The Three-Fold Mental Test for Anxious and Depressed Thoughts

Posted on June 5, 2017

If you’ve been in my counseling office for any length of time, you’ve heard me explain the “Three-Fold Test”. For those who haven’t heard it, let me give it to you and then spend the rest of this article explaining its significance.

With any bothersome thought pattern, a three-step test will guide you to determine whether you want to spend any more time considering that thought. This test goes like this. (Note: If the thought pattern fails at any point in the test, you immediately stop and move onto a different focus for your thoughts). These are ranked in order of most common to least common. This means, most people’s bothersome thoughts will fail the first test, the second most will fail the second test, and the third most will fail the third test. Hence, this is the order you consider them.

No more explanation; here is the test.

  1. Do I have any control over this thing I am spending time thinking about? If you don’t have any control over it, change your focus to something else.
  2. If I do have control over this thing I’m thinking about, am I responsible for this thing? If you don’t have any responsibility for it, change your focus to something else.
  3. If I do have control over this, and I am at least partially responsible, do I have time right now to do anything about it? If you don’t, then schedule a time to take care of it, and move on to another focus.

For those who are wondering, I did develop this test about 15 years ago, but the concepts are not original with me. I am sure I borrowed these concepts from many sources, but I can name two very quickly if you want to study more of the background. First, I gleaned the overall concept from Dr. William Glasser, the founder of the Choice Theory/Reality Therapy school. The concept of working this through like a series of filters I got from Dr. Ed Smith, the founder of the Transformation Prayer therapy method. Read any of their books and you’ll see how their models became the basis for this test.

To show the importance of using this test frequently, I must explain some of the underlying presuppositions to strengthen your resolve to use it. There are several of these and I will try to be brief in explaining them.

First, let’s address the overall concept of choice. For roughly 50 years, psychology got mired in the idea that we are simply the product of our biology and that this prevents us from getting rid of anxiety and depression. This Behaviorist model assumed that you were “wired” a particular way and nothing could change that. Even though we describe everything else we do in life as a verb—that is, we learn, we love, we hate, we eat, we watch a movie, we travel, we hit someone, we voice our opinions, etc.—we describe our most troublesome thoughts as a noun. We don’t say “I am depressing myself”, we say “I have depression.” We don’t say “I am anxieting” we say, “I have anxiety”. We find it easier to see our depression and anxiety as things outside of us over which we have little control.

Dr. Glasser proposed in 1968 for the first time that other than a few hormonal situations and traumatic brain injury, most people choose to depress themselves. They do this for the most part to deal with anger. He also noticed people choose to anxiety, for the most part to deal with fear. His assumption was that if we can choose something, we can choose something else.

But he also noted, most of us will not. Depressing and anxieting produce things we want in our lives, even if we don’t want the results that come from depressing and anxieting. We want to worry. Yes we do. We want to anticipate what is coming so we can be ready for it or be prepared in some way. To do this, we anxiety.

Therefore, the focus of anxiety or depression is often on things we cannot control. This comes into play in a moment.

Next, it is important to know what we actually do control in life. Get ready for this list. The only things we control can be boiled down to three things:

  1. We control what we will focus on next.
  2. We control what action we will take next
  3. We control whatever other people allow us to control.

You do not control the past. We cannot change it, so we do not control it. Any time spent looking at the past with a focus on regret, shame, bitterness, revenge, blame, or fear is useless. The only focus on the past which yields results is how it affects the present. If you look back to learn or to process past beliefs, you can find good results.

You do not control the future. That is an illusion. Your planning does not control the future, it simply places you where you think you need to be. But we forget how many thousands of times we planned and we were wrong. Any time spent on worrying or depressing about the future is wasted thought.

You cannot control other people unless they allow you to. And the problem with controlling other people is that you become responsible for them. This is the basis of all co-dependency, but that’s another article.

Most people who depress themselves or anxiety themselves are convinced they cannot really control their own thoughts. But Dr. Glasser and many others in the Brain Plasticity movement (i.e. Daniel Amen, Norman Doidge, etc.) have shown in countless studies this is not true. What is true is we have convinced ourselves we cannot control our thoughts because we don’t really want to. As badly as it feels to depress ourselves, it is our choice and we are doing it for a reason. We think we can control things which we actually can’t control. The same is true with anxiety.

This is where the three-fold test comes in. Here is a short commentary on each step so you can see why they are important questions.

 

  1. “Do I have control over this thing I am spending time thinking about?” If you are thinking about the past or the future, you are putting mental energy into something which you can never change. Even if you believe you can, you cannot. Come to grips with that and leave it behind. Stop telling yourself you have no control over these thoughts. They are actually one of the only things in life you do have control over. For instance, I spent years thinking about how people reacted to some of the things I teach. When I applied this test to that thought pattern I realized I could not control their reactions, nor their attitude toward me, nor their choices for how they would treat me. Therefore, focusing for a second on how they would think about my teaching was useless. What I did control is whether what I taught was accurate and helpful. When I started to focus my thoughts on those things, I started to live more healthy.
  2. “Am I at least partially responsible for what I am spending time thinking about?” In life, there are many actions we can take to work with others. At any given moment, there are millions of things any of us can be doing. But we know deep inside we don’t have the time or energy to do more than a few things each day. Therefore, if we want our lives to matter, then we will do those things which mean the most to us. The healthiest actions we can take are ones which acknowledge and follow commitments we have made. For instance, it is proper for a parent to help a child make their lunch in the morning before school starts. This is especially true if the child doesn’t know how to do it. But as the child gets older, the parent needs to withdraw their help slowly so the child will take responsibility. On the other hand, if you are married to a drug addict, you often feel that need to worry and act in such a way as to prevent them from using. The problem is, their addiction, though it affects you, is their problem not yours. If you spend too much time focused on what you will do for them in it, you are taking responsibility for things both outside of your sphere of responsibility and control.
  3. “Can I take care of this responsibility right now?” Much worrying is done because we want to solve situations which haven’t happened yet. We don’t like to be caught off-guard, so we worry a future situation out until we have solved every possible thing which can go wrong. But we haven’t really solved anything. Think of a basketball team. They can plan how they will play the other team, but all the decisions have to be made at real speed in the game. If you have responsibilities which are coming up but haven’t happened, only focus on the principles, not the actual working out of the responsibility. All other mental effort is wasted.

 

Most people don’t think the test will work because they have chosen anxieting and depressing as solutions to their unsolvable problems. But, as I tell all my clients, if you apply this test each and every time in place of anxieting and depressing, you will take control of your thoughts again, and you will accomplish what you are setting out in life to achieve.