Resilience & Mental Health

5 Ways to Deal with Negative Thoughts

Pretend it’s a Friday morning, and you have plans to go out with friends for dinner that night. You’re excited to see everyone. As the day goes on, you begin to have thoughts come into your head. “What if there’s nothing I can order on the menu that won’t give me pain?” “What if I have urgency during the meal?” “What if I have symptoms during dinner, and have to leave?” These thoughts may diminish your excitement about dinner. Even more, they may make you feel anxious, embarrassed in advance, worried about disappointing people, and sad about the situation. You may react by cancelling dinner plans.  

You then have removed yourself from the possibility of having a nice evening because of thoughts, which affected your feelings, and then impacted your behaviors! Now next time a meal with friends comes around, you may be less likely to accept the invitation in the first place. 

This pathway of negative thoughts leading to feelings leading to behavior is a really common one. Noticing and challenging these thoughts can help stop this cascade! We know that noticing and changing thoughts can be really helpful to ultimately help you feel better emotionally; learning to do this is one of the hallmarks of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy! Here are some techniques you can try today – practice makes progress when dealing with negative thoughts. 

1. Learn to recognize common thinking traps! 

“Thinking traps” are common ways your mind may generate thoughts are not logical, or based in reality or truth.  

“Thinking trap” thoughts may make you more likely to feel negative emotions! Everybody falls into thinking traps here and there, but noticing these traps can be the first step towards challenging and changing them! 

Ignoring the Good 

  • When a bad thing happens, you think more about that than any good things. For example, say you are having a performance review at work. You get 3 “exceeds expectations” and 1 “needs improvement.” All you can think about is the 1 “needs improvement”! 

Fortune Telling and Mind Reading 

  • Thinking you know what will happen in the future, or you know what someone else is thinking without evidence. For example, you may think about a co-worker “If I ask her to have lunch with me, she’ll absolutely say no. She’s never liked me.” 

Feelings as Facts 

  • Thinking that if you have a feeling, it is true. For example, you may have a thought like “I feel like I’m not being a good parent. So, I must not be a good parent.” 

“Should” Statements 

  • Just what they sound like! “I should be able to do that, I should be better than that, I should be OK with that.” 

Blowing Things Up 

  • Making something that is small bigger in your mind. “I couldn’t find that specific herb we needed to make dinner. Now the whole meal is ruined!” 

Black and White Thinking 

  • Thinking things are either fully good or fully bad, with no room for both to be true or for them to be in the middle. Black and white thoughts may look like “she turned down my invitation for drinks. She’s a bad friend, and doesn’t care about me.” 

Take a moment – have you ever found yourself falling into one of these common traps? Which one do you recognize in yourself most often? 

2. Act like a Detective and Gather Evidence 

When you find yourself experiencing a thinking trap, put on your detective hat and ask yourself some questions like: 

  • What evidence do I have that this thought is true? 
  • What is the likelihood this will happen? 
  • Has something like this ever happened before? 
  • If so, how did I handle it? Was I able to make it through? 
  • Are there any alternate explanations I can consider? 
  • What is the worst thing that could happen? If it does happen, will I be able to make it through? 

3. Test it out! 

Once you’ve gathered some evidence about your thought, you may want to consider testing it out!  

Think about the example at the beginning of this blog post – the person recognized she was blowing things up, and doing some fortune telling too! She asked herself some questions and realized that typically at restaurants there are things to eat. She also realized she only has unexpected pain at social events perhaps half of the time. The times that she has had pain at dinner and had to leave, no one was upset with her.  

Now it is time to try it out, and for her to try going to the dinner! Actually doing the situation you’re worried about, although extremely challenging, can help you create new learning. This means your brain is going to have additional data about these types of situations that may help you more easily challenge thinking errors if they come up in the future! 

4. Practice Self-Compassion 

If you find yourself stuck in a bad thinking trap and nothing seems to be working, take a moment. Think about how you can respond to yourself with kindness rather than judgment. Ask yourself, “how would I treat a friend who is coming to me with this same situation? Would I be as hard on my friend as I am being on myself?” 

5. Spring into Action 

Sometimes you may be feeling stuck, and nothing seems to be helping your negative thoughts no matter what you try! One thing to try here is to target lifting your mood rather than targeting your thoughts.  

To help you get started, think about what activities you can do that frequently make you feel happy, fulfilled, and like yourself! Do you like to cook, or take walks, or speak to loved ones on the phone or over text? Try springing in to action to do a pleasurable activity and seeing what happens! 

Final thoughts 

Dealing with negative thoughts can be tricky! Sometimes you find a way to quiet one, and another one pops up! Don’t be afraid to try a variety of different strategies, and even to try them more than once. Some strategies may work better for certain types of thoughts, certain situations, or when you’re in a specific mood. Exploration and experimentation can be your friends here! 

Lastly, if you find that you are feeling like negative thoughts are taking a toll on your quality of life and making it hard for you to do things that are important to you, don’t hesitate to bring this up to your Care Team or think about seeking help from a mental health professional!