What Happens When Your Thoughts Are Not Helpful

We all have habitual, automatic ways of thinking, and we are often so used to these thoughts that it never occurs to us to challenge them.

Yet for many of us, these ways of thinking are making us miserable.

You probably do not realise you are doing it. But chances are that at some point today, you have had thoughts or made assumptions that are deeply unhelpful – and probably incorrect.

You are not alone. It turns out many of us share the same unhelpful thinking styles. Here we outline the four most common patterns, with advice from a clinical psychologist on how to overcome them.

  • All-or-nothing thinking

Also called black-white thinking, this thinking style only allows one extreme or another, with nothing in between. You are either good or bad, perfect or a failure. You do not allow yourself the compassion to see yourself as a flawed but wonderful human.

Clinical Psychologist Dr Gemma Healey advises: “Try catching these thoughts and saying ‘Ah, there’s the ‘I‘m not good enough’ story’, or ‘Ah, there’s the I’m a failure story’.”

  • Catastrophising

When you take a small problem and imagine the worst outcome possible, you are catastrophising. You might make a mistake in your job, and then imagine that you will lose your job, lose your home and lose your family because of your failure.

Dr Healey says: try allowing your thoughts to come and go on their own without hooking into them. You can do this by imagining your thoughts as leaves floating by on a stream, as cars travelling on the freeway, or as clouds floating in the sky.

  • Shoulding and musting

Whenever you notice yourself saying “should” or “must”, it is a sign you could be setting yourself unfair expectations.

While sometimes it can be helpful, such as “I should wear safety equipment for this job”, it is more usually associated with blame and guilt. “I should be less emotional”, or “I should not eat so much.”

Dr Healey says: “When you notice yourself should-ing or must-ing try and bring some flexibility into the rule by softening it to something like “It would be nice if…”, or ”I would prefer it if…”.”

  • Overgeneralising

If you have even grabbed onto one negative thing that happened in the past, and assumed it will always keep happening over and over, you are overgeneralising. It is the classic, “this always happens to me” type of thinking, similar to “I never get things right”, or “people always misunderstand me”. Words like “always” and “never” are strong clues.

Dr Healey’s advice is to notice and challenge the thought. Ask yourself, “Is it true that I never…? Can I think of situations where this has not applied?”


How to catch your thoughts

The problem with thought patterns like unhelpful thinking is that we often do not realise we are doing it.

The key to overcoming unhelpful thinking is to start to tune in and notice the thoughts. This takes practice.

Each day, take 5-10 minutes to practice noticing your thoughts. Go somewhere you will not be disturbed and take some deep breaths to quieten your mind.

Then start noticing the thoughts that go through your mind. Try not to judge them or get caught up in them. Simply notice. Then you can start to recognise some of the styles listed here.

This helps you separate yourself from negative thoughts, so you have more choice in how you respond to each thought.

Do You Suffer from Comparisonitis?

It can mentally derail you with a one-two punch of envy and shame. And yet it is surprisingly common. Learn how to recognise comparisonitis, and how to manage it.

“All it takes is the hint of someone doing or having something you perceived as ‘better’ than you, and it hits. A feeling takes over – intense, blinding, gutting. Your brain starts spinning with toxic thoughts about yourself (or others), and you are left feeling ashamed, guilty, and even worthless.”

“It is called comparisonitis. And if you have suffered from it, you are NOT alone.” – Melissa Ambrosini, in Comparisonitis.

Why do we compare ourselves?

Comparison starts out as a positive technique.

Looking at what other people do has been essential to our survival. As children, we learnt by observing those around us. And hundreds of thousands of years ago, our ancestors learnt how to avoid danger by watching who survived, why and how.

Yet too often, we turn it from a positive into a debilitating negative.

Social media does not help. We see everyone’s highlights reel – the best moments of their holiday, the most stylist shots of their loungeroom, their children’s achievements – and we compare it to the worst of our lives. As the saying goes, you are comparing your insides to everyone else’s outsides.

Social Comparison Theory is a psychological theory that says there are two kinds of comparison:

1. Upwards: we compare ourselves to those we think are better than us.

2. Downwards: we compare ourselves to those we think are worse than us, to try to make ourselves feel better.

How to manage it

In her book, Comparisonitis, author and podcaster Melissa Ambrosini provides a four-step formula for freeing yourself from the cycle of negative comparison. She uses the acronym ACES.

