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Self-Help Tips to Tackle Negative Thoughts

Jing Fang, MD
Dr. Fang is a board-certified psychiatrist in the US. Upon realizing the strong connection between mind and body, she completed additional training in acupuncture and Integrative Medicine. Currently she is receiving training on TEAM-CBT, a cutting-edge and highly effective form of cognitive and behavioral therapy with a focus on empathy and compassion. She has a passion for eating healthy, laughing, meditation, history and culture.
Published: October 11, 2021
Everyone processes information and experiences differently, through their own personal "filters." Learning to recognize those filters and determine which are useful and which are harmful will help us see our situation more clearly and avoid responding with irrational emotions and reactions. (Image: Liza Summer via Pexels)

Research suggests that “the brain is a large predictive machine, constantly comparing incoming sensory information and current experiences against stored knowledge and memories of previous experiences and predicting what will come next.”

So it seems that each of us has a personal information processing system; but is this system always correct and reliable?

Creating a model of the world

Shelle Rose Charvet, a bestselling author and an international expert on Influencing Language wrote in her book Words That Change Minds, “It is well-known that people communicate through a set of filters shaped by history, sense of identity, beliefs about what is true, and values about what is right, as well as perceptions and interpretations of what is going on. When someone else communicates with us, we squeeze the message through our own personal filtering system to understand…Beyond these differences, each of us also has unique ways of thinking and processing. We pay attention to various aspects of reality, based on how we individually use our brains…We delete lots of information from the environment around us as well as internally.”

With differences in personal information processing, we generate thoughts that can be biased and distorted. And when they propel intense emotions, we may react and do things that are unhealthy and even harmful to ourselves and those around us.

Epictetus, a slave turned Philosopher during the Roman Empire is recorded as having said, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

Sue’s story

In the following hypothetical (yet commonly seen in clinical settings) example, we’ll see how Sue creates her own model of the world and reacts.

Sue is a college student. She just gave a presentation before her class. Her presentation was acceptable, although not one of her best. Her professor, who does not withhold praise when appropriate, suggested areas of improvement in her paper. Her classmate and friend Sunny didn’t respond when she texted her, asking for feedback but mainly support.

Sue comes from a family of high achievers – her father is an Ivy League graduate and her brother is receiving an Ivy League education as well. Her mother has two graduate degrees. Sunny attends a less prestigious college and does not like her major. Her parents and brother adore her, but she feels inferior in her academic studies, and has been feeling sad, depressed, and at times hopeless. Her maternal aunt suffers from severe depression.

After the presentation, Sue felt dejected. She had not prepared as well as she could have. Her professor’s comments sounded, to Sue, more critical than they were intended. Her friend Sunny, who typically is quick to offer support, didn’t respond to her text message, which Sue perceived as rejection.

Thoughts and feelings flooded Sue’s mind:

“My presentation was awful…I feel so bad…I am such a loser” (feeling down, worried, ashamed).

“Here we go again…He only picks on me…It was so unfair” (feeling angry, resentful).

“There is no hope. Nothing will matter any more” (feeling pessimistic, despairing).

“How dare she treat me like that? She should know better…I am done with her” (feeling furious, rejected).

Sue is not alone experiencing these negative thoughts and feelings under similar situations. Some people get past them easily, while others feel stuck and overwhelmed by them, which can lead to depression, anxiety, anger, relationships problems, as well as addictions.

Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a type of psychotherapeutic treatment that helps people learn how to identify and change disturbing thought patterns that have negative influence on mood and behavior. Through CBT, these thoughts are identified, challenged, and replaced with more objective, realistic thoughts. As we change our thoughts, we change how we feel and act. Since we can’t control every aspect of the world around us, it is helpful if we can learn to regulate our personal information processing and thinking in a way that will enable us to better handle adverse situations.

Forms of distorted thinking

David D. Burns, a psychiatrist and one of the pioneers in CBT, identifies 10 forms of thought distortions:

• All-or-Nothing Thinking (A&N)

• Overgeneralization (OG)

• Mental Filtering (MF)

• Discounting the Positive (DP)

• Jumping to Conclusions (Mind-Reading, Fortune-Telling) (MR, FT)

• Magnification and Minimization (MG, MN)

• Emotional Reasoning (ER)

• Should Statements

• Labeling

• Blame: Self-Blame (SB), Other-Blame (OB)

Identify distorted thinking

In Sue’s thinking related to her presentation, all 10 forms are found. Here, we’ll explain a few of them.

All-or-Nothing Thinking means that you view things in absolute terms – things are black or white; there is no middle ground or compromise. In Sue’s mind, her presentation is either good or bad; there is either a winner or a loser; there is either hope, or no hope at all; Sunny is either a friend or not.

