Challenging unhelpful thinking

by Jayne Saul-Paterson

When we are faced with a job loss or redundancy, how we think can have an impact on how well we manage our mood, anxiety, and stress levels during this time.

The problem

Psychologists know that when facing a challenge e.g. job loss or applying for a new job, we can hold a number of beliefs about the situation. These beliefs and thoughts are not always helpful and can impact on our ability to stay calm and move forward proactively in resolving the situation.

The good news is it is possible to change thinking which does not serve us and mentally reappraise a challenge so that we feel calmer and less stressed. In order to do this, we need to first recognise and pick out unhelpful thoughts:

About Yourself:

  • I'm a failure
  • I'm boring
  • I'm too old

About the Situation:

  • I'm rubbish at interviews
  • I won't be able to cope with losing my job
  • I must write the 'perfect' CV
  • The interviewer must think I'm useless

About the Future:

  • I'll never get a decent job again
  • I'm destined to fail
  • What's the point of looking for a job, I'll never find what I am looking for

Common patterns

Next, we need to look at the common patterns that unhelpful thoughts can follow. Psychologists categorise these as 'thinking errors', in other words unhelpful thoughts and beliefs which make you feel more stressed and prevent proactive problem solving.

Here are a few examples of these thinking errors, which are just thoughts, but we tend to believe that they are real especially when we are feeling low, anxious or stressed:

All or nothing thinking or black and white thinking – When we see things in absolutes, without any shades of grey, we can become overly critical of ourselves and fail to recognise any achievement or set our standards of ourselves too high.

  • That interview was a complete waste of time
  • If I don't get this job, I am a total failure

Predicting the future or catastrophising – When we are worried about something, we can 'make mountains out of molehills', blow things out of proportion or predict something will go wrong.

  • What if I dry up at interview and don't know what to say?
  • If I lose my job, it will be the end of the world

Taking things personally or mind reading – when we are feeling vulnerable, we can blame ourselves when things go wrong or take things to heart or we can make assumptions about what other people are thinking about especially in relation to their behaviour.

He must think what I am saying is a load of rubbish as he hasn't smiled once

I'm sure my colleagues think I am not good enough for a promotion

How to challenge unhelpful thoughts

Once you have recognised your unhelpful thought, the next stage is to challenge it. You might firstly identify a thinking error as previously described. Ask yourself these other questions about a particular thought e.g. I'm rubbish at interviews

Is there any evidence that contradicts that thought?

  • I interviewed well for my last job
  • There are some questions which are answered very well in past interviews
  • I did a good presentation in my last interview

What would you say to a friend or member of the family who had this thought in a similar situation?

Is there another way of looking at this situation?

There are parts of my performance in interview that I could improve upon and if I prepare as well as I can, I am sure I can improve my performance at interview

What these challenges do is open up your mind to other ways of thinking, helps you to gain perspective and tests that your thoughts are realistic and balanced. It takes practice to challenge your unhelpful thoughts but it's a hugely valuable skill that can be learned and it will help you improve your mood and reduce your stress levels especially when facing job loss and finding a new job.

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