The Downward Arrow technique is a common technique that therapists use particularly in cognitive behavioural therapy.

The downward arrow is an effective strategy to understand the core of a person’s fears or beliefs. The downward arrow techniques works by asking the question: “If that were true, then what?”. Let’s take an example:

Patient: If I don’t study multiple hours a day for an exam, then I will fail.

Therapist: If that were true, then what?

Patient: I would fail the course.

Therapist: If that were true, then what?

Patient: Then I would fail out of my degree.

Therapist: If that were true, then what?

Patient: Then I would not be able to find a job.

Therapist: If that were true, then what?

Patient: Then I would fail my family.

Therapist: And if that were true, then what?

Patient: I would be worthless.

Here you see the deeper source of the patient’s anxiety. It isn’t just about failing an exam; the student’s fear extends towards how this could impact their ability to find a job, affect their relationship with their family, and into a deep seeded belief of inherent worthlessness.  

Given the simplicity of this technique, the downward arrow technique can be used outside of a therapy setting by yourself.

In this article, I discuss five benefits in using the downward arrow in your everyday life.

1. Developing greater awareness

Awareness is the first step to change. When we don’t know why we are so stressed about an exam or a friend rejecting our invitation to go out, this can be a confusing and distressing experience. In turn you may have thoughts like “why am I being so sensitive?”, or “why do I have to be so stressed?”. These thoughts naturally generate even more feelings of negativity.

The downward arrow technique gives us a more accurate sense of what this situation means to us. It gives clarity to the underlying fear and beliefs that are truly associated with our distress. For example, a fear of rejection may be tied to a deep underlying fear that a person is inherently unlovable.

2. Uncovering core beliefs and identities

Outside of the general beliefs and fears, downward arrow techniques help to identify the core aspects of the self that is associated with the more superficial issues.

Typically, these beliefs fall into feelings of worthlessness, unlovability, or ineffectiveness. As we go through the downward arrow, we may see that many issues in our lives come down to a general concept of feeling worthless, for example. We begin to develop an understanding of the reasons why certain patterns in our life come about regularly.

The question is what do we do next? Sure, awareness is important. However, how do we begin to change these fears and beliefs?

3. To identify cognitive errors

We are all prone to certain thinking errors or distortions, especially during times of distress. Through the downward arrow technique, we can decide whether or not some of the thoughts are a result of certain thinking errors. Thinking errors are ways that our brain interprets certain situations in a slightly unrealistic and negative light.

For example, the idea of failing out of school because the students failed an exam. Might that be a bit of catastrophizing? Or the idea that a friend does not value you because they rejected a hangout. There could be some mind reading going on. Here’s a post on some other types of common thinking errors.

Once we have identified some of our faulty thinking patterns, we can target them through cognitive behavioural strategies.

4. To change these beliefs or demonstrate our ability to cope

Once we have clarified our thinking patterns, we can take action to decide 1) whether these thoughts are indeed true and 2) whether we can cope with the worst-case scenario.

For example, we can use thought records or behavioural experiments to test the idea whether or not a friend truly does not think we are worthwhile. Is there any evidence for the thought or against the thought? Through this process, we come up with a more balanced thought to replace a cognitive distortion.

To test our ability to cope, you might also consider what would happen if the fear came true and how you might solve the problem. For example, if you did fail an exam, what might you do to ensure that you do not fail out of school? You might find that past the anxiety you are more resilient than you think.

5. Generally becoming more reflective

When we have negative thoughts or feelings, what is truly going on? What is happening in our mind and in our body? Why do we feel a certain way from something that seems so insignificant and small?

Through engaging in this process, we become more attuned to our own selves and more reflective in our daily behaviours. We come to understand what is driving our anxieties and where we tend to go when our anxieties creep up. As a result, we become better observers of our own world and more reflective in our approach. This can be very helpful in cultivating awareness and figuring out strategies to tackle challenges that come our way.

Best wishes,