How to Stop Negative Thoughts

Certain situations or issues can trigger negative thoughts. With depression, these thoughts become much more frequent and intense.

In addition to dragging down our mood, depression can cloud our thinking, invading our minds with negative thoughts and worst-case scenarios. These thoughts can sap our energy and reduce our ability to perform everyday tasks.

Negative thoughts often creep in slowly, so we may not even realize how skewed our perspective has become.

The more we ruminate on these thoughts, the more negative they get. Just like memorizing something for a test, when we think about something repeatedly, we can recall the thoughts even faster.

As these thoughts become more automatic, we may start believing them to be true; but when it comes to depressed thoughts, they only represent a very narrow and distorted view of reality.

This can lead us to pull away from the things we enjoy, becoming more withdrawn and detached from friends, family, and the world around us.

Our thoughts and mood are closely related and can easily influence one another. Depression tends to dampen both our thoughts and our mood, which can create a domino effect of negativity.

It is hard to change our mood directly. But with practice, it is possible to change the negative thoughts that pop up in our heads automatically, which over time will also help lift our mood.

Below, we’ve laid out a few tactics for changing negative thoughts in order to fight depression.

If we notice we’re having a negative thought about ourselves, one quick yet powerful trick is to ask, “Would I say these things to a friend?” The answer is almost always “no.” If we wouldn’t talk to someone we care about like that, we shouldn’t talk to ourselves that way either.

For more info on factors that can contribute to depression, see our Common Stressors tab on our Stress Management page.

For practical tips on overcoming suicidal thoughts, see our Managing Suicidal Thoughts page.

Part 1: Understand That Depression Affects Your Thinking

Depression twists and narrows our view of the world, skewing our thoughts toward more negative judgements and interpretations. At the same time, depression can also make it hard to recognize or acknowledge anything positive. The way we see things when we’re depressed usually isn’t very accurate.

For example, if a friend postpones plans, our usual thought process might be:

  • ‘This sucks, but we can hang out another time. I’ll see if someone else is available, or go by myself.’

But with depression, our thoughts tend to be more like:

  • ‘This sucks. I guess I’m not worth their time. They’ll probably cancel next time we plan something too. People are always canceling on me. What do I expect? Everyone knows I’m a fucking loser.’

Understanding that depression is negatively affecting our thoughts and perspectives of ourselves and the world around us is a crucial step to gaining some much needed separation from these thoughts.

Part 2: Learn to Recognize Negative Thoughts

It can be a bit confusing to differentiate automatic negative thoughts from other, more useful and healthy thoughts we have.

A simple approach is to look for common patterns that many negative thoughts fall into. Learning to recognize what are called ‘negative thought patterns’, ‘cognitive distortions’, or ‘thinking traps’ is a key focus of certain forms of talk therapy.

Here are three common ones to look out for:

All-or-nothing thinking

  • Sometimes you can catch these thoughts when you start thinking in terms of always vs. never, everyone vs. no one, or everything vs. nothing.
  • For example: A guy is running late for dinner with friends. He starts to get upset at himself, thinking he’s always late, then he thinks if he’s going to be late, there’s no point in showing up at all, so he cancels seeing them altogether and stays home.

‘Should’ and ‘must’ statements

  • Often these thoughts are tied to stereotypes of what ‘real men’ should be like or comparing yourself to others who you should be better than or ahead of.
  • For example: A guy is constantly stressed because he must get in better shape or he should make more money. No matter what shape he’s in or amount of money he has, it’s never enough.

Dismissing the positive

  • Depression makes it much easier to focus on the negative than to view a situation in a more objective way.
  • For example: A guy gets a raise at work, but after asking around, he realizes almost everyone got the same raise. Instead of being happy about the raise he and others got, he gets bogged down thinking there’s nothing special about him.

Check out our comprehensive article with 16 Common Negative Thought Patterns in Depression to learn more.

Part 3: Explore Strategies To Manage Negative Thoughts

Once we get better at noticing negative thoughts, we can start to work on managing them.

There are a few different ways to do this, but the common goal is to stop the cycle of negative thoughts. All of these strategies require practice and repetition, so stick with them and give them a chance to start reshaping our thoughts.

Certain tactics work better in the moment while others require a bit more time. Being familiar with multiple strategies gives us the most flexibility for managing depressed thoughts in different situations.

Acknowledge and Ignore

Acknowledging and ignoring negative thoughts is like noticing a bully, but choosing to not engage with them. When we refuse to give them attention, thoughts lose their control over us, and over time, they will bother us less often.

Find things that pull our attention away from negative thoughts. For some people, this could include:

  • Going for a walk or jog
  • Working on a puzzle or playing a game
  • Watching sports or a favourite comedy
  • Messaging or talking with a friend

Activities that require attention, coordination, and balance, or that rely on multiple senses (e.g., sight, sound and touch) tend to work best. When possible, try something that overlaps with our other tips in our section on The Essentials.

Restructuring Thoughts

Identifying, challenging, and restructuring negative thoughts is a main component of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a well-researched and proven method to treat depression.[1]

Automatic negative thoughts are often not very rational, so it’s important to challenge the basis or proof behind them which can help reduce their intensity and decrease how often they come back.

