Negative thoughts: we all have them to a certain degree.

Thoughts like “I’m not good enough”, “I’m a horrible parent”, “I will never be smart enough”… you know the ones.

We have talked about these thoughts before in another blog post, where we labelled these thoughts ANTS (automatic negative thoughts). In that post, we talked about some strategies that you can use when the ANTS come swarming into your mind.

Today, we are going to take a deeper look at how changing our behaviour can help us reduce our ANTS, and feel more confident.

Specifically, we are going to look at the way our ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ coping strategies impact our thoughts!

Our ‘coping strategies’ are the strategies that we use when we are faced with an intense emotion, a difficult situation, or crisis. Everyday we choose ways to cope, whether it is coping with a major life problem, ‘first world problem’, or a small set-back. We all have many coping strategies that we use on a daily basis. Some strategies that we use might be healthy such as: talking to a friend, taking a walk, deep breathing, and/or exercise. However, we all have unhealthy strategies that we also use to help us cope such as: over eating, substance abuse, watching hours of TV, and/or yelling at others. These are only a few examples! We all have our own unique healthy and unhealthy coping strategies.

During times of intense emotions and mental health issues, it is easy to get stuck in patterns of thinking and behaving. When we start using unhealthy strategies to cope, we get can caught in a tornado of unhealthy behaviour, and negative thoughts.

Interestingly enough, our thoughts and behaviour are deeply connected. In Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, we talk about the ‘thoughts, feelings, behaviour triangle’. In this triangle, the way we think impacts the way we feel, which impacts the way that we behave. When we don’t make an effort to change the way we think and behave, we will continue to feel the same way.

That is where coping strategies come in! If you want to increase your feelings of confidence, and reduce your negative thoughts, you can start by changing your behaviour!

This may sound difficult, but there are 4 simple steps that you can take to do this:

1. Notice the way you are behaving when approached with a stressful situation

The first step in making real change is being aware of what your current coping strategies are. For one day, try to be aware of how you are behaving when you have negative thoughts about yourself, or are approached with a high conflict situation.

Do you get very angry and yell at someone close to you?

Do you find yourself reaching for a glass of wine (or more) every night?

Do you find yourself withdrawing from those you love, and keeping your stress to yourself?

Be aware of how this coping strategy is serving you. Do you feel less stressed out after you used this strategy? Did this help resolve your ANT? Did this positively impact your relationships and the people around you?

Do this for one day (or if you really want to notice trends, try doing it for one week!). Write down what you notice. If you are really wanting to make change, you can even rate the effectiveness of this strategy on a scale of 1-10.

Becoming aware or mindful of these strategies can help you notice areas where you may need to make change.

A coping strategy story: 

A few months after I was on bedrest with my daughter, I started struggling with ANT’s. My most common ANT was “I am being lazy”.  This thought left me feeling frustrated and annoyed with myself. When I started to take note of how I was coping with these feelings, I realized that I was spending the majority of my day being unproductive and binge-watching Netflix. The more Netflix I watched, the stronger my ANTs became. Taking note of this coping strategy allowed me to realize that it was not serving me, and was actually strongly contributing to my negative thoughts.

2. Decide what current coping strategy you want to work on

After you uncover what coping strategies are no longer serving you, decide on one strategy to change. Trying to change every unhealthy coping strategy that you have in one day is not realistic. Doing this would likely not lead to success. I believe in building momentum when making change. Choosing one attainable strategy to work on and change, and then slowly working to change the other unhealthy behaviours in your life, is much more likely to lead you to successfully building confidence and reducing negative thoughts.

So before continuing on, decide on one unhealthy strategy that you want to change.

Got it? Good.

A coping strategy story: 

After becoming aware that my ‘binge watching Netflix’ coping strategy was actually making my negative thoughts worse, I decided that this was the strategy I would try and change.

3. Choose a replacement strategy

When changing a coping strategy from unhealthy to healthy, we need to choose a replacement strategy.

Every time that you are tempted to use your unhealthy coping strategy, replace it with your new healthy strategy.

When writing this post, I consulted with other therapists about how they talk to their clients about coping strategies. One therapist suggests that when you are feeling calm and relaxed, you should make a list of all of the healthy strategies that you can use. Once you have this list, keep it with you! When you are tempted to engage in one of your unhealthy strategies, pull out this list and choose one of the strategies on there to use instead. This list can be a helpful tool in making meaningful change!

A coping strategy story:

I decided that instead of watching Netflix all of the time, which was only making my negative thoughts worse, I would take an academic course. I enrolled in a course that I had wanted to take for a long time. Whenever I was tempted to watch Netflix, I turned on my course and worked on that instead. Soon, instead of feeling frustrated and thinking that I was lazy, I felt productive, and like I had accomplished something at the end of every day.

4. Practice using healthy coping strategies

Try to use your healthy coping strategies during times of calm. Practicing when you are calm makes it more likely that you will be able to use this strategy in a time of intense emotion. Make significant others in your life aware of these strategies so that they can hold you accountable and celebrate your successes with you! You can continue to take note of how this healthy strategy is serving you, and impacting your confidence. When you notice positive changes, it will be more likely that you will continue doing this healthy strategy.

A coping strategy story:

I worked on my course both in times when I felt happy and in times when bedrest was getting me down. This course gave me purpose filled days and really helped me change my negative thoughts about myself. Telling my husband and family members that I was doing this course helped hold me accountable and ensured that I did not go back to using my unhealthy coping strategy (binge watching Netflix).

Take home message

In order to help us change our thought patterns, we have to also change our unhealthy coping strategies! The four steps to changing UNHELPFUL coping strategies are:

  1. Track the unhelpful strategies you are currently using.
  2. Decide which unhelpful strategy you want to work on.
  3. Choose a replacement strategy.
  4. Practice using your new healthy coping strategy!

I hope this was helpful for you! Just a reminder that if you feel that ANT’s are running your life and your mind, it is important to talk to a professional about this! Your family doctor or a counsellor is a great place to start.