How to Get Rid of Negative Thoughts

Four Parts:Identifying and Challenging Your Negative ThoughtsLearning Positive Thinking SkillsAdopting Long-Term Coping StrategiesManaging Stress, Worries, and Fears

You may be surprised to learn it is normal to experience negative thoughts – in fact, they are part of our evolutionary make-up. We are programmed to scan our environment, searching for problems to fix, and that requires spending a significant amount of mental energy considering what-if or worst-case scenarios. Negative thoughts become a problem, however, when we start to believe they are true.[1] Fortunately, a variety of tactics can help you quell negative thoughts and learn how to think more positively.

Part 1
Identifying and Challenging Your Negative Thoughts

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    Identify your negative thoughts. Examine negative thoughts and worries by considering what types of cognitive distortions might be involved – in other words, determine what type of partial- or non-truth your mind might be telling you. Cognitive distortions might include:[2]
    • All-or-nothing thinking: Black-and-white statements that lack any middle ground. You are either good or bad, wrong or right, and there is no complexity or in-between.[3]
    • Overgeneralization: Taking one negative experience and making it a hard-and-fast "rule." These thoughts often include the phrases "You always...", "I never...", or "Everyone..."[4]
    • Mental filtering: Filtering out all the positive elements of a situation and leaving only the negatives. Maybe you went on a fantastic date, but all you can focus on is that one awkward silence at the beginning of the night.[5]
    • Jumping to conclusions: Drawing negative conclusions without a reasonable foundation of evidence, such as assuming we know what others are thinking or what will happen in the future.[6]
    • Catastrophizing: fixating upon worst-case scenarios and blowing small problems out of proportion.[7]
    • Emotional reasoning: Believing that the way you feel right now reflects objective reality. If you feel poorly, then the current situation must be very bad.[8]
    • "Shoulds" and "should-nots": Holding yourself to a strict set of (often arbitrary) rules and creating unrealistic expectations of what you should and should not do.[9]
    • Labeling: Labeling yourself or others based upon perceived shortcomings, even if we have much evidence to the contrary.[10]
    • Personalization: Adopting personal responsibility for circumstances outside your control. If the party you planned is rained out despite the sunny forecast, you blame yourself for the bad weather.[11]
    • Magnification and minimization: You minimize your positive attributes while idealizing others. When someone gives you a compliment, you explain it away.[12]
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    Record your negative thoughts. Create a "thought diary" just for this purpose. When you have a negative thought, turn to a clean page and follow these steps:[13]
    • Write down the activating event, which could be a thought, event, or situation.[14] An example would be: "I had a big fight with my partner before work this morning."
    • Write down the negative thoughts or beliefs that occurred during and after the activating event. Ask yourself: "What was I thinking?" "What was I saying to myself?" and "What was going through my head at the time?"[15] An example might be: "I've blown it. That's the end of the relationship. He's tired of putting up with me and doesn't love me anymore and he's going to leave me."
    • Write down words describing how you feel and underline the one most associated with the activating event.[16] For example, "Afraid, Lonely, Hurt." With "Afraid" underlined.
    • Examine what you've written and see if you notice any unhelpful thinking styles you might have used.[17] For example, "Catastrophizing, jumping to conclusions, black and white thinking."
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    Test the truth of the thought. Make two columns under the negative thought: one to list evidence for your negative thought, one for evidence against your negative thought.[18] Filling in these columns will allow you to see whether there is any truth to your negative thought.
    • Continuing the example of fighting with your partner, the "Evidence for" column might say: "He got really angry and red in the face and stormed out of the house. He didn't call me during his lunch break like he usually does."
    • The "Evidence against" column might say: "We've fought before, worse than this, and we can always talk it out. He has told me that he takes a while to cool down after getting angry, but when he's calmed down he's rational and willing to compromise. He told me earlier this week he has meetings all day today and won't be able to call me during lunch. He has said many times that he's committed to making our marriage work, no matter what. Fighting is unusual for us," etc.
    • This process helps you look at your thoughts objectively. You analyze, assess, and evaluate your thoughts to see if they have any basis in truth, instead of accepting them without question.[19]
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    Challenge the the negative thought. Ask yourself the following questions about the negative thought and record your answers in your thought journal:[20]
    • How else might I view the situation?
    • If I were not feeling this way, how would I view the situation?
    • Realistically, what is the likelihood of that happening?
    • How might someone else view the situation?
    • Does it really help me to think this way?
    • What are some helpful self-statements?

Part 2
Learning Positive Thinking Skills

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    Make a daily gratitude list. Think of five large or small things for which you feel grateful,[21] from the roof over your head, to the smile from the stranger on the bus, to the incredible sunset you saw last night. Expressing gratitude can lead to positive feelings, optimism, and connectedness.[22][23]
    • Other ways to express gratitude include writing someone a thank you note, telling a partner that you appreciate him or her, or even just thanking someone mentally.[24]
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    Make a list of your positive attributes. You may struggle at first, but once you get going, you might surprise yourself with how long your list becomes. Include physical attributes ("My strong runner's legs"), aspects of your personality ("I'm compassionate and kind"), things you're good at ("I'm really good at painting"), and so on.
    • If you have trouble with your list, ask trusted friends and family members what they like best about you.
    • Keep your list where it is easily accessible, like in the drawer of your bedside table, taped near the mirror in your bedroom, or in your diary. Refer to it when you're feeling bogged down by negative thoughts.
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    Reframe your negative thoughts. When negative thoughts pop up, don't automatically believe this pessimistic, critical, and unhelpful self-talk. Isolate the negative thought (such as "I bombed that test") and reframe it so that it is positive, supportive and encouraging ("It's too early to tell. I probably did better than I think.")[25]
    • As you begin consciously and deliberately interrupting your negative thoughts and reframing them in a positive way, it will become easier for you to see things in a positive light.[26]
    • Remember that events don't cause emotions – events first trigger thoughts, which then produce your feelings.[27] If you can train yourself to start responding with positive thoughts, it is more likely you will then experience positive or neutral emotions.[28]
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    Surround yourself with positive people. Studies show that humans take on some of the characteristics of those around them. While you will not always be able to avoid negative people, take what steps you can to minimize their presence in your life. Upbeat, optimistic people will model behavior you can emulate.[29]