Some key questions to ask ourselves include:

  • ‘What evidence is there to prove or disprove this thought?’
  • ‘Are other people as upset about this as me?’
  • ‘Is this thought helpful, or is it holding me back?’

Here’s how this can work in practice:

  1. Situation: You’re trying to work on increasing your physical activity, but weren’t able to meet your goal of doing a 30-minute walk three days of the week.
  2. Automatic negative thought: “I failed to meet my goal.  I shouldn’t even bother trying to get in shape, it’s never gonna work.”
  3. Type of thought: All-or-nothing thinking.
  4. Challenging the thought: “Does missing one out of three days really make me a failure? I was still able to go twice this week and that’s more walking than I usually do. Even though this week didn’t go perfectly to plan, I’m still making progress.”
  5. Restructuring the thought: “Last week was very busy and I was able to go for two walks. That still counts. I can use this momentum to try and do better this week, and since I went twice last week, it won’t be as tiring. It may be slower than I would like, but I am making progress and need to stick with it.”

Reframing thoughts can take a lot of practice and patience. For more information and examples see our in-depth article on How to Reframe Negative Thoughts.

Mindfulness

Sometimes trying to challenge or reframe thoughts can be frustrating and tiring, especially if the thoughts keep coming. In these cases, mindfulness helps us take a step back and avoid getting stuck in our heads.

Mindfulness can help us stop the cycle of getting upset for having negative thoughts, while not giving them time or space to grow. Mindfulness doesn’t require anything other than ourselves, so it can be a very helpful skill we can use anywhere and anytime.

A mindful approach to negative thinking would look like:

  • Noticing a negative thought
  • Acknowledging the thought, without getting upset for having it
  • Disengaging from the thought and setting it aside
  • Re-focusing our thoughts and attention on the present moment
    • Often done via deep breathing, visualizations, meditation, or journaling.

At first, the thoughts will often come right back, but slowly with practice, it will become easier to clear our heads and disengage from negative thoughts

Mindfulness is a useful skill to have in our fight against depression and it can also be a great way to manage stress. For more information and tips see our article on mindfulness.

For Thoughts Rooted in Common Stressors

Depressed thoughts may also be rooted in concrete circumstances in our lives, including things like loneliness, lack of meaning, financial strain, issues at work or school, family and relationship issues, or other health issues.  The tips in this guide can help with thoughts around these issues, which include actionable steps to implement (e.g., talking with a family member to smooth things out after an argument, or talking with a financial advisor or social worker if we are having issues keeping up with expenses).

For in-depth tips on how to manage specific stressors see the Common Stressors tab on our Stress Management page.

Part 4: Put These Strategies To Work In Different Ways

“Once I started to recover from depression, the world felt completely different. I wasn’t constantly weighed down and assuming everything wouldn’t work out. I had forgotten what it felt like to not always be sad, to be in the moment and enjoy life without constantly getting down on myself and worrying about everything.” – Age 28, Canada

So far, we’ve discussed different cognitive strategies for dealing with negative thinking. Below are some more ‘active’ ways to put these strategies into practice.

Journaling

Journaling can be useful because it offers a concrete way to organize our thoughts. Getting our thoughts out of our head and onto paper can make it easier to identify, challenge, and reframe thought patterns, like we mentioned in the examples above.

 

We can also use a journal to make a list of things we’ve enjoyed doing in the past to help us come up with ideas of how to engage our minds in something more enjoyable or productive.

 

For more tips see our article on How Journaling Can Help Combat Depression.

Talking things through with a trusted friend or family member

Often, the best way to take the intensity out of a thought is to bring it out into the open and discuss it with someone we trust.

 

Depression can heavily skew our thoughts, so we may have to trust and rely on other people’s interpretations and perspectives more than we are used to. Even quick check-ins with friends to get their take on a situation can be a huge help in challenging our thoughts. Friends may also be able to think of ways to reframe a situation or issues that we haven’t considered.

 

Our Talk to a Friend page can help with ways to reach out or ask for support.

Talking with a therapist

Talking with a therapist provides the same advantages as talking to a friend or family member with the major added benefit of speaking with someone who has training and experience with a variety of mental health challenges and proven strategies for recovery. Talking with a therapist is also confidential, which is a huge advantage if we are talking about more sensitive issues that we don’t feel comfortable bringing up with friends or family (or issues that may involve them). 

 

Our Guide to Talk Therapy for Men provides more information on what to expect and how to find a therapist near you.

Routine check-ins (with yourself, in a journal, with friends or professionals)

Whichever strategy we put into practice to build new, healthier thinking habits, we need to do it regularly. Repetition and consistency are key. 

 

Here are some ways that may work for you:

  • Doing a quick 10-minute check-in every evening to reflect on how we managed challenges that day – what worked, what didn’t, and what could be done differently.
  • Journaling on a daily or weekly basis to record and monitor our thoughts.
  • Setting up a weekly meeting with a friend to grab a coffee and chat about how things are going.
  • Making an appointment to see a therapist weekly or bi-weekly.

 

We also have an article on Daily Routines to Improve Your Mental Health.


References

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