How to challenge negative thoughts in 3 easy steps

What were the last negative thoughts you had?

Did you snidely comment on your own appearance? Did you wish you were more successful? Or more in shape? 

Did you think about something you’re afraid of? Did you obsess about how short life is, and how you are nowhere close to meeting your goals?

“It is not always possible to do away with negative thinking, but with persistence and practice, one can gain mastery over them so that they do not take the upper hand.” (Stephen Richards)

We are all guilty of mild to moderate to severe amounts of negative thoughts. Everyone is different. Some people are better at naturally controlling them. 

Me? I need a lot more help in this area. 

My depression leaves me especially vulnerable to negative thoughts. I am an innately pessimistic person. This is true for a lot of people who suffer from mental health issues. Challenging negative thoughts takes a lot of extra energy for us. And many times, we don’t have the energy to spare. 

I know I don’t. 

For that reason, those with depression or other mental health issues need to be extra vigilant about their thought patterns. In this blog post, I will explore the biology of negative thoughts, the snowball effect, the effects of negative thoughts on your body, and ways you can challenge them when they pop up. 

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Also, I am not a doctor or mental health professional. Just someone who has lived with depression and anxiety for many years who is passionate about sharing her experiences and tips for success. If you are in crisis call your doctor, then click here for some good mental health resources.

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Biology of negative thoughts

“When we feel depressed, we are more likely to get stuck in cycles of repetitive ruminative thoughts that have a negative emotional tone. We may regret the past, judge ourselves as unworthy or unlovable, blame others for our problems, or anticipate a bleak future. These ruminative cycles exacerbate feelings of sadness, shame or anger, and interfere with motivation to try to move on or actively solve problems. Depressive thought cycles like these seem to be entrenched, and are very difficult to break, even when we try to use logic to refute the negative thinking. Ruminative thinking makes depression worse and is even a predictor of subsequent depression in non-depressed people and of relapse in previously depressed people.”

(Stuck in Negative Thinking? It Could Be Your Brain)
power of positive thinking, positivity and negativity

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This was a deeply fascinating article, and I will try to summarize it well. It brings up an interesting point about negative thoughts. 

Having these thoughts tends to influence our sense of self worth. I know I fall prey to that. 

Questions we ask ourselves

Why am I like that?

Why do I do this to myself?

What we need to remember is: This habit is something our brain is doing to us. Full stop. 

That being said, it IS something we can learn to control. It just takes time and intention to make it possible. 

Let’s break down what is happening in our brains when we think negatively:

According to the above article, people with depression have more activity in two areas— DMN (default mode network) and PFC (prefrontal cortex). Here is how this works in layman’s terms. 

  • DMN is in charge of all our think-y bullshit— both good and bad. (Worrying, self-reflection, etc)
  • PFC guides DMN in this process.
  • When depressed, PFC takes your mind hostage, making DMN work against you. 
  • It sends you spiraling into loops you can’t snap out of. 
negative thoughts, How to challenge negative thoughts in 3 easy steps, positive thinking, negative thinking

How easy it is to snowball

This is why it is so easy to let these thoughts get out of control. Our prefrontal cortex makes it impossible (or, seemingly impossible) to allow our default mode network to ruminate or reflect in a healthy way. 

Our brain is broken essentially. 

Especially for those with anxiety, snowballing thoughts is an all too common issue. Here is a loop I found myself in last night. Thanks, PFC!

It’s the new year. 

Another year of my life gone. 

I’m almost 34.

I’m gonna die some day. 

One day, I’m just going to blink out of existence without any say in the matter. 

I will never see my kids again, or know how their lives are. 

*More existential bullshit.*

Can you see how easy it is for one simple thought to completely derail your thinking— and often lead to panic attacks and days ruined?

I share this because I know it is super common, and I want to show in the next sections why negative thoughts are so damaging, and what you can do to fix it. 

negative thoughts, the effects of negative thoughts, How to challenge negative thoughts in 3 easy steps

The effects of negative thoughts

“Negative attitudes and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can create chronic stress, which upsets the body’s hormone balance, depletes the brain chemicals required for happiness, and damages the immune system. Chronic stress can actually decrease our lifespan. (Science has now identified that stress shortens our telomeres, the “end caps” of our DNA strands, which causes us to age more quickly.) Poorly managed or repressed anger (hostility) is also related to a slew of health conditions, such as hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiovascular disease, digestive disorders, and infection.”

(How Do Thoughts and Emotion Affect Health?)

