Everybody gets stuck in negative thinking from time to time:
- Anxious bouts of worry and catastrophizing
- Depressing spirals of self-criticism and judgment
- Angry cycles of rumination and resentment
Unfortunately, the way most people try to deal with their negative thinking is completely unhealthy and only makes the problem worse in the long-term.
A couple quick examples:
- You feel anxious and immediately distract yourself with social media or TV. You get some temporary relief. But long-term, it reinforces your brain’s belief that negative thinking is dangerous, which makes you more sensitive to it in the future.
- You make a mistake, feel bad, and then start getting self-critical which only leads to more negative thoughts plus a bunch of extra guilt and shame.
In short, negative thinking is a bad habit that only gets worse because of how we respond to it.
In the rest of this guide, we’ll look at 10 ways to deal with negative thinking in a healthy and productive way—one that addresses the root of the problem rather than quick fixes that make you feel better in the moment and worse in the long run.
1. Distinguish helpful vs unhelpful negative thinking
Just because you’re having negative thoughts doesn’t mean something’s wrong. In fact, negative thinking can be a very good thing!
A couple quick examples:
- You own your own business. And periodically you have thoughts about the worst-case scenario: Your business failing and having to start again from scratch. Using these negative thoughts as a cue to prepare and make plans for downturns can be very helpful—not only for the success of your business but for your own peace of mind as well.
- You recently started dating someone new. You notice yourself having some negative thoughts about the other person not being affectionate enough or as “in to you” as you would like. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being insecure and too needy. Even though the thoughts are “negative,” they might also be legitimate in that they’re accurate signals from your brain that this person you’re dating might not be a good fit for you—or that you need to speak up and be more assertive about what you want.
Just because your thoughts are negative doesn’t mean they’re a problem.
What you want to watch out for is a specific type of negative thinking that is unhelpful.
- Constantly worrying about your business failing despite the fact that you’ve taken reasonable precautions and are as prepared as you can be.
- Obsessively worrying about how “in to you” your partner is despite plenty of evidence that they are.
Don’t fall into the trap of believing that all negative thinking is bad. Your brain’s primary job is to keep you safe and that requires some negative thinking.
Instead, save your energy for identifying and managing unhelpful or unrealistic negative thinking, which from here on out is what I’m referring to by negative thinking.
2. Identify your negative thinking triggers
If you understand what types of situations or events are most likely to trigger negative thinking, you can avoid a lot of negative thinking before it even happens.
Here are a handful of common triggers for negative thinking:
- Poor sleep or fatigue
- Interpersonal conflict
- Mistakes, errors, or failures
- Chronic stress, overwhelm, or burnout
- Transitions (new job, divorce, relocating, etc.)
- The news
- Illness or injury
- Old memories
If you learn to avoid and/or respond to these triggers in a healthier way, you won’t experience nearly as much unhelpful negative thinking in the first place.
- Let’s say the biggest trigger for negative thinking in your life is arguments with your spouse.
- After intense arguments or fights, you tend to fall into spirals of negative thinking that involve a lot of rumination and resentful if-only thinking. This leads to a lot of anger in the short-term, but longer term, it creates more guilt and anxiety about being a bad partner or spouse.
- One solution might be to deal with the disagreement immediately instead of trying to “move on” and not think about it.
- So, immediately after an argument, you might make it a habit of spending 20 minutes journaling about the argument—why it happened and what it was about, what your thoughts and feelings were during it, and any ideas for how to best recover or move on.
- If you have a habit of processing those conflicts quickly and in a healthy way (instead of unproductively dwelling on them and losing yourself in a storm of self-pity) you’ll be less likely to fall into negative thinking in the hours and days following it.
Prevention is the best medicine.
Identify the triggers for negative thinking, deal with those triggers more directly, and you won’t experience nearly as much negative thinking in the first place.
3. Do your negative thinking intentionally, not reactively
Most people are in the habit of only thinking about their negative thinking when it shows up.
Which is intuitive enough… I mean, who wants to think about negative thinking when you’re feeling good?!
Unfortunately, intuition isn’t always a great guide for our behavior…
- Why should I exercise when I’m already healthy? I should just wait until I start getting unhealthy, then exercise, right?
- Why should I talk about minor issues in my marriage when things are going pretty well overall? I should just wait until those tiny issues grow into major issues before I speak up about them, right?
The best time to do hard, important work is when you’re feeling good, not when your life is falling apart!
And this principle applies to negative thinking as well.
