Do you experience negative thoughts such as: “I’m worthless”, “Nobody likes me”, “Things won’t ever get better”, “I can’t cope with this”, or “I’m going to end up alone”? Negative thoughts often pop into our heads automatically, uninvited. We all have negative thoughts, and they’re not necessarily a problem in themselves. But they become a problem when we believe them. Then they can escalate, and lead to anxiety.

The good news is that you can learn how to stop negative thoughts in their tracks – and replace them with more helpful, positive ones.

Why do negative thoughts come to mind?

We have tens of thousands of thoughts a day – and, according to one study, 80% of them are negative! So if you have negative thoughts, you’re perfectly normal. Everyone experiences negative thoughts – about themselves, other people, the future or just the world in general. They’re often habitual and automatic, and we’re unaware that they’re even happening – which can make them hard to spot.

How we feel also influences the way we think. When we’re down, we tend to think more negatively. And when we’re anxious we tend to worry about the worst happening.

Spiraling negative thoughts can be a result of overthinking. This tends to happen when we have few distractions – which is why lying awake at night churning things over in our mind is a familiar feeling to many.

At the time, negative thoughts may seem completely rational and logical. So we believe them to be true. However, just because we have a thought doesn’t mean it’s true. That’s why it’s so important to question negative thoughts – to see whether they’re based on facts and reality or not.

Negative thoughts can easily escalate. What starts out as one negative thought can snowball. Negative thoughts feed negative feelings – which reinforce our belief that the negative thought is true, and leads to more negative thinking. This cycle can lead to anxiety and even panic attacks.

How to break out of negative thinking – recognise your negative thoughts

In order to break out of negative thinking, the first step is to recognise your negative thoughts. Since they’re often automatic, this can be tricky. Watch out for the following unhelpful thinking styles, or ‘thinking traps’:

  • Catastrophising. What’s the worst that could happen? Do you find yourself jumping to the worst case scenario? When we catastrophise, we predict a negative outcome without seeing the whole picture. These negative thoughts are often “what ifs”. For example, do you think “She’s late home from work – what if she’s had a terrible accident”?
  • Magnification/minimisation. Do you always focus on the negative and play down the positive? For example, do you give a presentation at work and get great feedback – yet only focus on the one, small slip-up you made, that no one else even noticed?
  • Black-and-white thinking. Do you ever think “I’m a complete failure” and then “But he’s perfect”? Black-and-white thinking, also known as all-or-nothing thinking, results in oversimplifying things in this way – rather than seeing things in shades of grey.
  • Shoulds and musts. Do you set unreasonable expectations on yourself or others? For example, do you ever think “I should be perfect” or “I must be liked by everyone”? This thinking style can lead to a lot of stress, anxiety and disappointment.
  • Emotional reasoning. Is your thinking based on how you’re feeling rather than on the objective facts of a situation? For example, do you think “I feel anxious, so I must be in danger?”

To help you spot these negative thoughts – and any patterns in your thinking style – it can be helpful to keep a ‘thought record’: a written, structured diary of your negative thoughts. For example, this might help you notice that you’re always anticipating the worst outcome.

Throughout the day, try to catch any negative thoughts, and write them down in a notebook or on your phone. You could also write down the type of negative thought it was, what you think triggered it, what you were feeling at the time, and any emotions it provoked.

Once you recognise negative thoughts, you can manage them better. You can challenge them – and replace them with healthier, more positive ones.

How to challenge your thinking – examples of changing negative thoughts to positive ones

To change your negative thoughts to positive ones, first you need to challenge them. You can also remind yourself that they’re just thoughts – not facts. You’re going to have negative thoughts anyway – everyone does – but you can just observe and acknowledge them and let them pass overhead, like a cloud. This simple act of observation can change your relationship to them, and how you feel.

A more structured way to deal with negative thoughts is to examine the credible evidence for and against them. For example, what’s the evidence that you’re terrible at giving presentations? Perhaps there was one occasion when you forgot what you were going to say; but many more occasions where you had great feedback and even applause.

Other questions that can help us challenge our negative thoughts include: “Could there be another explanation?”, “What would other people say?” or “Am I jumping to conclusions?” Another approach is to imagine you’re making a judgement about the thought of a friend, rather than one of your own thoughts. Does it still seem reasonable?

Next, replace the negative thought with a more positive one. Some examples might include changing:

  • “He’s an hour late home from work – what if he’s had a serious car accident?” (catastrophising) to “He’s probably stuck in traffic”.
  • “I’m so nervous about speaking in front of people – I’m sure they’re thinking about how terrible I was last time” (magnification/minimisation) to “I’m probably better at speaking than I think. Last time I gave a presentation I had good feedback.”
  • “I’m a complete failure” (black-and-white thinking) to “I have strengths and weaknesses, like anyone – and many skills and abilities”.
  • “I should be perfect” (shoulds and musts) to “I would prefer to be perfect”.
  • “I must be liked by everyone” (shoulds and musts) to “It would be nice to be liked by everyone”.
  • “I feel guilty, so I must be a terrible person” (emotional reasoning) to “Everyone makes mistakes, it doesn’t make me a bad person.”

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that can help you identify unhelpful thinking styles and replace negative thoughts with more helpful, positive and accurate ones. Find out how you can get started with My Online Therapy. Or check out the CBT module of our Self-care audio course ‘Manage Anxiety’ for lots more information on thinking traps and practical tips on how to overcome negative thinking.

Michel de Montaigne said: “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened”. It’s easy to think the worst. But things will probably be OK.

With practice, you’ll learn to recognise and challenge your unhelpful negative thoughts – and replace them with more helpful positive ones. Although you’re bound to have negative thoughts, they don’t have to control you, or how you feel. You’re in control of how you react to them – and you can change them. And when you change your thoughts, you change your reality.