Psychologists estimate that humans have an average of 6,000 thoughts per day (1). When many of those thoughts are negative, it can add up to a lot of emotional discomfort and get in the way of growth.
The ABCs of Negative Thinking
One model used by Cognitive Behavioral Therapists draws a connection between thoughts, beliefs, and outcomes. The A B C model begins with an activating event (a), which is followed by a belief (b), and finally results in a consequence (c) (2). If you spill coffee on yourself on the way to work (activating event), you might have a belief such as “bad things always happen to me!” The discouragement you feel after this thought can color your mood and interactions throughout the day (consequence). The more we find ourselves on the treadmill of negative thinking, the more patterned and inflexible our reactions become.
Why are so many of our thoughts negative? Emerging research in neuroscience suggests that our brains are built with a negative slant. The Default Mode Network (DMN) is a system of brain structures that helps us engage in self-reflection, planning for the future, remembering the past, and thinking about others. If this list seems to describe the vast majority of what your brain does, you’re right! Over 90% of the energy consumed by the brain is directly involved in maintaining the DMN (3). The DMN is not a naturally neutral brain system, though - it has a built-in negativity bias, which makes us more likely to assess our external and internal worlds in a negative way. The more active your DMN, the more likely you are to experience depression, in fact (4). Knowing our tendency toward negativity can help us be more gentle with ourselves as we try to make changes.
Naming Negative Thoughts
Negative thoughts tend to fall into recurring patterns. When we can recognize these patterns, we get some distance from them, which makes it possible to engage with our thoughts in a new way. Here are a few common patterns, often referred to as cognitive distortions:
If “always” or “never” are some of your most frequently used words, you may have some problematic all-or-nothing thought patterns. All-or-nothing thinking is characterized by extremes without consideration of other alternatives or a possible middle ground. The rigidity of this type of thinking doesn’t allow for the complexities of life, and results in painful emotions and problematic behavior patterns. For example, if we label our efforts in terms of success or failure, even the slightest deviation from perfection may result in a sense of intense disappointment.
Catastrophizing involves assuming the worst when assessing a situation, which can cause us intense anxiety. Being able to anticipate potential dangers is a great survival strategy, but it causes emotional discomfort, relationship stress, and decreases overall quality of life when we anticipate problems constantly. Researchers have found that catastrophizing is a feature common to those with anxiety disorders, and contributes to higher pain ratings for those with chronic pain conditions (5).
Emotional reasoning happens when we mistake our emotions for facts. If something feels bad, we assume it is bad, ignoring evidence to the contrary. For example, you may be afraid of going to the dentist when your tooth is hurting, but not going is likely to have far worse consequences. Emotional reasoning would lead you to make the choice to stay away from the dentist because your fear or dread is in charge.
Tools for Taming Your Thoughts
Where did I learn to think this way?
Once you’ve done the good work of naming the type of patterns that impact you the most, it can help to explore where you learned to think that way. All-or-nothing patterns may stem from early experiences of being held to very high standards by parents or caregivers. Catastrophizing can result from being in situations where you felt unsafe - we learn to anticipate the worst as a way of protecting ourselves from having more bad things happen to us. Emotional reasoning can develop when we don’t develop adequate coping skills to manage intense emotions. Our primary strategy for reducing emotion becomes avoiding the perceived cause of the bad feeling instead of treating the emotion as a tolerable internal experience.
We can also learn problematic thinking patterns through modeling. If your early caregivers were anxious, they likely communicated their catastrophic thinking either through words or actions. When we acknowledge that some of our thought patterns developed through early learning (and aren’t a built-in feature of how we think), we become open to finding new ways of thinking that are more flexible and responsive.
When we can notice thoughts without acting on them immediately, we learn how to respond rather than react. A simple way to create space is with the breath. When you notice an urge to delete your whole work report and start over because you notice a single error, pause and take three breaths. If you’re about to call emergency services because your daughter hasn’t responded to the text you sent 10 minutes ago, take three breaths. Inviting a pause can help us find the important line between what we think and what is really happening, allowing us to incorporate data from other sources into our decision making process (6).
We can also practice engaging with our thoughts on purpose when we aren’t feeling particularly stressed. Imagery can help us relate to our thoughts as passing, inner experiences. Sit in a quiet place for a few minutes and imagine you’re sitting by a peaceful stream. Every time you have a thought (whether it is positive, negative, or neutral), imagine placing the thought on a leaf that’s floating by.
An important note about noticing thoughts is that we naturally enjoy some thoughts and want to get rid of others. Using our breath or imagery to experience thoughts will help decrease how often we engage in problematic thinking, but it won’t eradicate all painful thoughts and feelings. Creating space around thinking is intended to help us stay grounded rather than get swept away in outdated patterns.
Compassion over criticism
Changing long-standing thought patterns is hard work! To sustain ourselves through the growth process, it helps if we can show up with compassion instead of criticism. Compassion helps us to experience our inner worlds with more kindness and openness instead of aversion and judgment. It can be frustrating to notice how often we default to distorted ways of thinking, but criticism and judgment are not effective or sustainable tools for change. Instead, consider how you would respond to a friend who was stuck in a painful thought loop. Venture to offer yourself the same sort of regard you would offer someone you care about.
How are you working to reduce negative thinking? What has worked (or not worked) for you? Let us know how it’s going in the comments.
Written for Fitness Blender by Candice CM, PhD
Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Supervisor
- Tseng, J., & Poppenk, J. (2020). Brain meta-state transitions demarcate thoughts across task contexts exposing the mental noise of trait neuroticism. Nature Communications, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17255-9.
- Lam, D., & Gale, J. (2000). Cognitive behaviour therapy: teaching a client the ABC model - the first step towards the process of change. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 31(2), 444–451. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2648.2000.01280.x
- Raichle, M. E., & Snyder, A. Z. (2007). A default mode of brain function: A brief history of an evolving idea. NeuroImage, 37(4), 1083–1090. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.02.041
- Rodríguez-Cano, E., Alonso-Lana, S., Sarró, S., Fernández-Corcuera, P., Goikolea, J. M., Vieta, E., Maristany, T., Salvador, R., McKenna, P. J., & Pomarol-Clotet, E. (2017). Differential failure to deactivate the default mode network in unipolar and bipolar depression. Bipolar Disorders, 19(5), 386–395. https://doi.org/10.1111/bdi.12517
- Vowles, K. E., McCracken, L. M., & Eccleston, C. (2007). Processes of change in treatment for chronic pain: The contributions of pain, acceptance, and catastrophizing. European Journal of Pain, 11(7), 779–787. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejpain.2006.12.007
- Sears, S., & Kraus, S. (2009). I think therefore i om: cognitive distortions and coping style as mediators for the effects of mindfulness meditation on anxiety, positive and negative affect, and hope. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(6), 561–573. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.20543