For example: Suppose you struggle with a lot of negative thinking in the form of chronic worry. Instead of waiting around to be triggered into worrying reactively, make some time every day to inventory all your worries by writing them down. Then identify which ones are completely unhelpful and which ones might be useful to do something about. Then make a plan for each.
Like any other challenge in life, you can’t expect to just wing it and react to negative thinking on the fly. Not if you want to be successful.
Instead, you need to practice and prepare for it. And that means making some time to intentionally confront your negative thinking head on so that you can get to know it and make a real plan for navigating it in the moment.
4. Call out your cognitive distortions
Cognitive distortions are errors in thinking that lead to unnecessarily painful and prolonged emotion.
- Black and White Thinking. Putting things into artificially extreme categories: Ugh! My boss is the worst. Or I can’t believe I screwed up that interview. I was for sure the worst applicant.
- Mind-Reading. Assuming you know what’s going on inside someone else’s mind: I knew I should have kept my mouth shut… I’m sure he thinks I’m a jerk now. Or Why does she always get so angry over little things…
- Emotional Reasoning. Using how you feel as evidence for what you can and/or should do: I’m just too tired to go to the gym this evening. Or I need to feel less anxious before I have that difficult conversation.
Now, we all fall into cognitive distortions from time to time. And while you probably can’t avoid them altogether, you can get much better at noticing them. And when you do, you’ll be able to lessen the emotional effect they have on you.
So, anytime you feel your mood dropping or some difficult emotion intensifying, ask yourself:
What was I thinking just now? What thoughts led to this shift in emotion or mood?
Next, write down that self-talk on paper and look for any cognitive distortions. Once you find some, calmly and nonjudgmentally identify which they are (you can learn more about the different types of cognitive distortions in this article I wrote).
The better you get at identifying cognitive distortions early, the less affected by them you’ll be.
5. Identify the emotions behind your negative thinking
The content of your thoughts determines the content of your moods:
- If you’re constantly worrying, you’re going to feel pretty anxious.
- If you’re chronically ruminating on how someone hurt you, you’re going to feel pretty angry.
- If you’re constantly criticizing yourself, you’re going to feel pretty sad and ashamed.
This is why, like we discussed in the last point, it’s important to become more aware of your self-talk habits and negative thinking styles.
But the causality goes both ways…
Negative thinking can lead to painful emotions, but painful emotions can also be a trigger for negative thinking (and more painful emotion!)
So it’s worth identifying which emotions or moods tend to make you more susceptible to unhelpful negative thinking patterns.
- Maybe when you get really frustrated and irritable, you tend to start ruminating and overanalyzing the past—playing lots of If-only games in your head.
- Or maybe when you start to feel depressed, you have a habit of overanalyzing yourself and your mistakes with lots of self-criticism and judgment.
In any case, a great way to avoid getting into spirals of negative thinking is to:
- A) Get better at identifying and acknowledging painful moods and emotions.
- B) Build the habit of validating difficult moods and emotions rather than overthinking them.
6. Stop judging yourself for your negative thinking
Just because you have thoughts that are negative doesn’t mean they’re bad—or that you’re bad for having them.
Here’s a particularly extreme example…
I used to work with new moms who were experiencing morbid intrusive thoughts about hurting their infant babies:
- They’d have images pop into their mind about strangling their newborn baby, for example.
- Or they’d find themselves wondering what would happen if they just let go of their baby and it dropped onto the ground.
Of course, these poor moms were horrified that thoughts like this would come into their mind and swore up and down that they would never in a million years do anything to hurt their babies. But still, they were overwhelmed with anxiety and shame about these particularly “bad” forms of negative thinking and what it might mean about them.
Turns out, morbid intrusive thoughts like these are incredibly common among new moms. And more importantly, research consistently shows that the presence of this type of negative thinking has no impact on your likelihood of actually doing anything bad. In fact, I remember hearing an expert on this subject at a conference say that over his entire career of working with new moms who struggled with these morbid thoughts, he had never seen an example of them being acted out.
Unfortunately, the moms themselves did often suffer with huge amounts of anxiety, depression, shame, as a result. But critically, it wasn’t the thoughts themselves that lead to their suffering—it was the fact that they responded to those negative thoughts by assuming they must mean something terrible about them as people.
The judgment of the negative thinking is what leads to even more intrusive thoughts and heightened levels of anxiety and shame.
