Challenging Irrational Thoughts

Pen and paperMany years ago, I took part in a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) group which was essentially eight weeks of learning how to challenge depressed thinking by doing a thought record. Although I have my reservations about CBT-style self-help and the way it’s used and abused by the NHS, this is one technique that has helped me get through episodes of depression. The theory behind it is that you can change the way you feel by changing the way you think, and for me, identifying the distressing but often irrational thoughts that are part and parcel of depression and finding a more balanced way of looking at things does help to lift my mood. The effect isn’t permanent – and the book this exercise comes from compares it to trimming back the weeds in your garden rather than pulling them out at the root – but as a short-term coping skill I find it very useful.

Thought records are supposed to help with all kinds of negative emotions, whether that’s depression, anxiety, anger or something else. Of course, if your thoughts are already balanced and rational then they’re unlikely to make a difference😉 – not all negative emotions are a result of or linked to ‘twisted thinking’. I tend to use a thought record when I know or suspect my thinking has gone a bit screwy. I also find the first step can be helpful if I feel crap but don’t know why; it gives me a chance to understand why I feel the way I do and decide whether continuing with a thought record is appropriate.

Tip: It’s a good idea to rate your mood (e.g. on a scale of one to ten) before and after doing this exercise so you can judge whether it’s helped.

Step One

Take a sheet of paper and divide it into four columns. In the first column, write down all the negative, distressing or anxiety-provoking thoughts that are going through your head.

If you just know you feel bad and are not sure what you’re thinking, these questions may help:

  • What was going through my mind just before I started to feel this way?
  • What does this say about me? What does it say I can/can’t do?
  • What does this mean about me? My life? My future?
  • What am I afraid might happen? What is the worst thing that could happen if this is true?
  • What does this mean about what other people might think/feel about me?
  • What does this mean I should/shouldn’t do?
  • What images or memories do I have in this situation?

Source: Overcoming Weight Problems by Gauntlett-Gilbert and Grace

Read through your list of thoughts and circle the one you find most distressing. This is the thought you’re going to challenge. (You can always repeat the exercise for other thoughts later if you like.)

Step Two

In the second column, write down all the factual evidence that suggests your circled thought is true. Be as specific as possible, and only include facts, not opinions. For example, if your friend Sally said a particular dress made you look a little fat, don’t write, “I look fat” (this is just Sally’s opinion). Don’t write, “Sally says I look fat” (this is overgeneralising). Write something like, “Sally said I looked a little fat in the green dress.”

Here’s an example from one of my own thought records:

Thought: I’m a useless, weak, pathetic person who can’t cope with ordinary life.

Evidence for thought: I only managed about 2/3 of the work I should have done today.
I couldn’t concentrate well and didn’t notice several typos – I’m not sure I did a good job.
The house is a mess.
I haven’t cleaned out the guinea pigs for 2-3 weeks.
The broadband company made a mistake with my bill months ago and I still haven’t contacted them about it.
I feel like I can’t cope and want to hide.

Step Three

In the third column, write down any factual evidence that suggests your circled thought is not 100% true. To do this, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have I had any experiences that show that this thought is not completely true all the time?
  • If my best friend or someone I loved had this thought, what would I tell them?
  • If my best friend or someone who loves me knew I was thinking this thought, what would they say to me? What evidence would they point out to me that would suggest that my thoughts were not 100% true?
  • When I am not feeling this way, do I think about this type of situation any differently? How?
  • When I have felt this way in the past, what did I think about that helped me feel better?
  • Have I been in this type of situation before? What happened? Is there anything different between this situation and previous ones? What have I learned from prior experiences that could help me now?
  • Are there any small things that contradict my thoughts that I might be discounting as not important?
  • Five years from now, if I look back at this situation, will I look at it any differently? Will I focus on any different part of my experience?
  • Are there any strengths or positives in me or the situation that I am ignoring?
  • Am I jumping to any conclusions that are not completely justified by the evidence?
  • Am I blaming myself for something over which I do not have complete control?

Source: Mind Over Mood by Greenberger and Padesky

You might also find it helpful to look at the Ten Forms of Twisted Thinking (which help you spot flaws in your negative thoughts) and Ten Ways to Untwist Your Thinking for further ideas.

Thought: I’m a useless, weak, pathetic person who can’t cope with ordinary life.

Evidence against thought: Depression is an illness. It’s recognised as a disability under UK law.
I did do some housework yesterday and at the weekend.
I give the guinea pigs a loving home.
I know many people with depression who deal with these problems and I don’t think they’re pathetic, weak or useless.
People in my support system are impressed by how much I’m getting done despite the depression.
Many people get behind on housework etc and I wouldn’t say they’re not coping with life.
I’ve been busy with work, Sirius Project and driving lessons.
I can cope with work fine when I’m not depressed.
I’m under extra stress with the housework at the moment because of my partner’s RSI.
I may not be on the best meds for me right now.
B says I come across as someone who makes every effort to deal with problems and work at it.
I’ve helped myself cope by being open with my employer about my depression.
I’m putting a lot of effort and energy into my recovery right now and have developed new ways to help myself.

What if your thought is true? Before you come to this conclusion, I would recommend asking someone you trust for their opinion. However, sometimes a distressing thought can be accurate – for example, if you’re in serious danger of losing your job and your thought is, “I could get fired!”

If this is the case, instead of trying to challenge the thought, it can be more helpful to take practical steps to address the problem. You might want to discuss your concerns with your boss, start looking for other jobs, come up with a plan for how you’ll cope financially, and so on. You can find more advice on problem-solving techniques on page 9 of this PDF booklet.

Step Four

In the final column, try to come up with some “alternative” or “balanced” thoughts that are more factually accurate than those in the first column. These should take into account all the evidence you’ve just gathered. You can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Based on the evidence I have listed, is there an alternative way of thinking about or understanding the situation?
  • Write one sentence that summarizes all the evidence that supports my thought and all the evidence that does not support my thought.
  • Does combining the two summary statements with the word “and” create a balanced thought that takes into account all the information I have gathered?
  • If someone I cared about was in this situation, had these thoughts, and had this information available, what would be my advice to them? How would I suggest that they understand the situation?
  • If my thought is true, what is the worst outcome? If my thought is true, what is the best outcome? If my thought is true, what is the most realistic outcome?
  • Can someone I trust think of any other way of understanding this situation?

Source: Mind Over Mood by Greenberger and Padesky

And here’s my example:

Thought: I’m a useless, weak, pathetic person who can’t cope with ordinary life.

Alternative thoughts: I’m finding “ordinary” life quite hard to cope with right now, but this is understandable given I’m depressed. It’s not a judgement on me as a person.
I’m not weak – I’m actually working very hard on recovery!

If there is any truth to your circled thought and it requires some kind of action, I also like writing a brief to-do list in this column. For example, “I am in danger of losing my job, but I can improve my situation by taking the following steps…”


This exercise is a simplified version of the technique described in the book Mind Over Mood by Greenberger and Padesky.

(Image: Idea go /

One thought on “Challenging Irrational Thoughts

  1. Pingback: CBT-Based Self-Help | Sirius Project

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