“Negative” thoughts can feel defeating — but various strategies can help you overcome them.
When life feels overwhelming, you may wonder when you will catch a break. You’ve tried practicing gratitude, but nothing seems to take away the difficult feelings and thoughts.
Everyone has challenging thoughts every once in a while. But when you start to see the negative in everything, it can lead to mental health problems, leave you feeling bad about yourself, or make you feel hopeless.
You don’t have to keep living with this mindset. Several techniques can help you look at life through rosier-colored glasses.
If you’re stuck in a cycle of challenging thoughts and patterns of rumination, practicing mindfulness can help. Mindfulness is intentional awareness and acceptance of the present moment.
A 2019 study found that mindfulness practice, as stand-alone or enhanced through meditation, helped reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, like worry and rumination.
There are many ways to practice. Consider pausing and taking in your surroundings with three different senses or focusing on what’s happening in the present moment. You may want to set aside time for a regular meditation habit.
Cognitive distortions are patterns of irrational thinking. If you can recognize and become aware of cognitive distortions, you can use methods to challenge your thinking patterns.
Some cognitive distortions to look out for include:
- All-or-nothing thinking: thinking in absolutes, even when an overall situation is both good and challenging.
- Overgeneralization: taking one isolated situation or experience and applying that conclusion to unrelated situations.
- Mind-reading: the false belief that you know what other people are thinking.
- Catastrophizing: thinking of everything in terms of worst-case scenarios, also called catastrophic thinking.
- Minimization: discounting your accomplishments as if they are unimportant.
- Fortune-telling: coming to a conclusion with very little or no supporting evidence.
- Personalization: blaming yourself for situations and events that you have little control over.
Awareness of your biases can help you challenge irrational beliefs and shift them to more realistic ones.
If you can find a way to laugh at yourself during life’s challenging events, you’re using self-enhancing humor. It’s about finding the humor in the absurdities of life without being critical of yourself.
If you can laugh and have a positive outlook on life, you may be less prone to falling into challenging thinking patterns that can leave you feeling trapped.
Thought-stopping is a technique that is used often in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help prevent snowballing thoughts.
You can practice thought-stopping next time you have unwanted thoughts by saying the word “stop” aloud and thinking of an image that signals you to stop (e.g., a stop sign or a stoplight).
You then say the word “calm” out loud and pair that word with an image that reminds you of a peaceful place (e.g., the beach, the mountains, a lake). During this step, it can be helpful to tune into your five senses when imagining your peaceful place.
This technique aims to help stop thoughts from escalating and cycling. As with any method, it gets easier the more you practice it.
Positive affirmations are a great way to help you shift challenging beliefs into positive ones. Positive affirmations can help with self-confidence and reset your attitude about yourself.
Examples of positive affirmations:
- I am worthy of love.
- I am deserving of peace.
- I am strong.
- I love myself.
- Negative experiences do not define me.
You can practice these by stating them to yourself every day. Consider posting affirmations where you’ll see them often, like on a noticeboard or your phone background.
One effective method of self-affirmation is spending time thinking about your past successes. You might even want to brainstorm and write out your wins.
One way to stand up to challenging thinking patterns is by putting your thoughts on a trial. You act as a jury examining your idea, which might be a cognitive distortion.
You ask yourself questions such as:
- What evidence do I have to support this thought?
- What evidence do I have against this thought?
- Are there any other possible alternative explanations for this thought?
- What do I think the verdict would be now that I have examined this thought?
Although challenging these thoughts doesn’t always remove the emotions associated with the thought, they can help you gain a more realistic view of a situation.
Practicing acceptance without judging “negative” emotions or thoughts can be a way of coping.
Rather than seeking to change these thoughts, acceptance helps you deal with things as they are in the present moment. Acceptance does not mean approval — it just means you allow yourself to deal with a situation for what it is.
Several research-backed techniques can help you shift your outlook if you have challenging thoughts.
We all have difficult thoughts, so you aren’t alone in dealing with them. You can also seek out the support of a mental health professional to assist you.
Consider tapping into Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource to find a therapist near you.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can use The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call the Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for English or 888-628-9454 for Spanish, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.