Whether you’re a glass-half-empty or a glass-half-full kind of person, chances are you’ve experienced or at least observed a negative thought spiral. More than just an occasional bad day, chronic negative thinking can impact your relationships, personal wellbeing and health.
What is negative thinking?
You may have noticed that your inner critic has a lot to say. Perhaps you’ve felt ashamed of your body while walking on the beach in your swimsuit or told yourself that you don’t deserve the promotion you were passed over for.
Negative thinking, or negative self-talk, can be like a running inner commentary that reinforces itself over time and ultimately erodes your self-confidence. Negative thoughts can show up in several forms, called cognitive distortions, and include:
Magnifying the negative: Sometimes people place all of their focus on–and even magnify–any negative aspects of a situation while filtering out the positive.
Example: You say to yourself, “I didn’t get the job I interviewed for so I must be incapable.” The truth is, you have no idea why you didn’t get the job, and there are a million possibilities. The fact that you were chosen for an interview shows that the company valued your experience. In addition, your self-worth is not defined by this experience.
Discounting the positive: On the flip side, you may tend to block out anything positive in your life, making you feel inadequate or unseen.
Example: You received 20 feedback forms on a presentation you gave and two were negative while the other 18 were glowingly positive. Instead of focusing on the praise you got and taking any feedback as potential constructive information for your professional growth, you tell yourself your presentation was not good enough.
“Should”-thinking: When a person gets trapped with their “should” and “must” thinking, this can backfire and lead to a negative thinking cascade.
Example: Your friends are all married and you’re still single. You panic and say to yourself, “I should have been married by now, but I’m not. It’s because I’m unlovable.” However, this ignores the fact that there is no fixed benchmark for anyone’s relationships, and your friends and family are proof that you are lovable.
Overgeneralizing: This is when a person takes a single bad event as proof of a never-ending pattern of negativity. Keep an eye out for the words “always” and “never.”
Example: You go on a bad date or someone you hit it off with doesn’t call you back, and you say to yourself, “I’m never going to find someone who likes me,” or “I’m always going to be alone.” In an extreme case, you may label yourself as a loser or a person who is unworthy of love. In reality, that person wasn’t a good fit for you or the timing was not right.
All-or-nothing thinking: You view the world in binary terms, with everything being either good or bad, and you can’t deal with the murky middle where almost everything exists.
Example: You’ve started a new eating plan and in a fog of craving, have something off of your program. You think of yourself as a failure. In truth, you’ve stuck with your plan for as long as you could. You can get back on it if that feels healthy and realistic, or you can adjust it to something more lenient.
Jumping to conclusions: Some people make negative interpretations even when there is no evidence to support their line of thinking.
Example: You might arbitrarily decide that you can read another person’s mind and conclude that they feel negatively towards you. Alternatively, with no facts to back you up, you anticipate that things are going to turn out badly or fall apart.
Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of a negative event that in reality, you were not responsible for.
Example: Your sibling tells you that they feel sad and lonely. Your first reaction might be that you haven’t called them enough and therefore you caused them to feel bad. The truth is, they’re going through their own emotional process and coming to you as a trusted person to support them.
Emotional Reasoning: It’s possible to confuse your feelings with the way things actually are. So when you’re feeling a negative emotion, you may take that as proof of something negative about yourself or the world around you.
Example: You feel sad because you think of yourself as unattractive and take that feeling as proof that you are a hideous monster who doesn’t deserve love or respect. In reality, your appearance doesn’t dictate your worth. Furthermore, everyone is uniquely beautiful as they are.
Negative thinking and your health
While a negative thought can be a valuable signal, research points towards the harmful effects of chronic negative thinking on your health. This may be due to the negativity depleting your capacity to cope with stress, which in turn can impact your health. Another theory is that negative thinking can interfere with your desire to engage in activities that are good for you, such as exercise and connecting with friends.
How to stop negative thinking
While having a negative thought is not inherently bad, it’s important to keep an eye out for patterns that can feed into anxiety, depression or other health issues. This doesn’t mean that you should repress your thoughts or feelings. That will only make them grow stronger and come out in unexpected, uncontrollable or even unrelated outbursts. On the contrary, interfering with your negative thinking patterns is about looking at them head-on, seeing them for what they are, and potentially exploring alternative perspectives.
Once you start to notice your negative thoughts as they arise, you’ll see that many of them are automatic and often unquestioned or even not fully registered in your conscious mind. These feed into the stories that you tell yourself about who you are and how the world is. When you bring these negative thoughts to light, you can see for yourself whether they are beliefs that you truly buy into or not.
Below are 7 techniques that you can start practicing today to cope with negative thinking.
Begin to notice when your negative thinking comes out the most. Is it related to your relationship, friends, work, school, your body image, your intelligence? Take note so that when you’re in a trigger situation, you’ll be ready to address your negative thoughts. In addition, you can also explore alternative lines of thinking with your friends or in therapy.
Pause and notice
Throughout the day, it’s important to pause and evaluate what’s going through your mind. One way of doing this is to practice mindfulness by paying attention to your thoughts and feelings without judging them. You can also use a thought record, which is a technique used in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to keep track of the automatic thoughts that go through your mind throughout the day. This exercise will prompt you to notice how those thoughts make you feel and consider how you can replace them.
Writing in your journal is a great, low-pressure way to explore your negative self-talk and try out replacement thoughts. Aim to write 2-3 times per week. If you’re not sure how to start, try writing out any negative or unhelpful thoughts that you currently notice or can remember from the day. Choose one or two of those thoughts and answer the following questions.
Take care of yourself
When you don’t sleep enough or your eating isn’t balanced, it’s almost a given that you’ll wind up feeling bad. With lower energy stores, it’s also harder to confront your negative thinking patterns and recognize alternative points of view. Do the things that make you feel invigorated, such as sleeping 7-9 hours each night, exercising, connecting with your community and eating nourishing foods. These are key areas for health. When you skip out on basic self-care, pay attention to how it impacts you.
Whether it’s through humor, gratitude, awe or something else, make space in your life for as much joy as you can fit into it. This can be as simple as laughing with a friend or noticing how the light changes on your walk. Joy doesn’t have to be big to be impactful.
Practice compassionate self-talk
Here’s an experiment for you to try: not saying anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to your best friend. If you’re feeling down, give yourself encouragement. If you’re embarrassed, guilty or ashamed, be gentle and kind with yourself. Know that these feelings will pass, and that they are part of being human. Remember, you are enough just as you are.
Your online therapist will work with you to create a space of self-compassion. They can also help you identify and challenge your negative thoughts through a process called cognitive restructuring, and guide you in considering alternative perspectives.
Overcoming harmful patterns
While it is possible to shift negative thinking patterns, remember that big changes usually don’t happen overnight. Be patient with yourself and remember that changing a deep-seated habit is going to take time and practice.
Kate Dubé is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and mental health writer trained at UC Berkeley and UCSF. She specializes in creating a therapeutic space to work through daily stressors, anxiety, depression, trauma, relationship issues and life transitions, including parenthood. Kate incorporates her clinical expertise to create well-researched, accessible content on topics ranging from the individual to the systemic. When you-or a loved one-is struggling with a mental health issue, you can rely on her for evidence-based, empathetic, and useful information.Read more