Negative Thoughts: How to Stop Them
Negative thinking can contribute to problems such as social anxiety, depression, stress, and low self-esteem. The key to changing your negative thoughts is to understand how you think now (and the problems that result), then use strategies to change these thoughts or make them have less of an effect.
“Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all linked, so our thoughts impact how we feel and act. So, although we all have unhelpful thoughts from time to time, it’s important to know what to do when they appear so we don’t let them change the course of our day,” explains Rachel Goldman, PhD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine.
Therapy can often be helpful for changing negative thoughts, but you can also learn how to change your thought patterns. This article discusses some of the steps you can take to change your negative thoughts.
Practice Mindfulness and Self-Awareness
Mindfulness has its roots in meditation. It is the practice of detaching yourself from your thoughts and emotions and viewing them as an outside observer. Practicing mindfulness can help you become more conscious of your thoughts and build greater self-awareness.
Mindfulness sets out to change your relationship to your thoughts.1 Try viewing your thoughts and feelings as objects floating past you that you can stop and observe or let pass you by.
The objective of mindfulness is to gain control of your emotional reactions to situations by allowing the thinking part of your brain to take over. It’s been theorized that the practice of mindfulness may facilitate the ability to use thoughts more adaptively.
One study found that people who engaged in a mindfulness practice experienced fewer negative thoughts after exposure to negative imagery, suggesting that mindfulness may lessen the impact of negative thinking.
Identify Your Negative Thoughts
As you observe your thoughts, work on identifying and labeling cognitive distortions and negativity.
For example, if you tend to view yourself as a complete success or failure in every situation, then you are engaging in “black-and-white” thinking. Other negative thinking patterns include:
- Jumping to conclusions: This distortion involves making assumptions about what others are thinking or making negative assumptions about how events will turn out.
- Catastrophizing: This pattern of negative thinking is characterized by always assuming that the worst possible outcome will happen without considering more likely and realistic possibilities.
- Overgeneralization: This pattern is marked by a tendency to apply what happened in one experience to all future experiences. This can make negative experiences seem unavoidable and contribute to feelings of anxiety.
- Labeling: When people label themselves in a negative way, it affects how they feel about themselves in different contexts. Someone who labels themselves as “bad at math,” for example, will often feel negative about activities that involve that skill.
- “Should” statements: Thinking marked by “should” statements contribute to a negative perspective by only thinking in terms of what you “ought” to be doing. Such statements are often unrealistic and cause people to feel defeated and pessimistic about their ability to succeed.
- Emotional reasoning: This involves assuming that something is true based on your emotional response to it. For example, if you are feeling nervous, emotional reasoning would lead you to conclude that you must be in danger. This can escalate negative feelings and increase anxiety.
- Personalization and blame: This thought pattern involves taking things personally, even when they are not personal. It often leads people to blame themselves for things they have no control over.
Unhelpful thinking patterns differ in subtle ways. But they all involve distortions of reality and irrational ways of looking at situations and people.
Goldman suggests that this step is all about identifying and labeling negative thoughts. “Now that you have observed the thought, you can identify it as an unhelpful thought (perhaps we’ve even identified it as an all-or-nothing thought, or another type of cognitive distortion). Just observe it and label it,” she suggests.
She also suggests pausing to accept the thought for what it is. Remind yourself that it’s just a thought and not a fact.
There are many different types of cognitive distortions that contribute to negative thinking. Learning more about these distortions and remembering that thoughts are not facts may help lessen the power of these negative thinking patterns.
Replace Negative Thoughts
One of the basic parts of a treatment plan involving cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is cognitive restructuring. This process helps you to identify and change negative thoughts into more helpful and adaptive responses.
Whether done in therapy or on your own, cognitive restructuring involves a step-by-step process whereby negative thoughts are identified, evaluated for accuracy, and then replaced.
Goldman suggests examining the evidence that either supports or contradicts the thought. Doing this can help you challenge negative thinking and explore alternatives that are more helpful and realistic.
Although it is difficult to think with this new style at first, over time and with practice, positive and rational thoughts will come more naturally. Cognitive restructuring can help you challenge your thoughts by taking you through steps including:
- Asking yourself if the thought is realistic.
