How to Reframe Negative Thoughts
Part 43: Men Fighting Depression.
Part 43: Men Fighting Depression.
Practicing cognitive reframing is a great way to relieve stress and increase mental strength.
It’s easy to feel alone and misunderstood when you’re bogged down in negative thoughts. Negative thought patterns cause a lot of stress, and you might not even realize you have them if you’re already dealing with depression.
Usually, the situation isn’t as bad as it seems. Imagine taking a photo – focusing on the foreground vs. focusing on the background will result in very different images, even though you’re standing in the same place.
When a guy is depressed, it’s as if the lens he’s viewing life through has been zooming in and changing focus until it shows a very small and distorted picture of reality. Often, these changes happen slowly over several months, so it’s hard to notice that your perspective has been distorted at all. We need to remember that we can still zoom out and take a wider look at things – this is what cognitive reframing is about.
Cognitive reframing (also called ‘reframing’ or ‘cognitive restructuring’) is a powerful tool you can use to change your negative thought patterns, reduce your fight-or-flight response, decrease unnecessary stress, and help you feel more in control of your life.
Tons of people feel stressed, and worry about how stressed they are. But, studies show that those who reframe their stress as a ‘response that helps them rise to challenges’ aren’t as negatively impacted by their stressful circumstances.[2,3]
Here are some steps and examples to begin practicing cognitive reframing.
Noticing negative thought patterns (called cognitive distortions) can be tricky, even impossible – unless you know what to look for. But once you learn more about these distorted thought patterns, it’s easier to identify them.
Some common negative thought patterns are:
Once you get better at identifying your negative thought patterns, you can practice reframing your thoughts to see things more objectively.
When feeling stressed or down, try using some of our stress management techniques to help you feel more clear-headed. Then, try to identify what thoughts and feelings came up automatically. Observe if those thoughts may be negatively biased, and see if they fit any of the distorted thought patterns you’ve learned about. If you’re busy, make a quick note to think back on it later.
For example, Mike was at home alone and feeling stressed. He goes for a walk to clear his head, and realizes he’s stressed because he thinks ‘nobody ever wants to talk to me’. After observing that thought, Mike realizes it sounds a lot like ‘All or Nothing’ thinking. In fact, he had an hour-long conversation with a friend only two days ago.
Once you’ve identified a negative thought, ask yourself if the events that happened justify it. Are the things you are telling yourself objectively true? Or are they based around negative assumptions?
Try to brainstorm other ways to interpret the same events (ask a friend to get their feedback and see how they perceive the situation). Think about which perspective is more useful to you – some ways of viewing the situation will likely cause you less stress than others.
An easy way to practice this is by balancing a negative thought with a positive one in the form of “Yes___, but ___”. Yes it is true I got laid off, but a lot of people got laid off during COVID-19 and I have a lot of skills and experience that make me a valuable employee.
Once you’ve recognized the cognitive distortions in your negative thoughts and challenged the truth in them, you can replace your negative thoughts with more objective ones. Objective thoughts better fit your situation and are usually a lot more positive as well.
Replacing your negative thought patterns involves using fewer negative words (eg. seeing a situation as a “challenge” instead of a “threat”), stopping negative self-talk (eg. start talking to yourself like you would to a friend), and finding silver linings.
Sam, who recently graduated from college, is struggling to find a job that will help him start saving up money for the future. He’s currently making minimum wage washing dishes while trying to find better work. He’s gotten a couple interviews, but no job offers. Sam feels ashamed, he thinks,
I’m never going to be able to make a decent living, no companies want me. I should already have a job. I’m a failure and a disappointment to myself and my family.
Sam takes several deep breaths to calm himself. Then he starts observing his thoughts and realizes that ‘never’ and ‘should’ are extreme words, and that he has no actual evidence that all companies in the world won’t hire him. Thinking he’s a ‘failure’ is also an unfair and untrue label to place on himself, and his family has never said they are ashamed of him.
Sam challenges his negative thoughts by thinking of more objective and likely explanations for his situation, using the “Yes, but” technique.
Sam replaces his negative thoughts with more objective and positive ones, reframing his situation entirely. He feels more relieved,
It might take a little while to find a better job, but I’ll be able to make enough money to take care of myself, and some company will hire me if I keep seeking them out and taking interviews. I’m a fighter and my family is supportive of me.
Carlos recently started a new relationship. He’s been on a few dates and things seem to be going well, but he can’t shake the feeling that his date will eventually leave him for someone else. While Carlos is waiting to meet up with his date, who is 20 minutes late, he thinks,
In reality, his date is dealing with a family emergency.
Once Carlos reframes this stressful situation, he thinks,
Carlos had waited another 10 minutes for her and then decided to go for a walk. He tried contacting her later that night, but she didn’t reply. Instead of spending all night in bed blaming himself about getting stood up, he was able to put those thoughts aside and get some rest. The next day Carlos gets a call from his date. She’s incredibly sorry and explains the situation. His date is thankful that he understands that things come up and that he isn’t upset with her. They may have missed a date, but he’s also shown he can be a patient and understanding partner, and they plan to meet up later in the week.
Getting better at cognitive reframing takes practice.
Like the camera analogy we began with, you first have to notice that your camera is zoomed in and that your perspective is distorted. Then you need to work on correcting it whenever you recognize a negative thought pattern. It will seem like a challenge at first, but once you’re used to zooming out and seeing “the bigger picture”, it will come more naturally.
By replacing negative thought patterns using cognitive reframing, you’ll increase your mental strength and start reaping the rewards – relief from unnecessary stress and greater peace of mind.