I’ll never be able to do that. Nothing ever works. I can’t do anything. No one cares. Everything is terrible. I am terrible at everything.
These are examples of the negative thoughts that can bombard us on a regular basis, according to Tamar Chansky, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who helps children, teens and adults overcome anxiety.
Negative thoughts are “automatic thoughts in response to uncertainty, anxiety, disappointment or other challenges.” She described them as “knee-jerk reactions of the mind.”
We often interpret our negative thoughts as cold, hard facts. We assume they’re accurate assessments of our performance, circumstances and anything else going on in our lives.
Yet they’re not.
“[Negative thoughts] say more about [how] the brain is wired than about our particular situation.”
That’s because our brain naturally tends toward negative thinking. Its goal is to keep us safe, to ensure our survival. So we’re programmed to prepare for danger and think the worst, Chansky said.
Negative thoughts can sink our mood and perpetuate a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, she said. Believing these thoughts and behaving as though they’re gospel can lead to everything from lost opportunities to depression, she said.
Consequently, the first step in navigating negative thoughts is to realize that they’re not accurate assessments of a situation. “[T]hey are exaggerated and extreme; they are not what we would think if we truly pondered the situation deeply.”
The second step is to pay attention to your thoughts. According to Chansky, a big barrier to minimizing negative thoughts is habit. “We are so in the habit of listening to our thoughts and letting them run rampant through our minds and our moods unchecked.” Noticing your negative thoughts can help you break out of autopilot and actually examine them.
Below, Chansky, also author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want, shared additional strategies for dealing with negative thoughts.
Name your source.
“Rather than listening to your thoughts with a highlighter pen, consider the source,” Chansky said. For instance, when you hear absolutes such as “always, never, no one, everything [and] nothing,” label the thought for what it is: a false alarm, “your amygdala in overdrive,” “the Exaggerator or Pessimism guy.” Or label the thought an individual from your life who embodies these qualities, she said.
Pinpoint the problem.
Negative thinking magnifies problems. Suddenly, an argument with your child means you’re a horrible parent. A challenging project at work means your life is crumbling. In other words, negative thinking turns concerns into catastrophes.
Instead, “identify the one thing that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and think about how you want to solve that problem,” Chansky said.
Use the word “some.”
Negative thoughts are all or nothing, and, again, use absolutes. To temper that rigid thinking, restate your thoughts using the word “some,” Chansky said. She gave these examples: “Some things went well, some things didn’t. Some people were helpful, some were not.”
Gather your board of directors.
When you’re bombarded with negative thoughts, call on your internal board of directors to help you broaden your perspective, Chansky said. This is a group of four to five people you trust and respect, she said. They could be anyone from family members to fictional characters to the Dalai Lama.
As Chansky said, we don’t need to know our panel personally. “[W]e just have to remember that they are there.”
Specifically, she suggested visualizing your board with microphones in front of them, and asking each person to share how they believe you should view the particular situation.
Minimizing negative thinking takes practice — especially if you’ve practiced worrying and thinking negatively for a long time. (As Chansky said, “the brain gets good at whatever you practice.”)
Remember that those automatic negative thoughts aren’t a reflection of reality. “[R]e-interpret [negative thoughts] or relabel them as false alarms, as our worry brain etc. and move on to our ‘second thoughts,’ which are more careful and nuanced perspectives of what is actually happening in our lives.”