Emotional Reasoning causes you to reason with your feelings rather than with rational thought. Sue feels bad and thinks: “I feel like a loser, so I must really be one.”

With a Mental Filter, you take one portion of a situation and focus on it, filtering out the rest; while in Discounting the Positive, you believe good things don’t count. Mental Filter and Discounting the Positive often go hand in hand. Sue filters all positives out, keeping only the negative. She dwells on one thing only: that her presentation didn’t go as well as expected; negating other times when she has done well. As for her professor, she doesn’t think about the other times when he sang her praises. Sunny has been a good friend overall, but Sue invalidates all the good things Sunny has done for her, focusing on when Sunny didn’t respond to her.

Jumping to Conclusions can manifest in two ways; Mind Reading is when you think someone is going to react in a negative way, and Fortune Telling is when you predict, without evidence, that things will unfold unfavorably. Sue adopted the belief that there was no hope for the future, and nothing would matter any more. She predicts, and is certain that her professor will not be satisfied, even if she makes improvements.

Record distorted thinking

There are four primary vital signs monitored by healthcare professionals: body temperature, blood pressure, pulse (heart rate), and breathing rate (respiratory rate).

But how does one keep track of thoughts and feelings? And should we do this? CBT practitioners will say yes; and they teach individuals to use Mood Journals (also called Mood Logs) to record them, as a way of self-monitoring.

Benefits of recording thoughts and feelings on mood log:

• identify specifics of thinking and mood

• discover the pattern of filters in your mind

• separate yourself from these disturbing entities

• empower you and facilitate objective analysis

• examine filters and identify evidence for and against them, as if defending yourself in court

• choose specific therapy techniques and keep track of response

Keep a mood log

Sue’s mood log would look something like this: 

1. Upsetting event: My presentation didn’t go well as I hoped, and my professor critiqued my paper.

2. Emotions: sad, worried, shamed, inferior, rejected, hopeless, despairing, resentful, furious, etc.

3. Negative thoughts and examples of forms of thinking distortions

a. My presentation was awful…I feel so bad…I am such a loser. (ER, MF, DP, MG &MN, Labeling)

b. Here we go again…He only picks on me…It was so unfair. (OG, DC, MF, OB)

d. How dare she treat me like that? She should know better…I am done with her. (A&N, MF, DC, Should statement)

Tackle distorted thinking with positive thoughts

In clinical settings, there are additional steps before therapy techniques will be applied once negative thinking is identified. For those who are interested in self-help, one way to address distorted thoughts is replacing them with positive ones.

Let’s look at how to challenge two of Sue’s negative thoughts:

The thought “I am such a loser,” could be replaced with more rational thoughts, such as:

  • I didn’t do as well as I had hoped, but it shouldn’t be a surprise, since I was not well prepared.
  • At other times, when I spent more time on my schoolwork, I got better results.
  • I feel like a loser, but it doesn’t mean that I am one.
  • Feelings, like waves, come and go. I can focus my energy on how to better prepare for my next assignments.

Rather than thinking “How dare she treat me like that? She should know better…I am done with her,”

Sue might keep the following in mind:

  • Sunny has been a good friend.
  • I’m stressed and I overreacted when she didn’t get back to me.
  • No one is always ready to respond to friends immediately.
  • I can wait and see, ask how she is doing, and let her know that I appreciate her support.
  • I can also reach out to my other friends for help.

Things to consider

Read more on CBT

Dr. David Burns, has written extensively for the public and therapists on CBT. His website is loaded with information, tips on how to use mood log, and more than 200 podcasts and notes to help one learn dozens of techniques.

Get to Work

For cognitive behavioral therapy to be effective, the individual must be ready and willing to do the work: recording and analyzing their thoughts and feelings. Such homework can be difficult, but it is a great way to learn more about how thinking affects mood and behavior.

Resistance to Change

It’s becoming clear to many that we cling to our thoughts more than we know and want to admit. Simply becoming aware of these thoughts does not necessarily make it easy to alter them. For example, although we say we want to lose weight, we keep trying and failing; with a sigh, we tell ourselves that nothing works or lasts. CBT techniques, such as cost/benefit analysis, will help uncover such resistance.

Resisting the temptation of old thoughts

A Chinese spiritual master has said that: “Matter and mind are one thing,” and “Human thinking is a type of message, a type of energy, and a form of material existence.”

Our old thoughts have energy, they can, and will pull us back and trap us in. Developing new ways of thinking, just like learning a new language, requires dedication and persistence.

If you need additional help, please consult a trained professional.