Thinking Traps

By Adam Wright, Clinical Psychologist


I’d like to try a little experiment with you.

Think about what you had for breakfast today.

Now think if you can about what you would have thought that would have led to your decision to have that food for breakfast (or to have breakfast at all).

Did you,

a). Carefully consider all available options and make a decision based on a sample of key variables (time, nutritional benefit, taste)?

b). Make a snap decision based on maybe one thing, or a feeling, or automatically choose one option for ‘no reason’


Clearly, the rational response to this decision would be a) because that is the method that will provide the maximum benefit for you.

But I strongly suspect that almost all of you would have chosen b). I’m guessing not many of you would have had a ‘rational’ reason for your breakfast choice, even if you can remember what you had. I for one had jam on toast this morning because I didn’t want Vegemite. Not very rational!


Unlike almost all animals, humans are capable of rational thought. Yet why do we often think so irrationally?


The reason why is because being rational doesn’t always suit our interests. Our brain’s main function is to handle our behaviour to keep us alive. Sometimes that means filtering through masses of information quickly and efficiently, in order to help us make a quick decision. Being entirely rational doesn’t always suit us. If you had gone through all the available breakfast options and chosen the most nutritious option, you would probably still be deciding on what to have for breakfast! Instead, we cut corners by making quick decisions based on a small number of variables – it was the fastest option, I choose what I had yesterday, it tastes the best etc.


Most often, this tendency of our brain is not a big deal, aside from making us more susceptible to advertising. But sometimes these irrational short-cuts our brain takes can set us up to feel negative emotions more strongly. Here are a few ‘thinking traps’ that can often increase our feelings of anxiety, anger and sadness:


Jumping to Conclusions or Mind-reading

This is when our brain takes a small amount of evidence and ‘jumps’ to a conclusion without considering the whole picture. It can often take the form of guessing what other people are thinking.

E.g.,  “My boss didn’t say hello to me this morning. He’s probably upset with me.”



This is seeing the worst possible scenario and ignoring the other possibilities.

E.g., “I’m definitely going to fail this test!”



When we make statements that are over-applied, ignoring individual variations.

E.g., “All the people in my class probably wouldn’t realise if I wasn’t at school today.”



When we over-attribute blame to ourselves without thinking about other factors.

E.g., “It’s probably raining because I didn’t pack my umbrella today”


Shoulding or Musting

Using ‘should’ or ‘must’ unnecessarily, placing a lot of responsibility for things on yourself.

E.g., “I should be making sure my friends are having a good time.”


Black and White Thinking

Seeing something from a ‘all or nothing’ perspective, drawing on two categories when the reality might be greyer.

E.g., “Either you’re a success or a failure!”

If you recognise any of these patterns of thinking, that’s normal. What you can do about it, is to notice it, name it, and then ask yourself what you would be thinking if you weren’t falling into that thinking trap? For example, if it wasn’t just my fault, what other factors played a part? Is the worst possible outcome I’m imagining really likely to happen?


In doing so, you’ll be taking a step back from your thoughts, which will give you a fresh perspective and a chance to think about the same thing differently.


Adam Wright is a Clinical Psychologist with an interest in helping people think differently. Find more info about him here.

Separation and the ‘T’ word: Can separation be experienced as trauma?

Davide Di Pietro
Clinical Social Worker | AMHSW

When we think of trauma, we think of events that involve threats of death or serious injury. A traumatic experience might be one of war, a serious accident, physical assault or natural disaster. In our day-to-day life we are exposed to words, stories and images of such traumatic events through the media and internet. Most people will at some stage experience firsthand a traumatic even in their lifetime, and in Australia the most common traumatic events are: 1) having someone close to you die suddenly, 2) seeing someone badly injured or killed, or unexpectedly seeing a dead body and 3) being in a life threatening car accident.

Traumatic events cause emotional distress for most people, and although most people seem to recover in the first week or two following a trauma with help from their friends and family,  for others the effects can be much longer lasting and impactful. Fiona McIlwaine and Kerry O’Sullivan (2015) shape the term trauma into two main groups, they refer to ‘Big-T’ trauma as the experiences involving actual or perceived threat to life as described above, and ‘Small-T’ which they refer to as non-life-threatening but distressing non-the-less, for example: discrimination, racism, bullying or parental separation. Although this distinction can be useful, it is important not to make the mistake of thinking that an individual’s experience of a ‘small-t’ trauma is relatively less in their effects. For children and adults alike, parental separation means redefining ‘family’, which for much of our lives is at the very core of who we are as individuals. It is therefore not too much of a stretch to consider that this experience leaves us feeling threatened, feeling traumatised.

In the past 15 years we have learned so much about the human brain, how it works and how it is affected by trauma. What we know is that one of the main ways that trauma affects a person is in the capacity to regulate emotions. After going through a traumatic or distressing experience, the brain becomes primed to react when it senses danger and can get lodged in the primitive state of the fight, flight or freeze responses. What we see when this happens is poor impulse control, that can result in a range of behaviours such as verbal abuse, physical aggression, withdrawal or dissociative responses. It is important to acknowledge that children are particularly vulnerable to experiencing trauma because their brains are not fully functioning yet.

Distressing experiences affect the whole family system. Dr Murray Bowen, a renowned family therapist believes that individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another, and he believes that we exist in a system of complex emotional and behavioural interactions. Of course then a big challenge for families going through separation is managing their own reactions and responses to difficult situations when interacting with their children and ex-partner.

The Family Clinic at the Resilience Centre is dedicated to supporting separating families through what can be a traumatic experience for adults and children. We work with adults, children and families at all stages of this adjustment. We understand that taking care of yourself is the first part of keeping safe and helping your family to co-regulate.

Practical tips for looking after yourself through separation:

  • Good communication
    • Check how you react to other people. A good portion of your communication occurs non-verbally, i.e. through your facial expression and body, tone and voice volume.
    • Be open with your friends about what you need in order to maintain your friendships. Agree not to discuss or criticise your child’s other parent.
    • Keep things business-like with the other parent. Avoid making things about each other and focus more of what your children need.
  • Look after your body
    • If you have trouble sleeping, a pre-sleep routine, often referred to as good sleep hygiene can help.
    • If you notice that you have lost your appetite, try to eat smaller portions more regularly and choose foods that you like.
  • Ask a friend to teach you how to cook if this is not a skill that you have had much practice at.
  • Talking to a professional about some of the challenges that you may experience in regards to going through separation can be helpful in providing you with information about what is usual and what to expect, as well as helping you to work towards rebuilding your sense of self and your family.



Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health (2013) Recovery after trauma: A quide for people with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. University of Melbourne..

Commonwealth of Australia (2004) What about me? Taking care of yourself. Practical ideas on looking after yourself after separation. Child Support Agency, Looking Glass Press.

McIlwaine, F., & O’Sullivan (2015) ‘Riding the Wave’: Working Systemically with traumatised families. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 36, pp. 310-324.