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Challenging our Unhelpful Thinking Habits

Posted on Mon, Nov 16, 2020 By:
Posted in: blogMental Health & MindfulnessUncategorized

Hello and welcome to a new week!

Last week we reviewed 5 cognitive distortions, a.k.a. unhelpful thinking habits. During the last seven days, did you notice any of these creating a problem for you? Did you have a chance to sit down and pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and sensations? Did you notice any catastrophizing? All-or-nothing thinking? Fortune telling? Mind reading or emotional reasoning? Me too!

Here are six more cognitive distortions that may cause problems for you:

Overgeneralizing: experiencing something a certain way and then applying that experience to all similar situations. Often indicated by words such as “always”, “never”, “everybody” and “nobody”. E.g. ” I saw a crowded park on the news yesterday. Nobody cares about social distancing anymore.”  Or, after forgetting to bring your hand sanitizer to the store with you, you state “I always forget things that are important”.

Mental Filter: paying attention to certain evidence and not other evidence, like paying attention only to experiences that support your negative beliefs. E.g., “I have a bit of a sore throat today. I have the coronavirus”, and not paying attention to the fact that you don’t have a cough, fever, fatigue, etc. Or, feeling all alone and forgotten on a Sunday after leaving voicemails for a few friends, but no one calls you back – and not paying attention to the fact that friends checked in on you all the other days of the week.

Disqualifying the Positive: putting less importance on the positive things and more importance on the negative things. E.g., “Big deal! Who cares that I donated a few homemade masks to my neighbours?  That’s nothing. I haven’t done anything of real value during this quarantine “

Blaming: blaming yourself for things that are not completely your fault, or blaming others for things that are not completely their fault. E.g., “My friend came over to the house last week and today she tells me she’s been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. If I get sick, it’ll be all her (or my) fault”.

Minimizing: assessing something as less important that it is. E.g., “Sure, I have a cough and a fever, but I don’t feel too bad.  I’m sure it’s just a regular cold. I can still go to the grocery store.”

Labelling– using judgmental words to describe yourself or others in a negative way. E.g., “I am such an idiot! How could I forget to bring my hand sanitizer to the park again?”

Now that we have a greater awareness for the unhelpful thinking habits we engage in, what can we do about it?

Well, the next step in thinking more positive, coping thoughts is to challenge the negative thoughts. We do this by using a series of questions1: What evidence do I have that supports my thought?  What evidence do I have that refutes my thought? Do I have all the evidence to accurately assess this thought? What would an outsider say about this thought/belief? What if I reframed this thought/belief in a more positive way? The outcome of these questions could be a more positive, rational, truthful thought/belief that leads to more positive, coping emotions and more adaptive behaviors. Here’s an example:

Thought: If I go outside of the house I will catch the coronavirus.

What types of unhelpful thinking patterns do you recognize?

All or nothing thinking: believing that inside the house is good, outside the house is bad. No gray – no options for being outside the house and doing things to reduce risk.

Fortune-telling: assuming that I KNOW the future and that I will catch the virus.

Catastrophizing: when you continue along the lines of “I’ll catch the coronavirus” it leads to thoughts like “then I’ll get sicker and sicker and then die”.

Mental Filter: paying attention to the evidence that supports the belief (being in the community around others/high touch surfaces) but not paying attention to the evidence that refutes the belief (I could decrease my risk by wearing a mask, sanitizing my hands, and staying 2m apart from others).

Challenging Negative Thoughts/Putting thoughts on trial:

What evidence supports this thought: well, catching a virus is much more likely when I go out of the house. The numbers of infection are rising in Alberta and people are not always social distancing or wearing masks. I have been run-down and not sleeping well, which lowers my immune system leaving me more open to catching an illness.

What evidence refutes this thought: even though I have been run-down and not sleeping well, I am taking my vitamins, exercising, and doing what I can to eat nutritiously. Many people leave the house and do not catch the coronavirus, so it is possible to be safe in the community with social distancing, wearing a mask, sanitizing often, and not touching high-touch surfaces. Generally, I don’t get sick often and when I do, I generally recover well without needing hospitalization. Even if I do get sick, I’ve got friends to help me and the hospitals are well-prepared to treat me.

Do I have all the evidence to accurately assess this thought? No, I do not. So much about the coronavirus is unknown and information is changing everyday. Information about risk of transmission and safety protocols are based on what we know so far, which is incomplete. I cannot predict the future.  And people have reacted so differently to infection – I do not know how my body would react to the virus.

What would an outsider say about this? My sister says that staying home is safer. My girlfriend says that it’s important for me to get out once in a while for fresh air and exercise. The City of Calgary has reopened libraries with increased sanitization and free masks. People have different opinions and responses to this situation. Seems to be based on their risk tolerance. I could rely on my most trusted support sources and/or I could strike a balance between the different opinions (i.e., stay home as much as possible, but get out once in a while for fresh air while taking safety precautions).

Reframing: there is a possibility of leaving the house and reducing my risk of transmission in the community.  For e.g., I could go to an outdoor space where few other people are expected to be, use hand sanitizer regularly, wear a face mask, and physically distance.

New, more positive, coping belief: If I go outside of the house and wear a mask, sanitize my hands, maintain 2m of social distance and avoid high-touch surfaces, I will reduce my risk of catching the coronavirus significantly.

At first, as with changing any habit, this process may be time consuming and challenging, but with continued practice, it can become easier and quicker. Challenging negative thoughts may need to begin with a strategic pencil and paper list of answers to all the different questions (see Therapist Aid’s Challenging Negative Thoughts worksheet, link below), but continued practice leads to skill in making the decision mentally within seconds. And this may lead to the formation of new, positive, adaptive core beliefs.

stay well,


1. Challenging negative thoughts by Therapist Aid. Available at:


1. A really cool 5-minute video on coping with COVID-19 from the perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy:
2. A free online resource for learning CBT strategies to manage stress during COVID – includes videos, tools, community support. Not plain language, but includes videos that help understand different concepts like anxiety and worry.  Available at:
3. An Overview of Unhelpful thinking styles:—Information-Sheets/Depression-Information-Sheet—11–Unhelpful-Thinking-Styles.pdf

Especially for People we work with

The Therapist Aid Challenging Negative Thoughts worksheet offers a clear, step-by-step process for assessing the helpfulness and truthfulness of a negative thought.  Although the people you work with may need some support in going through the worksheet the first few times, the process can become more automatic and natural with repeated practice.

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