19/11/2021 by Therapy For You

How to stop negative thoughts from taking over

How to stop negative thoughts from taking over

We have previously discussed 6 standout forms of unhelpful thinking, and how they can reinforce feelings of depression without us even realising:

  1. Personalising

  2. Mental filtering

  3. Labelling

  4. Emotional reasoning

  5. Overgeneralising

  6. ‘All or nothing’ thinking

In it, we outlined these patterns of thought and offered examples, so that you can hopefully start to spot whether you are applying any of these in your own day-to-day.


Now, in this post, we will share how writing your thoughts down allows you to visualise how you are feeling at any given time, identify negative patterns, and challenge how accurate those thoughts truly are.


Creating a thought diary


Split a page of A4 paper into five columns, and title these columns:

  • Situation

  • Feelings

  • Thoughts

  • Revised Thoughts

  • Revised Feelings

Whenever you experience a negative change to your mood, start to complete this sheet of paper as soon as possible. In the Situation column, write where you were, what you were doing, if anybody else was there, and what happened immediately before your change in mood.


Let’s use Sally as an example. In her thought diary, she writes that she was at home in her bedroom. Before her change in mood, she had just texted her friend with an excuse as to why she wouldn’t be coming to her friend’s party.


In the Feelings column, you would then identify any emotions you are feeling in response to the situation, and rate the intensity of these on a scale of 0% to 100%. In Sally’s case, she noted down sadness at 80% intensity.


Then, in the Thoughts column, you would write down what thoughts are going through your head in response to the incident in question, and rate these on the same intensity scale as your feelings. For Sally, she identified three thoughts:

  • “I’m a bad friend” – 50%

  • “My friend is going to hate me now” – 60%

  • “I always let people down” – 80%

Now let’s consider each of Sally’s thoughts in relation to the six unhelpful thinking styles discussed in this article:

  • “I’m a bad friend” is a form of labelling – because she does not want to go to her friend’s party, Sally has labelled herself as a bad friend

  • “My friend is going to hate me now” is a form of ‘all or nothing’ thinking – Sally assumes that because her friend won’t be happy that she isn’t going to the party, that will result in her hating Sally

  • “I always let people down” is a form of overgeneralising – Sally is using this one instance of not going to her friend’s party to make a sweeping generalisation that she always lets others down

Keeping your thought diary close and accessible at all times allows you to visualise your thoughts and feelings whenever you experience low mood.


Challenging negative thoughts


When you have your negative thoughts noted down, you are in a far stronger position to challenge them. Take one thought at a time and approach it logically; what evidence do I have in support of this thought, and is there any evidence against it?


Take Sally’s thought that she always lets people down. She creates two columns of evidence – one for evidence supporting the thought, and one for evidence against it:


“I always let people down”


Evidence for:

  • I didn’t go to my friend’s party

  • I cancelled on her a couple of months ago when I was ill

  • I forgot to pick up milk for my mum last week

Evidence against:

  • I’ve been told by others I’m a good friend

  • When my friend was feeling upset the other day she came round and I listened to her, and she said that was helpful

  • I was genuinely tired today and tiredness is part of depression

  • When people have cancelled on me in the past I haven’t viewed it as being let down, as I understood it was for genuine reasons and I’ve understood

By looking at her thought in a more balanced way, Sally determined that there was more evidence suggesting that it was not true than evidence that it was true. This is not positive thinking – she is not simply reassuring herself, but basing her new thinking on facts.


If you need help gaining this balanced perspective, consider the following:

  • What would I say to someone I care about who was thinking this?

  • What would others make of me thinking this way?

  • If you were not depressed, would you believe this thought?

Now, Sally can fill in the final two columns of her thought diary. In the Revised Thought column, she has now changed her thought of “I always let people down” to:


“On this one occasion I cancelled plans for a genuine reason. It doesn’t mean I always let people down. I attend lots of things and there is no expectation that I can be available for everything.”


This is a much more reasonable, balanced statement, and Sally rated the intensity of her belief in this at 90%. Then in her Revised Feelings column, Sally’s feeling of sadness, which she originally rated at 80%, dropped to 20% when her thoughts changed.


Overcoming unhelpful thinking


We hope that this guide has explained how to pinpoint the different types of unhelpful thinking we have, and how we can challenge these thoughts on the path to improving our mood overall.


Like anything, this takes time to master, which is why it is important to keep your thought diary active so you can practice. But, once you’ve kept your diary for a while, you’ll get used to thinking about the evidence supporting and disproving your thoughts, allowing you to eventually challenge them instantly.


This all goes towards helping to break the cycle of depression. The ability to challenge our negative thoughts influences the way we feel and behave, and this skill can make a huge difference in your life moving forward.


At Therapy For You, our range of treatments help you build these valuable skills, and prevent you from becoming shackled to negative, unhelpful thoughts.


For more information on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and overcoming depression, get in touch with our team today, or start immediately by signing up to our online course.

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