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How to Identify Thinking Traps and What You Can Do About Them

Greg Humphries

Greg Humphries

Wednesday, 16th May 2018

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Ever spent time obsessing over how a social interaction went, or worrying that you might have offended somebody?

In the world of psychology, these are known as “thinking traps” - patterns of thought that can trap us into feeling anxious. Although thinking traps are common, people suffering with anxiety or depression are at a higher risk of experiencing them. Managing anxiety is no easy task, but finding ways to identify and control thinking traps makes a good first step. To do this, however, first it's important to understand in what forms thinking traps might arise:

Black-and-white thinking

Only theorising two possible, directly opposing conclusions.

Example: Either it’s their fault, or it’s mine.


Having fatalist, absolute responses that greatly exaggerate the severity of a situation.

Example: My leg hurts, so it’s surely broken.

Fortune telling

Over meditating on the possible outcomes of a situation and convincing oneself that one particular outcome is guaranteed.

Example: I have to deliver this presentation and I know that I’ll mess up.


Focusing on certain pieces of information and developing unreasonably general claims based upon them.

Example: Because they didn’t say hello to me today, I think everyone in the office must dislike me.

“Should” statements

Making everything (past or future) into a directive.

Example: I should never take risks because I always make mistakes.

Why do thinking traps happen?

Thinking traps can be hard to identify as “traps” at first. Because people refer to these processes as “overthinking”, thinking traps are often normalised, no matter how crippling they might be. Thinking traps aren’t just overthinking, but are actually cognitive distortions – meaning that they are thoughts which don’t accurately reflect what is going on around the individual.

These kind of negative mental loops can then positively feed back into each-other. This is to say that one thinking trap can trigger another, getting us stuck - often unknowingly - inside a vicious cycle.

Challenging thinking traps

The first step to challenging thinking traps, therefore, is to realise what's happening. Take a step back. Breathe. Slow your thoughts. Consider if your thought process is rational, or if a negative mental loop is taking shape. The internet has plenty of great resources to help with this process

The next step is to find ways to combat thinking traps before they happen. In situations where it feels like you might be heading towards over-generalisation, let’s say, think more carefully about whether that’s a reasonable conclusion to draw. Often thinking more carefully, and giving oneself mental space can be a great tool to use against thinking traps.

Find yourself stuck in a negative loop? A good therapist can help you find ways to identify and manage negative thoughts patterns so they don't take hold. Speak to one of our team to get help to find a therapist today.

Greg Humphries is an emerging novelist and journalist from Brentwood, UK who has been published in Pluralist Media and Fox & Hedgehog amongst other political magazines and websites. Having moved to New York in 2016, he is passionate about mental health advocacy. You can reach out to Greg directly on:

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