Negativity is hard to escape these days. And unfortunately, we’re more likely to focus our attention on the bad around us rather than the good.

We’re hard-wired to pay attention to the negative aspects of a situation due to the negativity bias that is inherent in all human beings. For our ancestors, this wiring helped them recognise something dangerous or threatening to their survival. Yet these days, this bias can create a barrier to our wellbeing.

With so many unknowns, uncertainties and fears around us right now, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if you find yourself spiralling through the worst-case scenarios and enduring a whole range of worrying thoughts and feelings that are hard to escape. Unfortunately, research over the past few decades has found that it is these thoughts and feelings that can negatively impact our mental and physical health.

What are thinking traps?

Thinking traps are those patterns of thought we fall into that often have a negative swing. They drive the way we interpret situations and are blatantly untrue, unhelpful and don’t serve us well. They can prevent us from seeing how things really are and when we get stuck in these traps, it’s hard for us to make sense of a situation, to problem solve or to work out the best course of action to take.

Thinking traps can have a big impact on our mental health, resilience and wellbeing by producing unproductive emotions, diminishing our confidence and undermining our relationships. They are usually triggered when the situation is ambiguous, something we value is at stake, when we feel run down or depleted or when we already fear the situation that we are in.

Some of the common thinking traps (although there are many more) include:

  • Helplessness – is when you feel you have no control over a situation, and believe that the bad episode you are experiencing impacts all areas of your life and is going to stay so you want to give up.
  • Mind reading – is when you assume someone is thinking something negative about you without having any evidence for it, which blocks you communicating with them as you believe you already know what the other person is thinking.
  • Me – is when you wrongfully assume responsibility for every setback and problem that you encounter, and that you cause harm to others.
  • Them – is when you deem other people as the primary cause of all your problems.
  • Fortune telling – is when you predict situations with only negative outcomes
  • Catastrophising – is when you ruminate on the most irrational worst-case outcomes of a situation and predict that you won’t be able to cope with it.

The biggest problem with these thoughts is that they continue to go round and round our heads, and we rarely stop to question or challenge them. But rather we tend to do the opposite by believing in them and looking for the evidence to prove them right.

How can they be managed?

One of the biggest realisations I’ve had (and others I have worked with) is realising that you can control your own thoughts. Challenges are an inevitable part of life, so although we can’t always control what is going to happen, we can control our interpretation of these events and how we respond to them.  

Yet trying to challenge our non-resilient thinking is a bit like playing mental judo. It takes time and practise. Whilst negative thoughts may be difficult to avoid, it’s possible to try and counteract them by doing the following:

  1. Work out which thinking trap you tend to fall prey to, so it is easier to confront.
  2. Observe your thoughts but try not to get trapped in them.
  3. Talk to yourself as you would a friend.
  4. Use data and evidence to prove to yourself why the thought isn’t true.
  5. Reframe your thinking by turning a threat into a challenge.
  6. Make a contingency plan so you know what to do if your fears do play out.
  7. Practise self-care so you can recover from the stress caused by these thoughts 

*If you find yourself continuously in a pattern of negative thinking, please seek professional help. 

Once you have worked out which strategy works best for you, you can then use it each time the counterproductive thoughts pop back up again.

Although we can’t control what the future throws at us, we can strengthen our minds, so it is able to challenge our thoughts, and stop them from getting in the way of our resilience and wellbeing.

In the words of Aristotle, “an educated mind is one that can entertain a thought with accepting it”.