So, as you can see from this article, negative thinking does the following:

  • Makes us more stressed
  • Affects our hormones
  • Zaps our happy feelings
  • Affects our immune system
  • Shortens our life
  • Ages us
  • Can lead to hypertension
  • Can cause heart disease
  • Leads to digestive issues
  • Puts us at an increased risk for infection

It is extremely vital that when these negative thoughts pop up we are fighting our asses off to challenge them. 

How to challenge negative thought patterns, positivity and negativity
Credit: Crazy Head Comics

How you can switch off your negative thoughts

We need to stop thinking so negatively, but how can we do it?

I was inspired by a post I saw on Instagram (by Matilda at Crazy Head Comics) to share a series of questions you can ask yourself that will help you nip these negative thoughts in the bud. 

Am I falling into a thinking trap?

Am I overestimating danger?

Or, am I catastrophizing?

Let’s use a common negative thought as an example to explore these questions: I am unattractive. 

This type of thought does lead us to catastrophize in the sense that it reinforces the concept of physical appearance correlating to self worth. Thus, “not being attractive” is life ruining. 

Is this a fact or does it sound more like a false belief?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say. This question is really helpful because it forces us to use logical thinking. I wouldn’t recommend using this as an excuse to “crowdsource” and fish for compliments. Ultimately, that’s not going to help you heal. 

unfuck yourself, positivity and negativity

What’s the worst that can logically happen?

What will happen if, let’s say, you do not meet the unofficially agreed upon standard of beauty? What consequences will this actually lead to?

Am I 100% sure ________ will happen?

Has ________ happened before?

Is ________ so important that my future depends on it?

If you are not attractive, will something bad happen? Has it ever happened before? If it does happen, how does that logically affect you leading a productive, fulfilling life?

What would I tell a friend who had this thought?

What would a friend say about this thought?

I am hoping that if a friend expressed this insecurity to you, you would say the following: Stop. You’re beautiful, inside and out. 

So, if you would say that to a friend, why can't you say that to yourself? You are your oldest friend, and the only one you are likely to carry with you forever.  Share on twitter

Is this a hassle or a horror?

Is being “unattractive” (again, in quotes because it’s a subjective concept) an annoyance or a life-altering calamity? Put a different way, is it something you kind of wish was different? Or is someone holding a gun to your head, commanding you to be more attractive?

Gaining proper perspective is very important for healing in a season of mental health issues. 

Is this a possibility or a certainty?

How certain are you that you are unattractive? Has someone ever told you that? Or is it that damn prefrontal cortex messing with your shit again?

Bonus tool: Cancel-cancel method

This is a method I really like for challenging negative thoughts. The premise is simple.

Negative thought: I am unattractive. 

You say, “Cancel cancel.” (Seriously.  Say it or think it.)

Immediately replace with positive thought: I am beautiful inside and out, and my value does not lie in my physical attractiveness. 

It is incredibly corny, but over time it really does help. I recommend reading more about the cancel-cancel method, and doing some work with a therapist about the roots of these negative thoughts you’re experiencing.

Download this free Negative Thinking PDF here

Journaling exercises

Journaling is a wonderful way to get negative thoughts out and brainstorm ways to think more positively. Here are some prompts you can use to get the positivity muscles pumping:

  • Negative brain dump (write down as many negative thoughts as you have)— then write an opposing positive thought.
  • 3 things you are good at
  • 3 goals you have for the year
  • Make a list of things you achieved in the previous year
  • Make a list of things you enjoy
journal, gratitude, positivity and negativity

Related post: The benefits of journaling

Benefits of positivity

As we learned in the section that detailed the effects of negative thinking, being more positive has staggering benefits for our mental and physical health. Let’s review.

Being more positive:

  • Reduces stress
  • Keeps our hormones happy
  • Releases happy neurotransmitters 
  • Boosts our immune system
  • Lengthens our life
  • Keeps us young
  • Helps manage blood pressure
  • Reduces risk of heart disease
  • Makes our tumtum happy
  • Decreases risk for infection

Related post: Why You Should Think More Positively

Learning to be happy

Learning how to challenge negative thought patterns is life changing. It is constant. The benefits will literally never ever stop so long as you keep making an effort.  Share on twitter

You will live longer. 

You will feel happier. 

Your physical health will be better. 

how to be more positive

If you do not believe that you are worth that, scroll up and re-read. Because I promise you are. 

Are you prone to negative thoughts? How do you combat it? Tell me in the comments, and make sure you share this post!

