6 unhelpful thinking patterns and how to identify them
6,200 – that is how many thoughts the average person has daily according to psychologists.
Each and every day, our minds are flooded with information, ideas, concepts and beliefs. Some fleeting and forgotten in an instant, some that we dwell on for longer. But when we are depressed, these thoughts can develop into negative patterns that greatly influence our actions and emotions – even if we don’t realise it.
When these patterns become rooted in our minds, we start to accept them without question. This can make it hard to enjoy events or pastimes you used to love, or continue to fuel beliefs that you think you are useless or a failure.
If this is something you or a loved one is experiencing, then this guide is for you. Below we will describe different types of unhelpful thinking that maintain feelings of depression, and explore how you can identify these in your own thoughts.
What are unhelpful thinking styles?
There are six major types of unhelpful thinking patterns that it is important to watch out for:
‘All or nothing’ thinking
Sometimes, we take personal responsibility for things that aren’t our fault, or that we have no control over. We just automatically presume that we’re in the wrong, without considering the logical alternatives. We blame ourselves, affecting our mood in the process.
Rachel walks towards her company’s lunchroom, where James and Sindhu are chatting. As Rachel enters the room, James and Sindhu start laughing. Rachel’s thoughts immediately assume that they were talking about and laughing at her, causing her to feel upset.
In Rachel’s case, someone in a different frame of mind may not believe that James and Sindhu were laughing at them – they might be curious about what they were laughing about. But because Rachel personalised the situation, she has jumped to the conclusion that she was the subject of the joke, making her feel worse about herself and her colleagues.
You’ve probably heard of the expression “seeing everything through rose-tinted glasses”, where we see something in an overly optimistic way. Mental filtering is the total opposite – we only see the negative in a situation, and ignore anything positive.
Oscar checks his to-do list, and notices he forgot to make a phone call to the plumbers about a blocked sink, and it’s now too late in the day to call them. So, despite having ticked everything else off of his list, Oscar goes to bed upset and frustrated about that missed call.
If someone is depressed, they tend to downplay their accomplishments and hone in on what went wrong. This pattern leads them to avoiding new experiences or taking part in former pastimes, as they will only consider what could go badly, rather than how fun it could be.
Useless. Worthless. Stupid. These are just some of the hostile or critical words that we may use to label ourselves when something goes wrong.
Lucy drops a glass on the floor while doing the washing up, causing it to break. Lucy spends the rest of the day replaying the event and referring to herself as stupid and clumsy.
In Lucy’s example, just one single mistake has caused her to make sweeping assessments of herself as a person. These comments can gradually eat away at our self-esteem, but at the moment we think them, we don’t give it another thought – self-criticism becomes second nature.
But what if someone else was saying this to you or a loved one? Imagine having a parrot on your shoulder constantly throwing insults at you. You would notice this bullying and want to put a stop to it – but when we do this to ourselves, we often allow this to continue.
Emotional reasoning is the assumption that, because we feel a certain way, then that feeling must be true, even though that is often not the case.
Finley had a rough night’s sleep, and woke up feeling a little worse for wear. Due to this, he presumes that his whole day will be a struggle, meaning he doesn’t look forward to any of the activities he had planned.
Because depression will typically lead us to feeling low and upset, we may use this to rationalise our thoughts, leading to assumptions that we’re going to have a bad day. This prophesying may prevent us from enjoying activities because, like Finley, we have already come to terms with the fact that the day is ruined.
Overgeneralising is when someone bases their characteristics or thought patterns on a single event, or is overly broad in the conclusion they draw from that solitary event.
Sofia breaks up with Riley after a two-year relationship. Sofia uses this break-up as an indicator that she cannot maintain any relationship, which discourages her from going on dates moving forward.
Using one experience as evidence of a general statement about ourselves is a tough predicament, and could prevent us from taking part in activities or meeting new people based on how things went before.
‘All or nothing’ thinking
Good or bad. Right or wrong. Success or failure. When our mind only views things in these polar opposites, without any middle ground, this is known as ‘all or nothing’ thinking.
Teddy scores a 65% on their maths exam, earning them a C grade. But, because it wasn’t the A he was hoping for, Teddy considers the C a failure, despite it being a passing grade.
By not considering anything in-between two extremes, it forces us to choose one side every time. When we are depressed, we tend to lean towards a more pessimistic approach, meaning that if something did not go exactly as we hoped for, we may consider it a complete disaster.
Noticing and challenging unhelpful patterns
We hope that this guide has given you a stronger understanding of the different types of negative thinking, which in turn helps you to recognise these in yourself and others.
Have you ever noticed any of the above patterns in your own thinking? If not, that’s totally understandable. As noted earlier, we tend to have these thoughts without even realising it, making it hard to reflect on what we’re thinking and how accurate it really is.
However, being able to notice and recognise these unhelpful patterns can be very powerful. In our follow-up post “How to stop negative thoughts from taking over”, we share a useful technique that will gradually help you to identify these thinking styles, and challenge how valid they actually are.
Alternative, if you are ready to overcome the hold that depression and negative thoughts have over you, our range of treatments can help you build valuable skills to manage these difficult symptoms more effectively.