Thinking traps: How can I deal with negative thoughts?

What do you do when you feel “stuck”? When you see the world through a negative lens, it can feel like everything is terrible and there’s no way out. Life is hard, and you can’t think your way out of every problem—but you can learn to think more clearly and positively. And that makes it much easier to enjoy life and find solutions to your problems!

How do our thoughts get stuck in the first place?

The world is a complicated place. Our lives are always changing. We encounter new situations that our cave-dwelling ancestors never had to deal with—taxes, dating, school, driving… It’s all a lot to process, and our little animal brains are doing the best they can!

Our brains take a lot of shortcuts. Most of the time, our mental shortcuts do a good job of helping us cope with life without getting overwhelmed by all the details. In fact, they work so well that we usually don’t even notice them.

But sometimes, we get stuck. The shortcuts that used to help us start to hold us back. We start to feel trapped in our negative thinking. We might feel anxious or depressed, or have trouble solving our problems.

One example of a mental shortcut is overgeneralizing. Your brain relies on past experience to predict the future. If you failed at something on your first try, you might automatically assume that you will never succeed. The truth is that most of the time, we suck at new things the first time we try them. Trying again anyway is how we experience the satisfaction and pride that come from learning and growing—but it’s hard to remember that when your brain is trying to protect you from being disappointed or embarrassed.

Breaking free of thinking traps

Each of us is unique, and so are our thoughts. But people do tend to get stuck in similar patterns of thinking. These patterns are called thinking traps. Everyone gets caught in these traps sometimes—but with some help, you can learn to break free of them!

(If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, you may have learned about “cognitive distortions”. Counselors in the criminal justice system often talk about “thinking errors”. Some people like to call them “automatic negative thoughts”, or ANTs. These are all ways of saying the same thing!)

Breaking free of thinking traps is all about reframing your thoughts. When you reframe a thought, you look for new ways to think about the thing that’s bothering you. It takes practice to learn how to reframe your thoughts. But with time, you can learn to not only think more positively, but to actually change the things you believe about yourself.

While you’re learning to reframe your thoughts, keep a couple things in mind:

  • Try not to beat yourself up. Everyone gets stuck in thinking traps. Getting out of them takes time, and you’ll probably mess up along the way. Beating yourself up is like flailing in the water when someone is trying to rescue you—it will only make things worse!
  • You don’t have to hide your feelings to reframe your thoughts. If you’re having really negative thoughts about a breakup, you can tell yourself a more positive version of the story—while still being sad that it happened.

Common thinking traps

Let’s go over some common thinking traps, with examples and strategies for getting unstuck:

Filtering is when you ignore anything that contradicts what you already believe to be true. If you think, “no one ever appreciates me,” you might ignore all the times people have expressed appreciation for you (even if it’s not as often as you like). If you think, “I’m a failure,” you might think that everything bad that happens is your fault—while everything good that happens is just a fluke.

  • How to reframe: Look for evidence that contradicts the negative beliefs you have about yourself. Think of a time when things did turn out well for you, or focus on a person who does care about you.
  • By the way, focusing only on the positives can get you in trouble too! For example, you might think about how good you’ll feel during a night of partying, but forget how hungover you’ll be in the morning.

Black-and-white thinking is when you only see the most extreme possibilities: “Either I’m the best, or I’m the worst.” “I’m either going to become famous, or I’m a nobody.” “If I don’t get an A+, I might as well have gotten an F.”

  • Also called: all-or-nothing thinking; splitting
  • How to reframe: Think of all the possibilities in between the two extremes. “Find the shades of gray.” Try to make peace with being a normal person, who is good at some things and bad at others!

Jumping to conclusions is when you skip steps in your logic. You might try mind-reading—guessing what other people are thinking without really knowing. You might take things personally when they really have nothing to do with you. When you catastrophize, you focus on the worst possible outcome and convince yourself that it will definitely happen.

  • How to reframe: Write down all the steps it takes to get to the conclusion. Figure out which steps you’re skipping. Look for the flaws in your logic. Try to think of other possible interpretations.
  • Here’s an example: Say your thought is, “He didn’t even say hi when he came in. He must hate me!” Well, there are lots of reasons why someone might not say hello. Maybe he’s having a bad day. Maybe he’s shy, and he was hoping you’d say hi first. Or maybe you did say hi, but he didn’t hear you. Worst case scenario: Maybe he’s just rude!

“Should” statements involve putting pressure on yourself to act in a certain way. Some therapists call this “should-ing all over yourself.”

  • How to reframe: Identify where your expectations are coming from. Who exactly says that you should act a certain way? Are their expectations realistic? Does it actually matter what they think? What do you want? What are the pros and cons?

Tunnel vision is when you focus on just one thing and ignore everything else. When you feel bad now, it’s easy to feel like things have always been this way—and they always will be. It’s also easy to forget that your actions have long-term consequences.

  • Also called: selective memory; short-term thinking
  • How to reframe: Think of a time when you felt better than you do now. Imagine a time in the future when you might feel that way again. If you can, find a pleasant distraction until the worst of it passes. Remember that the only constant in life is change!

If you want to see more examples of thinking traps, just google “cognitive distortions.”

Talk it out

Sometimes other people are able to see our thinking traps better than we can see our own. This is actually one of the main benefits of seeing a therapist: therapists are trained to recognize thinking traps and help you get unstuck.

Talking to a friend or family member can be really helpful too. Make sure to find someone who can give you constructive feedback in a positive, caring way. You want them to help you reframe your thoughts without invalidating your feelings.

Writing in a journal isn’t exactly “talking to someone,” but it’s similar. You can put your thoughts down on paper, and then look at them as if they were someone else’s thoughts. What would you tell a friend who was saying those negative things about themselves? How would you help them focus on the positives?

You can also reframe your thoughts using this worksheet or this interactive activity. The key is to keep practicing reframing your thoughts until it becomes a habit!

References

  • Barlow et al. (2017). Unified Protocol for Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders: Workbook. Second Edition. Oxford University Press.
  • (2002). Seeking Safety: A Treatment Manual for PTSD and Substance Abuse. The Guildford Press.