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Avoid Thinking Errors

Updated on March 22, 2010

How can you improve your thinking in stressful situations?

Avoiding thinking errors

How you perceive events can have a big impact on your stress levels. Learning how you respond to different situations can help you assess the appropriateness of your response and look at alternative ways of thinking about situations.

Try this quick exercise to look at the way you think:

Think back to the last time you were stressed. Perhaps you had a travel delay, you had a deadline to meet, or you lost something important. Try to recall the incident. What thoughts were going through your head? Did you feel angry, either with yourself or with someone else? What did you think about the situation - was it "awful," or "terrible"? Did you feel the situation was unfair, and that things "should be better," or you hadn't been treated fairly? Did you try to avoid the situation, or think you "couldn't stand it"? How did your thoughts affect the situation? Did they help you become less stressed or did they increase your stress?1

You may be surprised at how much your thoughts affected your stress levels. Many people find that when analyzing situations like these that their thoughts actually cause more stress rather than help the problem.

So what can you do to tackle problem thoughts? Psychologists have identified a number of "thinking errors" that can can make stress worse and have found ways to challenge these.
Look at these common "thinking errors" and see if any of these apply to you.

  1. Labeling. When you "globally rate" yourself or others, as opposed to rating specific behaviors or skills. For example, because you failed your exams, you are a total failure. Or because you didn't get that promotion you are never going to get anywhere.
    Solution: Try to think about the behavior that was responsible for your failing rather than adopting global ratings of yourself. Yes, you may have failed your exam, but it is not the end of the world, and it doesn't mean you won't pass future exams. Think about the label you have given yourself. Are you really a "total failure" or "completely stupid"? Probably not. You may not have been given the job you wanted but that doesn't make you a "total failure." 
  2. Focusing on the negative/discounting the positive. Instead of keeping events in perspective, you either focus only on the negative - things are always going wrong - or discount the positive. For example, your manager is giving you positive feedback only to be nice. She doesn't really mean it.
    Solution: Start concentrating on positive aspects of your life. Learn to accept compliments at face value. Do you really think that someone is giving you praise only to be nice? It is much more likely that you deserve the praise. Try to make a point of thinking about the things that are going right rather than concentrating only on the things that are wrong. 
  3. Using double standards. You judge yourself differently from how you judge others. For example, you are much harder on yourself than you are on others, or you allow yourself mistakes that you don't let other people get away with.
    Solution: Be kind to yourself. If you are supportive of other people when they make a mistake, why be ultra-critical of yourself? If you criticize other people for making mistakes but ignore your own, is that really fair? Try to think if you are being reasonable with yourself and other people. 
  4. Mind reading. You make assumptions about what someone is thinking. For example, you're sure your colleagues think you can't do a project, or your manager didn't say hello to you this morning - so you must have done something wrong.
    Solution: Look for evidence for and against your assumptions. Ask for feedback from your friends and family about things you have done. If you genuinely believe someone doesn't like something you have done and it is bothering you, ask about it.
  5. Phoney-ism. You fear others may find out you are not the person you seem to be. For example, even though you have done well so far, one day you'll make a mistake and they'll realize how incompetent you are.  
    Solution: Think about the situation logically. The fact you have done well so far proves you are not incompetent. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time - even the person you are trying to impress.
  6. Magnifying or "awfulizing." You have a tendency to blow situations out of proportion. For example, if you miss this deadline, the outcome will be disastrous. Or if you make a mistake, you are sure to be fired.
    Solution: Try and distance yourself from the situation. Dreadful things can happen, but blowing situations out of proportion will not help your stress levels. For example, failing a test may be embarrassing and a hassle, and may mess up your plans, but it's more of an inconvenience than a terrible event.
  7. Emotional reasoning. You evaluate situations by how they make you feel. For example, flying makes you really nervous, therefore it must be dangerous. Or, she makes you really angry - she must be a nasty person.
    Solution: Thinking emotionally doesn't allow you to think logically about the situation. Although a situation may cause strong emotions, that doesn't mean it is a bad or dangerous situation.

There are many different "thinking errors", but concentrating on negative aspects of a problem does not help solve the problem or reduce your stress levels. Try to take steps to alter your pressure response thinking so you can reduce your stress levels.

There are many different "thinking errors," but concentrating on negative aspects of a problem does not help solve the problem or reduce your stress levels. Try to take steps to change your thinking when you are under pressure so you can reduce your stress levels.


  1. Reworked from Cooper C and Palmer S. Conquer your stress. CIPD publishing. 2001.


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