How to Challenge Unhelpful and Habitual Thoughts

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How to Challenge Unhelpful and Habitual Thoughts


In our previous blog we looked at some of the more common ways us humans get caught up in thinking traps, particularly when we feel strong emotions. If you notice that particular unhelpful thinking styles tend to pop up again and again you might like to give thought-challenging a try.

Thought-challenging is a Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) technique. Really though, it’s just a fancy term for asking yourself a series of questions about a particular thought. These questions aim to get you to think about things from multiple angles, rather than just assuming that your thoughts are facts or “the truth” (even though they can sometime feel like they are!). The goal is not to get you to think “positively”, just to consider things from a more balanced, objective perspective.

Next time you notice yourself getting caught in an unhelpful thinking trap, ask yourself:

  • Have I had any experiences that show that this thought is not completely true all of the time?
  • When I am not feeling this way, how might I think about this situation differently?
  • Does anything contradict my thoughts that I might be discounting as not important?
  • Am I jumping to any conclusions that are not justified by the evidence?
  • If 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 this thought is not 100% true?
  • How might someone else view this situation if it were happening to them? For example, my mother, my friend or a colleague?
  • Are there strengths or positives about the situation that I am ignoring?
  • Do I know that this thought is true or do I just feel that it is?
  • If this thought was true, what is the worst thing that could happen? What are some of the ways that I could cope with that?
  • What would happen if I did the opposite of what the thought is telling me to do?
  • What are the disadvantages of thinking in this way versus trying to adopt a more realistic and helpful thinking style?
  • Even if there is a grain of truth in this thought, is it helpful for me to think this way?

A few things to keep in mind when practising thought-challenging

When you first try thought-challenging it’s useful to jot down your responses. Often when people try to do it in their head they wind up going around and around in circles, which sometimes actually just makes the thoughts feel more powerful. The other benefit to writing things down is that if a similar thought comes up in the future, you can refer back to your notes to try to tap into a more balanced, realistic way of thinking.

It can also be a real eye-opener doing thought challenging with a family member or friend that you trust and don’t feel judged by. They might be able to help shed some light on some of the blind spots in your thinking (we all have blind spots by the way!).

When practising this technique it’s best to focus on a singular thought, rather than a series of thoughts. For example, “They think I’m incapable” or “If I go to the party, it will be awful night”. Break your thoughts down into single sentences and challenge these individual sentences. Trying to challenge a pile of thoughts at once doesn’t really work.

If you’d like some professional support or guidance with challenging your thinking, our psychologists can help. To book an appointment simply click here or email us at

About the Author:

Dr Jacqueline Baulch is a clinical psychologist and the director of Inner Melbourne Clinical Psychology.