How To Avoid Common Thinking Traps

The mind is a tricky thing. It can lead us to believe that we can confidently sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” at karaoke even though we haven’t heard the song in years, or that one terrible review on Yelp is reason enough not to go to a 4-star rated restaurant.

These thinking errors are what people in the psychology community call cognitive biases. And that’s the focus of a new book out this month, Thinking 101: How to Reason Better to Live Better, by Yale psychology professor Woo-kyoung Ahn. In the book, Ahn highlights some of the most pernicious cognitive slip-ups we make — and how biases can cloud our judgment and affect the people around us.

Researchers suspect that many of these biases are evolutionary, says Ahn. During times of scarcity, our ancestors had to make quick judgments in order to survive among predators or thrive in a difficult environment. But in a time of abundance, she adds, these quick judgments don’t always do us good.

However, we can do our best to try to correct these thinking traps, says Ahn, which she teaches her students how to do in her popular undergraduate course at Yale. In general, she says, the key is to pause before making assumptions — and be aware of our tendencies for different kinds of bias.

Ahn talks to Life Kit about three common cognitive biases and how to counteract them.

This is known in the field of psychology as an “illusion of fluency,” which describes our tendency to be overconfident in our abilities without sufficient evidence. This can lead us, for example, to bungle career-altering presentations because of inadequate preparation, or dramatically underestimate the time it takes to complete projects.

In her class at Yale, Ahn uses an experiment to illustrate this phenomenon with her students. She shows them a dance clip from the song “Boy with Luv” by the K-pop group BTS. After watching six seconds of the easiest choreography moves over and over again, she invites the students who believe they have the dance down to do it themselves. One after another stumbles.

“People can have overconfidence about what they can accomplish by watching other people do it so fluently,” Ahn says. When the pros dance in a way that looks effortless, they think they can do it effortlessly too.

How to counteract it: You can correct this bias, she says, by doing what the Yale students did: Try it out yourself. It will quickly put any feelings of overconfidence to rest.

You can also fight this tendency by over-preparing and considering potential obstacles beforehand, says Ahn. For example, if you’re working on a home remodeling project for the first time and have no idea how long it will take, don’t try to guess. Talk to friends who went through a recent remodel or consult with a few contractors to understand how long the project might take and what problems may arise. The more information you have, the better and more accurately you can assess a situation.

The bias: We tend to fixate on the negative

The concept of “negativity bias” illustrates our propensity to weigh negative events a lot more heavily than an equal amount of positive events. It explains why a friend’s unenthusiastic review of an Oscar-nominated movie, for example, might spur you to watch something else. Or why you might be less inclined to hire a potential employee after hearing one negative thing about them, despite positive referrals.

Negativity bias can be dangerous because it can lead us to make the wrong choices. It can hold us back from making a decision about something, say a big purchase like a house, or even a political candidate, out of fear there was once a negative event associated with an otherwise good choice.

How to counteract it: When making a choice, play up the positive attributes of your options, says Ahn. Marketers use this tactic all the time. For example, instead of saying that ground beef contains 11% fat, they label it is as 89% lean. These are both true and accurate descriptions of the same product, but flipping the framing of it can make it a more attractive choice for buyers concerned with fat intake.

The bias: We cherry-pick data to fit our worldview

Ahn considers “confirmation bias” — the tendency to seek out or interpret information to support what we already believe — the worst bias of all. That’s because of its potential to lead us to miss an entire range of possibilities for ourselves and others.

Ahn and Matthew Lebowitz, a psychology professor at Columbia University, conducted an experiment in 2017 to illustrate the pitfalls of this bias. They gathered a group of participants and told some of them they had a genetic predisposition to depression – even though they did not. The results of that group’s depression self-assessments showed much higher levels of depression than people in a control group who were told they did not have the predisposition.

Because of confirmation bias, the participants who were told they had a genetic risk of depression retrieved “only the evidence that fit with that hypothesis,” says Ahn. And in doing so, they managed to convince themselves that they were actually depressed. The study shows that if we believe something is a fact, even if it isn’t, our mind can find information to support those views.

Now imagine this bias at work on a societal level. Ahn says it can lead to under- or over-representation in say, leadership in politics, business and other industries, which can feed gender or racial inequality.

