Clinical Editor: Andrew Bertagnolli, Ph.D.
It’s normal to experience some negative thoughts, or to be hard on yourself from time to time — that’s part of the human experience. But if you find yourself feeling particularly negative for longer stretches of time, or it’s interfering with your mental health, it could be time to take inventory and make some adjustments for your wellbeing.
Does everyone experience negative thoughts?
To reiterate: negative thoughts are normal. No one is positive one hundred percent of the time! “Negative thoughts [normally] come and go, and do not cause much trouble,” says One Medical National Director of Virtual Behavioral Health Services, Andrew Bertagnolli, Ph.D. But for some people — particularly those who are susceptible to depression, anxiety, overwhelming anger, etc — Bertagnolli says there could be some more challenges. These individuals “may have more trouble letting these thoughts simply pass.”
If you find yourself in one of those categories, or for some reason you just can’t shake the negativity, “the thoughts can get 'stuck' and can contribute to feeling depressed, anxious, and more,” he says. You don’t have to have a mental health diagnosis to find yourself in these circumstances, but those with mental illness may be more vulnerable to this negative mental loop.
How negative thoughts affect your health
Our culture has long separated mental and physical health, but it’s important to remember that our mental health affects physical health, and vice versa. Thoughts can turn into physical symptoms.
“When these negative thoughts become predominant in our minds, we can have more chronic issues,” says Bertagnolli. “The challenge with these automatic thoughts is that they can often be erroneous and are frequently unhelpful.”
The constant loop of cynicism, hopelessness, despair, or self-berating can lead to chronic psychological distress, he explains. In turn, this prolonged psychological distress can take a toll on your physical well-being. Physiological symptoms can create further negative thoughts, and the cycle continues.
Types of negative thoughts
Because these thoughts can be pervasive, it’s important to understand the parameters of this mindset — there’s not just one type of negative thought!
“We can have all sorts of thoughts,” says Bertagnolli. He says they can take the form of “unhelpful shortcuts,” that don’t make space for more logical processing. “Whatever kind they are, they are almost always unhelpful and can contribute to unnecessary distress and a negative mood.”
Some examples he shared:
- All-or-nothing thinking: Either I am 100% perfect or I am a failure.
- Confusing possibility with probability (catastrophic in nature): ‘If I get in an airplane, it will crash,’ — while crashing is possible, what are the odds of it actually happening?
- Shoulds and musts: These can create unrealistic expectations that we can never meet. Examples: ‘I should never say no to a friend,’ or, ‘I must never let my emotions show.’
- Emotional reasoning (confusing thoughts with facts): ‘I feel like a bad mother, so I must be a bad mother.’
Have you found yourself thinking in any of these ways? Let’s take a look at some ways to manage them and steer toward healthy optimism.
How to manage negative thoughts
Ready to reset your mindset? Bertagnolli shares his best tips for reframing negative thoughts.
1. Acknowledge them
Awareness is the first step! Suppressed thoughts often bubble back up, so instead of pushing them away, recognize and observe without judgment. “Tune into your thoughts, particularly if you’re noting an unpleasant mood state.” In other words, if you’re feeling low, start keeping track of your thoughts a bit more mindfully. What’s your internal monologue sounding like? Is it fearful, or cynical?
2. Dig deep, identify the thought
“Ask yourself, what is the thought that is upsetting me the most?” He posits. Pick one to start with. If you can catch yourself, write it down, and set it aside for some assessment later. This might be a bit challenging at first, but think of it this way: have you ever thought about buying a particular car, and suddenly start seeing that car everywhere? What you focus on will start to become more apparent. Using your self awareness, it’ll become easier and easier to ‘catch’ your thoughts as they come.
3. Evaluate the thought
It’s time to get analytical. Let’s deconstruct the thought, and challenge it. “Ask yourself, ‘Is this thought completely accurate?’” Dr. Bertagnolli suggests. “Is this thought helping me, or holding me back?”
For instance, if you’re having negative thoughts about being terrible at your job, and you identify a thought like ‘I’m never going to learn X component of my job,’ you could then dig into the root of that thought. Are you struggling with your confidence or self-esteem perhaps? Or are you feeling overwhelmed or under supported?
You could start to challenge the thought. Have you learned something recently that seemed hard at first? Remind yourself that you can learn, and have in the past. Add some logic and evidence into the mix. Disrupt the pattern.
4. Replace the thought
Now you get to rewrite the narrative. “Insert a more accurate, realistic, or fair thought,” suggests Bertagnolli.
Sticking to the previous example, instead of thinking you’re terrible at your job because you’ll ‘never learn’ what you need to, try inserting a new realistic and optimistic thought like, ‘While I may be having problems with this assignment, with a little more dedicated time, I'll get it.’
5. Accept the thought for what it is
Dr. Bertagnolli posits, “Can you just accept the thought as a thought?” That sounds a bit like a riddle, but at its core it’s reminding yourself that you will have tons of thoughts a day (at least 6,000!),every day. They’re not all rooted in or reflective of your reality. “Just observe that you are having a thought and assure yourself that thoughts come and go. Ask yourself, will this make a difference in one year, five years or 10 years from now?” Don’t believe everything you think.
6. Interrupt the dwelling process
Perhaps the negative thought is reflective of your reality. Maybe something sad or painful happened. Maybe, for instance, you received negative feedback from a boss. Bertagnolli says “don’t dwell on it.” You can take the feedback, accept the negative experience for what it is, and move forward.
7. Write down a plan
“Sometimes it helps to write a negative thought down and go through the previous steps,” says Bertagnolli. You could take a worksheet approach and deconstruct your thoughts as they come up. He says that while this can be quite helpful, it won’t work for everyone, so give it a shot and see if it works for your brain.
8. Talk it Out
If you go through these steps and notice that you’ve been having more ‘bad’ thoughts than ‘good’ ones, it could be a good idea to talk to someone about it. Voice your fears, concerns, and feelings with a trusted confidante. Expressing yourself verbally can be a huge weight off your chest and help you keep things in perspective. It could be healing to talk it out, which could start to turn things around.
9. Seek support
It’s important that you don’t need to deal with these negative thoughts alone. If you’re struggling with your mental health, reach out to your primary care provider. They will be able to work with you to develop a care plan tailored to your unique needs, whether it’s lifestyle changes, medication, or a referral to another behavioral specialist.
Have more questions about managing negative thoughts? Our primary care team is here to help. Learn more about our mental health services or sign up today to book a same or next day appointment — in person or over video — through our app.
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