If your negative thoughts are caused by anxiety, I just released an e-book all about managing anxiety in a practical way. It is 90+ pages of helpful info, including 10 reusable self care worksheets, for only $8 USD. To order a copy, click the image below!

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Positivity and negativity will fluctuate, but you can live a happier life.

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Related posts for positive thinking:

A great goal setting how to guide

What to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed

Are you facing an identity crisis?

50 Must Have Mental Health Resources

191 thoughts on “How to challenge negative thoughts in 3 easy steps”

  1. Having been under the effect of negative thoughts and kind of depression for some time in the past, I can totally understand each one of ur sentence. But again- as they say ‘it’s all in our mind’, our minds have the power to change our attitude, thoughts, and thus moods. Sometimes it is really hard, but as you said, persistence is the key. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post.
    Hope it reaches as many people as it should. Sharing it on Twitter.

  2. Negative thoughts are something I struggle with – even when I know I’m being silly or just overthinking things it can still take a massive toll on me. One of the things that helped me the most was writing down all the positive things that have happened in my life, I keep an album of photos from the days where I’ve felt most joyful and whenever the negative thoughts come into my head I just look over these photos/reread what I wrote. I love this post though, as it just shows that it is possible to challenge negative thoughts, and I feel like a lot of people can benefit from this!

  3. such a fabulous post!
    the questions you’ve presented in this post are wonderfully thought out.
    a complete guide to removing negative thoughts from our system.
    thanks for sharing. Amazing read.

  4. Such an interesting post. It’s strange how easy it is to focus on the negative and let all of that take over instead of the positive. It’s really hard at times to fight those negative thought patterns but I think I’m going to try some of the strategies here to see if any will work for me. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Dealing with negative thoughts is something I’ve been fighting for almost the whole of my life. And now, when I think of how many opportunities I’ve missed, I feel ashamed sometimes. Thankfully, I managed to get over my insecurities and I hope I am, finally, leading a more positive life.

  6. It’s true that it is much easier to be negative and takes a lot more energy to stay positive. Being intentional is so important! And I like that cancel, cancel idea to stop those pesky negative thoughts in their tracks!

  7. I really like those journaling prompts. I tend to journal when I’m feeling bad cause it makes me feel better, but it might be even more effective if I’m writing down positive things too.

  8. fellow anxiety sufferer here🙋🏼‍♀️ i’m currently having step 2 CBT sessions following from the step 3 sessions i had last year and this is something that my practitioner and therapist have covered with me ☺️ this is a really great and helpful post and writing things down like in the sheet you’ve provided is so helpful because sometimes there is just too much going on in my head and i need to write things down to see my thoughts clearly ✨

    1. Hey! Glad we could connect! Thanks so much for the feedback. I’m glad you found some solutions for your anxiety. Keep up the hard work! Thanks for reading 🙂

  9. First of all, it kinda make me ready eyed knowing that I wasn’t alone who had this existential crisis questions popping in my head! I’m happy to tell you that after feeling those feelings and thoughts for two years I’m finally making my way out and it’s getting better day by day. Thanks 😊

  10. Wow. This is an amazing resource. What helped me was seeing the impact my negative thinking was having on my daughters. Even if I didn’t express things, they sensed the change in my mood. By working on myself, doing much of what you have listed here, my attitude changed and so did theirs.

  11. I’m a key worker and it’s so hard to think positively right now and that’s a pain because it’s not good for us… but I’m going to try extra hard to be positive maybe I’ll start a journal…

  12. I feel like this describes some of my thought patterns so well, especially when I am dressing up to go somewhere, or when I am out and everyone I walk past seems to be prettier or better then me.

    But it is also amazing how many insecurities the people I view as ‘better’ then me have, so I have found that one of the biggest things that has helped me challenge negative thought patterns is to reach out to others instead of just letting it be all in my own head. 🙂
    Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. Talking about it helps so much! I think about celebrities and stuff, like you said, and I try to tell myself the same thing. Everyone is insecure about something! Thanks for reading 🙂

    1. You’re welcome!! I’m glad you found it helpful. I plan to combine it with another post and make it into a multipart series this summer, so keep your eyes peeled.

  13. I love the idea of saying “cancel! cancel!” I often get stuck in rumination and find it almost impossible to get out of it, especially when I am driving alone. Thank you for these tips and the note that I am not the only one. It is very much appreciated.

