Everyone has irrational and negative thoughts once in a while. But what happens when they become frequent and intense?
There are times when we see things as more negative than they really are. It doesn’t matter what the evidence or experience tells us — once we put on that negative filter, it can be difficult to perceive something any other way.
This is called a cognitive distortion.
When negative or irrational thinking continues, it could affect how you see yourself, others, and the world in general.
You might start operating under false assumptions. These assumptions may affect your mood and behaviors, and in turn, lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
But fixing cognitive distortions is possible — it just first requires you to identify your negative thoughts for what they are.
Once you do, you may learn that it’s typically not the situation that upsets you, but rather the thoughts or opinions about it.
And you can change your thoughts and opinions.
Well, you definitely are! We all do at some point.
Almost all negative thinking is linked to these distortions.
The key to stopping negative thinking is identifying those distortions you use the most, and those that may be affecting your mood the most.
Identifying them may be challenging at first because they often feel like logical, accurate thoughts. They make sense to you at some level, so you believe them.
How do you stop negative thoughts? By fixing cognitive distortions. Here are a few ways you can start:
- Read yourself
- Identify the type of distortion
- Change roles
- Examine the evidence
- Sum of its parts
- Skip generalizations
- Avoid speculations
- No more “shoulds”
- Cost-benefit analysis
If you experience anxiety throughout the day without a clear trigger or reason, you may be using cognitive distortions in the moment.
You may feel “stressed” or even have physical symptoms like muscle tension or a racing heart, but not realize that it’s anxiety.
If you experience anxiety but are not sure why, you may want to check in with yourself by asking these questions:
- Am I focused on this task, or is my mind somewhere else?
- Is my body tense?
- Do I have any unusual physical symptoms like a stomachache or racing heart?
- When did I start having these signs?
If you notice symptoms or signs of anxiety, turn your attention to your thoughts. Consider asking yourself if they might be causing how you feel.
In time, you can start linking which thoughts cause you to experience anxiety or other mood symptoms. These are the thoughts we want to work on first.
It may be a good idea to see which type of negative thought you often fall into.
Metacognition is key here. This means thinking about what you’re thinking about.
Creating a daily mood and thought log could help you with this.
Consider writing down the most prominent thoughts you have throughout the day.
When you do, don’t expand on the thought. Instead, try to write it down exactly how it popped into your head.
Try to link the thought to a place or situation.
Answer these questions:
- When and where did you have the negative thought for the first time?
- How many times did you think about it after that?
- Do you tend to have comparable thoughts in similar situations?
Once you have the thought and the situation, identify the emotion it causes you.
After a while, or by the end of each week, try to group these thoughts by theme.
So all thoughts about “always” or “never” go together. For example, “I always miss important meetings,” “I never say smart things,” or “Nobody appreciates me.”
This exercise will help you identify which thoughts repeat and which cause you greater distress.
How would you react to someone saying these negative things to a person you love?
For example, if your neighbor came to your best friend and said, “Your partner doesn’t love you,” or “You always embarrass yourself in front of your boss,” what would your response be?
Changing roles in your head may help you identify different aspects of the same situation that you could be overlooking. It can help you stop negative thoughts, and replace them with more realistic and optimistic ones.
For instance, you may feel inclined to find arguments to the contrary like: “They show you love. They called you twice today to check up on you and also stopped to bring dinner home after working for more than 8 hours.”
Negative thought patterns aren’t typically based on facts.
Similar to changing roles, examining the evidence is looking for cues in the situation that contradict your negative thoughts.
If you notice some of your thoughts are about criticizing or belittling yourself, for example, turn to the evidence. List all the ways you’re productive, successful, efficient, loving, or supportive.
If you’ve been thinking about what you said this morning during a meeting that may have felt inaccurate, turn to all the times you’ve said something interesting and how much you’ve contributed to your team.
You may even focus on the reaction everyone had during the meeting. Did they really pay that much negative attention to your comment?
It may also be a good idea to separate facts from opinions.
Thinking “I’m so silly” is an opinion. “I didn’t submit the report on time” is a fact.
Cognitive distortions are usually based on opinions that aren’t related to the evidence.
As you identify these negative thought patterns, you’ll notice that they often come with labels. “You’re a failure,” “They’re losers,” or “I’m so boring” are examples.
These labels don’t apply to the person as a whole.
Someone may lose a job, not pass a test, or feel like skipping a party at times. That doesn’t mean this is always the case.
Cognitive distortions like overgeneralization or black-or-white thinking may lead you to take one negative incident and apply it to everything and everyone.
For example, saying something that’s not accurate doesn’t mean everything you say is inaccurate.
If you learn to identify the difference, you can reframe any situation in your mind. The “opposite threes” technique may help.
Every time you find yourself generalizing, think of three opposites to the situation.
For example, when you think “I never do anything right,” consider turning your attention to mentally identify three scenarios where you’ve been accurate, efficient, or successful.
We’re almost certain you can’t read minds. But, in many circumstances, you may act or think like you do.
Because of this, it can be a good idea to do a “reality check” before you jump to conclusions. This can start by you asking others about the matter.
For example, instead of assuming your partner’s losing interest in you, you could actually ask them if this is so. If you prefer to be less direct, you could ask questions about how they feel, how their day’s going, or if they’re well.
When you do this, it’s highly probable you’ll find evidence to the contrary of your cognitive distortion. Of course, a critical aspect of this exercise is to believe what people tell you.
You may also survey other people about situations.
For instance, if you’re feeling your partner’s losing interest in you because you’ve had some fights this week, you could ask your partnered friends about their take.
It’s possible that once you confirm other couples also have fights, your thinking pattern starts losing ground.
In other words, exploring other people’s experiences and opinions may help you identify those negative thinking patterns that aren’t based on facts.
A common cognitive distortion that leads to negative thinking is “shoulds” — “I should go to the gym every day,” or “They should talk more often during work meetings.”
These “shoulds” act as ironclad rules that may automatically set you and others up for failure.
Consider replacing “I should” thoughts with, “I’d like to…” or “It’d be nice if…” This may alter your perspective and take off the pressure, improving your mood and outlook.
A cost-benefit analysis typically refers to estimating the benefits of a decision versus the costs associated with it.
In this instance, you’d take the thoughts you’ve identified, and think about what pros and cons they offer you. Ask yourself: “How does this thought help me and how does it hurt me?”
If you find that some of these thoughts do you more harm, it might become easier for you to combat them.
You could also find out that you use some of these thinking patterns because they represent some benefit to you.
Many people find it helpful to work with a mental health professional when reassessing negative thoughts.
If you feel like your distorted thoughts are interfering with your relationships or how you see yourself, it may be a good idea to seek the support of a pro who can guide you through the steps.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the go-to approach for restructuring cognitive distortions.
If this sounds like something you’d like to do, you can search for a cognitive behavioral therapist using the American Psychological Association’s Find a Psychologist tool.
Cognitive distortions are negative thinking patterns that aren’t entirely based on facts.
Everyone uses them from time to time. When they become more frequent, though, they can affect your mood and relationships.
Fixing cognitive distortions and negative thinking requires work — but it’s possible. You may want to collaborate with a therapist and do some reframing exercises yourself.
As you stop negative thinking, you may notice your mood improves in many aspects.