Therapeutic Ways to Change Negative Thinking
Along With 12 Tools for Addressing Crisis Situations
We all have thoughts that invade our brains from time to time and mess with our moods. We all get down.
Whether it’s your job, social life, family, or something completely different, sometimes the negativity can be too much. It can snowball. That’s the part where it can become problematic.
“Thoughts that we have that we would classify as negative or unhelpful are pretty normal,” said Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “We all have thoughts that somebody might say, ‘Oh that’s kind of negative.’”
Sometimes, negative thoughts are simply an accurate description of a bad situation. But what happens when they’re not?
When Negative Thoughts Become a Problem
While many of the things we think about during the day aren’t necessarily negative, some of our thoughts are definitely not positive. Negative thoughts shouldn’t be taken lightly. They’re not harmless and, if left untreated, can lead to major depression or anxiety, or serious emotional or physical problems.
“A bout of negative thinking now and then, or a random negative thought here or there, may not mean much,” Dattilo said. “But having them over and over for a period of time can quickly overwhelm a person. Using words like never or always— ‘It’s always going to be like this,’ or ‘I’m never going to be any good’—are a red flag.”
Dattilo cautions to watch out for red flags as they can to lead to rumination. And, ruminating—dwelling on negative thoughts—can be dangerous, said Mark Reinecke, professor emeritus of psychology and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
“It’s less about the content of the thought, and more about the process or inability to let it go, having the thought run through your mind over and over and over again,” Reinecke said. “This tends to be negative for people. People are rarely ruminating on other, more positive things.”
How can you tell if the way you’re thinking is doing more harm than good? Ask yourself if the thoughts are affecting your relationships. Are they affecting your work? Are they leading you to do things that are harmful, like abuse alcohol or drugs?
Are the ways you’re coping with your negative thinking getting you into trouble? If they are, you probably need to talk to somebody.
“If your negative thoughts are persistent, if they go on for more than two weeks, if you just can’t get out of this cycle, you probably need to talk to somebody,” Reinecke said.
Because persistent negative thoughts can lead to suicidal thoughts, it’s even more imperative to talk to someone—immediately, Dattilo said.
If you’re looking for helps with negative thinking, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.
Create a Crisis Prevention Toolkit
To prevent negative thinking from getting to the point of suicidal ideation—or worse, as in creating a plan to kill yourself or attempting to do so—it’s important to have to a plan. Here are 12 things you can do to prevent the worst from happening.
1. Have a Hotline Number On-Hand
Depression can sometimes lead to thoughts of hurting yourself. “If you find yourself in such a dark place, several organizations have people ready to help,” said Dattilo. She cites the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as an example, The organization has a national helpline that’s available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year in English and Spanish at 800-662-HELP (800-662-4357).
“It’s free, and all calls are confidential,” Dattilo said. “You can also text ‘TALK’ to 741741.”
2. Reach Out to Family or Friends
Open lines of communication are crucial when you’re dealing with depression, according to Reinecke. “People who care about you are a valuable support system, and cutting off those connections can make things worse,” he said. “Talking with someone about what you’re going through can make managing it easier.”
3. Stay in Contact with Your Doctor
Reinecke also encourages you to put your doctor’s number in your phone and keep it handy. “Your doctor is a vital connection,” Reinecke said. “He or she can give you a safe space to talk about how you’re feeling as well. Your doctor can also provide guidance and advice.”
Dattilo agrees and adds that if the medication you’re taking isn’t working for you, your doctor might change your dosage or recommend another drug.
4. Seek a Spiritual Connection
Faith-based groups can be another safe place for you to talk with others about what you’re dealing with. “Communities within places of worship can offer fellowship and support, even with things like meals, errands, or child care,” Dattilo said. “Members of the congregation might also be available to visit you at home, where you may feel more comfortable talking with someone.”
5. Be Active
Dattilo and Reinecke both agree that doing something physical can boost your mood. An easy 30-minute walk can ease anxiety and make you feel better, especially if a friend or family member goes with you. Exercise releases “feel-good” chemicals in your brain called endorphins and can also help take your mind off negative thoughts.
6. Steer Clear of Alcohol
Alcohol is a depressant. It can cause anxiety and make depression worse. “And if you take medicine for depression,” Reinecke said, “alcohol might affect how that treatment works.”
7. Eat Well
“A healthy diet can help you feel better,” Dattilo said. “Go for fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. Cut down on red meat, high-fat dairy, processed foods, and choices that are high in sugar and salt.”
8. Get Good Sleep
The right amount of shut-eye is important. There’s no argument about this from Dattilo or Reinecke. Both indicate that if you don’t get enough sleep, or your schedule changes often, your symptoms of depression can become worse. “Be consistent in your sleep habits, and create a sleep environment that’s dark, quiet, and cool,” Reinecke said. “If you regularly have trouble falling sleep or staying asleep, talk with your doctor about things that might help.”
9. Listen to Music
Dattilo is a huge advocate of using music as a fun and creative way to lessen depressive symptoms. Listening to tunes that you enjoy affects activity in the part of your brain that’s involved in reward, motivation, and processing emotion. Researchers are exploring ways that music can help people with depression have a better quality of life and get better sleep, according to Dattilo.
10. Try Relaxation Techniques
Reinecke is no stranger to meditation. He uses it to calm his mind and train his brain to focus. “You can also use meditation to steer yourself away from negative thoughts or feelings,” he said. “Researchers have even found that meditation physically changes your brain in areas linked to depression. Activities like yoga and tai chi may help in a similar way.”
11. Keep a Journal
Dattilo journals. It may help you, as well.
“Get a notebook and write down any negative thoughts you have often about yourself or your future,” said Dattilo. “Once you see them in writing, it’s easier to question them. For example, you might ask: Is that really the way it is or just the way you see it? Is there any evidence to support your thoughts? Are those constructive thoughts or harmful ones?”
12. Leave the Past in the Past
Rumination (reliving a moment or an occurrence over and over) is common for people who are dealing with depression. It can hold you back and affect the way you try to solve problems and adapt to situations. “If you catch yourself doing it,” Reinecke said, “recognize it and try to think about something more constructive and positive.”
Getting ahead of negative thinking is important. But all is not lost if you don’t catch—and address—negative thoughts right away.
Reinecke suggests several ways to help break the grip that negativity may have on you. Many of the methods he suggests fall under the umbrella of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a treatment that focuses on ways to change unhealthy ways of thinking and behaving.
“Essentially, it’s thinking about the way we think,” Reinecke said. “A psychologist or psychiatrist can help you with that.”
For more detail about CBT, google CBT. You’ll find a wealth of websites and videos on the topic. Search psychologytoday.com to find a professional skilled in CBT or other methods to get you back on your feet again.
If you’re looking for help with negative thinking, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.