On the other hand, when they are taught that these types of negative thinking are normal and not dangerous, and that simply acknowledging and accepting them nonjudgmentally was an option, they tended to decrease dramatically or even disappear altogether.
Now, you might not suffer from morbid intrusive thoughts like this, but we all experience unwanted negative thoughts:
- Random worries pop into mind
- Self-critical self-talk kicks up after a mistake
- Ruminating on past hurts and wallowing in self-pity
Negative thoughts are inevitable. What matters is how you respond to them.
If you get judgmental about it, you teach your brain that those negative thoughts are dangerous and bad. This means you’re more likely to notice and get stuck on future negative thinking—and feel even worse as a result.
On the other hand, you can train yourself to experience negative thinking without immediately judging or critiquing yourself for it. And when you do, you’ll find that: A) the emotional effect of that negative thinking decreases, and B) the frequency of those negative thoughts declines too.
You can’t control what thoughts your mind decides to throw at you. So why judge yourself for them?
7. Look for the function behind your negative thinking
Once you’ve become better at resisting the impulse to judge your negative thinking, the next step is to get curious about them.
A great way to build this habit of mental curiosity is to ask yourself what the function, or job, of your negative thinking is.
See, your mind isn’t some sadistic maniac that throws negative thinking at you just because it wants to be mean or cruel. If you’re experiencing negative thinking like chronic worry, self-doubts, or even morbid intrusive thoughts like in the previous example, your mind is doing it for a reason…
- Worry is usually a sign that your mind thinks there’s something dangerous you need to be aware of in order to stay safe.
- Angry rumination is usually a sign that your mind thinks an injustice has occurred and that you should do something to rectify it.
- Self-criticism can be a sign that your mind thinks you made a mistake and can learn to not make the same mistake in the future by reflecting on it and learning from it.
Now, the key point to realize here is that your mind isn’t always correct. In fact, it often gets confused…
- It thinks something is dangerous even though it’s not.
- It thinks you can do something about a past injustice even though you can’t.
- It thinks more analysis of that mistake 20 years ago will be helpful, even though that’s highly unlikely.
Negative thinking is always well-intentioned, but frequently misguided.
So, when you find yourself in a pattern of negative thinking, it can help you to be less reactive and judgmental by asking yourself:
What function does this negative thought serve? How could my mind be trying to help me with this negative thinking?
The best way to let go of negative thinking and minimize its emotional impact is to stop being judgmental or critical about your negative thinking. And one of the best ways to do that is to replace that instinct for criticism with curiosity.
Be curious, not judgmental.
8. Edit your negative thinking to be more realistic
Remember that sometimes negative thoughts just pop into our mind. And that’s not something you can control. But how you respond to those initial negative thoughts is under your control.
Specifically, whether you continue that negative thinking or break the cycle is something you can and should try to control. Because every time your mind throws a negative thought at you and you continue thinking in that way, you reinforce the initial negative thought. This means your mind is more likely to throw similarly negative thoughts at you in the future.
- Maybe a worry pops into mind about your partner dying in a freak accident. If you continue in that pattern of negative thinking by, say, imagining how awful you’ll feel as a result, and other consequences of that imaginary outcome, you’re essentially telling your brain that the initial worry was helpful and that it should send more worries like that to you in the future.
- Or let’s say an old memory pops into mind of how you were taken advantage of by a close friend when you were younger. If you start replaying that incident in your mind and trying to analyze why your friend betrayed you and how much it hurt you, you’re essentially telling your brain to remind you of that old memory more in the future—which makes it more likely that you fall into a pattern of negative thinking in response to it.
If you want your mind to stop generating so many negative thoughts, then you need to respond differently to the ones it already generates.
And a great way to do this is to edit the initial negative thought.
Like a book editor who makes changes to an author’s initial manuscript to make it more clear or correct a mistake or inaccuracy, you can do the same with your own thoughts and stories you tell yourself.
Here are a few quick examples of and initial negative thought along with an edited version following:
- I’ll never get that promotion now… → I’ll likely have to work a little harder now if I want that promotion.
- He probably thinks I’m a terrible father → He seems upset about this specific situation, but I really don’t know what he thinks about me as a person or father.
- I can’t go through with it… I’m just too nervous. → I do feel really nervous. But even experienced presenters have told me they feel nervous before giving a talk in front of an audience.
Importantly, the goal here isn’t to convince your brain of some new reality. All that you’re doing is stopping an initial line of unrealistic or unhelpful negative thinking by generating an alternative version (that also happens to be more realistic).
