How to challenge irrational thinking

If you’ve ever felt like your thoughts don’t align with your reality or you’re constantly thinking the worst will happen, you’re not alone. Whether it’s the doubts of your inner critic always assuming the worst of a situation, or fearing how you will perform in the future, it can stop you from reaching your goals. Negative, seemingly unrealistic thoughts that convince us otherwise can get in the way of our everyday lives.

We’ll explore irrational thinking and how you can face your negative thoughts head-on for a more positive outlook on life, so you can reach your goals.

What is irrational thinking and what causes it?

Irrational thinking is a form of negative self-talk also known as ‘cognitive distortions’, a phrase coined by psychologist Aaron Beck in 1976. Irrational thinking involves negative thought patterns that don’t reflect our reality and can be intrusive. 

But what causes us to think irrationally? One common cause of irrational thinking is stress, and there are many different ways that irrational thinking can present itself. Here are a few common examples.

Polarised thinking: There is no grey area here for any imperfections – everything is black and white, which of course doesn’t truly reflect how complex situations are.

Catastrophising: Constantly waiting for the axe to fall, even if there’s no reasoning behind it. Always thinking about the worst possible outcome. Blowing a mistake out of proportion so that it seems a bigger problem than it actually is. 

Overgeneralisation: An assumption based on something happening once, meaning that it must happen again. For example, one rejection triggering a cycle of negative thoughts and so never applying for anything similar again.

How can you challenge irrational thinking?

The first step is to identify and understand your pattern of irrational thinking: What are they? When do they happen? How are they affecting your everyday life?
It can be helpful to keep track of your thoughts and mood with a regular journal or mood tracker. Using an app on your phone, like Zen Buddy, can make it easy and accessible to do this. You could even set a reminder so you remember to check in about your day. 

Challenge with reality

Whilst it’s an oversimplification to simply say ‘it’s not real’, trying to look at the situation or conversation objectively can help you to tackle irrational thoughts when they manifest.

Here are three ways you can challenge irrational thoughts.

Reattribution

This is a technique that challenges your automatic irrational thoughts by looking at the full picture. Negative thoughts are so often zoomed in on a specific moment or something you said that it can be difficult to see it in a larger context. But, stepping back and reattributing your thoughts can help you to challenge their irrationality 

For example, if you think you’re to blame for a group project failing or not being as successful as it should have, take a look at the bigger picture and what you had control of. Chances are there were other people or factors at play that influenced the result, not just you. 

Approach with positivity 

Amplifying your achievements and giving yourself credit for the work you’ve put in can help you to recognise the part you’ve played in your success. Rather than saying it was just ‘luck’, take a moment to acknowledge your dedication and motivation, and savour the positive moment.

Irrational thoughts are usually focussed on the bad: what we could have done, what we didn’t do, how we didn’t succeed. Turning this on its head helps you to see the silver linings and teachable moments for the future, so you don’t make the same mistake next time. There’s always something you can take away!

Practice gratitude

If you think nothing positive has happened, try searching for it instead. Look for the joyful moments and realign your thoughts. With less time spent focusing on the negative, it can help you to rationalise your thoughts and put them into perspective. 

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In this course, you’ll learn new ways of regaining control over your thoughts, unlearn old thinking habits, and take a different perspective on life. In time, your self-belief will be back, enabling you to pursue more social opportunities and live life to the full.