She shares an example. Let’s say you’re a male scientist and you’re looking to hire other scientists to join your company. Because you see that the most prominent scientists in your field are currently men, you’ve convinced yourself that the next generation of great scientists will also be men. This colors your decision-making in hiring — and so you fill the positions with men.

That choice will continue to have a ripple effect, says Ahn. For others looking at the new hires, it might perpetuate the idea that “only men can be great scientists — and that’s exactly how prejudice and stereotypes get formed in society.”

How to counteract it: Allow yourself to examine all possible explanations before you make a judgment. For example, if an actor landed a part but her parents were also in the entertainment business, many of us might attribute her employment to nepotism. Since we’ve seen many examples of parents giving their kids a leg up in business or politics, another example of a child benefiting from their parents’ success would fit that theory.

But could it also be true that she gave the best audition? By looking at the issue from many different viewpoints – not just your own – it challenges your confirmation bias. And you might realize that perhaps there is another side to the story.

By:

Source: A Yale psychologist explains how to avoid common thinking traps : Life Kit : NPR

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Critics by The Chelsea Psychology Clinic

Thinking traps are patterns of thought – usually with a negative swing – which prevent us from seeing things as they really are. Otherwise known as cognitive distortions, thinking traps are often deeply ingrained in our psyche. 

By twisting our thoughts, they can make us easily jump to conclusions and make bad decisions – preventing us from seeing the bigger picture. Like this, we can wind up trapped in a vicious cycle with the potential to alter both our mood and the way in which we experience the world around us.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy which holds that our moods and the way we feel day-to-day is impacted by our thoughts and behaviours. In other words, if we can change the way we think, we’re going to change our behaviour which has the power to alter our mood and the way we navigate the world.

Mastering our thoughts, then, is one of the most powerful things we can do if we want to take ownership over our lives. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common thinking traps. Understanding what a thinking trap looks like is going to help you get better at identifying them.

Common thinking traps – examples of thinking errors 

1.All-or-nothing thinking – seeing everything as black and white. An example might be, “I got fired. I’m rubbish at everything”. In other words, if a situation doesn’t go exactly to plan, you immediately deem it a failure. The problem is, life isn’t black and white – it’s important to be able to see the shades of grey in between.

Replace this with: “Nothing in life is perfect. Even though I didn’t get the job, it doesn’t mean I’m a failure. There are better things to come”.

2. Emotional reasoning – believing emotions to be evidence of the truth. As we explained before, how you feel is normally closely tied to the way you think. So just because you’re feeling rubbish doesn’t mean life is rubbish. An example might be, “I feel useless, therefore I am useless”.

Replace this with: “My feelings are not objective evidence for reality. I can accept all of my feelings but still move forward”.

3. Mind-reading – immediately assuming that someone is thinking something negative about you without having any evidence for it. i.e. you’re jumping to conclusions. 

Replace this with: “I can’t read minds”.

4. Fortune-telling – predicting situations with only negative outcomes. An example might be, “I’m definitely going to fail the exam today”.

Replace this with: “No one can possibly predict the future”.

5. Labelling – wrongly attributing a negative label to either yourself or someone else. An example might be, “I’m a failure” instead of saying “I failed the exam”.

Replace this with: “No one deserves to be judged”.

6. Overgeneralisation – whenever something difficult happens you think it’s going to happen over and over again. An example might be saying, “why does this always happen to me?” This thinking trap particularly likes words like ‘never’, ‘every’ and always’ so look out for them.

Replace this with: “I’m overgeneralising here. It’s very possible that something different will happen next time”.

7. Personalisation – wrongfully assuming responsibility for something. An example might be, “It’s all my fault we didn’t have pudding because I forgot the ice cream”.

Replace this with: “It’s nobody’s fault”.

What if thinking and anxiety

Anxiety is very closely tied to a thinking trap known as catastrophising. Most people will catastrophise from time to time but this kind of thinking is going to be much more prominent in someone suffering from an anxiety disorder. Triggers often centre around ambiguity – perhaps receiving a vague text from a partner, getting ill and suspecting it’s something much worse etc.

This kind of thinking can often be traced back to childhood – for example, growing up with a lot of unpredictability and instability. CBT can be helpful in learning how to manage these thoughts but digging a bit deeper in longer-term therapy can also be beneficial in these cases.

Thinking traps psychology tools – steps to take

Acknowledge that difficult things happen in life – sometimes this acknowledgement alone can be liberating. We simply can’t control everything – ups and downs are an inevitable part of life – but what we can do is change the way we respond.

