Reduce Your Stress at Work by Catching These 10 Thinking Traps

August 09, 2017 6 min read
Reduce Your Stress at Work by Catching These 10 Thinking Traps

Sometimes the way we choose to think about something can have a tremendous impact on the way that thing affects us. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) suggests that our emotions and behaviors can be influenced by our thoughts.


There are common tendencies we can learn to control to improve our mental strength.

We’ve all had days at work when we were pushed to our limits. Tightening budgets, shorter deadlines and increased expectations from our managers add up over time and could cause even the strongest amongst us to crack.

But why is it that some people are more resistant to ‘cracking’ than others?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) might have an explanation for that. CBT revolves around the concept that our emotions and behaviors are derived from our thoughts. There are sources from around the world and across different cultures mentioning this concept. Here are a few of them:

“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” - Henry Ford

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” - William Shakespeare

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything, what you think you become” - Buddha

Whenever something happens at work it brings about conscious and subconscious reactions. These thoughts trigger various emotions inside of us, leading us to act in a certain way.

For example: my friend Alice was told to give a presentation to 50 employees about a marketing campaign she had been running for the past 2 weeks, and she was only given 3 hours to prepare. Her first thoughts about it were “I just took over this campaign 2 weeks ago! I have nothing to present! Everyone is going to think I am bad at my job... This must be their plan to make me look bad. There’s no way I can pull this off!” This triggered a panic attack in Alice. Her heart is racing, her mind repeatedly plays out the worst case scenario of the upcoming presentation and she breaks into a sweat. She then decides to make up an excuse to leave work early in order to avoid the presentation.

What Alice doesn’t realize is that she has fallen into what are known as thinking traps. These traps cause us to perceive a situation as far worse than it actually is, and make us feel stressed. The ‘mentally strong’ amongst us are the ones who can identify these traps and pull themselves out of it. Some of them have even figured out how to avoid falling into one in the first place!

reduce your stress at work with cognitive behavioral therapy

Common thinking traps we all fall into

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches you how to identify these traps and take action against them. Below are 10 common traps with examples that illustrate them in the context of Alice's situation. Think about whether you have fallen into these traps before because it can help to reduce your stress at work in future:

1. Mental filter
Seeing only the negative side of things. E.g. Alice only thought about the negative side of the presentation. It could have been a good opportunity to showcase her work!

2. Black and White Thinking
Thinking that something or someone is either completely good or completely bad, neglecting the nuanced natures of many situations. E.g. Alice might think that her manager is a horrible person for giving her the assignment, but her manager could very well have given her the presentation as an opportunity to showcase the fine work she has been doing for the last 2 weeks.

3. Should / Must Statements
Telling ourselves that something should / must happen, or someone should / must do something. It might give us an unrealistic expectation of reality. E.g. Alice thinks that the presentation must be of excellent quality when all her manager expected could be a simple summary of what she has done.

4. Mountains and Molehills
Exaggerating facts. E.g. Alice thinks that she has nothing to present, when actually she could have shown her colleagues some interesting points about the campaign despite her short exposure to it. After all, not everyone is focused on the campaign daily.

5. Emotional Reasoning
Thinking that something must be bad just because we feel bad about it. E.g. Just because Alice notices that she is anxious about the presentation, she thinks that it must be a bad idea and decides to avoid it entirely.

6. Compare and Despair
Making comparisons with the positive elements of other people’s lives. E.g. Alice wonders why her colleague in the same department does not have to give similar presentations, causing her to feel like she’s on the losing end.

7. Mind Reading
Believing that you know what the other party is thinking. E.g. Alice thinks that the presentation is a set up by her manager to make her look bad.

8. Catastrophizing
Imagining that the worst possible outcome will happen. E.g. Alice only imagines the worst case scenario, causing her to break down.

9. Prediction
Assuming you know what will happen in the future. E.g. Alice thinks that there is no way she can pull off the presentation, and think that she will definitely fail to come up with a presentation.

10. Self Criticism
Constantly telling yourself that you are bad. E.g. Alice might leave work thinking that she is a failure who is unable to rise up to the occasion. This might lead to further self criticism and trigger a downward spiral.

reduce your stress

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

I can personally testify that learning to identify your thoughts and control your emotions is an astronomical feat. But hey, nothing good is ever easy right?

The first step to becoming stronger mentally is to catch yourself falling into these thinking traps. The next time you find yourself feeling stressed/ anxious/ angry about work, stop for a breather and go through your thoughts again. Look for these thinking traps and address them. Trust me it gets better!

See this article for more anxiety and stress management tips.

Take note however, that a person’s mental strength can vary according to different aspects of life. For example, I’m pretty good at controlling my thoughts about situations at work, but when it comes to romantic relationships I can sometimes fall very deep into thinking traps (but I’ll survive :D).

There have been times when I am so fixated on my thoughts that I can’t bring myself to see things in a different way. During these situations it might help to speak to a friend about it. Sometimes just vocalizing something gives us better clarity.

Speaking to a therapist can be more effective than talking to friends and family because of the non-judgmental and safe environment that therapy provides.

No matter what stage you are in, it always helps to have someone coaching you.

That’s the role of a psychotherapist/ counselor/ life coach. They can teach you various techniques to help you become more self aware, and help you come up with actionable strategies to alter your thought processes. If you wish to learn more from experts, feel free to message a therapist on RingMD (use the button below) and ask them how they can help. You can talk to them in privacy and book an appointment with them effortlessly.

Regardless of what you choose to do, I want to share with you a final phrase that has deeply impacted my life, I hope it helps you too:

"When you look outside of yourself, your problems become smaller"


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