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What is Thought Reframing?

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

In this FAQ series, we asked clinical psychologist Catherine Gallagher what thought reframing is.

Humans are complex creatures. We occupy our days attempting to tick off as many boxes as we can – trying our best to put in a good performance at work, spend time with loved ones, raise a family, eat right, exercise regularly… It’s really no wonder many of us suffer from feelings of stress and anxiety. One factor regularly contributing to this, is our thought patterns. Popping into our head more often than we’d like are thoughts telling us things such as “we aren’t good enough” or “we could’ve done better”. These thoughts convince us that situations are worse than they are or allow us to overthink outcomes, until we end up dreaming of countless worst-case scenarios. But what if there was a way to reframe these thoughts, thus allowing us to react differently to them?

Unfortunately, try as we might, we have very little control of what thoughts pop into our head. Instead of trying to clear your mind or filter the messages your brain tries to communicate with you, perhaps it’s time to try ‘Thought Reframing’. Thought reframing works exactly as the name suggests. Instead of stopping the thoughts that do pop into our brains, thought reframing helps to provide us with the tools we need to understand these thoughts and react differently to them when they do occur.

When suffering from anxiety or placed in stressful situations, our brain seems to unlock an entire new level of thoughts and feelings. We start to over-analyze situations, worrying about what we can or can’t control, or predicting how bad the event or situation will turn out. Our brain can jump to worst-case scenarios – catastrophizing situations, preparing for the worst and narrowing our tunnel of vision. As stress and anxiety increases, different lenses can also fall into place, shadowing our thoughts further still. We may begin to take things personally, seeing ourselves responsible for any mistakes or victims of an unjust situation. Such lenses can be detrimental to our anxiety feedback loop, changing the way we experience and interact with the world around us.

Thoughts come and go all the time, however some tend to stick around or repeat in a pattern, if exposed to continuous similar stimuli. For some, these thoughts tend to become so familiar, or have been around for so long, that we start to believe them as facts. They work away under the surface, pushing out their influence on our actions, and if left for too long, these thoughts and ‘lenses’ can start to change the way we think or feel.

Time to bring in thought reframing. In order to start changing our narrative, we first have to look at catching our thoughts. Catching our thoughts presents less as casting a line out into the depths of our brain, and more as turning our hand to becoming a critical evaluator of our thoughts. We can start to look deeper into what we are telling ourselves – ask is there a different way to understand those thoughts? Look at what evidence we have to support or dismiss the information coming in from other sources? It is important to remember that we are not trying to stop our thoughts or break-up this process. Instead we want to look at changing our relationship to our thoughts, assessing what different ways we can begin to bring in new information, or alternative ways to highlight different parts of the information coming in.

But what about the negative or anxiety-inducing thoughts that just don’t seem to go away? If used correctly, thought reframing can be a powerful tool here also. In this situation, thought reframing can allow us to remove ourselves from the involvement in these thoughts, instead placing us into the role of the observer. When experiencing such unwanted thoughts, similar to above, we can look to ‘catch them’. Become aware of the messages your brain is trying to communicate with you and acknowledge them when they arise. By being an observer of our thoughts we give ourselves the chance to become more critical about the information they are trying to pass on. We can learn to pull ourselves up on such negative thoughts, acknowledging that we have no control over these thoughts entering our brain and that they do not define us.

Having strategies in place to help deal with these can be beneficial for helping to create distance between you and your thoughts. In turn, this can provide us with a feeling of calm within our busy brains, allowing us more time to attend to alternative bits of information or process any worried thoughts running around in our head. While thought reframing doesn’t necessarily remove our stressful and anxiety-inducing thoughts, it can really help to break or interrupt the anxiety cycle, allowing us to feel more in control of what is going on around us.

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