Negative thoughts and beliefs are very common in everyday life. In psychological disorders, they tend to be much more frequent, intense, and distressing.
Examples of negative thoughts include:
- Depression: “I’m worthless”, “nothing will make me feel better”, “other people don’t find me likeable”
- Anxiety: “Something bad will happen”, “I won’t be able to cope with this”, “they will think I’m boring”
- Chronic pain: “This pain is intolerable”, “I’m going to be like this forever”, “I hate having to exist like this”
- Insomnia: “I will never asleep”, “if I don’t sleep, I can’t function at all”, “my health is failing rapidly because I can’t sleep”
These negative thoughts can further exacerbate symptoms and maintain problems.
For example, somebody with depression who thinks “nothing will make me feel better” will be more likely to avoid engaging in any pleasant or meaningful activity. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy because the lack of positive reinforcement in the person’s daily life further contributes to low mood.
These types of patterns are common not only in depression. A person with anxiety may also engage in short-term strategies that reduce anxiety but maintains beliefs in the long-term (such as avoiding flying for someone with a fear of planes).
Below, I discuss 5 strategies that can be helpful to tackling our negative thoughts and beliefs.
1. Thought Records
Thought records are a common CBT skill that is used to identify distortions in our cognitive biases. That is, we take a look at the thought and really analyze it to see how much of it is true and how much of it is likely to be less true.
With the thought, “nothing I do will make me feel better”, we might draw from past experiences where there might have been activities made them feel better. For example, taking a walk, spending time with a pet, or engaging in a hobby. We would also acknowledge evidence for the thought, such as activities feeling less enjoyable than they used to.
By taking both sides of the argument, we come across a more balanced thought: “although it is tougher to feel joy because I am depressed, there are some things that give me a little boost in my happiness. Many little drops can add up to a lot over time”.
2. Behavioural experiments
Sometimes, just thinking about our thoughts (like in thought records) isn’t enough evidence for us to really believe that the thought is not true.
This is where behavioural experiments come into play. Behavioural experiments take a belief and explicitly make a test to 1) see whether it is likely to be true and 2) even if it is, whether we cope with it.
For example, we might have a belief that “if I don’t triple-check my work, I will fail my next assignment and make several mistakes”.
In this case, you might make a plan to only check the assignment once before submitting it and see whether your anxious belief was likely to be true.
In this way, acting as a curious scientists allows your brain to obtain real-time evidence of whether its beliefs are true and may increase feelings of confidence that you can handle the problems that come your way.
3. Best friend technique
The best-friend technique is based on the idea that we are often a lot more critical of ourselves and a lot more compassionate to other people, especially loved ones.
For example, we might say to ourselves that we are stupid and worthless if we do poorly on an exam, but be much kinder to a friend who experienced the same problem.
In the best-friend technique, we develop self-compassion by asking ourselves “what would we say to a close friend or loved one?” if they were to be in the same situation as you. Pull from some of these statements and apply them in your own life.
4. Mindfulness meditation
The above strategies focus on changing a specific negative thought. On the other hand, regular mindfulness practice can help to change our relationship with thoughts and emotions.
Specifically, mindfulness practice works by allowing us to better notice different thoughts and feelings that come up, observe them without judgment, and simply let them pass on. By doing so, we take away the power of these thoughts and their effects on how we feel and behave. We are then better able to respond rather than react to different situations.
5. Downward arrow technique
Typically, when we experience a negative thought, we do everything we can to suppress it and avoid it. But what we try to resist tends to persists.
Because of this, we seldom understand the exact consequence of our fears because we don’t actively engage with the thought.
The downward arrow technique works by asking the question “if that were true, and then what would happen”.
For example, in the case of insomnia (where a thought might be: “if I don’t sleep, I won’t be able to function”) we would ask what would happen if that thought were true. We keep going with this approach until we hit the final “core” thought. Once we do, we can actively work with that thought using other cognitive strategies, like the thought record.
Besides actively engaging with the core thought, we are able to better determine whether this thought is likely to be true and if the thought is something to be afraid of in the first place.