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Helpful thinking

When you're not at your best mentally, it's easy to slip into a pattern of negative and unhelpful thinking that can make you feel worse and make it hard to cope.
In this section you will learn to identify these negative thoughts, to challenge and interrupt them, and then replace them using a 4-step process, with thoughts that will help you to be motivated, energised and to cope with challenges and relate better to others.

Helpful thinking

The impact of helpful and unhelpful thoughts

Unhelpful thoughts, such as 'absolutely nothing is going well', and 'things will never get any better' are likely to leave you feeling uptight, unhappy or even hopeless. Negative thinking can also put stress on relationships and make it hard for loved ones.

So, how you feel and behave often depends on how you think about, or interpret, events in your life.

If you tend to think in a negative way when something doesn't go to plan, your mood and reactions will probably be negative too. That's what makes negative thinking unhelpful.

Imagine that you are setting the table, and you drop a plate and it shatters.

  • Helpful thinking would be something like: “These things happen, the plate was slippery.”
  • Unhelpful thinking would be something like: “I always stuff-up.”

Negative over-reactions like this can lower your self-esteem, make you tense and angry, and make it more likely that you will have more unhelpful thoughts - a vicious spiral down.

The example below demonstrates how helpful and unhelpful thinking impacts on feelings and behaviour:

Event: Getting stuck in traffic

Thought: I'm going to be late and get in trouble.

Emotion: Anxiety.

Behaviour: Poor concentration, higher risk of accident. Arrive at work or appointment in stressed state.

Thought: Why do I always get stuck behind stupid drivers.

Emotion: Frustration.

Behaviour: Erratic, risky driving, possible road rage. Arrive at work or appointment in tense and stressed state.

Thought: I have a good excuse for missing the boring meeting.

Emotion: Relief.

Behaviour: Calmly enjoying music. Arrive at work or appointment in a relaxed state and in a good mood.

As easy as A-B-C?

Another way of thinking about the impact of helpful and unhelpful thinking is the simple A-B-C model. Antecedent (prior) events trigger Beliefs, which then in turn lead to Consequences.

Antecedent event:

Misplacing the car keys.

Beliefs:"I'm an idiot" or "Someone's taken the keys"

Consequences: Angry & Irritable Inefficient & panicky search.

Beliefs:"They are here somewhere"

Consequences: Relaxed & efficient search.

What is helpful thinking?

The way you think shapes how you feel about your life and yourself. 

You can't always influence what happens to you, but you can influence your thoughts so that you feel less overwhelmed and more hopeful.

Helpful thinking will impact on your mood and influence your decisions and behaviour.

But helpful thinking is not the same thing as positive thinking. It's hard to be positive all the time, especially if you are coping with significant losses, change or stress.

Helpful thinking is realistic thinking.  An example of helpful thinking is, "this is a tough time for me, but I am doing some things well".

Letting go of unhelpful thinking: 5 steps to making helpful thinking a part of your life

You can choose to create a distance and space from your thoughts and see them just as mental events that we can choose to listen to or just let go.

Rather than try to think too much about what is true or not, accept that your thoughts are your mind’s way of presenting solutions or interpretations that you can calmly choose to ignore or reject.

Use the 5 step thinking process:

1: Identify your unhelpful thoughts

Unhelpful thoughts are often automatic, so you might not even notice them most of the time - like many of our habits. Most unhelpful thoughts relate to one of the following categories:

  • Coping
  • Helplessness and Control
  • Safety
  • Guilt
  • Blame and Anger

Identify recent situations, or situations that occur over the next few days or weeks, that made/make you feel unhappy, tense or angry.

What thoughts are going through your mind when you get these feelings? Those thoughts are probably some of the unhelpful thoughts that you're trying to identify.

Record your negative thoughts, feelings and the situations in which they occur.

2: Challenge unhelpful thoughts

When you identify your unhelpful thoughts, the next important step is to challenge them.

Remember:  Just because you have a thought, it doesn't make it true.

Ask yourself:

  • What's the evidence that this negative thought is true?
  • Is there another way of looking at this situation?
  • How would someone else see this?
  • Am I jumping to conclusions?
  • Am I basing my judgement on how I'm feeling rather than what is actually happening?
  • Am I showing 'black & white' or 'all-or-nothing' thinking?
  • Am I exaggerating what I think has gone wrong or might go wrong?
  • Am I over-generalising? (e.g. because something has gone wrong in the past, I'm expecting things to go wrong now)
  • Am I personalising things that go wrong by blaming (putting-down) myself?
  • How important is it? Will it affect my entire future?

Choose the question that is most relevant to challenging your unhelpful thought and note it down and then:

  • Describe situations leading to unpleasant feelings?
  • Identify your unpleasant feelings. What unpleasant feelings did you have in response to this situation.
  • Identify your unhelpful thoughts. What were your unhelpful thoughts at the time, or just after, the situation occurred?
  • Challenge these thoughts. Which of the thought challenging questions is most relevant to this particular unhelpful thought?
  • Replace the negative thoughts with more realistic helpful thoughts.

3: Identify helpful thoughts

Now that you have identified and challenged your unhelpful thoughts, replace them with helpful thoughts.


  • Helpful thoughts will be based on the facts (reality based), not on feelings
  • Be kind and encouraging to yourself
  • Accept mistakes as normal and then seek to change things
  • Acknowledge your achievements
  • Centre on what is going well and on your personal strengths

4: Schedule practice of helpful thoughts

Unhelpful thoughts can be difficult to dislodge from our thinking, especially in the early stages of change.

Schedule some time to challenge your unhelpful thoughts and practice saying aloud your helpful thoughts. As you do this, imagine that you are in the situation where the unhelpful thoughts occur. Or practice in the actual situation if this is possible.

5: Review progress

Set a date for when you will sit down and rate your progress.

At that point you may decide to also review your helpful thoughts and decide whether you need some new ones. You may also have identified some other unhelpful thoughts that you need to counter by working through the steps again on a new worksheet.

Need further help?

If you've had some success in combating your unhelpful thinking, well done! You have taken a major step in improving the quality of your life by learning to replace unhelpful thinking with helpful thinking.

From time to time, as situations change in your life, you might find it useful to revisit this information when you recognise that unhelpful thoughts are beginning to dominate your thinking again.

If you have been disappointed in your attempts to combat your unhelpful thinking, please consider seeking further support.

Talk to your GP or a mental health professional. They can help you to decide what assistance you need and arrange appropriate care.

You can find more information about building resilience in the other pages in this section, or by downloading the complete toolkit below.

View pdf
Everyday Resilience - NZDF Resilience Toolkit
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