Identify your thinking traps – get really clear on the specific thinking traps you have a tendency to fall prey to. It can help to keep a mood diary to keep track of moments when you’ve been feeling happy/sad and what immediately preceded those feelings. 

Play devil’s advocate with yourself – ask as many questions as possible before jumping to conclusions. Ask yourself, “is this thought I’m having a fact or is it an opinion?” Most thoughts are actually opinions rather than fact. Not all thoughts need to be taken seriously.

Talk to yourself as you would a friend – most of us would never dream of speaking to a friend the way we speak to ourselves. Be kind to yourself, and try rooting for yourself in the same way you would do a friend. Try using a mantra like, “I believe in you” when self-doubt kicks in.

Say ‘stop’ when worry-ridden thoughts take over – when you notice yourself getting lost in anxious thoughts try saying ‘stop’ out loud as a cue to consciously interrupt your thoughts.

Practice self-care as much as possible – thinking traps tend to get worse the more rundown and tired we are. Make sure you’re doing things that top up your “energy bank” and fill you with a sense of enjoyment and wellbeing.

If left unchecked, thinking traps can spiral and play tricks on us – and leave us feeling trapped. If you’re feeling down or like you’ve fallen into a pattern of habitual negative thinking, it’s really important to seek help. A therapist can help you challenge and overturn thinking patterns that are holding you back so you can begin to realise your full potential.

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Why Your Most Important Relationship Is With Your Inner Voice

As Ethan Kross, an American experimental psychologist and neuroscientist, will cheerfully testify, the person who doesn’t sometimes find themselves listening to an unhelpful voice in their head probably doesn’t exist. Ten years ago, Kross found himself sitting up late at night with a baseball bat in his hand, waiting for an imaginary assailant he was convinced was about to break into his house – a figure conjured by his frantic mind after he received a threatening letter from a stranger who’d seen him on TV.

Kross, whose area of research is the science of introspection, knew that he was overreacting; that he had fallen victim to what he calls “chatter”. But telling himself this did no good at all. At the peak of his anxiety, his negative thoughts running wildly on a loop, he found himself, somewhat comically, Googling “bodyguards for academics”.

Kross runs the wonderfully named Emotion and Self Control Lab at Michigan University, an institution he founded and where he has devoted the greater part of his career to studying the silent conversations people have with themselves: internal dialogues that powerfully influence how they live their lives. Why, he and his colleagues want to know, do some people benefit from turning inwards to understand their feelings, while others are apt to fall apart when they engage in precisely the same behaviour?

Are there right and wrong ways to communicate with yourself, and if so, are there techniques that might usefully be employed by those with inner voices that are just a little too loud? Down the years, Kross has found answers to some, if not all, of these questions, and now he has collected these findings in a new book – a manual he hopes will improve the lives of those who read it.

“We’re not going to rid the world of anxiety and depression,” he says, of Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It. “This is not a happy pill, and negative emotions are good in small doses. But it is possible to turn down the temperature a bit when it’s running too high, and doing this can help all of us manage our experiences more effectively.”

According to Kross, who talks to me on Zoom from his home in a snowy Ann Arbor, there now exists a robust body of research to show that when we experience distress – something MRI scans suggest has a physical component as well as an emotional one – engaging in introspection can do “significantly” more harm than good.

Our thoughts, he says, don’t save us from ourselves. Rather, they give rise to something insidious: the kind of negative cycles that turn the singular capacity of human beings for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing, with potentially grave consequences both for our mental and physical health (introspection of the wrong sort can even contribute to faster ageing).

Does this mean that it’s not, after all, good to talk? That those in therapy should immediately cancel their next appointment? Not exactly. “Avoiding our emotions across the board is not a good thing,” he says. “But let’s think about distance instead. Some people equate this word with avoidance and repression. But I think of it as the ability to step back and reflect, to widen the lens, to get some perspective. We’re not avoiding something by doing this, we’re just not getting overwhelmed.”

According to one study, we talk to ourselves at a rate equivalent to speaking 4,000 words per minute (by way of comparison, the American president’s State of the Union address, which usually runs to about 6,000 words, lasts more than an hour). No wonder, then, that listening to it can be exhausting, whether it takes the form of a rambling soliloquy, or a compulsive rehashing of events, a free-associative pinballing from one thought to another or a furious internal dialogue.