  14. This is an incredible post! I definitely had a tendency to snowball in the past. With negative thoughts, I love to use the phrase I learned from Brene Brown: “the story I’m telling myself right now is ….” which automatically questions the truth of that thought.

  15. These are some really good tips. It’s always great when you first realize things too. I always find that to be one of the most important steps too. This is definitely something that can be hard to overcome too. Having negative thoughts and such is difficult to overcome.

  16. All the information is such a help. I love reading the whole post. Because of the lockdown sometimes my anxiety is hitting the roof, the sad part.

    1. Yeah, mine has been flaring up too. It’s pretty natural at a time like this! Just take things one day at a time and focus on what you can control. Hang in there!

    1. I think that’s not totally illogical especially now. It’s understandable. Like my husband tells me, think about the things you can control, and go from there. Take care, and thanks for reading!

  17. Appreciate you sharing this post. Was highly informative and thought provoking. I learned a lot from reading your post. I’ve read the power of positive thinking and I my gratitude journal has helped create actionable steps to continually practice at it. Thank you.

        1. Hey there, Hannah, I get it. This year is a year none of us anticipated, and many of us have personal things going on on top of it! It’s awful, but we can do it! 🙂 Take care, and thanks for reading!

  18. Really well-written and thought provoking post. I don’t tend to get depressed but I have friends (and my wife) who absolutely mirror the snowball effect you described so well. One simple negative thought can derail into absolute horror in a matter of seconds. Thank you for sharing (and doing a great job summarizing all the articles)!

  19. Negative thoughts are something I battle with every day. I have learned ways to cope better at times, but it is still a battle. The constant feeling that I am failing at everything I do often overwhelms, but I have some strategies in place that has me doing ok.

    1. Well, that’s good that you’ve found things to help. It’s by no means an EASY process. It takes lots of time and effort. Hang in there, and thanks for reading!

  20. I struggle with mental health, emotions going up and down at will and feeling like I’m not in charge of what I feel or think. Challenging negative thoughts is such a tough and vital exercise and as you said being positive has scientific benefits to keep us healthy. Lovely post x

  21. Your sections on negative thought cycles and the fact that negative thoughts tend to snowball resonated with it. As a result I try to keep them at bay by using similar questions that you suggest. I’m thankful to have additional tips from your post as well to avoid falling into a negative thought cycle.

  22. I struggle in this arena too! So much in fact, that last year my negative thoughts controlled the success of my business and how confident I was as a mom. I really had to break down why it was happening, and where they were truly coming from. Once I understood the biology of a negative thought, I found that I had repressed so really bad stuff that I should have addressed. Once I was figured out to heal some emotional damage and learn to love myself I turned it around. Thanks for sharing these tips! I just know there are others out there that need help to shift their thoughts away from being so hard on themselves.

  23. This is such an amazing post. I actually challenged myself to use less negative language this month. I was surprised by how negative I was actually being.
    It’s been a tough journey, but I got a lot of tips from this post. So thank you!

  24. This was a very inspirational post, Our brain tends to focus on the negative things in life but it’s important to stop those negative thoughts and focus on being positive. I love the idea of bullet journaling. Thanks for all the great tips.

  25. Have you read anything by Joe Dispenza? I think you’d get a lot out of his stuff! He talks about rewiring your brain out of negative thinking, changing your brain waves with meditation… it’s good stuff! But I like your journaling ideas!

  26. This is such an interesting post!! I’m far too guilty of negative thinking but I love the tips that you’ve put in here. I’m definitely going to have to try the cancel-cancel method, I’m really intrigued by this. This post came at a perfect time – thank you!

  27. Ooooh this is good, Jen! I never thought of how one negative thought can snowball into shame and more negativity but it’s so true. And if you’re more of a pessimist, it’s VITAL to be mindful and aware. I’ve been walking my husband through this as every situation is always doomsday. I love how you unpack how to unspiral the negativity using some CBT methods. I’m a huge fan! Super powerful post!

    1. Thank you so much! I appreciate it. My husband and i are both natural pessimists so we are working on this in our house too. Feel
      free to share if you found it helpful!

  28. I love all your background research on this topic. Combined with your personal experiences, you definitely know how to tackle these tough thoughts. Going to try the journaling thing again! I used to do it, but fell off with the kids.

  29. This was super thought-provoking! It’s comforting to know that we have the capacity to change these cycles of negative thought patterns. Thanks for sharing!

  30. I have never had issues with depression, however, I do experience the snowball effect of negative thoughts. I imagine we all do at one point in time or another. When it happens, I go for a long walk with a good e-book, podcast or some music and get out of that negative zone.

