If you want to practice self-awareness, self-love, and cultivate a healthier mind frame, it is important to learn the art of challenging negative thoughts. However, many would say that this is easier said than done. Challenging negative thoughts could be very difficult because as Psychology Today points out, humans are prone to negative self-talk as the mind often naturally fixates on the negative. We all spend a lot of time inside our own minds, focusing on parts of life that we’re dissatisfied with and worrying about the future. It’s human nature to dwell on the negative, while taking the positives for granted.
Though these unwanted thoughts are normal (especially when we’re in the process of discernment because we need to make an important decision by weighing the pros and cons) incessant negative thoughts could be detrimental to overall health if we don’t learn how to manage them. Bear in mind that thoughts influence emotions and behavior, so they impact how we all feel and act. Studies show that mental health impacts longevity. Negative thoughts and emotions also correlate with deficits in a person’s physical well-being.
It’s normal for unhealthy thoughts to appear from time to time as we all face various stimuli and challenges of life, such as rejection, failures, and loss. That’s why individuals need to learn how to cope when these thoughts crop up, so negativity won’t dominate and adversely influence the course of our day and our lives. Persistent unwanted thoughts could reinforce negative thinking, promoting anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. A negative mentality could also distract us from what matters, drain our energy, and prevent us from enjoying experiences.
It is important to remember that we have the power to choose not to dwell in this toxic mindset of negativity forever. With practice, anyone can replace negative self-talk and self-deprecating thinking patterns.
Challenging negative thoughts may be difficult for cynics and people who are used to dwelling on them, but it’s not impossible to change and modify this mindset.
Below are 8 tips for challenging negative thoughts, which is a great habit that could make a positive difference in your daily happiness.
1. Learn to Understand Your Thought Patterns
Louise Jewell, the founder of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association, says that our bias for the negative could be explained from an evolutionary perspective. Back in ancient times, our ancestors constantly scanned for threats to survive. This practice has been carried over throughout modern times. Fortunately, you can rewire your brain and train it to be more optimistic about the future.
Recalibrating brain pathways and challenging negative thoughts start by stopping your inner critic in its tracks. And the only way to do that is to first understand the different types of negative thinking patterns. If you can recognize them, then you can challenge and change them. These are the four common thought distortions:
- Personalizing: It involves making assumptions that we are always to blame for everything that goes wrong without considering other factors. For example, if someone doesn’t smile at you, you automatically assume that it’s your fault and don’t think that the person could be having a bad day.
- Filter-Thinking: This involves choosing to see only the negative or bad side of any situation.
- Black and White Thinking: This doesn’t allow room for gray areas or in-betweens. It only involves seeing everything one way or the other.
- Catastrophizing: Believing that only the worst case scenario or the most terrible outcome will occur.
When it comes to challenging negative thoughts, we must start at the root of the problem. If we can identify and recognize negative thought patterns as they occur, we can challenge them and replace them with more helpful thoughts.
2. Practice Mindfulness and Self-Awareness
If you’re serious about challenging negative thoughts, it helps to incorporate mindfulness practices into your routine, such as through mindfulness meditation. This practice helps individuals detach from thoughts and emotions. When you focus on breathing in meditation and let go of outside worries, you gain distance from self-deprecating thoughts and feelings. You can view these thoughts as an outside observer and challenge their truthfulness. Ask how these thoughts serve you or if they are even factual.
Practicing mindfulness plays a big role in modifying our relationship with our thoughts. When we become more conscious of these thoughts, we build better self-awareness. As a result, we become more cognizant of how our thoughts impact our emotions and behavior. When we gain control of how we think, we also learn to regulate our emotions, soothe ourselves, and take charge of how we act. Studies show that mindfulness has a strong influence on adaptive emotional regulation and encourages those who practice it to have better life satisfaction. And when we are satisfied with our lives, there’s little room for negativity to thrive.
3. Challenging Negative Thoughts with Self-Love
Those who are serious about challenging negative thoughts and overcoming negative self-talk must learn self-compassion. In today’s society, we are all so used to bashing ourselves and being our own worst critics as we compare ourselves to influencers that set extremely high standards on social media. Unfortunately, Kristen Neff Ph.D., and a professor at the University of Texas that this kind of self-criticism is harmful because it lowers self-esteem, promotes anxiety, and exacerbates depression.
To avoid negative thinking, acceptance is key. We have to learn to love ourselves, including our strengths and weaknesses. It comes with the realization that no one is perfect and that we are all works in progress. Negative self-talk and self-sabotage take a back seat when we choose to stop speaking to ourselves that way because we are no longer willing listeners. To help foster self-love, carve out time in the day for “me-time” to do things you love. It could be simple things such as:
- Reading a favorite book
- Playing a musical instrument
- Enjoying morning coffee on your sunny patio
- Soaking in a comforting bubble bath
4. Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude
Focusing on gratitude is an effective method of challenging negative thoughts. Research shows that an attitude of gratitude is a critical tool in combating distorted thinking and rewiring negative thought mentality. Those who feel grateful experience a deeper sense of peace and joy. They also experience better physical and emotional well-being.
