A CBT-based thought challenging activity

Our thoughts have a powerful impact on our emotions and behaviour. Try this CBT-based activity to help you to manage your thoughts and emotions more effectively.

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6 min read
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Have you ever found yourself getting stuck in negative or unhelpful thoughts that leave you feeling anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed? If so, you're not alone! Our thoughts can have a powerful impact on our emotions and behaviour, and when we get caught up in negative thinking patterns, it can feel impossible to break free.

By using the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, you can begin to:

  • identify and challenge negative thought patterns
  • develop more balanced and realistic ways of thinking
  • feel more in control of your emotions
  • become more resilient to life's challenges.

This CBT-based activity can be helpful for you if you’re looking to manage your thoughts and emotions more effectively. Whether you're dealing with anxiety, depression, stress, or just looking to improve your overall wellbeing, this activity can help you to gain a better understanding of the ways your thoughts influence your emotions and behaviours and learn how to take control of your thinking patterns.

When I reframe the way I think about the situations, I can see it has a big impact on my life.

The goal of the activity is to provide you with a practical tool you can use to challenge your negative thoughts and replace them with more positive, helpful thoughts.

There are three parts to the activity:

  1. Self-reflection
  2. Challenging your thoughts
  3. Coming up with a balanced view

To do this activity, you’ll need a few minutes and space to write things down. This could be in an app on your phone or computer, in a journal, or simply on a scrap of paper.

Part 1: Self-Reflection

The first step in this activity is self-reflection. This involves identifying and acknowledging the negative or unhelpful thoughts that are causing you distress or difficulty. To do this, you can start by paying attention to your thoughts and noticing when they become negative or unhelpful.

  • Step 1

    Write down the situation you have experienced and the thoughts that you notice. For example:

    Situation: I received a rejection letter from a job I applied for.

    Thoughts: "I'm never going to find a job. I'm not good enough. I should just give up."

  • Step 2

    Write down how you were feeling in this situation. Did you feel sad, angry, disappointed, frustrated, lonely, or something else? Did you experience any bodily sensations like a pounding heart or sweaty palms? Make a note of the emotions and bodily sensations you felt. For example;

    Feelings: “Disappointment, frustration, hopelessness”. “My heart won’t stop beating fast every time I think about having to apply for another job - I feel like I constantly have butterflies in my stomach”.

  • Step 3

    Write down the behaviours you noticed as a result of the situation. What actions did you take in response to how you were thinking and feeling? Did you stop taking part? Did you notice you were people-pleasing? Did you become avoidant? For example:

    Behaviour: “After receiving the rejection letter, I avoided applying for other jobs and spent most of my time at home feeling down and unmotivated. I stopped networking and researching job opportunities and didn't talk to anyone about my job search”.

Give this a try! Find a notebook to write in, or you can use notes on your phone or an app, such as Clarity - CBT Thought Diary available on iOS and Android, and make some notes as you go through this activity. Think of a situation where some challenging thoughts came up for you, and write down what the situation was, the thoughts you had, the feelings you experienced, and the way you responded.

Part 2: Challenging Your Thoughts

Once you've identified the negative or unhelpful thoughts, the next step is to challenge them. This involves examining the evidence for and against the thoughts and looking for more balanced and realistic ways of thinking. Ask yourself, "Is this thought based on fact or opinion? What evidence do I have to support or contradict it?".

Let’s revisit the situation where we received a rejection letter from the job we had applied for, and see how we might challenge what we were thinking.

  • Thought: “I’m never going to find a job”

    Challenging this thought: "Is it really true that I'll never find a job? What evidence do I have to support this thought? Are there other times in my life when I've faced challenges and overcome them?"

    Evidence for:

    • I have been unemployed for a long time and haven't received any job offers so far
    • The job market is competitive, and there are many other qualified candidates.

    Evidence against:

    • I have relevant education, skills and experience that could make me a good candidate for a job
    • I have received positive feedback from previous employers and colleagues.
  • Thought: "I'm not good enough"

    Challenging this thought: "What evidence do I have that supports this thought? Is it possible that there were other factors at play in the job application process? Are there other areas of my life where I've demonstrated competence and skill?"

    Evidence for:

    • I have failed at things and made mistakes
    • I have received criticism or negative feedback in the past.

    Evidence against:

    • I have successfully completed challenging tasks or projects in the past
    • I have received positive feedback and recognition from others for my work.
  • Thought: “I should just give up”

    Challenging this thought: "Is giving up really the best option? What are the potential consequences of giving up? Are there other strategies I could try to improve my chances of finding a job?"

    Evidence for:

    • I feel discouraged or overwhelmed by the job search process
    • I have faced multiple rejections and setbacks.

    Evidence against:

    • There may be opportunities I haven’t explored yet
    • Giving up means I won’t achieve my goals or reach my full potential.

By looking at the facts and considering alternative explanations, you may be able to reduce the intensity of your thoughts and increase your sense of self-worth. Give this a try with your own situation. Try to come up with some evidence for and against each of your thoughts.

If you find it difficult to come up with evidence against your thoughts, you’re not alone. Many people struggle with this initially because we are often our own worst critic. Try by asking yourself what ‘evidence against’ you might suggest to your best friend if they were in the same situation! This will allow you to silence your inner critic for a moment and treat the negative thoughts the same as you would suggest to someone you care about.

Part 3: Coming Up with a Balanced View

The final step in this activity is to come up with a more balanced and realistic way of thinking about the situation. This involves taking into account the evidence for and against the negative thought and coming up with a more balanced perspective.

When you ask yourself if there are other explanations for a situation, it helps you consider different possibilities. It also reminds you that your initial thoughts are just assumptions and that it's important to give all possible explanations the same importance.

Here are some questions that can help when it comes to thinking of alternative explanations:

  • Is there another way to view the situation?
  • What might a friend say about the situation?
  • What would you say to a friend in this situation?
  • Can you be sure that your view is accurate?

Here are some examples of how this may play out in our job rejection scenario.

  • Thought: “I’m never going to find a job”

    Balanced view: "It's true that finding a job can be challenging, but it's also true that I’ve had jobs in the past, and it takes time to find the right fit. I can continue to put in effort and explore different opportunities, and over time, I may be able to find a job that's right for me."

  • Thought: “I’m not good enough”

    Balanced view: "It's true that I didn't get this particular job, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm not good enough. There may have been other factors at play in the application process, and there may be other jobs that are a better fit for my skills and experience. I can continue to work on developing my skills and seeking out opportunities that align with my strengths."

  • Thought: “I should just give up”

    Balanced view: "It's understandable to feel discouraged after receiving a rejection, but giving up isn't the only option. I can take some time to regroup and reflect on what I learned from the application process and then come up with a new strategy for moving forward. There may be other jobs or career paths that I haven't considered yet, and I can continue to explore those options with an open mind."

By coming up with a balanced view of these negative thoughts, you can begin to see the situation from a more objective and realistic perspective. This can help you feel less overwhelmed and more empowered to take action towards achieving your goals.

Give part three a try now with your own situation. If you found evidence for and against your thought, now try to find alternative explanations. Then, examine all of the evidence that you came up with and try to craft some more balanced thoughts.

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