But if such noise can be paralysing, it can also be self-sabotaging. What we experience on the inside can blot out almost everything else if we let it. A study published in 2010, for instance, shows that inner experiences consistently dwarf outer ones – something that, as Kross notes, speaks to the fact that once a “ruminative” thought takes hold of us, it can ruin even the best party, the most longed-for new job.

Why do some people have a louder or more troubling inner voice than others? “That’s harder to answer,” he says. “There are so many ways it can be activated, some genetic, some environmental.” What is certain is that these experiences cannot be discounted: “The data is overwhelming when it comes to the connection between anxiety and physical health conditions.” Those who are able to quieten their inner voice are happier; their sense of relief can be palpable.

See also:

  1. What Is Your Inner Voice?
  2. What If You Don’t Hear Any Voice?
  3. Why Don’t We Listen to Our Inner Voice?
  4. How to Listen to Your Inner Voice
  5. Moving on with Your Inner Voice
  6. Final Thoughts
  7. More About Self-Understanding

What is interesting about the science involved in all this is how it both backs up, and goes against, intuition. Much of Kross’s book is devoted to what he calls the “toolbox” of techniques that can be used to dial down chatter, and while some of these seem to contradict all that we think and feel – “venting”, for instance, can do a person more harm than good, because talking about negative experiences with friends can often work as a repellent, pushing away those you need most – others confirm that when we act on certain instincts, we’re right to do so.

To take one example, if you are the kind of person who slips into the second or third person when you are in a flap (“Rachel, you should calm down; this is not the end of the world”), you really are doing yourself some good. What Kross calls “distanced self-talk” is, according to experiments he has run, one of the fastest and most straightforward ways of gaining emotional perspective: a “psychological hack” that is embedded in “the fabric of human language”.

Talking to yourself like this – as if you were another person altogether – isn’t only calming. Kross’s work shows that it can help you make a better impression, or improve your performance in, say, a job interview. It may also enable you to reframe what seems like an impossibility as a challenge, one to which, with your own encouragement, you may be able to rise.

Some of his other techniques are already well known: the power of touch (put your arms around someone); the power of nature (put your arms around a tree). Activities that induce “awe” – a walk in the mountains, say, or time spent in front of a magnificent work of art – are also useful, helping with that sense of perspective.

Writing a daily journal can prove efficacious for some (something that felt terrible one day physically becoming old news the next), while neat freaks like me will be thrilled to discover that what he calls “compensatory control” – the creation of exterior order, better known as tidying up – really does have an impact on interior order. Reorganise your sock drawer, and you may find that your voice quietens.

Research shows, too, that superstitions, rituals and lucky charms can be useful, though most of us will draw the line at, say, taking our milk teeth with us when we fly, as the model Heidi Klum is said to (she keeps hers in a tiny bag, which she clutches during turbulence). Placebos have been found to work on chatter, just as they do in the case of some physical illnesses.

In one study in which Kross was involved, a saline nasal spray acted as a kind of painkiller for the inner voice: data from brain scans showed that those who’d inhaled it, having believed they were inhaling a painkiller, displayed significantly less activity in their brain’s social-pain circuitry compared with those who knew they had inhaled only a saline solution.

No wonder, then, that Kross believes children should be taught the science behind all of these ideas, and in the US he has already begun working with teachers to make this happen: “We want to find out if knowing this stuff influences how they regulate themselves.” Does he make use of the toolbox? (Physician, heal thyself.) “We should probably ask my wife,” he laughs. “But yes, I do, absolutely. I’m human, too.” In particular, he is “very selective” when it comes to friends from whom he seeks “chatter support”.

Kross finished his book long before the outbreak of the pandemic, let alone the storming of the Capitol. But as he observes, it could hardly be published at a more opportune moment. “This is the perfect chatter episode for society: a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, political uncertainty, widespread groupthink.” His most cited paper to date looked at the harmful implications of social media, often “a giant megaphone” for the inner voice – Facebook expressly asks its users: “What’s on your mind?” – and an environment that he thinks we need to learn to navigate with more care.

As for the pandemic, though, he is less pessimistic than some about the effects it is likely to have long-term on mental health. “We are already seeing signs that depression and anxiety are spiking,” he says. “Everyday feelings of sadness are elevated for many, and then there are more full-blown episodes. But there is also a lot of resilience, and we often underestimate that. A lot of people are doing quite well. They’re managing this hardship in an adaptive way. I am an optimist. We will return, I think, to a nicer place, though how quickly that will happen, I only wish I could say.”

Which technique should the pandemic-anxious deploy? “Well, one that I personally rely on is temporal distancing,” he says. This requires a person to look ahead: to see themselves determinedly in the future. Studies show that if you ask those going through a difficult experience how they will feel about it in 10 years’ time, rather than tomorrow, their troubles immediately seem more temporary. Does this really help him? “Yes, it does. I ask myself how I am going to feel a year from now, when I’m back in the office, and I’m seeing my colleagues, and travelling again, and taking my kids to soccer – and it gives me hope.”

It is, as he says in his book, a form of time travel: a mental Tardis that, if only we can manage to board it, may make everything from a bereavement right down to a silly argument seem less brutal, just a little easier to bear.

By: Rachel Cooke

Source: Why Your Most Important Relationship Is With Your Inner Voice

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More Contents:

There’s a Dark Side to Meditation That No One Talks About

The Running Conversation in Your Head

People Who Hear Voices in Their Head Can Also Pick Up on Hidden Speech

The ‘Untranslatable’ Emotions You Never Knew You Had

Hallucinogen Therapy Is Coming

How you attach to people may explain a lot about your inner life

How can you conquer ordinary, everyday sadness? Think of it as a person

How anxiety scrambles your brain and makes it hard to learn

10 Strategies to Keep Moving Forward When Feeling Stuck

How to Build Self Discipline to Excel in Life

How to Build Self-Esteem: A Guide to Realize Your Hidden Power

How Self-Reflection Gives You a Happier and More Successful Life

How to Be More Self-Aware and Strive to Be a Better Person

How to Attain Self Realization (Step-By-Step Guide)

How To Stop Overthinking

Need to know

If you’re an over-thinker, you’ll know exactly how it goes. A problem keeps popping up in your mind – for instance, a health worry or a dilemma at work – and you just can’t stop dwelling on it, as you desperately try to find some meaning or solution. Round and round the thoughts go but, unfortunately, the solutions rarely arrive.

In my daily work as a meta cognitive clinical psychologist, I encounter many people who, in trying to find answers or meaning, or in attempting to make the right decision, spend most of their waking hours scrutinizing their minds for solutions. Ironically, in this process of trying to figure out how to proceed in life, they come to a standstill.

When we spend too much time analyzing our problems and dilemmas, we often end up more at a loss than we were to begin with. On top of that, persistent overthinking can result in a wide range of symptoms such as insomnia, trouble concentrating and loss of energy which, in turn, often leads to further worries regarding one’s symptoms, thereby creating a vicious cycle of overthinking. In some cases, this eventually leads to chronic anxiety or depression.

When overthinking and the associated symptoms spiral and become unbearable, it’s usual for us to look for ways to calm down. Many common strategies sound reasonable or useful, but research shows that they can inadvertently cause more harm than good and typically lead to even more overthinking. You might recognize some of them in your own behavior:

Constantly looking out for threats: there’s nothing wrong with this strategy if you feel in control, but it can quickly backfire. Take health concerns. If, as a way to calm your worries, you start to excessively scan yourself or the people you care about for signs of illness, this threat monitoring will lead only to a heightened sense of danger and more health-related worries.

Another example is constantly keeping an eye out for whether people like you, trying to figure out what they think of you, which inadvertently results in you becoming more distant, non-participatory and worried, and not being able to enjoy their company.

Seeking answers and reassurance: it’s completely natural to seek reassurance from people close to you, and to look for answers as to how to cope better. However, if you come to a point where you depend on these strategies to calm you down and reduce your worries, you’re on a slippery slope.

For instance, some of my clients spend several hours a day Googling, hoping to find reassurance or, at least, an explanation as to why they’re feeling down. Yet this strategy often leads to even more worries, since Googling relatively common symptoms typically yields a wide range of search results, including diagnoses that you hadn’t even thought of.

Excessive planning: of course, there’s nothing wrong with moderate levels of planning. It’s perfectly healthy to keep a calendar or to leave notes for yourself. However, some people plan their lives down to the tiniest detail and this can become problematic. In addition to being rather time-consuming, excessive planning can have other negative effects including exacerbating worries.

