3 Ways to look at negative thoughts

In my own history of anxiety, I’ve unnoticed come at the problem from different directions.

One was through logic and reason, another through insight and awareness. Now as an artist it’s imagery and metaphor. It made me reflect on the different ways we relate to and cope with our hopes, fears and worries.

In the history of mental illness, there have been three broad ways to address our negative thoughts.

Stoicism and CBT

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, in the Farnese collection, Naples – Photo by Paolo Monti, 1969.

One popular way today is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Often put forwards as a method to address anxiety and depression, the evidence shows it does work. CBT, when you get down to it uses some critical thinking to address the poor reasoning we habitually falling into.

It sounds plausible and can work for some people. The 10 forms of twisted thinking in Dr David Burns’ book, The Feeling Good Handbook I found to be very useful.

Typically there are 10 ways our thinking gets contorted or our attitude is twisted:

  • All-or-nothing thinking: You look at things in absolute, black-and-white categories.
  • Overgeneralisation: You view a negative event or failure as part of a larger pattern of failure.
  • Mental filter: Focus on the negative and not the positive.
  • Discounting the positives: You downplay the importance of anything positive that occurred.
  • Jumping to conclusions: you leap to a conclusion about an event or someone without any good evidence. Such as a person not liking you or predicting ill-fortune.
  • Magnification or minimisation: You blow somethings out of all importance and lose perspective.
  • Emotional reasoning: You see truth as based upon how you feel.
  • “Should” statements: You use “shoulds,” “shouldn’t,” “musts,” “oughts,” and “have-to’ when criticising others or yourself, pointing out when expectations were not met or have to be met.
  • Labelling: Using negative labels to describe others or yourself, ‘looser’, ‘jerk’, ‘failure’.
  • Blame: You blame yourself or other people for something way beyond the influence or control you or they have.

Focusing too much on what’s gone wrong and not remembering what went right, blowing out of all proportion the mistakes we made and the fears we have. Setting standards that are impossible to reach and more.

Such twisted thinking and attitudes kept me in my pit of suffering for years. Such twisted thinking feeds upon itself to create a negative spiral.

However, it did strike me as odd, trying to address overthinking by using more thinking. Not everyone is helped by CBT because not everyone can find negative thought patterns to fix. We just feel scared. When I’m stressed and anxious, my mind goes blank, it’s doesn’t overthink. This means it’s not anxiety but fear that’s the problem. Not thought but emotion.

I see it’s limitations because we mistakenly think thoughts drive emotions and behaviour when in reality is the other way around. 

I only looked at CBT briefly, but it did teach me to notice more on he beliefs I held. I found it to be a little formulaic. Instead, I looked more at philosophy, such as rhetoric, scepticism, reason, critical thinking.

Here I learned a lot about biases and logical fallacies by looking at the research on psychology. For example, Confirmation Bias is where we only accept information that fits with what we already believe.

The valuable lesson I learned is that we’re bad at thinking clearly. So it’s a good idea to find out in what ways we can be wrong, deluded, ignorant and mistaken.

An unexpected lesson from scepticism is that better thinking/reasoning can lead to thinking less. Once you figure there are things beyond your ability to change it makes sense not to dwell on them. You let go of the twisted forms of thinking and in so doing my anxiety lessened.

However, I also learned a lot from the Mindfulness-based solutions originating in the far east. 

Mindfulness and the Far East

Yoga meditation in lotus pose by man silhouette with moon and purple dramatic sunset sky background.
Just be in the moment

The most recent wave of therapy (the so-called 3rd wave) started in the ’90s is that of Mindfulness and Compassion-based types drawing inspiration and ideas from the contemplative, meditation practices of the far eastern religions like Buddhism and Taoism.

Buddhism is about letting go of having answers by working on being present and mindful in the moment. Such a practice can help remove the anxiety and fear because it’s taking life as it comes. Reducing worries over a future that may never happen, or a past we can’t change.

To be mindful is to be with whatever is going on, and not allow the mind to wildly and erroneously speculate what could go wrong, or dwell on a past mistake. To be here now.

By being in the present we get to avoid the spiralling circle as negative thoughts and feeling beget more of the same.

The third wave has lead to therapies based more on compassion, and it’s one of the biggest lessons I had to learn. As anxious types we’re far to hard on ourselves. I beat myself up for a minor problems, blamed myself for not being good enough.

I had to let go trying to be perfect all the time and accept I will make mistakes. It helps defang the critical voice and shows it up to be unrealistic, and punitive.

There’s much more to it, but I have used both CBT and Buddhist based ideas in addressing my own negative thoughts.

CBT is base upon Stoic philosophy and Mindfulness comes from Buddhism. Both have the aim to achieve some sort of inner peace or equanimity. (Greek: Ataraxia, ἀταραξία, Sanskrit: Upeksha, उपेक्षा, upekṣā in Buddhism).

Both question what we think and feel about ourselves and the world, and make our consciousness the object of our examination. Learning what our minds are doing through observation.

As I said above, I found however that it’s not just poor reasoning, but emotion that’s the problem. CBT and reason are fine before or after the traumatic event but not much during it.

This is where mindfulness comes in by admitting that there are no answers to the uncertainty we face. Accepting some level of fear and anxiety is a part of life. Facing the fear, rather than trying to rationalise it away.

My advice is to use reason to test your thoughts, as CBT suggests, but also look at Mindfulness/Compassion as a way to address your feelings.

Acceptance is another strand of eastern thought. It’s an antidote to our desperate desire for safety and security in a world that doesn’t provide it completely.

That grasping for certainty is what creates the suffering we feel. Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach is one of the best books that helped me realise this. It’s not about being a victim of life, but accepting we’re not the centre of the cosmos. The cosmos is not there to fulfill our expectations.

Putting it together: Being mindful, I found myself afraid. By accepting my fear and uncertainty will never go away, I could offer myself compassion for not being perfect. It’s here where I find the space and courage to do the thing I’m scared of.

In more recent years I’ve come to see some advantages of the narrative methods of facing our fears by telling stories about them, using symbology and imagery.

Freud, Jung and Imagery

Another way to address our fears and anxieties goes back to the earliest days of psychotherapy, to the days of psychoanalysis, and the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Carl jung

Whilst it’s fair to say they had differing views, they both looked at the importance of the unconscious/unconscious in our lives. Something we persistently fail to notice, even today. As well as the use of metaphor, and imagery, say through dreams.

I’m just getting back into looking at imagery. Through stories, art, as well as reading up on esoteric Buddhism (Vajrayana), the most well known being Tibetan Buddhism. It uses a lot of imagery and metaphor in its practice (called the Twilight Language). Such as Bodhhisatvas, Devas and Mandalas to represent the cosmos, and ourselves. Most of it I’m still ignorant of, yet it reminds me of the Archetypes of Jungian psychotherapy, and the story structure of the Heroes Journey.

It’s of interest because I’m asking myself how to represent emotion in my art, and it’s linked to kind of symbolism that can be found in a Gauguin to the Surrealism of Salvadore Dali.

Song, stories, literature may be used to help process our feelings and offer insights into dealing with them. Because like poetry and art they look at what it means to be human. Our hopes, dreams, fears, of meaning, connection, and purpose.

My History with thought

My path seems to have taken in the highlights of the history of psychotherapy. It shows how we think about and relate to our lives can be looked at through different lenses. I’ve run though philosophy, and a little religion on the way, with my art now a focus.

The Unexpected Journey

My quest to address my own fears and anxiety lead me on an Unexpected Journey. (narrative/imagery). Through, a lot of self examination (logic/reason), and self acceptance and compassion (insight/awareness).

I have found value in each of the different views:

Reason, Self-compassion, Mindfulness, and Acceptance I’ve found the most useful, imagery the least useful, even harmful (so far).

I’m suspicious of narrative and metaphor because they’re often used to fulfil our bloated egos and harm others. Yet I’m looking again because it’s not about truth but what’s useful. Stories can be a framework to help organise and guide our lives. I see the value in the romantic and the passionate.

Scepticism, CBT/Stoicism, Mindfulness/Buddhism, Critical Thinking, Compassion, Acceptance I would all recommend those with anxiety take a closer look at.

Each of these three broad ways has helped me further down the path and opened my eyes to see that I was the cause of my suffering. They’re all there for us to explore, to help us face the storm.

Further reading and resources

The Secret History Of Thoughts : Invisibilia: NPR

Different approaches to psychotherapy

The third wave of cognitive behavioral therapy and the rise of process‐based care – Hayes – 2017 – World Psychiatry – Wiley Online Library

The Third Wave of CBT