We’ve all had them: irrational thoughts that pop into our head without a moment’s notice. And just like that, in a flash, they can take hold. Fleeting moments of frustration become all out anger. A passing worry takes grip and morphs into anxiety and doubt. But what can you do about it?
We have previously blogged about the exciting psychological research emanating from Staffordshire University sport psychologists, Dr Martin Turner and Dr Jamie Baker, on how to perform under pressure by viewing events as an opportunity, not as a threat.
They have also researched how to challenge unhelpful beliefs (you can read some of it here, here and here). Central to their research, called Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) is the maxim that people are not stressed about upcoming events, but by their perception of them. In other words, it is not an exam or cup final that makes someone nervous, it is their beliefs about them that generates their response.
Their work highlights some simple steps on how to manage and overcome irrational and unhelpful thoughts. Below is a brief summary of some of the tips to do so:
Look for proof that the belief is true – A statement without proof is at best an opinion. Opinions can be wrong. As humans, we have a great history of having inaccurate opinions (for example, hardly anyone saw the financial crash of 2008 coming, many pundits tipped Leicester City to be relegated from the Premiership this year* and Microsoft famously predicted that Apple wouldn’t gain a sizeable share in the mobile phone sector).
Before listening too much to that doubting voice in your head, first check for evidence. Is there any weight and credibility to justify it? If there is no proof, this thought is a negative guess, a speculative hunch. In reality, it is more likely to be a misplaced myth, akin to a trick of the mind playing worst case scenario than an accurate assessment of your current situation.
Is there any evidence that could change your mind? – This is a great question to ask yourself. This forces you to question whether you are blindly following false or thinly weighted beliefs. If the answer to this question is no, then it means you could well be rejecting contrary evidence without properly considering it first.
Examine the logic of your belief – This is the culmination of both the first two points. Weighing up the evidence is a technique commonly used by psychologists. There are many reasons why your beliefs may not be logical. These include the confirmation bias (only agreeing with evidence that backs up your original belief), the bandwagon effect (believing something because everyone else does) and the negativity bias (paying more attention to negative information). If you want to read more about our thinking biases, check out this blog post.
Make sure you're not thinking in extremes – Things aren’t always black or white. Life is more nuanced and messy than that. If you are starting a sentence with words like ‘Always’ and ‘Every time’, or with the phrase ‘I must do this’, then it likely that you may be missing some of the subtleties of the situation. The use of these superlatives could be an indication that your thoughts and beliefs are not as helpful to you as they could be.
Question whether that belief is helpful or not – Performance psychology is not about replacing negative thoughts with positive ones; if it was, it would seem crass. A better viewpoint would be to see your thoughts as either unhelpful or helpful. If you have followed the steps above and realised that some of your thoughts are unhelpful, it may be time to think something else.
The above tips are intended to help people identify and overcome their own irrational and unhelpful thoughts. These tips could also prove helpful for teachers or coaches when helping others during moments of heightened stress (i.e. in exams for students and in pressurised sporting events for athletes).
By improving our self-awareness, we can better manage our thoughts, and as a result be more in control of our feelings, behaviours and results.
*At the time of writing, Leicester City are currently joint top in the Premiership after 21 games.
We would like to thanks Dr Turner and Dr Barker for their time and assistance in ensuring we accurately represented their work. We recommend you give them a follow on twitter (@DrMJTurner and @DrJamieBarker) and check out their site, The Smarter Thinking Project, for more blogs on their research.