The impact of negative thoughts and how to manage them
Dr Melanie Woodfield explains the impact of negative thinking and how to counter it.
I’ll always remember the phone call I received from an agitated mum to the mental health crisis line I was working for at the time. She was worried about her teenage daughter who was struggling, and we talked for a while. One thing she said has stayed with me for the past 15 years – her memories of her daughter as a baby: “Since she was born she has been vindictive and manipulative. She was in intensive care as a baby, and every time I would try to leave the hospital room, she would scream and cry to get me to come back. She has always been selfish like that.”
Now, there’s absolutely no judgment on my part. This mum was worried for her daughter and reaching out for support. But her interpretation of her infant daughter’s intentions, and the meaning and significance she attributed to her baby’s behaviour, were strikingly different to how many mums see the world.
Infants can’t do manipulation, deceit or vindictiveness. They’re not developmentally capable of it. They’re actually very straightforward creatures – not easy, but not complicated, if that makes sense. Tiredness, hunger, separation, sensory or physical discomfort – these things usually result in wailing. Infants aren't lying in their Moses baskets formulating intricate plans of how to get what they want. They have yet to achieve that particular developmental milestone (yes, even the really clever ones).
So how did this mum end up with this perspective? She was attributing malice and intent to behaviour that was more likely a reflex, and selfishness to behaviour that simply served to get basic needs met. Perhaps, as a child, this mum’s own needs hadn’t been met. Perhaps she had ideas about the world that suggested people can’t be trusted and are out to get you. Perhaps she was exhausted and emotionally depleted, and it felt like her baby was doing it on purpose – a thought that, once it entered her mind, just stuck.
By the way, if you have thoughts like this, you’re not a bad person or a bad parent. Thoughts don’t ‘maketh the (wo)man’, so to speak. But the thing about thoughts is that they’re incredibly influential. Even if we know intellectually that they’re not true, they can still wreak havoc on our emotions and behaviour.
Believe it or not, there was a time in psychology’s history when thoughts (and feelings) were seen as irrelevant. Back in the 1890s, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov conducted an experiment where he rang a bell then fed his dogs; he then discovered that just ringing the bell would bring about a juicy saliva response in his dogs. So, a stimulus or situation lead to a behavioural response. Simple as that, no need for thoughts or feelings in the equation.
But as time passed, researchers and clinicians came to understand that not only were thoughts relevant to wellbeing, in many cases they were quite central. For example, in the 1970s Aaron Beck revolutionised the treatment of depression with his suggestion that people experiencing depression tended to carry with them a triad of negative beliefs about themselves, the world and the future.
LET'S ZERO IN ON AUTOMATIC THOUGHTS FOR A MOMENT
Adapted from Judith Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond (1995).
Thoughts happen at different levels. The first is automatic thoughts – the constant stream of ‘radio noise’ that runs through our mind all day. Thousands of thoughts, most of which don’t influence our mood, aside from a few ‘hot’ ones.
Then there are intermediate beliefs – the 'rules' that are sometimes in the form of 'If… then…' For example, 'If I enjoy being with him all the time, then I’m a good mum'.
And underneath it all are core beliefs. The deeply held and really influential ideas we all carry. These might be along the lines of 'I’m good enough' and 'I’m a good person', or 'I’m inadequate and unlovable'. Core beliefs are a complex product of our own life experiences.
Now, don’t panic if you look at the list of thinking errors above (starting on page 119) and think, 'I do that!', because we all do – sometimes that's just human nature. Thinking errors are common and often not significant. But you might notice one or two 'hot' thoughts that have a common theme, feel particularly true, or pop up when you feel stressed, overwhelmed or sad.
TIPS FOR MANAGING DISTRESSING THOUGHTS
Modern day psychological therapies tend to approach troublesome thoughts in one of two ways. Either by trying to change or modify the problematic (often distorted) thoughts to something a little more helpful, or by acknowledging the problematic thoughts but trying to live life well regardless (ie acceptance). One approach isn’t necessarily better than the other – in fact, there are helpful things we can take from both.
Overall we’re aiming for balance in our thoughts. If 'I’m a bad mum' is a common 'hot' thought for you, standing in front of the mirror and chanting the opposite 'I’m an amazing mum!' might feel hollow and off-the-mark. In therapy, we usually aim for what is known as an adaptive thought, something balanced and considered. And over time we try to look at the effects or impact of the 'hot' thoughts and how life might be different if we could hold on to the adaptive thought instead.
Adaptive thoughts might be along the lines of, 'I’m a good enough mum. I am good at the important stuff, like being there when he needs me' (versus 'I’m a terrible mum') or 'Sometimes it’s hard to be with her, but most of the time I manage to stay calm and give her what she needs. It will get easier' (versus 'I can’t do this').
- You are not your thoughts. Try not to blame yourself or blame others. You’re not a bad person for having a fleeting negative thought about a loved one, including your own child. Having the thought doesn’t make it true. And it doesn’t make you a bad person.
- Ask yourself what your best friend or partner would say about the thoughts you’re having. Or what you’d say to a close friend who was having these thoughts. It's interesting how we’re often kinder to others than we are to ourselves.
- Or, if you’re able to, ask yourself, 'What’s a slightly more realistic way of seeing this?' or 'Can I be completely sure this idea is true?' If the thought is probably true, perhaps try to step back and think about the effect or impact of thinking this way. For example, after moving to a new town you might have the thought, 'I haven't got any friends here', which may well be true. But becoming fixated on the thought might lead to low mood, sadness, regret, and being less likely to actually go out and do the things that might lead to new connections.
- Changing behaviour can often change or soften thoughts. Avoiding the pool because you think, 'He’ll have a melt-down if we go there' might accidentally reinforce the idea. Repeated exposure to situations that are scary is good for anxious thoughts in particular (though this is often easier said than done!)
If your thoughts and thinking patterns have changed, and your mood along with it, there are a number of evidence-based, free online programmes that are based on what's known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy:
- Just A Thought, justathought.co.nz.
- Beating The Blues (you get free access through your GP), beatingtheblues.co.nz.
- SPARX (for young people aged 12+; free), sparx.org.nz.
- Activate Your Life is a free online self-help course offering four 45-minute videos and activity guides. It’s based on content from Dr Joe Oliver, a New Zealand-born clinical psychologist. phw.nhs.wales/services-and-teams/activate-your-life.
Dr Melanie Woodfield (@Mel_Woodfield) is a clinical psychologist, researcher and mum to two boys. Like many mums, 'should' statements are a common thinking error for her. She really should stop thinking that way…
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 52 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW