Challenging unhelpful thoughts

The way that we think about things has an impact on our mood, anxiety and stress levels. Many of these thoughts occur outside of our control, and can be negative or unhelpful. It is therefore important to remember that they are just thoughts, without any real basis, and are not necessarily facts. Even though we may believe a lot of our unhelpful thoughts when we are feeling low, anxious or stressed, it is good to remember that they should be questioned as they are often based on wrong assumptions.

The following section will help you begin to recognise if you are thinking about things in an unhelpful or unrealistic way, and discuss how you can start to make changes to this. By doing so, you can learn to see things in a more realistic light which can help to improve your mood and reduce your anxiety or stress levels. You might have unhelpful thoughts about all kinds of things. Here are some examples:


  • I'm boring
  • I'm ugly
  • I'm a failure
  • No-one likes me
  • People are out to get me
  • Everyone is better than me
The world:
  • Life is unfair
  • The world is a horrible place
The future:
  • Things will never get better
  • What's the point of continuing
  • I'm destined to fail
It is clear to see how this kind of thinking might bring your mood and confidence levels down. Do you ever think in any of the ways outlined above? Fill in your examples below:
You might find it difficult to identify an unhelpful thought. Try thinking about a time when you felt particularly low, worried or stressed. Consider what was running through your mind at that time.
Patterns of unhelpful thinking

First you need to be able to recognise an unhelpful thought. Then you can challenge it. Being aware of the common patterns that unhelpful thoughts follow can help you to recognise when you have them. Here are some of the common patterns that our unhelpful thoughts follow:

Predicting the future
What if?
When people are worried about something it is common for them to spend a lot of time ruminating. You can end up thinking about the future and predicting what might go wrong. This is instead of just letting things be. You might blow things out of proportion, or come to expect a catastrophe. For example:
  • What if I go to a party and no-one talks to me?
  • What if I don't make friends when I start my new job?
  • What if I can't cope and have a panic attack?
Jumping to conclusions
Taking things personally
Mind reading
When people are feeling emotionally vulnerable, it is likely that they take things to heart and become more sensitive to what people say. They can often make assumptions about why someone said something, beign overly quick to draw conclusions, and thinking that they are the focus of what has been said. For example:
  • You think that a friend has ignored you, but in fact they have other things on their mind.
  • They must be laughing at me.
Focusing on the negative
Ignoring the positive
Often people can ignore the positive aspects of life or their situation. Instead you may focus on negative elements. This style of thinking stops us feeling good about ourselves. It can lower your confidence. For example:
  • Despite having many friends, we focus on the one person that doesn't seem to like us.
  • I was only able to cope on that occasion because...
Black & white thinking
All or nothing
"Should" thinking
Sometimes people only see things as black or white, with no grey area or in-between. Having this polarised view can lead some people into setting themselves impossibly high standards, being overly critical and struggling to recognise any achievement due to their perfectionism.
  • That was a complete waste of time.
  • They must hate me.
  • I should always get full marks.
Based on one isolated incident you might assume that other events will follow a similar pattern in the future. You might find it hard to see a negative event as a one-off. This can also mean that you label yourself, often unkindly, which can lower your mood and confidence, perhaps even leading to feelings of hopelessness. For example:
  • Failing my driving test means I'll fail at everything.
  • The neighbour's dog snarled at me, all dogs are vicious!
  • I'm useless.

Do any of your unhelpful thoughts follow some of these patterns? Jot down any examples you can think of into the box below:

We can learn techniques to challenge these unhelpful thoughts. This can help to improve your mood and reduce your anxiety or stress levels. The next part of this handout will discuss how we can go about challenging our unhelpful thoughts. You may come up with a more balanced thought that is accurate and based on evidence.
How to challenge unhelpful thoughts

Once you have recognised an unhelpful thought the next stage is to challenge it. To do this, you can ask yourself a serious of questions. See the example below:
Situation: My partner hasn't called me after saying they would.

How you feel: Worried, upset, low.
Unhelpful thought: They must dislike me, perhaps they don't want to be with me after all!
Challenges to an unhelpful thought

Now you can challenge your unhelpful thoughts by asking these questions.

Is there any evidence that contradicts this thought?
  • Perhaps they havn't got away yet.
  • Maybe they just forgot.
Can you identify any of the patterns of unhelpful thinking described earlier?
  • I'm catastrophising.
  • Mind-reading.
What would you say to a friend who had this thought in a similar situation?
  • I'd say - they're probably just busy, stop stressing; they'll no doubt call soon.
What are the costs and benefits of thinking in this way?
  • Costs: I am likely to be on edge a lot and suspicious of my partner.
  • Benefits: I can't think of any.
How will you feel about this in 6 months time?
  • I'll probably look back and laugh about how silly I was being.
Is there another way of looking at this situation?
  • They're probably just busy and will call soon.

Once you have asked yourself these questions, you should read through your answers. Try to come up with a more balanced or rational view. For example:

I'm sure there'll be a good explanation as I don't have any evidence that suggests that they're fed up with me.
Try to apply these questions to the unhelpful thoughts that you notice. It can help to improve your mood and reduce your anxiety or stress levels. You can use this technique to test your thoughts are realistic and balanced.
Final Word

We hope that you found some of the ideas in this booklet useful. You can continue to use the techniques you found helpful long into the future and they should continue to benefit you. If some of the ideas are not particularly helpful at first, it is perhaps worth sticking with them for a few weeks to give them a chance to work. If however you feel your situation remains largely unchanged or if you did not find this booklet useful, you should speak to your GP who can tell you about the other options available which you could find helpful.

Further Information and Resources

For further information and self-help resources go to Moodjuice online:

Moodjuice is a website designed to offer information and advice to those experiencing troublesome thoughts, feelings and behaviours. In the site you can explore various aspects of your life that may be causing you distress and obtain information that will allow you to help yourself. This includes details of organisations, services and other resources that can offer support. This self help guide comes from a series that you can access and print from Moodjuice. Other titles available include:

Some Useful Organisations

The following organisations or services may be able to offer support, information and advice.

Samaritans provides confidential emotional support, 24 hours a day for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which may lead to suicide. You don't have to be suicidal to call us. We are here for you if you're worried about something, feel upset or confused, or you just want to talk to someone.


Web Site:
Breathing Space
Breathing Space is a free, confidential phone line you can call when you're feeling down. You might be worried about something - money, work, relationships, exams - or maybe you're just feeling fed up and can't put your finger on why.
0800 83 85 87

Web Site:
Living Life to the Full
Living Life to the Full is an online life skills course made up of several different modules designed to help develop key skills and tackle some of the problems we all face from time to time.
Web Site: