The way you think about a situation can cause stress. These thoughts (called maladaptive thoughts, cognitive distortions or "stinkin' thinkin'") increase the perceived demands of a situation and/or decrease the perceived resources so that you evaluate a situation as a danger. (Remember, stress is a response to danger.)
These thoughts occur on three levels:
- Negative automatic thoughts
- Rules and assumptions
- Core beliefs
Fortunately, stress-producing thoughts can be changed.
Negative automatic thoughts
Negative automatic thoughts are the unhelpful thoughts that spontaneously come to mind. Here are some ways to identify negative automatic thoughts:
- Let your emotions guide you: When you experience negative emotions, ask yourself: "What is going through my mind right now?"
- Mental images: Sometimes negative automatic thoughts are revealed through mental images. For example, a person who finds public speaking stressful might imagine themselves turning red and stuttering while giving a speech. They may also imagine members of the audience laughing. The negative automatic thought is "I am no good at public speaking and people will think I am an idiot and laugh at me!"
- Worst-case scenario: Asking "What is the worse that could happen?" can reveal a negative automatic thought. For example, your partner tells you he's going away for work to another city for three days. This causes you stress, but you don't know why. Asking the worst case scenario question may reveal that you think: "He will have an affair when he is away" or "He might die in a plane crash."
Many negative automatic thoughts fall into one or more broad categories of exaggerated or irrational thought patterns called cognitive distortions. There include "all-or-nothing thinking," "discounting the positives" and "personalizing." It can be helpful to review a list of cognitive distortions to identify your stress-provoking thought patterns. For a list of cognitive distortions and how to change them, see Challenging Our Cognitive Distortions and Creating Positive Outlooks from Psych Central.
Rules and assumptions
Rules are statements about how you believe the world should work or how you and others should behave. They often contain the word "must" or "should." Examples of rules include:
- "People must always be polite."
- "I must be perfect in everything I do."
Assumptions are statements about what you believe will happen in a situation. They are usually stated in the form of "if ... then ..." Examples of assumptions include:
- "If my partner and I break up, then I will be alone forever".
- "If someone asks me for help and I say 'no,' then they will hate me."
For information on how to identify and change unhelpful rules and assumptions, consult Adjusting Unhelpful Rules and Assumptions [PDF] from the Centre for Clinical Interventions. The Modifying Rules and Assumptions worksheet [PDF] can be useful as you work to change your thinking.
Core beliefs are deeply held beliefs about yourself, others, the world or the future.
Maladaptive core beliefs are maintained through regularly acknowledging information that supports the belief while ignoring information that contradicts it. Examples of core beliefs [PDF] include:
- I am weak.
- I am a failure.
- I am unlovable.
- I am unattractive.
- I am bound to be rejected.
- The world is a dangerous place.
- Other people cannot be trusted.
For information on how to identify and adjust negative core beliefs, consult Developing Balanced Core Beliefs [PDF], which is one of the modules in the Improving Self-Esteem workbook from the Centre for Clinical Interventions.