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The Beginner's Guide to Changing Negative Thoughts

This strategy will help you recognize and replace negative thoughts.

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A pessimistic, dismal outlook can take a toll on your life in more ways than you might think. Research consistently links negative thinking to an increased risk of mental health problems, physical health issues, relationship problems, and financial trouble.

But the good news is that everyone can learn how to combat negative thinking. As a cognitive behavioral therapist, I've seen firsthand what happens when people learn how to change their thought patterns. Not only do they feel better, but their behavior changes too.

Several years ago, in my work as a psychotherapist, I learned about a simple but effective way to teach kids how to reframe their cognitive distortions. Developed by PracticeWise, the exercise teaches children to turn their "BLUE" thoughts into true thoughts.

I included this exercise in my book 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don't Do as a way for parents to proactively help kids build mental strength. But I've received countless emails from parents saying that they not only are teaching the exercise to their kids, but they're also using it on themselves.

It's a simple yet effective method to change the way you think. And shifting your mindset is the first step in building mental strength.

How to Recognize "BLUE" Thoughts

"BLUE" is an acronym that stands for blaming myself; looking for the bad news; unhappy guessing; and exaggeratedly negative. It represents the thoughts that are just too negative to actually be true.

Here's how to recognize BLUE thoughts:

  • Blaming myself. While it's important to take responsibility for your part, excessive self-blame isn't productive. In fact, it's been linked to mental health problems, like depression. Be on the lookout for times when you tell yourself that you've "ruined everything," or that something is "all your fault."
  • Looking for bad news. If nine good things and one bad thing happen in a day, it's easy to focus on the one bad part. But dwelling on the negative will keep you stuck in a dark place. It's important to step back and create a more balanced, realistic outlook.
  • Unhappy guessing. Even though you have no idea what will happen tomorrow, you might predict doom and gloom. Whether you imagine that you're going to embarrass yourself in a meeting or tell yourself that you'll never get a promotion, unhappy guessing can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy if you're not careful.
  • Exaggeratedly negative. Telling yourself that the entire interview was a complete disaster or convincing yourself that everything about your job is terrible leads to a downward spiral. The more negatively you think, the worse you'll feel. And the worse you feel, the less likely you are to take positive action.

Replace BLUE Thoughts With True Thoughts

Once you identify a BLUE thought, the goal is to replace it with a true thought. One of the best ways to do that is to ask yourself, "What would I say to a friend who had this problem?"

So when you catch yourself thinking, "I'll never save enough money for retirement," you might respond by telling yourself, "I can create a clear plan for saving more money so I can afford to retire."

Replacing your overly negative thoughts with more realistic statements can inspire you to take positive action, which is the key to creating the kind of life you want to live.

If you naturally err on the more pessimistic end of the spectrum, it will take some hard work to change your thoughts. But consider that hard work an investment. Studies show that changing your thoughts physically alters your brain over time.

That means realistic thinking becomes second nature over time. Your brain will start to view you and your abilities in a more realistic light.

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