- Negative thoughts can distract from what's important, drain one's energy, and cause anxiety and depression.
- Inaccurate thoughts reinforce negative thinking.
- Black-and-white thinking is one type of inaccurate thought, or thought distortion, that can be challenged.
By Patricia Harteneck, PhD
Most of us spend a lot of time inside our own mind — worrying about the future, replaying events in the past, and generally focusing on the parts of life that leave us dissatisfied. While they are common, negative or unwanted thoughts can prevent you from enjoying experiences, distract you from focusing on what's important, and drain your energy. They can also make you feel anxious and depressed.
Try these seven ways to manage (and decrease) your negative thoughts:
1. Recognize thought distortions. Our minds have clever and persistent ways of convincing us of something that isn't really true. These inaccurate thoughts reinforce negative thinking. If you can recognize them, you can learn to challenge them. Here are four common thought distortions:
- Black and white thinking. Seeing everything as one way or another, without any in between.
- Personalizing. Assuming you are to blame for anything that goes wrong, like thinking someone did not smile at you because you did something to upset her. (It's more likely that person is having a hard day and her mood had nothing to do with you.)
- Filter thinking. Choosing to see only the negative side of a situation.
- Catastrophizing. Assuming the worst possible outcome is going to happen.
2. Challenge negative thoughts. Whenever you have a distorted thought, stop and evaluate whether it is accurate. Think about how you would respond if a friend spoke about herself that way. You would probably offer a good rebuttal to his or her negative view. Apply the same logic to your own thoughts. Ask yourself if you are assuming the worst will happen or blaming yourself for something that has not gone the way you wanted. And then think about other possible outcomes or reasons that something turned out differently than you hoped.
3. Take a break from negative thoughts. It is possible to learn how to separate from negative thoughts. One way to do this is to allow yourself a certain amount of time (maybe five minutes) with the thought. Then take a break from focusing on it and move on with your day.
4. Release judgment. We all judge ourselves and others, usually unconsciously. Constantly comparing ourselves to other people or comparing our lives to some ideal breeds dissatisfaction. When you are able to let go of judgment (not easy, but possible), you will likely feel more at ease. Some ways to take a break from judgmental thoughts include recognizing your own reaction, observing it, and then letting it go. Another helpful technique is to "positive judge." When you notice you are negatively judging a person, yourself, or a situation, look for a positive quality, too.
5. Practice gratitude. Research shows that feeling grateful has a big impact on your levels of positivity and happiness. Even when you are experiencing a challenging time in your life, you can usually find things (even small things) to be grateful for. Noticing the things that are going well and making you feel happy will keep you in touch with them. Keeping a gratitude journal and writing a few things in it every day is one easy and effective way to do this.
6. Focus on your strengths. It's human nature to dwell on the negative and overlook the positive. The more you can practice focusing on your strengths and not dwelling on mistakes you've made, the easier it will be to feel positive about yourself and the direction your life is taking. If you find yourself thinking harsh thoughts about your personality or actions, take a moment to stop and think about something you like about yourself.
7. Seek out professional support if you are unable to manage your thoughts or find they are interfering with your ability to meet your daily responsibilities or enjoy life. Counseling and therapy can help you weather life changes, reduce emotional suffering and experience self-growth.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.