For instance, when planning carefully, it’s tempting to try to predict all the things that could possibly interfere with a plan and how to potentially handle such events should they occur, thereby initiating a process of worry. Others plan meticulously because they believe that they won’t be able to cope otherwise, which can lead to excessive worries when planning isn’t possible or unexpected events arise.

Aside from these unhelpful strategies, another key factor that can perpetuate overthinking is your beliefs about thinking (the term ‘meta cognitive’ in ‘meta cognitive therapy’ – the clinical approach I use – actually refers to thinking about thinking). When my clients start meta cognitive therapy, many of them are convinced that they have no control of their thought processes.

They believe that their thoughts just appear and automatically attract attention – and that they can’t control whether these thoughts develop into hour-long ruminations about how bad things are now, or into catastrophic worries about what could go wrong in the future.

I have some good news: you don’t have to live with excessive worry. It’s an enduring myth that overthinking is an innate trait, like eye color or crooked toes, meaning that it can’t be changed and you simply have to live with it.

Adrian Wells, the clinical psychologist at the University of Manchester who founded meta cognitive therapy, discovered that overthinking – that is, worrying and rumination – is a learned strategy that we choose, consciously or unconsciously, as a way to try to deal with our difficult thoughts and feelings. It’s not a fixed trait, but a habit that we fall into, and we can learn to change it if we want.

In my first 10 years practicing as a clinical psychologist, I worked in traditional cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT teaches us that we need to spend time on our thoughts and beliefs in order to challenge them and transform them into more realistic or compassionate versions. When I was introduced to meta cognitive therapy, in which the focus is on simply letting go of your thoughts (Wells jokingly calls it ‘lazy therapy’), it radically changed my understanding of mental illnesses.

In 2020, together with Wells and other colleagues, we published the results of a large randomized trial involving 174 clients with depression. We found that those who participated in meta cognitive therapy benefited more than others allocated to receive CBT (74 per cent met the formal criteria for recovery at post-treatment, versus 52 per cent of those in the CBT group, and this was largely maintained at follow-up).

Together with my own client work and the experiences of other therapists using metacognitive therapy, this finding has convinced me that the cause of mental illnesses isn’t our negative thoughts per se, and therefore the solution is not to spend yet more time on them. On the contrary, the cause of mental illnesses is too much time spent dwelling on our negative thoughts, and so the solution is to spend less time on them.

This realization created a tsunami of thoughts within my own mind. For years, through CBT, I have helped my clients spend more time on their negative thoughts, but what if there were better ways I could have helped them? True, many of my clients felt CBT had helped them (and it certainly is beneficial to many), but I no longer believe it’s the optimal approach. For the past 10 years I have completely changed my methods and I exclusively use meta cognitive therapy to help people think less and, in so doing, cope better with their mental health problems.

Whether you just worry a little more than you’d like to, or you suffer from an anxiety disorder or depression, metacognitive strategies can help you reduce the overthinking that contributes to your symptoms. Metacognitive therapy is about discovering that you can choose whether or not you engage in a thought regardless of its content or the feelings it gives rise to.

In the following section, I’ll take you through some of the steps I use in metacognitive therapy to help my clients reduce their overthinking and learn that overthinking isn’t something that happens to us – it’s within our control.

What to do

Get to know your trigger thoughts and let them be

It is estimated that the human brain produces thousands of separate thoughts, associations and memories every single day. Most of these thoughts are without significance; they come and go without us noticing. Some thoughts, however, attract our attention. In metacognitive therapy, these thoughts are referred to as ‘trigger thoughts’. If you pay them enough attention, these thoughts can trigger an explosion of bodily sensations and feelings, and a myriad of associations.

Some trigger thoughts can activate warmth and joy about an exciting upcoming project, meeting a friend, or a holiday you’re looking forward to. These kinds of trigger thoughts are, of course, unproblematic. Other trigger thoughts, however, might activate a long series of further thoughts that can develop into worries or ruminations.

Worries typically form around hypothetical scenarios and start with ‘What if…’ statements such as: ‘What if I make the wrong decision?’ ‘What if they won’t like me?’ ‘What if I get ill?’ and so on. Typical rumination, on the other hand, starts with thoughts about what, why and how: ‘What is wrong with me?’ ‘Why am I feeling this way?’ ‘How do I get better?’

