We’ve heard it said often enough that these are strange times and although this may have become something of a cliche, it doesn’t make it any less true. And at times when the path ahead is bumpy and difficult to navigate, we could all use a handrail to steady ourselves and guide the way forward. These thinking hacks can act as a mental handrail to bring some balance to our thoughts, help moderate intense feelings and win back some capacity for constructive thought and action.

We all strive to make sense of the world and we all have an “explanatory style” that determines how we do this. An explanatory style is simply a tendency to think about and explain the things that happen to us in certain ways.

Our personal explanatory styles can be thought of as positions on three dimensions or poles, which define the ways that we explain the world:

Permanence: “Things will always be this way; there’s no way that things can get better”

Pervasiveness: “Everything is awful; there’s nothing that isn’t going wrong”

Personalisation:  “This is so bad because of who I am; I should be able to control things better”

When we’ve developed an explanatory style such that we tend to make sense of things as permanent (stable), pervasive (global) and personal (internal) then we experience greater stress in response to a given situation. We feel at fault or lacking as a person somehow, defeated, discouraged and even hopeless. We also experience stressors as more of a threat.

In contrast, although we may still be facing very real difficulties, when we are able to acknowledge that things are open to change (unstable), are more specific or limited to only some spheres of our lives (local) and we accept the role of situational or external factors, it can reduce the stress and sense of threat that we feel.

So can we think our way out of, say, a global pandemic? Absolutely not. The take-home message is not that we should all just “think positive”. We’re going through a worldwide crisis unprecedented in our lifetimes. Whatever you’re feeling can’t be wrong and is not to be denied or suppressed. We can’t think away external reality or join in the pretence that events are the product of our thoughts to render them controllable. It’s also not about never taking responsibility for things and failing to exert control where we can. Not at all. Facing up to the reality of a situation in order to process and respond to it is a healthy psychological reaction. 

Recognising how we can fall into less helpful patterns of thinking is not about denying reality but it is about the possibility of finding some rational balance amid the confusion and uncertainty. And this, in turn, can have a positive impact on our emotional state and our functioning. So, at the present time, we could be swept up by thoughts that the world will never be right again, that every part of our lives has changed for the worse and that we are struggling to cope because we aren’t as strong and resilient as we should be. Or, we can acknowledge the enormity of the situation but hold on to the sense that it won’t be like this forever, some things are actually OK and that we are understandably affected by world events much like everybody else.

We can think about applying these insights in terms of interrogating our thoughts. That is, not to assume that our thinking is completely negative or wrong in some way but to accept and recognise that our thoughts are not reality. And, when we create this separation between thoughts and reality, we can ask questions about our thoughts to check out whether we might be missing some alternative and more balanced ways of explaining the world.

The next time you notice yourself feeling overwhelmed, threatened or ground down by things that are going on around you, try taking a mental step back and wonder to yourself if your thoughts might be following a well-worn but unhelpful groove. Just noticing these tendencies in our thinking and bringing them to our awareness can create a shift and make a difference. To take things a step further, you may even be able to catch some specific thoughts that are linked to how you’re feeling and use these ideas to interrogate them.

These are tough times but these alternative ways of seeing can offer a degree of emotional relief and provide an opportunity to focus our efforts more constructively.