  31. Negative thinking is the most destructive thing we can do to ourselves and it’s so hard to stop. Negativity is everywhere now a days and it’s more normal to think negative thoughts than positive ones. Thanks for the list of great questions to ask myself and change my thinking. Really enjoyed this post.

  32. I actually just recently posted something on my IG about mastering your mind before you can master your body! Mastering your mind is so important for mental health! These tips are great! Thanks for sharing!

  33. This really hits home for me. This pregnancy I’ve struggled SO much with a negative mindset towards myself. It’s been really hard and lonely because those types of thoughts make you feel so alone! I love the suggestion to think of what I would say to a friend going through it. I admittedly am the type to offer what I feel is genuine advice to friends, but not follow through for myself. Also would love to start journaling. Thank you for this 💕

  34. Great post and excellent tips and tricks on how to get started on challenging negative thoughts. Negative talk affects us in so many areas of our lives and can do a serious number on our confidence.

  35. Great post! I didn’t realize how hard I was on myself until a couple years ago. Even now, I’ve still got some work to do on the way I treat and talk to myself. Thanks for the motivation to do better with that!

  36. Lorena |

    Thank you so much for this post! I needed it right now.. I totally relate with the snowball effect of depression and how it can conquer our pessimistic thoughts. Looking forward to joining your facebook group =)

  37. Hi, thank you for this great post! I am an optimistic person, but I have friends who are pessimistic. While I do not suffer from depression or other emotional challenges, I do want to help my friends to deal with theirs. This gave me a lot of ideas to make them feel better about their selves.

  38. Great post, I’ve never actually heard of the ‘cancel cancel’ thing – I need to give it a try! I do something similar to asking what a friend would say with my OCD behaviours in that I try and think about what someone who didn’t have it would do (e.g. Would they wash their hands over and over after using the toilet or just the once?) and it tends to help me snap out of that pattern. It’s so difficult to get into the habit of challenging negative thoughts but once you get the hang of it, it makes a huge difference. Thank you for sharing!

  39. It can be a challenge to challenge negative thoughts. I like the cancel cancel method, I hadn’t heard of this. I have found journaling to be a fantastic method to increase the positive mindset. Thanks for sharing the awesome tips.

  40. Love this post, pet. It can be so hard to challenge those thoughts, but as you have said, it’s entirely possible! I love the mindmap included so we can better understand how exactly we can go about challenging our own minds.

  41. Diana | Wandering Hoof Ranch

    I love this post! I can be super hard on myself , cancel cancel, I only want what’s best for me and my family 😉 thanks for the new strategy!

  42. Great post!
    Lots of good tips.
    This is something that I constantly think I have a good handle on and then an anxiety spiral will pop up on me and I’ll have to start again.
    Working on a morning mantra and evaluating perspective in the new year.

  43. This is valuable information. Mental health is so important for many reasons and I think you did a great job touching on them in this article. Finding a way to stop the negative thoughts before they get big is key.

  44. I wish I’d read it 3 weeks ago. This is very insightful and must work wonders if conducted well. I will definitely keep this in mind in case my emotional state gets out of control. I’m currently 7 months pregnant and my hormones are making me extremely unpredictable.

    1. Aww i’m sorry you are going through that! Having been through it twice I can definitely say that pregnancy has a way of exacerbating things like that. Good luck, and thanks for reading!

  45. Thank you for sharing this – as someone with GAD I am always falling into negative thought patterns, usually fretting over irrational “what-ifs” and forgetting all logic. A lot of this advice is similar to CBT techniques which I think is so useful. I like the sound of the cancel-cancel method, might give it a go!

  46. This is something that I have always struggled with and challenging negative thoughts can be so hard. Sometimes when I beat one I feel like another negative thought pops up. What has really helped me overcome this is using a Gratitude Journal. That really helps me to see that there are some good things going on in my life so there is no reason to hold onto negative thoughts.

  47. Challenging negative thoughts can be so hard. When I beat one I feel like another just pops up in it’s place. I love the idea of talking to yourself as you would a friend though. It makes so little sense to be harsh on me if I would be kind to us. Let’s just say, I’m working on it…

  48. very interesting about the prefrontal cortex and thought patterns, I have a mindfulness app for my kids that teaches about this and how to sooth and redirect thought patters. And yes that snowball effect is true! I have found that it works in a positive direction if you make it. Thanks for this fascinating article!

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