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)
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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. 
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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. 

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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. 

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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
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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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