Part 3
Adopting Long-Term Coping Strategies

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    Establish a "worry period." Set aside a specific time and place each day during which you'll allow yourself to worry. Make sure you select a window of time early enough that you won't make yourself anxious just before bedtime.[30]
    • Postpone daily worries with the intention of focusing upon them during your "worry period." If a negative thought surfaces, make a quick note and save it for later.
    • Spend your "worry period" going over the list you've compiled. If the thought is no longer relevant or worrisome, cross it off your list. You will likely find that many of your earlier negative thoughts have subsided and no longer pose concerns, and you don't need to worry about them at all.[31]
    • If something is still bothering you, allow yourself to worry – but only for the window of time you've set aside.[32]
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    Accept uncertainty. You cannot be absolutely certain about everything in life, but many people struggle when dealing with situations in which there is great uncertainty.[33] Recognize that thinking about what could go wrong does not make life any more predictable, nor does it actually make you more prepared – you spend time worrying about what might happen instead of actually taking action.[34] It will take time to be okay with uncertainty, so practice the following:
    • When you notice you are paralyzed by uncertainty, acknowledge that you are having difficulty accepting you don't know what is going to happen.[35]
    • Don't respond to the feeling (don't "chase it down the path" of worry). Instead turn your mind away from the future (which is uncertain) and toward the present.[36] Use mindfulness to bring yourself into the present moment, focusing on your breathing and noticing how different parts of your body feel.[37]
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    Seek opportunities for growth. Research ways to build upon your interests and substitute a positive narrative for the negative thoughts you've told yourself in the past. Develop a new skill or hobby. Give yourself permission to learn, recognizing that learning involves mistakes – and that's okay!
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    Use problem-solving to identify solution-oriented actions. Tackling your negative thoughts with problem-solving means you try to reduce or remove the source of your stress.[38] So if you are unemployed and the negative thought is, "I'll never find another job," you can use problem-solving to determine a solution. Since your negative though arises from your unemployment, you can say to yourself: "I found a job before I was laid off off. The only way I can find another one is if I put myself out there and start looking."
    • Write down things you can do to start solving the problem, such as searching for jobs online, making cold calls, asking friends, and looking at the classified ads in the newspaper. Then start doing them!
    • When the negative thought arises, remind yourself that you have an action plan and you are working on a solution.

Part 4
Managing Stress, Worries, and Fears

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    Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a form of meditation that calls attention to the present moment – the smells, the sounds, body sensations, and your thoughts and emotions – and asks you to experience them without judgement.[39] You don't try to fight your negative thoughts, but you do not engage them, either. You acknowledge their existence (try naming them – "anger," "fear," etc.) and try not to react or judge.[40][41]
    • The benefits of mindfulness include reduced rumination (dwelling on negative thoughts), reduced stress, and improved cognitive flexibility, making it easier for you to break out of old thought patterns.[42]
    • Mindfulness will help you focus less on the "what-if's" of the future and "should-haves" of the past, and instead engage you in the present moment so you can fully participate in your life.[43]
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    Try progressive muscle relaxation. Your negative thoughts may fill you with such anxiety that you walk around with your body tensed and don't even realize it. Learning to relax your muscles will help you feel the difference between your relaxed muscle and tense muscle, which can help you identify when you are becoming anxious and tense during the day.[44]
    • Progressive muscle relaxation can help you lower overall tension and stress, improve sleep, and reduce stomachaches and headaches related to anxiety.[45]
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    Use deep breathing techniques to combat stress. You can change your physical and emotional response to stress by practicing focused breathing.[46] This is an easy technique for adults and kids alike, and can take as little as six seconds to halt your stress response.[47]
    • When you begin to feel stressed, start by closing your eyes and relaxing your shoulders.[48]
    • Imagine holes in the bottoms of your feet. Take a deep breath in and imagine hot air entering your body through the holes and flowing upwards to fill your lungs. Relax each muscle as you imagine the air passing through – your calves, thighs, stomach, etc.[49]
    • Exhale and reverse the visualization, imagining the air flowing back out of your body and exiting through the holes in your feet.[50]
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    Have a warm beverage. This can be an especially effective short-term tactic if your negative thoughts are related to loneliness. Researchers have found that physical warmth can help serve as a substitute for emotional warmth.[51] Don't let warm drinks become a substitute for human interaction, but if you need a quick pick-me-up a cup of tea might be quite helpful.
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    Use what you have learned. When you experience fear, stress, or negative thoughts, return to method one and do the work in your thought diary. Identify the unhelpful thinking style, test the verity of the thought, and challenge what it's telling you. Negative thoughts don't just stop – everyone has them, and you can't control what might randomly pop into your head. But addressing and challenging these thoughts, as well as practicing mindfulness and other coping strategies, will allow you to see that they are just thoughts, not truths, and dismiss them so you can go about your day.

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Categories: Thinking Skills