  • A is for awareness: become aware that you are comparing. Sometimes you might notice the feeling, before you realise what you are thinking.
  • C is for choose: choose a different path. Ask yourself, what do you want to feel instead? You do not have to get stuck in the feelings of unworthiness.
  • E is for eliminate, or exit or exhale: eliminate the trigger that caused your spiral into comparison. If it was Instagram for example, then log out and move onto something else. It is not about avoiding difficult situations or feelings, but instead noticing them and managing them.
  • S is for shift your state: take action to change your energy. Get up and do something that lifts your spirits, such as dancing or listening to upbeat music.

How to use comparison as a gift

Ontological Coach and founder of Being, the Change, Chyonne Kreltszheim, suggests that the process of comparing yourself to others can be turned into a power for good.

She says, “The gift of comparisonitis is that it tells us what is important to us. It is a marker of our needs, values and priorities. It is like a signal being sent up from the depths of our subconscious mind to remind us that something we care about is at stake.”

The trick, she says, is to stay curious and ask questions so we can learn from the feelings, and not get caught up in them.

For example, if you are feeling unsettled by a friend’s recent promotion, ask yourself, “Why is this bothering me?”

If it is highlighting your own frustration in your current role, you could use it as motivation to take your job to the next level.

“Use the comparisonitis to find out what you really want and invest your energy in moving towards that,” says Kreltszheim.

Eat in Season

Do you know which fruits and vegetables are in season right now? Or do you tend to choose the same ones all year round?

In our urban societies, we have lost touch with the natural seasons. We can now get apples, bananas and tomatoes all year round and we never question their availability. Yet we evolved to eat what was seasonal – and it worked.

Before winter, trees would deliver crops of vitamin-C rich food like oranges and lemons, and the ground would be full of nutritious and warming beets and sweet potatoes.

As summer hit, we will get hydrating melons and juicy berries.

Food that is in season tends to be cheaper, due to supply and demand. It is also better for the environment, because you are not flying or shipping products all the way from the other side of the world hemisphere. But most of all, it is good for your health.

Many fruits and vegetables will have overlapping growing seasons or varieties that are in season at different times. Keep an eye out for signs saying ‘local product’.

So what to eat and when?

Spring: mandarins, paw paw, apples (spring varieties), beans and peas, onions (especially spring or salad onions), bok choy and choy sum

Summer: apples (summer varieties), mangoes, pineapple, bananas, watermelon, asparagus, silverbeet, tomato, corn

Autumn: avocado, rhubarb, plums, pomegranates, brussels sprouts, eggplant, celery

Winter: kiwifruit, pear, oranges, grapefruit, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, leek, swede

Lacking Energy?

Low iron may be to blame

You are tired. That is unusual in our fast-paced world. But do not ignore persistent fatigue as it could be a sign you are low in the essential mineral, iron.
Without enough iron, you are going to feel below par. Fatigue is often the first thing you notice because when you are low in iron, less oxygen reaches your tissues, thanks to iron’s role in helping red blood cells carry oxygen around the body.

Iron is also necessary for energy production and fighting off infection. So along with fatigue, you might start to experience shortness of breath, frequent infections, headaches, dizziness, and cold hands and feet.


How common is iron deficiency?

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional disorder in the world, says nutrition researcher Dr Tim Crowe on his blog thinkingnutrition.com.au. “As well as affecting many women and children in developing countries, it is the only nutrient deficiency that is also significantly prevalent in developed industrialised countries too.”

Iron deficiency is estimated to affect over 1.2 billion people worldwide, particularly young women after they have started menstruating. Women lose iron in blood every month, and if their intake of iron-rich foods does not compensate for this loss, they risk becoming deficient.

Is iron deficiency the same as anaemia?

“Iron deficiency is not a black and white thing. It develops in stages with anaemia being the final result.” Says Dr Crowe. Anaemia is when your blood lacks adequate healthy red blood cells, and you can be low in iron but not yet have anaemia. Blood tests ordered by your doctor can tell you what stage you are at.

Do not be tempted to take an iron supplement ‘just in case’ unless your doctor recommends it, as they can cause side effects and can be toxic in high doses.

Do I have to eat meat to get enough iron?

You are less likely to be low in iron if you eat meat because the iron in animal foods is more easily absorbed by our bodies. Liver is the richest source, followed by red meat (lamb, beef and kangaroo), then pork, chicken, shellfish, fish and eggs.

Plants contain iron too, just in a form not so well absorbed. But you can increase how much you absorb by including a source of vitamin C with a plant-based meal. This might be a glass of orange juice, a salad of raw tomatoes and red capsicum, or fruit such as kiwifruit, citrus fruit or berries.

Good plant sources of iron include nuts, dried fruit, legumes and tofu, and dark leafy green vegetables.