- Think of what happened in the past in similar situations and evaluate if your thoughts are on course with what took place.
- Actively challenge the thought and look for alternative explanations.
- Think of what you’d gain versus what you’d lose by continuing to believe the thought.
- Recognize if your thought is actually a result of a cognitive distortion, such as catastrophizing.
- Consider what you’d tell a friend having the same thoughts.
Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests trying to focus on the positive to help combat the negative thought patterns associated with depression. Ask yourself, is there any good to come out of your current situation?
However, Goldman recommends not replacing negative thoughts with overly positive ones. If the replacement thoughts are not realistic, they won’t be helpful.
Goldman suggests that if you find yourself thinking thoughts like “I am a failure”/”I am going to fail,” you shouldn’t replace it with something like “I know I am going to succeed.”
“You instead would want to replace it with something more neutral, which is also showing some self-compassion, like ‘I don’t know if I am going to be able to do it, but I am trying my best,'” she suggests.
One study found that a single cognitive restructuring intervention helped people reduce negative thoughts and biases that play a role in contributing to anxiety.
Avoid Thought Stopping
Thought stopping is the opposite of mindfulness. It is the act of being on the lookout for negative thoughts and insisting that they be eliminated.
The problem with thought stopping is that the more you try to stop your negative thoughts, the more they will surface. This is known as thought rebounding. Mindfulness is preferable because it gives less weight to your thoughts and reduces the impact they have on you.
Experts believe that the thought rebounding that takes place after trying to stop negative thoughts is much more damaging.6 Instead, psychologists generally recommend finding ways to deal with the negative thoughts more directly.
Thought stopping might seem to help in the short term, but over time, it leads to more anxiety.
Practice Coping With Criticism
In addition to cognitive restructuring, another aspect of CBT that is sometimes helpful for those with social anxiety involves something known as the “assertive defense of the self.”7
Since it is possible that some of the time, people will actually be critical and judgmental toward you, it is important that you are able to cope with rejection and criticism.
This process is usually conducted in therapy with a pretend conversation between you and your therapist to build up your assertiveness skills and assertive responses to criticism. These skills are then transferred to the real world through homework assignments.
For example, if faced with criticism in real life, having a set of assertive responses prepared will help you deal with these potentially anxiety-provoking situations. What’s more, real-life encounters are welcome as a chance to put into practice this exercise, according to this method.
Some research suggests that facing potential “social mishaps” that contribute to anxiety and negative thinking can also be helpful.8 The goal of improving your ability to handle criticism and rejection is to help increase your tolerance of the distress these things may cause, which may combat your automatic negative thoughts.
Use a Thought Diary
Thought diaries, also called thought records, can be used as part of any process to change negative thinking. Thought diaries help you identify negative thinking styles and gain a better understanding of how your thoughts (and not the situations you are in) cause your emotional reactions.
Most CBT treatment plans will involve the use of a thought diary as part of regular homework assignments.
For example, a thought diary entry might break down the thought process of a person on a date, and the emotional and physical reactions that result from negative thinking patterns. By the end of the thought analysis, you can replace irrational thoughts about rejection with more helpful and positive ways of thinking.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are negative thoughts?
Negative thought includes negative beliefs you might have about yourself, situations, or others. They can affect your mood and can be present in certain mental health conditions.9 Examples are, “I’ll never be good enough,” “They must think I’m stupid for saying that,” “That situation is destined to turn out badly.”
Why do I have negative thoughts?
Negative thoughts are quite common. You might have negative thoughts because we’re more influenced by negative than positive, or have a negativity bias. It’s also possible that evolutionarily speaking, negative thinking was more conducive to survival.10 Negative thoughts could occur as a result of cognitive distortions. They can be symptoms of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.11
A Word From Verywell
If you struggle with negative thought patterns and it’s impacting your life, consider talking to a mental health professional. While it can be tough to share the thoughts you have with someone, therapists can assess your negative thinking patterns and help you create a healthier inner dialogue.
Goldman likes to remind her clients that the process of changing negative thoughts isn’t a quick fix. “This isn’t easy and it takes time, but with practice, it gets easier and you can create new automatic thoughts that work for you,” she explains.