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4 Steps to Overcome Negative Thoughts

It takes time to overcome negative thoughts, but these 4 helpful techniques can help train your brain to interrupt cycles of negative thinking.

Note: This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical conditions and is not a substitute for consulting with your personal healthcare professionals.

Have you ever tried driving a car on a narrow dirt road with deep ruts? Your tires seem magnetically drawn to the grooves. The car slips in again and again. And especially if it’s muddy or slippery, it can seem almost impossible to climb out of those trenches and get back on level ground.

Our experiences with negative thoughts can be similar. We can create this mental struggle where we’re telling ourselves, I shouldn’t think XYZ, but we keep slipping into negative thinking patterns.

We imagine the worst possible outcome of a situation. We rehash old conversations. Our inner critic gets loud and obnoxious. And if something else is off in our lives—we’re tired, stressed, sick, or struggling with mental health conditions—it can feel very difficult to climb out of these cycles.

But it’s not impossible. And there are a few small steps you can take right now that over time can make a big difference with persistent negative thoughts.

What is Negative Thinking?

Negative thinking is a series of nagging thought patterns that are both repetitive and unhelpful.

Mindfulness.com teacher Melli O’Brien describes it like this: These patterns directly cause unwanted or unpleasant emotions and can contribute to anxiety, depression, stress, fear, unworthiness, low self-esteem, and even panic attacks.

It’s very normal (as we’ll see) to have the occasional negative thought. This is, in fact, an evolutionary survival mechanism. Ongoing negative thinking, however, is characterized by its persistence and the difficulty we have moving out of a space of anxiety, rumination, or catastrophizing.

For Tough Times

Cory Muscara

Helping With Negative Thoughts

Meditation · 5 mins

Where Do Negative Thoughts Come From?

We’re actually hardwired to notice the “negative.” Our ancestors survived in relentlessly harsh conditions, surrounded by constant threats to their existence. They had to be able to quickly recognize and respond to danger in order to live another day. In this sense, the “negative” thoughts were genuinely helpful.

This programming, known as negativity bias, is still lodged deeply in our brains—even though the types and frequency of threats are greatly diminished for most of us.

What this means in our daily life is that we can easily tend to latch onto negative experiences or feedback and not even notice the many positive things directly around us. We can be hypersensitive to criticism or feel threatened by simple disagreement. We can marinate in negative emotions, self-criticism, and unhelpful thoughts that leave us feeling isolated, fearful, stressed out, and overwhelmed.

You may notice that these Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) can also feel like an inner voice or chatter, sometimes referred to as our inner critic, like our own mind “talking” to us—which is an experience that seems to be uniquely human.

As we’ll discuss later, one of the first steps to overcoming negative thoughts is simply noticing how often we assume that this inner chatter is always telling the truth, when in fact, it’s often operating on distorted perceptions.

What Are Different Types of Negative Thoughts?

We can start to notice that negative thinking comes in a few varieties:

  1. Ruminating on the past—the inability to “let go” of something unpleasant, painful, embarrassing, or disappointing that happened.
  2. Worrying about the future—catastrophizing and imagining the worst possible outcome in a given situation.
  3. Feeling anxious about a present situation—overestimating the levels of threat, risk, or danger around us in the moment.
  4. Toxic internal dialogues (this is the inner critic)—self-excoriating thoughts like You’re not good enough. Nobody likes you. You’re all alone. You’ll never be able to do that. You always screw everything up.
  5. Fixating on problems and attentional blindness to the positive—hyper-focus on what’s wrong, what you don’t like, and what isn’t working, to the point where you can’t recognize what is working and what might be possible.

When you learn to recognize the various types of negative thinking, you can start to identify patterns in your own life. Is there a particular kind of automatic negative thought that tends to surface when you’re under stress or that you regularly struggle with?

As with so many kinds of mental struggle, simply noticing what’s happening—without judgment—is the first step in transforming our experience.

How Can We Overcome Negative Thinking?

Since negativity bias is so strongly wired in our brains, it can be difficult to know how to overcome negative thoughts. It takes time to recondition the mind to respond in a different way. It’s not like flipping a switch. But with the right tools and a little patience, you can start to feel a difference right away.

Here are 4 proven techniques that have helped millions of people get free from the tyranny of constant negative thinking.

1. Practice mindfulness to get “unhooked” from your thoughts.

Lots of people assume that overcoming negative thinking means stopping negative thoughts. This can lead to even more stress, because our thoughts often arise unconsciously. How can you stop what’s happening before you’re even aware that it’s happening? You can’t.

So the goal isn’t to stop negative thoughts. Rather, it’s to recognize a thought as just a thought, and then to pause long enough to question whether or not we want to be fused or hooked to that thought or reflexively believe it.

Mindfulness is simply the process by which we come to notice that our thoughts are mental events that we have a choice about. They aren’t necessarily The Truth.

