Unhelpful thinking patterns and basic problem solving 

Our brain generates thousands of thoughts each day. Some thoughts are really useful, absolute gold, while others are unhelpful and best left to one side. The trick is to learn to see these thoughts for what they are – thoughts only, ideas generated by your mind, and not reality. This can allow us to obtain some distance from thoughts that are troubling, and to spend more time with the thoughts and actions that are most useful and supportive for our lives. 

Every now and again we can all become caught up with some unhelpful thinking patterns. When someone has experienced significant trauma, or had a series of setbacks, unhelpful thinking patterns can become ‘locked in’, almost as an automatic response in unfamiliar or challenging situations.  Being able to identify and disengaged from unhelpful thinking patterns and possessing basic problem solving skills are useful life skills.  

You can change the way you think 

Listed below are some unhelpful patterns of thinking to watch out for, plus ways to disengage and get you back on track and problem solve. Identifying and naming patterns of thinking for what they are, can assist us in disengaging, stepping back and making decisions where to put our energy. 

Stewing or ruminating 

Stewing or ruminating is where you find yourself running things repetitively over and over in your mind, like a tape loop, without any fresh input or action being taken. Typically, stewing or ruminating leads to problems growing in size and appearing even more difficult to deal with. 

Catastrophising and over generalising 

Catastrophising and over-generalising is where you take a single event or limited piece of information, and see it as a global pattern (usually a negative one). If you hear yourself using words like ‘always’ or ‘never’, these are hints that you might be catastrophising or over generalising (e.g. ‘I’m always stuffing things up’, ‘I never get a fair go’). 

All or nothing thinking 

All or nothing thinking, or black or white thinking, is where things are either all good OR all bad. It’s either one extreme or the other; there are no grey areas. 

‘Shoulds’ or ‘Musts’ 

Shoulding and musting is where you focus on how you perceive things ‘should’ or ‘must’ be, rather than how it is. Shoulding and musting can pressure you to do things one particular way or the ‘right way’. These might be pressures regarding yourself, or other people in your life. 

Totalising or labelling 

Totalising thinking takes a single mistake, problem or shortcoming, and gets you to see yourself – your identity — entirely through that lens. (e.g. ‘I spilled my drink, I’m such a loser’). Common labels include ‘loser’, ‘idiot’, etc. Sometimes this pattern of thinking has you labelling others. 

Mind reading 

This is when you ‘know’ what someone else is thinking, even though you have no idea what they are thinking. It often takes the form of an assumption that another person is making a negative judgement about you. 

Discounting the positive 

You reject positive experiences by insisting that they “don’t count”. For example, if you have a positive interaction with someone, you write it off as a one-off, or attribute it solely to the other person’s actions and not seeing your own part. Discounting the positives takes the joy out of life and makes you feel inadequate and unrewarded. 


When you predict that something will turn out badly, or you will stuff things up, without there being any evidence. Forecasting can get in the way of taking action to make things better.  


Funnelling is when you interpret every difficulty as a result of the abuse you experienced. For example, if you feel stressed about something at work, funnelling puts this down to some personal failure resulting from the abuse, rather than identifying that there might actually be things that would cause most people to feel stressed. 

Emotional reasoning 

You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are. “I feel guilty. I must be a rotten person.” Or, “I feel angry. This proves that I’m being treated unfairly.” Or, “I feel so inferior. This means I’m a second rate person.” Or, “I feel hopeless. Things must really be hopeless.” 

Mis-attribution of blame and responsibility 

Over-attribution of responsibility is when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control. Personalization leads to guilt, shame and feelings of inadequacy. Men who have been sexually abused often struggle with feeling responsible for things they are not. 

Some people do the opposite. They blame other people or their circumstances for their problems, and they overlook ways they might be contributing to the problem. Blaming others often goes hand in hand with feeling powerless. 

Disengagement from unhelpful patterns of thinking.  

Overtime, thoughts can become automatic responses to certain circumstances that we don’t even notice happening.  We can become caught in a thought, feeling distressed and confused, not knowing why we reacted this way or being able to see alternative ways of responding.  This is because patterns of thinking are learnt over time and in some instances become automatic (just like was learn to drive and change gear without thinking).  These thoughts become a habit that our conscious mind does not even notice or consider alternatives.   

