Challenging Thinking Errors

Written by Aislinn Pluta

Did you catch the thought you just had? Or did it pass by so quickly you didn’t notice? Your brain constantly evaluates, reflects, and judges, though at times, thoughts can whiz by so fast you may be scarcely aware you’re having them.

Sometimes brains get mired in a web of negative thoughts that cause a bad mood. Thoughts can be untrue, exaggerated, or very unhelpful. Things like, “I chew SO loudly” or “I always forget to put on pants!” (sometimes I remember, give me some credit brain!).

Thoughts that are untrue or unhelpful are called thinking errors, but you may also have heard them called thinking traps, thought errors, or cognitive distortions. Regardless of their name, they’re usually bad news for your mood, triggering negative emotions or even leading into dreadful downward spirals. Read on for strategies to identify and fight them.

Types of thinking traps

When brains get going, they can fall into many common thinking traps. Here are a few of the most common ones:

  • Catastrophizing: Imagining the worst-case scenario (“During this eulogy, what if I just fart like, really loudly and everyone gapes at me in horror!”)
  • Overgeneralizing: Using “always” or “never” statements (“My face always succeeds at making the most awkwardly deranged expression in photos”)
  • Should statements: Thinking you “should” or “shouldn’t” do something (“I should seriously stop eating this entire tub of nutella”)
  • Negative filter: Focusing on the bad aspects of something while ignoring what’s good. (“I did a gazillion loads of laundry but missed this dirty sock - UGH!”)

Thinking errors like these are usually untrue and unhelpful (well… maybe I /could/ cut back on the nutella).

They can cause a dip in mood, which in turn can lead to withdrawal (“I’m clearly too depressed right now to go to the gym and get some endorphins”). And they can spiral into more negative thoughts (“Ugh, I’m such a lameball for feeling sorry for myself”)

Taking pause to examine whether a thought is fact or fiction, and coming up with a better alternative, can build resilience and improve wellbeing.

Challenging thinking errors

  1. What’s an untrue or unhelpful thought you’ve had recently?

Got it? Try thinking back to the last time you felt anxious. Or maybe you had a sudden drop in mood. Chances are, there were some negative thoughts in there that made things worse or even triggered the downward swing. You can also look for extreme language like “always,” “never,” or “can’t.”

Okay. Now…

  1. What’s an alternative thought you could have that’s more reasonable or helpful?

Don’t skimp on this step! If your unhelpful thought was “I look like a pizza face” then look in the mirror and imagine seeing your best friend there, and what loving words you would prefer to hear them say. Say those very words to yourself,\\=] you gorgeous creature.

  1. What evidence do you have that supports the thought error? How about the alternative thought?

Good. Usually thinking errors don’t have any factual basis, and even when they might have some truth to them, there’s usually a more nuanced and positive thought with more evidence. What proof do you have that your thinking error is true? Okay, now what proof do you have that the more helpful, hopeful thought is actually more true?

  1. If you’re still plagued by the original thought error, taking steps to collect evidence can help (e.g. keeping a log of your successes if you believe you frequently fail).

If your alternative, helpful thought is that you’re a kind person and not a jack@\(, then ask a friend how they honestly perceive of you. Make note of the kind things you did that day. Be kind to yourself. Even if you're a tiny part jack@\), noticing yourself being a decent human being will also naturally strengthen that side of you, as well as your belief that it’s true.

  1. If your thought error does have some truth, formal problem solving can help you resolve it.

UpLift has a free tool for problem solving. Usually our thinking errors are completely false, but sometimes they may reveal an aspect of ourselves we’d like to change. Creating a concrete plan can help you move forward in a constructive way, instead of continually cycling through feelings of shame or guilt.

Practice, practice

Throughout your day, practice pausing to listen in on your thoughts. Notice how they affect your mood, check them for accuracy, and recalibrate them as needed to be more helpful and hopeful.

Thoughts can race by quickly. If we don’t pause and analyze them once in a while, we could miss the effect they have on our moods, and the opportunity for enjoying life more fully.

For more free, easy tools to de-stress, download UpLift on iOS, or if you don't have iOS, check out UpLift's free COVID-19 De-stress Care Package.

About the Author
Aislinn is UpLift's Content Director. She has a B.A. in Psychology and a Master's in Applied Positive Psychology, the scientific study of the factors that lead to a full and meaningful life.