Taming negative thinking

Have you ever noticed how negative thoughts seem to get stuck in your head like velcro?

While sometimes you can move on from one of these thoughts, other times they really want to hang around. When there’s something you’re really worried about, or you’ve had a rough day, thoughts can take on a life of their own—spiraling out of control and wreaking havoc with your anxiety and stress levels, causing relationship woes, and making your emotions run amok.

Everyone has negative thoughts because we’re meant to have them. How long would we have survived as a species if early people saw a predator and thought, “I’m sure we’ll be fine-nothing to worry about here.” Being prepared for danger and analyzing situations is intuitive, yet for some people it’s a daily battle that is not only exhausting, but also impacts their self esteem and how they deal with their daily lives.

Whether you’re feeling like you can’t do anything right or that everything is your fault, assuming the worst is going to happen, or are just seeing the negative side of things, there are steps you can take to start getting out of your head.

Try these 8 tips for targeting unhelpful thoughts

  1. Notice your negative thoughts. Yes that’s right-notice them. If you’ve ever tried to get rid of an upsetting or worrisome thought you’ve most likely realized that while it may work temporarily, it typically pops right back up. Thoughts do not like to be ignored! When you find yourself thinking things like; “I’m not good enough”, “This is going to be terrible”, “I should know better by now”, or whatever is coming up for you, just acknowledge it. Notice the thought without focusing or dwelling on it. It’s not easy, but with practice, this first step is a big one toward learning to respond differently to negative thinking. FYI—This step and the 2 that follow are based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

  2. Label the thought. Start calling it what it is—a thought. It’s just a thought—that’s all. It’s a product of a neuron firing in your brain and just because it’s there doesn’t make it true! We often attach a lot of meaning to our thoughts, but, having a negative thought doesn’t make you a “bad”, “mean”, “weird”, “unlovable” person—it’s just a thought. Thoughts that we get stuck on are often what are called cognitive distortions, or, inaccurate ways of thinking based on our judgments, perceptions and life experiences. Some common cognitive distortions to get you started with labeling negative thoughts are:

    • Filtering—Focusing on the negative without being able to see the positive.

    • Catastrophizing—Always thinking the worst will happen.

    • All or Nothing Thinking—Seeing all things as either good or bad, right or wrong. There’s no middle ground.

    • Mind Reading—Assuming that you know what others are thinking and feeling.

  3. Check the facts and challenge that thought! Take a moment to check in with the facts about you, or about the situation to see if there’s any truth to it. For example, let’s say you start thinking that no matter what you do it’s never good enough. But—if you stop for a moment and check in with the facts, you can probably challenge the never part of that statement. Remember times when you have done a stellar job at something, felt good about yourself, or handled something in a way that you were proud of. Focusing on these facts that you have felt differently before can help shift your perspective and start to move you past the negatives.

  4. Have some compassion for yourself. We’re often our own worst critics so when you notice you’re being hard on yourself, try to think of what you would say to a friend who was having similar thoughts or judgments. Chances are that you would respond to them with kindness and support. You deserve the same treatment from yourself.

  5. Distract yourself. Getting stuck in your head can be so consuming at times that you’re not even going to think about reminding yourself to do steps 1-3. When anxiety levels soar, our frontal lobes, the part of our brain that problem solves, can actually turn off, making it impossible to pull in those thought challenging skills to use. When that happens you can try distraction by: going outside, exercising, petting your dog or cat, having a hot or cold drink, playing a game, listening to nature sounds, cleaning out a closet. It doesn’t matter what you choose to do as long as what you’re doing is lowering your anxiety to a manageable level. When you’re ready, you can go back to them, label them, and then work on challenging them.

  6. Gratitude. Start intentionally thinking about what you’re grateful for. If you’ve had a hard day at work, or your kids have been especially challenging, it’s likely that your thoughts are going to be focused on what went wrong, instead of what went right. Shift your thinking to what went well that day—no matter how small it may seem. You can try keeping a gratitude journal to record 2-3 things that you’re grateful for. It’s a great way to start noticing that there’s usually some good mixed in with everything else that happens during the day. You can also do a gratitude journal by taking pictures of things you appreciate.

  7. Positive/Inspirational Quotes. When you find a quote that really resonates with you, jot it down on a post-it and stick it up where you can see it, or put it in your phone in a list so that you can access it when those troublesome thoughts get going.

  8. Spend time with supportive people. The people we spend time with can have a huge impact on our thoughts and how we feel about ourselves and others. Take stock of how spending time with certain people makes you feel. If you get off the phone with a friend and are really stressed out, or notice that you’re aggravated whenever you’re around a particular person, it may be time to start exploring ways to set more limits with those folks, and to spend time with people that you feel good being around. Sometimes we’re so nice to others that we forget to think about ourselves and what works best for us.

Give these skills a try and let me know what you think!

If you want to learn more about coping skills for anxiety, or to schedule a free 15 minute phone consultation, please feel free to reach out to me at joan@joan-dawson.com, or call me at (732) 649-8112. I provide psychotherapy in my Hillsborough, NJ office and online anywhere in NJ for anxiety and stress, relationship issues and working through trauma.