07/02/2024 by Therapy For You

Breaking the cycle: How to confront and conquer your negative thought patterns

Breaking the cycle: How to confront and conquer your negative thought patterns

Whether you’ve had a bad day at work or have had to cancel on friends or family at the last minute, we all endure negative thought patterns from time to time. 


Although these unhelpful beliefs can pass on their own, if you’re one of the many people in the UK who finds themselves constantly reflecting on the bad, you’ll know how hard it can be to silence your inner critic.


Here, we explore negative thoughts – what they are, why it’s important to challenge them, and techniques to help you find the positive in your circumstances.


What are negative thoughts?


Negative thoughts are unhelpful beliefs that pop into our minds automatically, and affect how we perceive ourselves, our situation, and the people around us.


You might make a mistake at work and immediately think “I can never do anything right”. Or perhaps you can’t make a friend’s party, and it’s left you thinking “I’m a bad friend, I always let people down”.


Whatever focusing on the negative looks like for you right now, it’s important to know that you don’t have to live like this forever. With the right guidance and support, you can stop negative thinking from ruling your life.


Before it comes time to make changes in your life for the better, it’s helpful to first understand the six main types of unhelpful thinking patterns.

  1. Personalising – Taking personal responsibility for things that aren’t your fault, or that you have no control over
  2. Mental filtering – Only seeing the negative in a situation, and ignoring anything positive about it
  3. Labelling – Assigning critical labels to yourself when something goes wrong, like ‘Failure’ or ‘Idiot’
  4. Emotional reasoning – Assuming that the emotions we feel are ‘true’, even when they may not be
  5. Overgeneralising – Letting the broad outcome of a single event inform the rest of your thinking
  6. ‘All or nothing’ thinking – Viewing things as either good or bad, black or white – leaving no room for more balanced views

How can negative thoughts affect me?


Unhelpful thinking is a natural part of being human, and something we all experience from time to time. 


But, when these negative emotions persist for long periods, they can drastically influence how you feel and how you behave – creating a vicious, negative cycle that can be hard to escape.


This doesn’t just damage your self-esteem; it can have a lasting impact on your mental health and overall quality of life:

  • Increasing how stressed you feel
  • Heightening feelings of anxiety
  • Worsening your overall mood 
  • Increasing the likelihood of panic attacks
  • Damaging your relationships
  • Causing your long-term physical health to deteriorate

How can I stop negative thoughts?


When negative thoughts and emotions dominate your daily life, finding your way back to feeling good can seem like an impossible journey.


But even if you've been stuck in this loop for a long time, completing some of the exercises we’ve highlighted below can help you improve your state of mind, and put you on the path to thinking positive.


Challenge negative thoughts


Instead of accepting the negativity that pops into your mind immediately, spending time challenging negative thoughts is a powerful way to approach your beliefs with a more balanced (and often more positive) viewpoint. 


Create a thought diary


To begin, split a page of A4 paper into five columns titled: Situation, Feelings, Thoughts, Revised Thoughts and Revised Feelings. 


Then, whenever you experience a negative change in your mood, record where you were, what you were doing, who was there, and what happened immediately before the change. With a resource like this, getting rid of unhelpful thoughts and emotions becomes easier.


To give you an idea of how to use your thought record, consider this example:



I texted a friend to say I wasn't coming to their event



I felt sad afterwards and rated this feeling at 80% intensity



In response, I believe: "I always let people down"


Confront negativity


With your negative thoughts noted down, you’re now in a strong position to challenge them. This part of the exercise isn’t about repeating positive affirmations or ignoring how you feel. Instead, you will approach one thought at a time, and think about each logically. 


Consider all of the evidence you have in support of a thought, and all the evidence against it. Stick to the facts, like the six types of unhelpful styles we discussed above, and avoid any opinions you have on the situation – treat every thought like you imagine a courtroom would.


To give you an idea of how this works in practice, let’s continue with the example from above, focusing on the thought "I always let people down":


Evidence that supports my thought

  • I didn't go to my friend's party
  • I cancelled on her recently when I was unwell

Evidence that disproves my thought

  • I've been told by others I'm a good friend
  • When my friend was upset, I listened and helped
  • When others cancel on me, I don't feel let down

With a more balanced view of your original thought on paper, you can now assess the evidence you’ve gathered and fill out the final two columns of your thought record:

  • Noting your new opinion of the situation in the Revised Thought column
  • Writing down how you now feel about it in the Revised Feelings column

Over time, as you repeat this exercise, recording your thoughts and evaluating them will allow you to think more objectively, avoid negative influences and regain control of your mental wellbeing.


Practise mindfulness


Another way you can address your negative thoughts and emotions is by practising mindfulness.


Focusing on the present moment allows you to spend less time stressing over the anxious thoughts and feelings in your mind. 


Although there are plenty of mindfulness exercises you can try, the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique is both simple and effective.


Ground yourself in the present


Whenever you feel your mind racing with negative events and thoughts, pay attention to your surroundings and name:

  1. Five things you can see – perhaps there’s a desk in front of you, a person out the window, or a painting on the wall you can see?
  2. Four things you can feel – can you feel your feet in your shoes, the clothes on your body, or the wind on your face?
  3. Three things you can hear – listen out for sounds like the whistle of the wind, the chirp of the birds, and the bustle of traffic on the roads
  4. Two things you can smell – how does your fragrance smell? Can you identify the laundry detergent you use?
  5. One thing you can taste – if you don’t notice anything, try imagining your favourite flavour instead

By taking just a few moments in the evening, at work, or during your morning routine, you can anchor yourself to the here and now, and escape the negativity swirling in your mind.


Need support to deal with your negative thoughts?


When unhelpful beliefs begin to overwhelm your thoughts, it can be hard to see the positive in any situation or overcome the mental health problems that can emerge. Thankfully, structured support is available to supplement these techniques and overcome your negative feelings.


By working with our team at Therapy For You, your local NHS provider of talking therapies for mental health in North East and South East Essex, we can get you on the path to feeling better.


Through our free, first-of-their-kind online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) courses, as well as our numerous other pathways to therapy, we can help you develop the skills to silence your inner critic – all in a way that suits your preferences. 

For more about Therapy For You and the support we can provide, get in touch with one of our qualified therapists today.

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