If you take the time to pay attention to your thoughts in different situations, chances are that you’ll notice a pattern. Some focus on the negative qualities of situations or people, while others tend to focus on the positive. Or maybe your go-to is to personalize situations by interpreting what others say and do as a reflection of what they think of you. No matter what your thought patterns look like, how you think influences your moods and behaviors. This can further impact the quality of your relationships on and off duty. Think about that partner, friend or family member who always has something negative to say. It’s likely that others will either want to stay clear of the person, argue with them or join them in their misery.
Over time, how we think becomes a habit that influences how we respond to situations. If problematic patterns of thinking exist, you’ll likely experience more intense emotions (e.g., anger, anxiety, depression) and say (or do) things that negatively impact the situation. If you’re chronically stressed or fatigued, these thought patterns can become your “autopilot” mode and significantly impact your mood, relationships and overall well-being. It’s important to keep in mind that our thoughts are always valid (i.e., they hold meaning for us), but they may not necessarily be an accurate representation of what’s actually happening. Let’s look at an example that highlights how thoughts can influence emotions and behaviors:
Scenario: A co-worker
gives you attitude.
- Thought: “They are disrespecting me.”
- Emotions: Angry and irritable
- Behaviors: You avoid contact with the co-worker, talk negatively about them to other people and give attitude back, which creates conflict at work.
In this example, the co-worker’s “attitude” is interpreted as a personal attack that leads to feeling angry and irritable. As a result, we engage in behavior that maintains our anger and irritability in a way that might evolve into complaints or conflict in the workplace that’s uncomfortable for everyone. Now let’s change the thoughts in that situation and see what happens:
- Thought: “It’s not personal. They are in a mood today.”
- Emotions: Mildly irritated, empathy (maybe that co-worker is stressed out or has other things going on in their personal life)
- Behaviors: You continue with your day. After all, it’s not personal. You might even reach out to the person to offer support.
As you can see, the situation remained the same, but the thought changed from personalizing the negative interaction to a more understanding perspective. This influenced the emotional and behavioral responses to the situation (and reduced the likelihood of conflict). Learning to recognize when our thinking might be problematic is essential to changing how we respond to a situation. Although we may not always have control over which thoughts come up, we always have control over which thoughts we choose to hold on to.
Another tool to modify problematic thought patterns is to acknowledge the thought and then ask yourself, “That’s one option … what are other options?” This is especially effective when thoughts tend to entertain the worst-case scenario. By considering other options, you modify your interpretation of the situation to include multiple scenarios and balance your perspective. This often decreases the intensity of emotional discomfort and reduces the likelihood of you responding unfavorably.
If you notice that you’re feeling chronically anxious, depressed, angry or stressed, it’s a good idea to look at your thought patterns. It may be helpful to keep a log of your thoughts that are connected with a triggering event or situation. Do you notice any patterns? Take a look at these thoughts and see if you can modify them to create a more balanced perspective to improve your overall mood and behavioral functioning. You can also run your thoughts by trusted and supportive friends or colleagues. Do they think about the situation the same way you do? Maybe they have an additional perspective that can help you balance your thinking.
Since we’re talking about changing thoughts, it’s important to mention how emotions can influence how we think about and respond to a situation. When emotions are over-engaged, our brains lose the ability to stop, think and choose how to respond. Think about a time you felt intense anger or anxiety. You probably said (or did) at least one thing that you wanted to take back after the emotions settled down. You become reactive instead of responsive. If you encounter a situation that’s highly emotionally charged, it’s best to temporarily disengage until things settle down. Focus on your breathing until it is slow and steady for a couple of minutes. As the emotional intensity decreases, think about the situation and modify any problematic thought patterns.