When we start noticing, pausing, and asking if these thoughts are truly helpful or useful, then we get to choose. We’re not obligated to automatically believe them. We’re able to question them and even not take them so seriously. If they’re valuable to us, we can listen and take action. If they’re not, we can let them go and return to the present moment. Or, if letting go feels difficult, we can have a go-to meditation practice or turn our attention to our breath to ease us back into our bodies and the present moment.

The Name It to Tame It technique is a simple mindfulness tool that can help identify the emotions that certain negative thoughts might be producing—and it’s a powerful way to practice unhooking from thoughts.

Melli O'Brien

The Basics of Mindfulness

Meditation · 5-20 mins

2. Learn to recognize distorted thinking.

Distorted thinking is a form of inaccurate assessment that lends itself to a repetitive negative thought pattern. When we know what to look for, we can start to notice the red flags of cognitive distortion. Here are some questions you can ask:

  • Am I in all-or-nothing, black-and-white mode? This form of distortion reduces everything to an overly-simplistic binary, with no room for nuance or complexity.
  • Am I taking this personally and making it about me when it probably isn’t? This type of distortion assumes that everything that happens—the cashier doesn’t smile at you, your boss is in a bad mood—is because of something you said or did.
  • Am I catastrophizing this? This type of distortion fixates on the worst possible outcome rather than looking at multiple possible outcomes.

In reality, people and situations are quite complex. Most of how people react has nothing to do with us. And things most often tend to turn out better than we fear they will.

Cory Muscara

Freedom From Thoughts

Meditation · 5-20 mins

3. Try a little (or a lot) more self-compassion.

In a culture where we are bombarded by unrealistic expectations and are constantly comparing ourselves to others, our inner critic can become very loud. We can find a million ways in which we don’t measure up. And we sometimes mistakenly assume that we need to be self-critical in order to “improve.”

But what often happens is a subtle shift that we don’t recognize as harmful and non-productive. We move from being self-aware about our actions (as in, I made a mistake; I’ll make it right and try not to do that again) to being self-condemning about who we are as human beings (as in, I’m such a loser. Why can’t I do anything right?).

Negative thought patterns get us stuck in this self-condemnatory rut. Mindful self-compassion can offer a way to replace negative thoughts with thoughts that are not only more positive, but that are actually more based in reality.

We can get so used to our inner critic that pausing to question these thoughts can feel uncomfortable and even indulgent. But remember: self-compassion as a practice is really bringing an appropriate balance to our negativity bias!

As with any mindfulness practice, you’re not trying to stop or “fix” negative thoughts or change negative feelings. You’re allowing it all. You’re just not creating an ongoing story that contributes to distorted thinking.

So when you make a mistake, you can acknowledge exactly how you feel—embarrassed, annoyed, frustrated. But you don’t keep feeding that experience by telling yourself that you’re an idiot or a bad person or terrible at your job. Instead, you redirect your thoughts towards the truth: that you made a mistake, that everyone makes mistakes, that it’s probably going to be okay, and that you can learn something from your experience.

If you need practice generating self-loving and self-compassionate thoughts, try starting the day with a simple Tonglen (lovingkindness) meditation practice.

Cory Muscara

Tonglen Meditation

Meditation · 5-30 mins

4. Intentionally focus on the good to begin transforming your thought patterns.

When we start to notice just how many of our daily thoughts are negative (studies show about 80% of our daily thoughts are negative, and about 95% of our thoughts are repeated day after day), we can begin to intentionally shift our focus.

This is sometimes referred to as “hunting the good.” As the phrase suggests, you’re purposefully on the lookout for positive experiences, sensations, and feelings.

This might look like savoring beauty—the light in the trees, the sound of birdsong, a sculpture on your way to work.

It might be consciously pausing on a positive moment—a word of encouragement from a colleague, a loving exchange with your child—and allowing it to really sink in.

It might be keeping a list of 10 things a day that make you feel content, joyful, or grateful.

Notice that you’re not trying to force yourself to think positive thoughts. You’re just turning your attention to the goodness that already exists and allowing that to play a balancing role in how you approach and respond to the events in a day.

Cory Muscara

"Hunt the Good" Technique

Micro Practice · 60 sec

Take it one day at a time—and get extra help if you need it

Overcoming persistent negative thinking takes time. Consider that you might have spent 10, 20, 30 years (or more) unknowingly driving in that rut. Be gentle with yourself as you’re practicing slowly, intentionally setting your wheels on solid ground again.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis and feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts, it’s good and wise to reach out to a mental health professional. Many practitioners today use mindfulness-infused treatments, like acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), to help guide you through a process of managing negative thinking and automatic thoughts.

The good news is that with mindful living, a little bit goes a long way. It’s like exercising a muscle: every time you stop, notice, and redirect your attention, you’re getting stronger and stronger. Even just a few minutes a day will start to have noticeable positive effects in a relatively short amount of time.

Live a Mindful Life

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