Irrational thoughts can place you under pressure and drain your energy. Here are some ways you can challenge and overcome them.

Irrational thoughts can sneak up on us when we least expect them. Oftentimes, we are our own worst critics; breaks we would gladly give to others, we rarely give to ourselves.

If this sounds all too familiar, know that you’re not alone and support is available. It’s possible to learn to identify irrational thoughts, challenge them, and replace them with something far more realistic — and much kinder to you.

Irrational thoughts are ways that our mind convinces us of things that are not true,” says Sue English, a licensed family therapist in Naperville, Illinois. “These distorted thoughts can come from false messages we have heard, fearful events we have experienced, and underlying anxieties we feel.”

“Even if these experiences and feelings were real, we can project our fear-based thoughts onto upcoming events that are actually neutral in nature,” she adds.

Examples of irrational thoughts include:

  • “I messed up that project, so I must be a stupid, worthless person.”
  • “I just argued with my partner and feel horrible. They are going to leave me now.”

Irrational thoughts are a common feature of many mental health conditions. They may be associated with:

You may feel like your irrational thoughts are running on autopilot in your mind, or that these thoughts cause, or maintain, some of your other mental health symptoms, but there are ways you can cope.

Challenging or refuting your irrational thoughts can help you problem-solve and take some power back.

It puts the thought and accompanying behavior into valuable context and perspective: Is it really a life-altering issue, or is it a smaller issue that’s possible to overcome?

Challenging your irrational thoughts takes practice, but it’s possible to gain more control over your mind.

You can’t fight irrational thoughts if you don’t know what they are, right?

To help you identify irrational thoughts, you may find it useful to start keeping a daily journal.

Your smartphone or a small notebook is one good way to do this. Try to keep it nearby at all times and write down whenever you have an irrational thought, along with what you were doing at the time.

For example, you might write something like this: “Today, while working on my next presentation, I had the thought: If it’s not good enough, I’m going to get fired.”

When an irrational thought arises, it’s common to mistake it for a fact or feel bad for having these kinds of thoughts in the first place. This can make everything worse.

Instead, you may find it helpful to detach from your thoughts, as if you were watching them go by like clouds.

“Nonjudgmentally observe what is happening around you,” says English. “Be present in the moment, and simply observe your thoughts and feelings. Accept your ideas and feelings as hypotheses rather than facts.”

Now that you know what you’re up against, it’s time to poke at these beliefs:

  • How do I feel when I think this thought?
  • Is there anything, in reality, to support this thought as being true?
  • When I tell others about this belief, do they support me? Is this the way everyone in my family, peer group, work, church, or community thinks?
  • Is this thought an absolute? Is it a black or white, yes or no, win or lose, with no options in the middle type of belief?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen to me if I do not hold on to this belief?
  • What positive things might happen to me if I do not hold on to this thought?

A technique known as cognitive restructuring is often used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

“Cognitive restructuring helps us recognize we are trying to interpret the current situation without having all the evidence,” says English. “Restructure your thought by asking how a friend would view the situation, or what would be different today, next week, or next year if you thought of the situation positively.”

Some people find it helpful to make two columns on a page and to write down irrational thoughts on one side and rational thoughts on the other side, says Katie Ziskind, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Niantic, Connecticut.

This is what it looks like in practice:

Irrational thoughtSubstitute belief
This cough is a terminal illness.With a cough as my only symptom, and a family history of asthma, my diagnosis is probably mild.
My blind date is going to see me from afar and leave the restaurant.I am strong enough to handle any outcome from this blind date, including being stood up (though that’s likely not going to happen).
This plane is going to crash.The pilot does this job every day. Turbulence is uncomfortable but normal, like a speed bump. I am safe in the air and can breathe through this.

“Learning to debunk your irrational thoughts and fears can help you stay grounded and calm. You can learn how to deescalate yourself if you are having a panic attack. In addition, you can stop catastrophizing, which is when you start thinking the worst, that everyone doesn’t like you, and that there is no hope,” says Ziskind.

Irrational thoughts can take over your mental space quickly, creating difficult thought spirals that may be hard to overcome.

In this case, you may find it helpful to work with a professional. In CBT, a therapist can help you identify irrational thoughts, get to the core of them, and provide tools to help you let them go.

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is another option. It can help with distress tolerance, mindfulness, and acceptance of your experience.

“Buying the DBT card deck […] and doing one card every single day can help you have a tangible skill to debunk irrational thoughts,” says Ziskind. “The more balanced your mind becomes, the less frequently you will have irrational thoughts that feel consuming.”

It’s possible to overcome irrational thoughts with intention and practice.

The change may not happen all at once. It’s OK if it takes some time to get the hang of it. After all, many of us have spent our entire lives thinking these irrational thoughts without interruption or challenge!

Be patient and gentle with yourself, practice every day, and before you know it, answering your irrational thoughts will become second nature.