What Causes Negative Thoughts and How to Stop Them?
Negative thoughts often seem to arise of their own volition. We could be going about our day, seemingly chirpy and confident, when a barrage of upsetting thoughts stops us in our tracks. However much it seems that your thinking patterns are outside of your control, this is not always the case. While negative thinking can be symptomatic of a mental health issue that requires treatment, there are also techniques and exercises you can try to control your own thought patterns. With this in mind, let's look at the causes of negative thoughts, and how to banish them for good.
What Causes Negative Thoughts?
There are many different causes of negative thoughts, including stress, worry and upsetting life events. Although many of us feel negative now and again, constant negative thinking can distort your perception of the world until everything seems hopeless. Often, this cycle of negative thinking is linked to depression, though it can also be a sign of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Aaron Beck, one of the founders of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) back in the 1960s, coined a term for these intrusions: automated negative thoughts, also known as ANTs. This term is still used to describe negative thoughts in CBT today. Whatever the original cause of our ANTs, the more we let them in, the more persuasive they become. Our brains get stuck on the same old neuron pathways, causing the negative thoughts to arise again and again.
Luckily, with time and treatment, negative thought cycles can be unlearned, and even severe depression can be overcome. If negative thoughts are accompanied by mania or hallucinations, however, it’s important to talk to your doctor immediately.
How to Stop Thinking Negative Thoughts
Learning how to stop thinking negative thoughts isn't easy. As much as we would like to be able to flick a switch to alter our views, changing a destructive habit is rarely so simple.
One way to counteract negative thoughts is to imagine that negative voice in your head has a human presence. John-Paul Flintoff, author of How to Change the World (2012) endorses the technique of “naming your inner critic,” and perhaps even drawing him or her as you imagine the personification to look.
You too can benefit from this technique by completing the following exercise.
Naming Your Inner Critic
Start by taking a pen and paper. Then, write down the kinds of thoughts that come into your head when you’re feeling negative.
Next, imagine there is a negative person inside you who is responsible for telling you all these destructive things. Imagine what that person might look like.
Sketch your inner critic and give him or her a name. Your inner critic might be named after a character from a TV show or a teacher you disliked at school.
Draw speech bubbles around your character and fill them with your negative thoughts. What do they look like on paper?
Next time your inner critic starts up, stop and imagine the character you created. Try arguing back. For instance:
Inner critic: Your friends only spend time with you because they feel sorry for you. No one actually likes you.
You: So, every single one of my friends only spends time with me out of duty? Not likely. They're busy people. Besides, my friends often tell me how funny I am or how much they value my advice. My friends are my friends because they like me and enjoy my company.
If you struggle to come up with a counter-argument, or if your inner critic is winning, try imagining that someone else is fighting in your corner. This can be someone you admire, such as a literary hero or celebrity, or it can be someone who knows and loves you personally, such as a parent, best friend or partner.
Thought-Stopping is another technique used to stop thinking negative thoughts, people with anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions. If you've ever experienced intrusive or repetitive thoughts, you'll know that it's not just the thoughts themselves that cause problems. Many of these thoughts become automatic, leading to feelings of helplessness, anxiety and altered behavior. It can be challenging to break the cycle of negative thoughts, which is where thought-stopping can prove helpful.
What is Thought-Stopping Therapy?
Thought-stopping techniques are often used to help people deal with negative thought cycles and constant worrying. The basis of thought-stopping therapy is that once a negative thought arises, you should consciously issue a command for the thought to stop. The idea is that you then replace the thought with a more balanced or positive alternative.
Thought-stopping works for many people because it acts as a distraction from the negative thought, interrupting obsessive negative thoughts that tend to ruminate in the mind. Some people wear an elastic band they can ping against their skin to remind them to stop negative thought patterns, which can be helpful in the short-term.
Does Thought-Stopping Work?
Thought-stopping can be used successfully, but some people find that trying to avoid negative thoughts only makes the thoughts stronger. Others find thought-stopping impossible. If you find that your negative thoughts are overwhelming, you may need to consult your GP or therapist. This way, you will gain access to all of your treatment options and learn techniques to help you cope with challenging situations.
Like all therapeutic techniques, thought-stopping should be overseen by a counselor or mental health professional; it is not something you should do without guidance. It also has to be combined with other strategies to be fully effective. In the meantime, however, there are many thought-stopping activities and exercises you can try at home.
Thought-Stopping Exercises to Try
The benefit of thought-stopping is that it makes you aware of unhelpful thought patterns and reminds you to stop and evaluate them. It can also give you a sense of control over your thoughts. However, thought-stopping alone is rarely successful. Once you’ve stopped a negative thought, you need to know what to do with it.
Here are some common thought-stopping techniques:
Capture your thought: If you’re out of the house or at work, visualize yourself capturing the thought so you can work on it later. It’s helpful to write it down so you can remember it later.
Interrogate your thought: Stop your thought and take it to court. What business has it being in your head? Is there evidence to support what it is telling you? Is there another view that needs addressing?
Analyze your thought: Can you spot any unhealthy thought patterns, such as catastrophizing, personalizing or all or nothing thinking?
Talk to the thought: Imagine you are talking to a friend who has come to you with this problem. What would you say?
Create a thought-stopping worksheet: If you have time, write down your thought and dissect it. What kind of emotional and physical responses does it create? Can you spot any unhelpful beliefs in there, such as negative thoughts about yourself or the world? Where do they stem from? While thought-stopping can change how you respond to automatic thoughts, it is not always the whole answer. Recurring negative thoughts can be symptomatic of an ongoing mental health condition which requires specific treatment . Negative thoughts can also arise due to environmental, or biological factors, so it is always best to discuss your symptoms with your health provider.
Remember that countering negative thoughts takes time and commitment. Often, people require ongoing help from a mental health professional to change their negative thinking patterns for good. Do not postpone, contact me today
Last Updated: June 20, 2019