It is helpful to recognise that we don’t take on unhelpful thinking patterns on purpose and that some of these patterns of thinking may have kept us safe and supported our survival in the past.  For example, ‘forecasting’, seeing potential danger or negative outcomes, may have may have prevented a victim/survivor from experiencing further harm.  However, once the danger has past and circumstances changed, the reality and value of this pattern of thinking, like all patterns of thinking, deserves reviewing and disengaging if no longer useful.  

The good news is that just as unhelpful patterns become learnt, even ingrained, they can with a little work become interrupted and alternative more helpful ways of thinking and acting introduced. 

Apply some problem solving skills 

Call it for what it is 

If you become aware that you are feeling stressed, unsettled or caught in a bit of a loop, then this may be a good time to take a step back and notice what thoughts are front of your mind at present.  If you notice you have become caught up in an unhelpful pattern of thinking, try to name the pattern. It might be one in the list above, or you may discover some other unhelpful patterns (which you can come up with your own name for).  Ask yourself: “Is this getting me anywhere?” If not, that’s a strong indication that it’s time to try a different approach.  It can be useful to push the pause button to go for a walk, call a friend, or engage in some other activity to distract yourself, refocus, shake off and loosen the hold of these unhelpful thoughts.   

Breathe deeply 

Worrying doesn’t only occupy the brain, it also impacts on the body: Our heart rate speeds up, and muscles tighten. Engage in deep breathing or a few yoga poses to eliminate that physical stress. 

Step away from the thoughts 

You could try a mindfulness exercise, or another strategy where you visualise yourself watching the unhelpful thoughts go past without getting caught up in them. 

Define, don’t dwell 

Much of our worry is based soundly in how we feel: We’re upset, we’re angry, we’re hurting. Instead of focusing on these feelings, try to describe and define the actual problem, and then accept it for what it is. From there, you can either solve it, or vow to move beyond it.   

Distance yourself from the problem.   

It can be useful to write your thoughts down, to gain a little distance from them, to look at them and check them out from different angles.  Writing problems down overtime or talking with someone about a problem can help us see patterns and consider whether the current way of responding is working.  This distance from our thoughts, can assist us in identifying what is currently happening and possible alternative more helpful ways of responding in the future.  

Be generous and kind to yourself  

When we are seeking to solve problems, get ourselves out of a rut or make life changes, it is always useful to be generous and kind to yourself.  A positive, supportive state of mind, will put us in a better place to assess the facts and determine the usefulness of possible future courses of action.   

Basic problem solving 

Basic problem solving in six steps 

We all face difficult decisions and problems in our daily lives. Some problems are quite small and easy to resolve, whilst others can require some significant effort and time to work through and sort out. Problem solving is a skill you can develop. Whether the problem is small, medium or large, it is helpful to have a basic plan for working things out and deciding on a course of action. 

6 steps to problem solving   

The below six steps focus on identifying the particular problem, to consider and evaluate options in order to reach a decision to be acted upon and learnt from. These steps provide a framework for problem solving that can be used by individuals, couples or groups. 

The next time you have a problem that you want to work upon, get a piece of paper or create a document and then work your way through the headings, making a record of the different options and steps. 

Step 1: Identify the problem 
What is the problem? Identify specifically what it is that you want to change or sort out.  Do conduct a reality check to ensure that how you have defined the problem, the information you have is accurate in the present.   

Step 2: Identify your options 
What are the possible solutions as you see it? Make a list of every option you can think of, even those that seem unlikely. Consulting with others can be helpful here, as they might pick up on possibilities you haven’t considered. 

Step 3: Weigh your options 
Go through each option you’ve listed, and consider their potential benefits and consequences. Yep, do this for every option. 

Step 4: Choose an option 
After looking at the pros and cons of each option, one may jump out as the most likely for you. If not, just pick one! This is not about being right or wrong, it is about choosing the best available option for this particular problem and simply giving it a try. 

Step 5: Put it into action 
This is where the rubber hits the road; where you can make it happen. 

Step 6: Review 
It is always worth taking time to review results. What is the learning? What if a similar problem presented itself? Would you do the same thing again, or are there other alternatives? 

An extra optional step 
Keeping a log of how you handled particular problems, and the learning in relation to what worked and what you might do differently next time, will enhance your options, choices and sense of control over your life. 

Additional check and adjustment 
Is this is a problem that also involves another person?  If so, then talking with and working collaboratively with them is likely to produce a better and more sustainable solution to a problem.  In fact, it is difficult to resolve or address some problems, because they are relationship and communication problems, without talking with and working with other people.  If the difficulty involves another person, it is also useful to talk through a problem or possible course of action with an independent trusted friend or professional.