You can compare these thoughts to trains at a busy railway station. There are departures all the time to a wide array of different destinations. Each train can represent a thought or a sequence of thoughts. For instance, a thought such as ‘What if they won’t like me?’ could arrive at the mental railway platform.

You could ‘catch’ the thought and you’ll likely soon notice several other thoughts join in: ‘I won’t be able to handle it if they dislike me.’ ‘Perhaps, then, I shouldn’t go.’ Or you could dismiss the thought, similar to letting the train pass by, and turn your attention back to whatever you were doing. When you don’t expend energy on a thought, you’ll find it will either stay on the platform for later or simply pass you by.

So, it’s not the trigger thought in and of itself that will overwhelm you and lead to a variety of unpleasant symptoms; nor is it the amount of trigger thoughts you have (everyone has them). The problems arise if you continuously jump on to each train – that is, if you begin to analyze the thought and engage in extensive worry or rumination – then it’s like you’re adding more and more carriages to the train, one after another; the train gets heavier and slower, and will eventually have trouble passing even the slightest hill. The same goes for your trigger thoughts: the more time you spend engaging in these thoughts, the slower and heavier you will feel.

Recognise what you can and can’t control

If you’re used to boarding most trains rather uncritically – that is, continuously engaging in trigger thoughts and starting to worry and ruminate for long periods of time – then, unfortunately, you’re well on your way to developing an unhealthy pattern. If you repeat this pattern over and over again, it might begin to feel as if it happens automatically. You might, understandably, come to believe that it’s outside your control.

It’s true, the trigger thoughts themselves are completely automatic – you don’t have any say as to what trains will arrive at your mental railway station. However, you do have a choice over which trains to board. You can choose whether or not to engage in a trigger thought. You can control whether you ‘answer’ the thought or follow it up with more questions.

In trying to understand this differently, instead of in terms of trains, you might picture your thoughts as someone calling you on the phone. Of course, you don’t decide whether the phone rings, who calls or when it rings. (Unfortunately, in this case it’s not the kind of phone you can just turn off!) But you do choose whether to answer the phone or just let it ring and turn your attention back to whatever you were doing.

The sound of the phone might be loud, annoying and attract your attention, but what happens if you just leave it be? Eventually it stops ringing. While thoughts and phones are, of course, different things, this metaphor carries a key message in metacognitive therapy: While trigger thoughts are beyond your control, you can control whether you engage with them.

Thoughts are, in principle, ephemeral, although you might not see them this way. Try asking yourself how many of the thoughts you had yesterday you can remember today. To be honest, out of the several thousand I had, I’m not sure I can recall even 10 thoughts. Why is that? Most of the thoughts we have come and go almost instantly because we don’t grant them any special attention but leave them and return to whatever we were doing. Even though you might not be aware of it, you’re already capable of choosing not to engage in a conversation with your thoughts, just as you can ignore the phone that keeps calling.

Postpone and reduce your worries and ruminations

Many chronic overthinkers struggle to change their belief that their thoughts can be brought under control, and perhaps you’re still not convinced. One way of challenging your belief further is to explore whether you’re able to postpone worries and ruminations. I recommend that my clients introduce a so-called ‘worry/rumination time’. It has to be a set time of the day, for instance 7.30pm to 8pm, where you allow yourself to worry and ruminate freely.

That way, when trigger thoughts or feelings occur during the day – for instance, you feel the need to evaluate your health or reflect upon what your friends think of you – try postponing these thoughts to your scheduled worry/rumination time (you might tell yourself: ‘I’ll deal with this later’). This set time is also useful for any planning or reassurance-seeking for which you feel the need. One note of caution: you might want to avoid scheduling your worry time within one or two hours of when you plan to go to bed, especially if you’re prone to insomnia or other sleep difficulties.

Introducing a set worry/rumination time serves several functions. First, it’s an experiment that challenges the belief that worries and ruminations are uncontrollable. When dedicating themselves to this experiment, most of my clients find that it is indeed possible to postpone worries or ruminations. While this might seem a hard goal, in fact it’s something you already do on a daily basis without realizing.

For instance, any time you notice an alarming newspaper headline on your way to work and start worrying, but then remember that you’re in a hurry and so turn your attention back to getting to work – that’s you controlling your thoughts. Or maybe you’re sitting in a café with a friend and you overhear a conversation at another table that triggers unpleasant memories, but instead of dwelling on them, you decide to redirect your attention back to the conversation with your friend.

Again, that’s you controlling your thoughts. In the same way, you can learn to consciously ignore your own internal trigger thoughts, thereby experiencing that you really do have a choice in whether you choose to engage in them or not.

A second function of setting worry/rumination time is that it’s a way of discovering that trigger thoughts are ephemeral and ever-changing. For instance, the thoughts that seemed highly relevant and important in the morning will often seem less important when you arrive at your worry/rumination time later in the day. You might even discover that you’re not able to recall some of the thoughts that triggered you.

All feelings, whether positive or negative, are usually ephemeral if we tolerate them and let them be. Of course, not all thoughts disappear forever when you postpone processing them – some thoughts might be about important issues that you really need to address. Regardless, as most of my clients find, it’s much more constructive to deal with these issues within a defined time of the day instead of endlessly problem-solving while you’re trying to go about your daily responsibilities.

Finally, while this might seem obvious, the worry/rumination time is a way of reducing and containing the amount of time you spend worrying and ruminating. As I explained earlier, it’s not the trigger thought in and of itself that causes unpleasant symptoms, nor is it the amount of trigger thoughts. It’s the time spent engaging in these thoughts, ruminating and worrying, that weighs us down. By allocating a set period of time for worry and rumination, you’re more likely to feel in control and prevent yourself becoming overwhelmed.

Avoid avoidance and train your attention

For people struggling under the burden of overthinking, it’s all too easy to develop a fear of one’s own trigger thoughts. After all, if you feel at their mercy, you might be tempted to avoid them occurring in the first place. Unfortunately, not only is this largely futile, it’s also counterproductive – avoidance of triggering situations will hamper your life and, moreover, to the extent that you’re at all successful in avoiding situations that prompt trigger thoughts, you won’t get the chance to practice letting go of these thoughts. After all, you can’t learn to ride a bike without a bike.

Inspired by the above, and if you feel ready, I recommend that you give yourself daily challenges that involve trigger thoughts, and that you practice instructing yourself to leave them alone until a designated worry-time. This will help you become more adept at leaving your trigger thoughts alone and to realize that you’re in control of your worries and ruminations. You won’t succeed every time but, just like learning to ride a bike, you need to get up again every time you fall and keep biking until you get the hang of it.

Some people struggle to develop this skill. In that case, in metacognitive therapy we use attention training to help clients realize that they can shift their attention regardless of inner inputs, such as trigger thoughts, and outer input, such as external stressors. I usually ask my clients to do the following 10-minute exercise. Maybe reading this will inspire you to try it out yourself:

  • Tune in to three or more environmental sounds, such as: traffic; birdsong; chatter from a nearby radio or TV; children playing; building work, or whatever. You need to find somewhere where these ambient sounds are going on. It’s helpful if some of the noises you select are nearer and louder, while others are further away and quieter.
  • Of the three or more sounds you’ve selected, practise tuning in to just one at a time for approximately 10 seconds each (you could use a digital timer to help you) and let the others fade into the background. After the 10 seconds is up, switch your focus to another of your chosen sounds.
  • After two minutes, repeat the exercise, but switching more quickly between the sounds – now focusing on each one for just two to four seconds each.
  • The aim of the exercise is to become familiar with, and adept at, shifting your attention. When you’re feeling more confident you could introduce a recording of a trigger thought into the exercise, and practise switching your attention away from and back to the sound of that thought.

Another exercise you could try that I use in my clinic is the windowpane exercise – this will further illustrate that your attention is under your control, independent of the existence of trigger thoughts in your head. I write one or two trigger thoughts in washable ink on a window (such as: ‘What if I fail my driving test?’ or ‘What if she finds me boring?’), then I ask my client to practise looking through the words to notice the scene beyond – the trees, the sky, the buildings, whatever the view is from the window.

Then I ask them to switch their attention back to the words again, now back to the details of the view. The purpose here is to familiarise clients with the sensation that we can control our attention. If you give it a try, you’ll find that, while the written thoughts remain in view, you can control whether you focus on them or whether you let them fade and enjoy the world outside instead. Please note, if you find this exercise at all difficult, I recommend that you wait and try it with a professional metacognitive clinician (see the ‘Learn More’ section to find out how)…..

By: Pia Callesen

Source: How to stop overthinking | Psyche Guides

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