Some may say that it may be hard to think positively when we encounter difficulties in life. Each time when we’re in a negative headspace and feel self-critical, we have to proactively think about things we are grateful for. Think of at least three things in your life that you feel happy about, even if they are small things like a cup of good coffee, breathing fresh air, or a kiss from a child. Focusing on gratitude is usually infectious, and it will motivate us to think of many other things that enrich our lives. A grateful heart is more likely to adopt a more positive mindset and stay resilient in times of trouble.
5. Journaling Your Thoughts or Using a Thought Diary
Keeping a thought diary or journal is another effective way of challenging negative thoughts. We can use keeping a journal as a tool to identify our negative thought patterns. When we gain an understanding of how our thinking styles impact our emotions, we can formulate a better response and act accordingly. To help you out, you can do the following:
- Choose a themed journal that makes you feel happy and motivated to write.
- Use journaling prompts such as questions that ask about your day to help you explore your feelings.
- Write down negative and pessimistic thoughts that give you anxiety.
- Combat these thoughts with positive statements, and read them out loud.
- Write affirmations such as “I am enough” or “I am worthy”.
6. Challenging Negative Thoughts By Focusing on Your Strengths
Focusing on the negative and overlooking the positive is a common habit that most people engage in because it’s natural to have a negative bias and to dwell on negative events that impact our lives. Research also shows that our predisposition to negative thinking could be linked to genetics, and other factors such as our upbringing and lifestyle could also influence our thoughts.
If you want to confirm if you have a predisposition for worrying, negative self-talk, anxiety, or depression, taking a CircleDNA test will help as this at-home DNA test provides hundreds of reports based on your DNA. It comes with reports on disease risks, which include your risk of developing dementia, brain diseases, and other mental health disorders like depression or anxiety due to your DNA.
The DNA insights also mention whether or not you’re genetically more likely to have a low stress tolerance, or more likely to be a ‘worrier’.
With these findings, you could adjust your lifestyle and reduce the risk of disease development and exacerbation.
Those who are serious about challenging negative thoughts must learn to stop dwelling on mistakes. Instead of focusing on weaknesses, zero in on your strengths and talk yourself up. It will be easier for all of us to imbibe positive thoughts and feel happier with our lives when we adopt these principles. When we have harsh thoughts and begin to criticize ourselves, stop and actively think of something positive. Think of positive evidence that disproves and disputes the bad thoughts to reaffirm our capabilities and boost our confidence.
7. Learn to Release Harsh Judgment of Yourself
We are all guilty of judging ourselves and other people. And usually, this habit is done unconsciously. Constantly comparing ourselves and our lives to other people could lead to a lack of contentment and dissatisfaction. Combat these ill feelings by letting go of judgment.
Although it’s not easy to do, it is not impossible to achieve. People who let go of these feelings live happier lives because their only competition is themselves. Some ways to release yourself from judgmental thoughts that foster negative self-talk are the following:
- Recognize your actions when you do them and put an immediate stop to the behavior.
- Reflect on the judgment and analyze how you can break free from it.
- Reframe judgmental thoughts into something more positive by actively looking for strengths.
- Actively look for strengths and see the bigger picture which you may have missed.
- Learn how to validate yourself when you do something good.
8. Challenging Negative Thoughts with Professional Help
Finally, if you find yourself struggling to let go of negative thoughts, consider professional help from a counselor. Or, at least talk to family and wise friends to gain a better perspective of things. There’s also no shame in seeking out professional help from a therapist, psychologist, counselor or psychiatrist. Mental health professionals are better equipped to handle issues, especially those that already impede daily responsibilities and deter an individual from enjoying life.
Therapy can help all of us weather the constant changes that life brings. In fact, we don’t have to wait to feel emotionally imbalanced to seek out therapy. Going to regular counseling sessions could help us with emotional self-regulation as it reduces stress and emotional suffering by providing us with coping tools. With routine therapy sessions, we could better learn how to squash negative thoughts, remain calm under pressure, and sail through life and all its curveballs with a more positive and optimistic attitude.
- Self-talk (Psychology Today) https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/self-talk
- How Mental Health Affects Physical Health (Bradley University) https://onlinedegrees.bradley.edu/blog/how-mental-health-affects-physical-health/
- How to Challenge Negative Self-Talk (Psych Central) https://psychcentral.com/lib/challenging-negative-self-talk#why-we-do-it
- Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies (Shian-Ling Keng et.al) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3679190/
- What is Self-Compassion (Psych Central) https://psychcentral.com/blog/5-strategies-for-self-compassion#1
- Your Best Life: Breaking the Cycle: The Power of Gratitude (John Kelly) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5085955/
- What is the negativity bias? (Very Well Mind) https://www.verywellmind.com/negative-bias-4589618
- Which patient will feel down, which will be happy? The need to study the genetic disposition of emotional states (Mirjam A.G. Sprangers et.al.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2977055/