By shifting your thinking in a slightly different direction, you’re not strengthening the initial pattern of negative thinking and stopping it from becoming a stronger and more ingrained habit.
Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you have to keep thinking it.
Feel free to edit, modify, or suggest alternatives to your initial thoughts. When you do, you’ll find yourself not getting stuck in unhelpful negative thinking patterns nearly so often.
Someone wise once said:
I can think my way into almost any unhappiness. But I’ve rarely thought my way out.
The implication here is that often the best solution to negative thinking is behavior, not more thinking.
For example, suppose one Saturday evening you found yourself in a spiral of self-criticism and shame about some mistake you made at work earlier in the week.
Which is going to be more productive in the moment: Trying to analyze why you’re always so hard on yourself after mistakes or putting on your tennis shoes and going for a walk around the neighborhood with your partner?
Thinking is a powerful tool. But when you’re already stuck in a cycle of unproductive negative thinking, more thinking usually just makes things worse.
Instead, it’s important to remember that you can simply do something else. And specifically, doing something physically active is especially good at breaking us out of unhealthy negative thinking patterns.
Of course, you don’t want to use behavior as an excuse to simply avoid your problems. But if it’s clear that more thinking is probably not going to be helpful right now, then getting physically active can be a very helpful alternative.
If nothing else, moving your body for 20 or 30 minutes often clears your mind and gives you a fresh perspective with which to deal with whatever issues were bothering you.
It’s a simple but easy-to-forget solution to negative thinking:
10. Accept your thoughts. Control your attention.
Thoughts are a tricky thing to deal with because you have some control over them but nothing close to complete control.
As we discussed earlier, you can edit or change a particular thought. But you can’t control whether that thought pops into your mind in the first place.
One thing you always have control over is your attention—what you choose to focus on.
- You can’t choose whether a painful memory comes into your consciousness. But you can choose whether you continue to focus on that memory and thinking more about it. Or whether you shift your focus to that game of Monopoly you’re playing with your kid.
- You can’t choose whether that old resentment against your spouse pops into mind. But you can choose whether you continue to elaborate on that resentment or redirect your attention to that report you’ve got to finish writing for work.
Of course, shifting your attention and focus in the face of negative thinking isn’t always easy. But it is always possible. And if you want to get better at managing your negative thinking, it’s imperative that you remember that distinction…
No matter how much I feel compelled to think more about this, I can always control where I place my attention.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself:
But if every time a negative thought pops into mind I just focus on something else isn’t that just distracting myself? And I know you’ve talked before about distraction not being a good way to deal with difficult situations…
It’s true… If your immediate reaction to a negative thought is to simply shift your attention elsewhere that’s not a very helpful response—in large part because to your brain it looks like you’re trying to escape the negative thought. And when your brain sees you habitually running away from something it assumes that thing is dangerous, which makes you more reactive to that thing in the future.
All of which is to say that before you shift your attention elsewhere, it’s important to accept your negative thinking.
By acceptance I mean that you take a second to remind yourself of three things:
- First, simply acknowledge that you are experiencing negative thinking. If possible, label what type of negative thinking it is specifically: worry, rumination, self-criticism, catastrophizing, etc.
- Second, remind yourself that just because you don’t like that negative thinking, it doesn’t mean it’s bad or that you’re bad for having those thoughts. Negative thoughts are not dangerous or a sign of moral failing. Thoughts are just thoughts.
- Finally, be willing to have negative thoughts and get on with your life despite them. Instead of insisting that your negative thoughts go away before you move on, you can agree to let them “come along for the ride.” This sends a powerful signal to your brain that you don’t see your negative thoughts as enemies. And when your brain really starts to believe this, those negative thoughts become much less powerful and impactful.
To sum up:
When you find yourself stuck in negative thinking, take a few seconds to accept the negative thoughts then redirect your attention to something more constructive or helpful.
All You Need to Know
Everyone experiences unhelpful negative thinking like worry, rumination, or self-criticism.
What matters is how you respond to it.
Here are 10 healthy and effective ways to respond to negative thinking:
- Distinguish helpful vs unhelpful negative thinking
- Identify your negative thinking triggers
- Do your negative thinking intentionally, not reactively
- Call out your cognitive distortions
- Identify the emotions behind your negative thinking
- Stop judging yourself for your negative thinking
- Look for the function behind your negative thinking
- Edit your negative thinking to be more realistic
- Accept your thoughts. Control your attention.