Having negative thoughts is more common than you’d think. Everyone experiences them now and again. But in some cases, they can seriously affect the way you see yourself and influence how you behave.
Therapy can be helpful for changing unhelpful thinking styles, but you can also learn strategies and techniques yourself to cope better.
What are negative thoughts?
‘Negative thoughts can be about yourself, the people around you and your surroundings. They may sometimes be irrational,’ explains Eräkallio. They can affect your mood, leaving you feeling sad or stressed, and can even contribute to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
We tend to dwell more on negative events than positive ones. This is called negativity bias and can also lead to unhelpful patterns of thinking.
How do I recognise when I’m having negative thoughts?
‘The first step to identifying negative thoughts is to become more aware,’ Eräkallio says. By recognising these negative thought patterns, you can pay attention to the impact they have on your emotions and behaviour and start to lessen their power.
Some of the most common negative thought examples include:
Catastrophising – assuming the worst-case scenario will happen and underestimating your ability to handle it
Overgeneralisation – drawing general conclusions by applying one experience you had to all your future experiences
Mind reading – assuming you know what someone else is thinking, without checking whether it’s true
Black and white thinking – believing things can only go one of two ways, for instance, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There are only extremes, nothing in the middle
Emotional reasoning – taking your emotions as fact
Negative filtering – focusing only on the negative without seeing any of the positive or neutral aspects
Should statements– statements you make about what you ‘must’ do or ‘should’ do, even though they’re unlikely to happen
Labelling – judging yourself or others based on one instance or experience
‘Try to think about the specific situations where negative thoughts most often appear,’ Eräkallio suggests. ‘Writing down unhelpful thoughts can help you identify negative thinking styles, view them more clearly and gain a greater perspective on how your thoughts (rather than situations) cause your emotional reactions.’
5 strategies for dealing and coping with negative thoughts
1. Challenge your thoughts
‘We usually don’t objectively examine our own thoughts – as humans, we can find this difficult. But by starting to challenge your thoughts rather than immediately accepting them, you can start to explore alternatives that are more realistic and helpful,’ Eräkallio says. So, ask yourself:
- Is this fact or an opinion?
- What evidence do I have for and against this thought?
- Can I reframe this thought?
- What is the worst-case scenario? How would I handle this?
- How realistic do I think this thought is?
Challenging thoughts can be difficult, but over time – and with practice – rational thoughts should come more naturally.
2. Label your thoughts
Research suggests that the more you try to suppress a thought, the more likely it is to resurface. This is also referred to as ‘thought rebounding’.
Rather than focusing on trying to stop your negative thoughts, try observing and objectively describing them instead.
One technique you can try is labelling your behaviour instead of labelling yourself. For instance, instead of calling yourself unintelligent, learn to label the thought: ‘I’m having a thought that I’m unintelligent.’
‘This exercise can help you stop the cycle of negative thoughts and let you practise seeing them as simply thoughts rather than something that defines you,’ says Eräkallio.
3. Notice how your thoughts affect your behaviour
Negative thought patterns may feel so overwhelming and upsetting that they can influence how you act.
‘Identify a specific situation and try writing down the thoughts you had at the time and how they made you feel. Then reflect on how these thoughts made you behave in the situation,’ suggests Eräkallio.
‘The aim is to become more aware of these internal processes and prepare us for similar situations in the future.’
4. Get moving
Exercise is a great way to reset your mindset. ‘No medication or psychological treatment has the same protective health effects on your brain, mindset and thinking as physical activity,’ explains Eräkallio.
A daily walk or run or taking up a new sport could help you change your outloo
5. Discover the benefits of mindfulness
Practising mindfulness meditation is a good way to become more conscious of your thoughts and feelings. As well as helping you focus on the present moment, mindfulness is also an effective way to silence a constant stream of thoughts, concerns and judgments. One study found that mindfulness can help regulate negative feelings and improve your emotional health.
How can a psychologist or therapist help with negative thoughts?
‘A psychologist can help you identify and become more aware of your negative thinking patterns. More importantly, they can examine and challenge your thoughts with you,’ says Eräkallio.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be effective at disrupting negative thinking patterns. CBT explores how your thoughts, feelings, physical symptoms and behaviours are interrelated and how they impact your everyday life. It can help you recognise unhelpful thinking styles so you can challenge them.
When should I speak to a therapist?
If you’re struggling with negative thoughts, see a therapist who can help and refer you for further support. It’s always a good idea to book an appointment if your negative thoughts:
- Interfere with your daily life, including work, study and relationships
- Cause you to feel anxious, stressed or depressed
- Affect your ability to concentrate
- Make it hard for you to go to sleep or to get up
This article has been medically reviewed by Livi psychologist Camilla Eräkallio.