Negative Thoughts: How to Stop Them


Negative thinking can contribute to problems such as social anxiety, depression, stress, and low self-esteem. The key to changing your negative thoughts is to understand how you think now (and the problems that result), then use strategies to change these thoughts or make them have less of an effect.

“Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all linked, so our thoughts impact how we feel and act. So, although we all have unhelpful thoughts from time to time, it’s important to know what to do when they appear so we don’t let them change the course of our day,” explains Rachel Goldman, PhD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine.

Therapy can often be helpful for changing negative thoughts, but you can also learn how to change your thought patterns. This article discusses some of the steps you can take to change your negative thoughts.

Practice Mindfulness and Self-Awareness

Mindfulness has its roots in meditation. It is the practice of detaching yourself from your thoughts and emotions and viewing them as an outside observer. Practicing mindfulness can help you become more conscious of your thoughts and build greater self-awareness.

Mindfulness sets out to change your relationship to your thoughts.1 Try viewing your thoughts and feelings as objects floating past you that you can stop and observe or let pass you by.

Identify Your Negative Thoughts

As you observe your thoughts, work on identifying and labeling cognitive distortions and negativity.

For example, if you tend to view yourself as a complete success or failure in every situation, then you are engaging in “black-and-white” thinking. Other negative thinking patterns include:

  • Jumping to conclusions: This distortion involves making assumptions about what others are thinking or making negative assumptions about how events will turn out.
  • Catastrophizing: This pattern of negative thinking is characterized by always assuming that the worst possible outcome will happen without considering more likely and realistic possibilities.
  • Overgeneralization: This pattern is marked by a tendency to apply what happened in one experience to all future experiences. This can make negative experiences seem unavoidable and contribute to feelings of anxiety.
  • Labeling: When people label themselves in a negative way, it affects how they feel about themselves in different contexts. Someone who labels themselves as “bad at math,” for example, will often feel negative about activities that involve that skill.
  • “Should” statements: Thinking marked by “should” statements contribute to a negative perspective by only thinking in terms of what you “ought” to be doing. Such statements are often unrealistic and cause people to feel defeated and pessimistic about their ability to succeed.
  • Emotional reasoning: This involves assuming that something is true based on your emotional response to it. For example, if you are feeling nervous, emotional reasoning would lead you to conclude that you must be in danger. This can escalate negative feelings and increase anxiety.
  • Personalization and blame: This thought pattern involves taking things personally, even when they are not personal. It often leads people to blame themselves for things they have no control over.

Unhelpful thinking patterns differ in subtle ways. But they all involve distortions of reality and irrational ways of looking at situations and people.

Goldman suggests that this step is all about identifying and labeling negative thoughts. “Now that you have observed the thought, you can identify it as an unhelpful thought (perhaps we’ve even identified it as an all-or-nothing thought, or another type of cognitive distortion). Just observe it and label it,” she suggests.

She also suggests pausing to accept the thought for what it is. Remind yourself that it’s just a thought and not a fact.

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