Health and Wellbeing, Mental health

Bad thoughts spotter: Do you have unhelpful thinking habits?

Natalie, Student Wellbeing Champion, discusses 9 types of unhelpful thinking habits that may negatively affect the way we think.

The way we think has a big impact on our mood and behaviour. Have you recently felt that your mood and the way you act are impacted by irrational negative thoughts?

Sometimes, our mind performs a trick and convinces us of something that isn’t true. This is called “cognitive distortions.” These are inaccurate thoughts that are used to reinforce negative thinking. Having those distortions can limit our perspectives, create additional problems and make us feel horrible.



How to tackle negative thoughts

There are ways to challenge and distance ourselves from cognitive distortions and replace them with a more rational and balanced way of thinking. The first step is to learn to correctly identify the negative automatic thoughts and to understand what types of unhelpful thinking there are.

Here is a list of 9 different types of unhelpful thinking habits that you may be able to relate to. Knowing these thinking styles will help you become more aware of the type of thoughts you are having.

In time of distress, this is a reminder that what you are thinking is merely negative automatic thoughts and not facts.


9 Types of unhelpful thinking habits

1. Overgeneralisation The idea that your thoughts are typically accompanied by words like always, never, every time or everyone. For instance, having just failed a test, instead of thinking that you can study harder and pass the next test, typical thoughts may include: “I will always fail and will never be able to pass anything.”  Similarly, in a social context, you have just walked past someone you know and they didn’t stop to say hi. You may be thinking: “She doesn’t want to talk to me because she doesn’t like me. No one likes me.” 


2. Labelling – We label ourselves and others to make a global statement based on our behaviour in a specific situation. However, labelling occurs when we use the label even when there is a lot of contradicting evidence. For example, you are in a lecture and realise you forgot your pens, you think to yourself: “I’m such an idiot!” Similarly, your close friend cancelled lunch last minute, whilst they have always been there for you, you still think: “They are so inconsiderate!”


3. All or nothing – This is when you think that something is either all good or all bad, there is no in between. For example, you missed your gym day today and you think about how you can’t even follow your own routine, that you have no self control and give up. Another example is: “I have been in the library for an hour and still have not finished the work I planned, I might as well just go home as I’m never going to finish anything.”


4. Personalisation – This involves blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong, even if you are only partially or not at all responsible.  Your sport team lost a game? “I should have practised harder, it’s my fault we lost. Burned the toast for breakfast? “Definitely my fault, not at all the toaster’s”. You may keep thinking to yourself: “this is my fault” and “I’m to blame.”


5. Emotional reasoning – You base your view of the situation on how you or others are feeling, such as: “I am so anxious about turning my essay in- this essay is the worst thing I’ve ever written” or “I feel so depressed being in the library, the library is such a bad place to get work done.” Whilst it may not necessarily be facts, you are deducing about the situation based on your feelings on it.


6. Magnification and minimisation – This is where you magnify or exaggerate the negatives and minimise the positives. Imagine you have written great essay with only a few spelling mistakes. When reading through the comments of the feedback, although there are so many praises, you automatically focus on how bad it was and how you could have done better if you didn’t make those mistakes.


7. Mental filters – Do you notice that you are looking at things through a tinted lens? You only focus on the negative things in the situation and put negative slants on things. For instance, you have just given a presentation that you’ve worked very hard on. Whilst everyone is listening attentively, you notice a person in the room rolling their eyes. After the presentation, everyone claps and congratulates you, but you can only think about how awful and boring it was because that one person did not enjoy it.


8. Mind reading – This is where we assume we know what others are thinking (usually about us). Someone is looking at you? “They must be looking at how messy my hair looks today.” You messaged someone asking to hang out and they took a while to reply? “They definitely don’t want to meet up, they probably don’t even like me.”


9. Shoulds and musts – Do you usually think or say “I shouldn’t” or “I must” when thinking about doing something? Whilst it is not necessarily unhelpful (e.g. I should get to work on time), saying it that way would put more pressure on you and set unrealistic goals and expectations. For instance, “I should always get things right”, “I must always be on top of my work and my fitness goals” or “I must never upset my partner.” Statements like that will leave us feeling more disappointed in ourselves if we are not able to complete them.


Are you able to relate to any of these unhelpful thinking habits?

Do you sometimes find yourself in situations where these cognitive distortions come up? Of course, we are all guilty of using them at some point in our lives, some more often than others. However, if you keep having repetitive negative automatic thoughts, be aware of the effects on you. Don’t let the negative thoughts control the way you view the world around you. Remember, you are able to take control of your thoughts and change your behaviour and response.


Self-help resources to help you become more mindful and watch your thoughts:

  • Here are some mindfulness exercises: body scan, puppy mind, training the mind
  • The app Headspace is great for mindfulness practices. It is free and only takes up 10 minutes of your day, where you listen to a series of exercises in the comfort of your own home.


Cardiff University’s Counselling, Health and Wellbeing Service also offer:

There are lots of workshops and group sessions that could help you tackle negative thoughts, such as:

  • Mindfulness course: If you are struggling doing the exercises on your own, there are mindfulness workshops throughout the year, meeting once a week for two hours. This is not just based on meditation or trying to control your thoughts, but being aware of them as they come and go. Book your place here.
  • Living Life to the Full: The aim of this course is to learn about managing negative thoughts and understanding why we feel the way that we do. If you are struggling with unhelpful thinking habits, the sessions allow you to explore your own issues as well as seeing how others are managing theirs. Read more in our blog, or book your place here.



Contacting Counselling Health and Wellbeing

If you are struggling to improve your wellbeing, please know Cardiff University Support Services are here for you – there is no problem too big or too small and we would be happy to provide you with some support. We offer a range of flexible support options including:

Bookable appointments are available via our online referral questionnaire. We also offer a Wellbeing Walk-In Service, Monday to Friday, 3pm to 3.45pm and Wednesday mornings, 9.30am to 10.15am, at the Student Support Centre at 50 Park Place.  We also hold a walk-in service at our Student Support Centre in Cardigan House at the Heath, on Wednesday afternoons 3pm to 3.45pm.

 Watch our video and see for yourself that we have friendly and approachable staff. Staff who are able to listen to you non-judgmentally, in a safe and confidential space.

If talking to a member of staff is something you are not sure about, why not chat to one of our Student Wellbeing Champions. They are trained student volunteers who can signpost you to support, offer you a peer ear and give you basic health and wellbeing advice. If you would like to see our Champions in action, check out their video.

If you are worried that you are experiencing physical symptoms that may be affecting your health, we strongly advise you to make a GP appointment to discuss this. If you do not already have a GP, please contact NHS Wales on 0845 46 47 or check out their website to view all of your GP options. The University also has its own GP Practice – Park Place Surgery for those in their catchment area.


Your feedback and help please

Have you found this blog post useful?  Please help us by commenting in the bar below, and note any questions there too.

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Best wishes,

Natalie, Student Wellbeing Champion.


Your Student Life, Supported. 

The Student Support Centre has a range of services dedicated to helping students make the most of their time at University, including:Advice & MoneyCareers & EmployabilityCounselling, Health & WellbeingDisability & Dyslexia and International Student Support.

The Student Support Centres are located at 50 Park Place, Cathays Campus and Cardigan House, Heath Park Campus.

For further details of services, events, opening times and more find us on the University Intranet.


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