like these with the unprecedented levels of uncertainty we see daily across all domains of our lives. Some of the thinking errors I discussed were mind reading, all or nothing thinking, fortune telling, minimisation, catastrophising, personalisation and so on. As a follow-up today I want to share a range of healthy thinking skills that we can develop to tackle thinking errors.

First things first, write down your thinking errors. Writing down your thinking errors can be very useful. When you are feeling stressed or procrastinating, observe you thinking errors and write them down. This will make you more mindful so you will be in a better position the next time to avoid them. You can use this same exercise I shared from last week to get started.

  • Step 1: Pick an event that happened. It can be big or small.

  • Step 2: Write down what your thoughts were when that event occurred. Refer to the list of thinking traps and write out any thoughts you felt were cognitive distortions.

  • Step 3: Your unhealthy thoughts brought about feelings. What were they?

  • Step 4: What action did you take and how did your thoughts and feelings influence your action?

Once you write them down you can use the following skills to help you shift your thoughts from an unhealthy pattern to a healthy one.

  • Rational Thinking – This is a very powerful healthy thinking style. It's creating thoughts based on evidence and facts. For example - “Just because I made a typo in my presentation, doesn’t mean I’ll get a poor review. I can’t tell the future.”

  • Compassion – A style of thought that has empathy for the context, thoughts and feelings of yourself or others. “Given today’s circumstances, I’m doing the best I can. I’m going to be kind to myself.”

  • Gratitude – Noticing and appreciating what’s good and right in every situation. “I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to learn from this problem.”

  • Optimism – Thoughts based on identifying the best-case scenario. “Yes, I can't travel abroad now but I can do a staycation. I can still have the most amazing time and create those incredible memories.”

  • Growth Mindset- This is a thinking style that shows us that imperfection is a sign of growth, learning and development and that effort counts. “I’m not where I want to be, but I’m getting so much better. If I work harder, I’m sure I’ll improve tremendously.”

  • Grey is Good – This is the opposite of Black or White/All or Nothing Thinking. The Grey thinking style is when can see both sides of a situation. “I didn’t get invited to her Birthday party. We are not as close as we used to be, but that doesn’t mean she hates me.”

  • Flexible – Letting go of rules/should/musts and cultivating preferences. “I prefer to have my coffee first thing in the morning but if that doesn’t happen it’s OK.”

As these are trying times for all of us, in addition to the healthy thinking styles, I also want to share some tips on anxiety management that I learnt during my Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) training classes. These are general anxiety management tips and they work in any situation. The true secret to managing anxiety is learning how to make it work for you. I hope you find these tips useful.

  • Breathing: In any turbulence, connecting to the breath and breathing in and out consciously will help the body come back from the fight or flight mode. I often use this 7/11 breathing technique where you breathe in for 7 counts and breathe out for 11 counts a few times. You can increase or decrease the counts as they suit you but the important thing to remember is to make your out-breath longer than your in-breath.

  • Burn energy: I cannot even begin to emphasise how physical exercise and movement can do wonders in managing anxiety. Going out for a run, yoga, swimming, dancing or any form of working out will instantly bring down stress levels and increase endorphins. Taking your dog out for a walk or even doing 20 jumping jacks in your room can cause a shift. Healthy eating and good nutrition can also contribute to your wellbeing.

  • Soothing activities: A great way to relax your body and mind is to engage in conscious soothing activities – taking a shower or a warm bath, listening to music, watching a show you like or even doing mundane activities like cooking, cleaning or tidying up. Mundane activities show your brain that things are normal and routine-like.

  • Present Moment Awareness: Connecting with what you see, hear, feel, touch and smell can bring you to the here and now. Engaging in Mindfulness meditation and practice has shown to have tremendous effects on anxiety and stress management. This can help with managing our thoughts – identifying unhealthy thoughts and cultivating healthy ones.

  • Problem-solving and planning: I find this technique really helpful – identifying what is causing the anxiety and finding ways of resolving it by making a plan. Although you can’t control events, planning can help ground you and make decisions rationally.

That’s it from me today my friends. Remember to check in with yourself daily and of course, stay well and stay safe.

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