How to Challenge Your Unhelpful Thoughts
We are often our own worst critic. In this day and age when at the click of a button we can see the intimate details of people around us it's hard not to compare. It's hard not to consider our own eating behaviours, weight and shape and wonder if we are better, worse or the same. We all know that these often automatic thoughts can be harmful, but how do we stop them?
We all have thoughts, beliefs or assumptions that occur outside of our awareness. Unless we really focus on what we are doing, we are not conscious of the process involved, and much of the thinking will be habitual or automatic.
There are three different types of automatic thoughts:
Neutral thoughts (e.g. I think I will watch TV)
Positive thoughts (e.g. I think I am awesome at this)
Negative thoughts (e.g. I think I have no self control)
These automatic thoughts play a very important role in our lives and often help us achieve tasks like driving a car, riding a bike, or simply chewing and swallowing without really needing to think about how we do it. However, it is when these automatic thoughts are negative that harm can occur and emotional distress can be caused, especially when they present frequently.
Our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all intimately connected. When we react to a situation, it's not usually the actual situation that makes us feel the way we do, it's how we perceive or think about the situation.
Lets take a look at the following examples:
"After 6 months of treatment, Jennie lost 5kg by eating regularly, stopping any residual binges and exercising. She felt proud of herself and organised to go out for lunch with friends to celebrate."
"After 6 months of treatment, Susan lost 5kg by eating regularly, stopping any residual binges and exercising. She thought this was not good enough. She felt unhappy with her progress and decided to eat a whole cake. She then felt guilty afterwards and went for a 5km run to try and burn it off."
Here we have exactly the same situation, so why did Jennie and Susan react so differently? The explanation lies in their thinking. Jennie and Susan are thinking about the same situation very differently. This in turn affected how they felt about the situation which impacted on their actions.
Unhelpful Thinking Styles
People with disordered eating patterns often default to automatic thoughts that are made up of unhelpful thinking styles. From time to time we all resort to this way of thinking; however, if we find ourselves using these thinking styles frequently then it is most likely contributing to negative feelings which in turn encourage our disordered eating behaviours.
Unhelpful thinking styles include:
The ABC Thought Diary
To help minimise unhelpful thinking and challenge the automatic negative thoughts we need to work on becoming more conscious of them and recognising their impact on our feelings and actions. One way we can do this is by using the ABC Thought Diary:
Firstly we need to identify the A, which stands for 'activating event' >> that is the situation that triggered the unhelpful thought
Next it is usually easiest to identify the C, which stands for 'consequences' >> how you felt about the situation and what you did
Lastly, we identify the B, which stands for 'beliefs' >> the thought statements or beliefs that link the activating event and the consequences
Completing an ABC Thought Diary is an important first step in challenging our unhelpful thoughts related to our eating behaviours, weight and shape.
Here is an example of a completed ABC Thought Diary:
Can you think of a recent situation that made you feel distressed or unhappy about your weight, shape or eating behaviours? Try using that situation to work through your own ABC Thought Diary by clicking the link below.
Now that we have identified our thoughts or beliefs and our unhelpful thinking styles it is now time to try and challenge them. Imagine you are a detective in court being asked to produce evidence both for and against those thoughts. Consider the following:
What evidence is there that the thoughts are true?
How do I know that they are true?
What evidence is there that the thoughts are not true?
What other facts may I overlooked?
Now you need to take on the role of the lawyer and challenge the unhelpful thoughts. Consider the following:
How might someone else view the situation?
What would I tell a friend if they were experiencing the same thing?
Does it really help me to think this way?
What other explanation may there be?
This stage is about being objective, analysing and evaluating your thoughts rather than accepting that they are true.
Here is an example of detective work and challenging the thoughts:
Try using your ABC Thought Diary to complete your own detective work by clicking the link below.
Balanced and Helpful Thoughts
The final stage is to ask ourselves, "How do we feel now?" This last step is crucial as the ultimate aim in completing the thought diary is to develop helpful and balanced thoughts.
Here is an example of a helpful thought from the scenario we have been working through:
Try using your ABC Thought Diary and detective work to reevaluate your negative thoughts and develop a more balanced and helpful thought.