We all have negative thoughts from time to time, and therefore, it is important to learn how to cope with thoughts that are upsetting. The key to them not overwhelming us or commandeering our mood is to manage negative thoughts properly.
How we evaluate and think about ourselves, other people, and events can have a major impact on our mood. For example, let’s say you commonly have the thought, “I will always be depressed.” Whenever this thought pops into your head, you likely start to feel sad and down.
The reverse is also true. If you are feeling anxious and scared, you are more likely to have thoughts that are consistent with that mood.
Given this, it is important to pay attention to our thoughts and how they might be influencing our mood. Often times, our thoughts simply occur out of habit (that is, because we have had similar thoughts in the past), and not because they are actually reflecting truth. For example, in regard to the thought, “I will always be depressed,” it is highly unlikely that you will always be depressed. Depression does not last forever and, even if you experience multiple episodes of depression, there will be times when you are feeling better.
Even though this thought may feel true, in reality, it is not. Believing that it is, however, can negatively impact your mood, putting you at risk for a severe depression or worse. Therefore, it is important to learn how to identify unhealthy behaviors and address them before they affect your mood.
Unhealthy Thinking Patterns
Listed below are some common unhealthy ways of thinking that may contribute to a negative mood.
- Definition: Looking at a situation as either black or white; thinking that there are only two possible outcomes to a situation
- Example: “If I am not a complete success at my job, then I am a total failure.”
- Definition: Expecting the worse to happen without considering other alternative outcomes that are more likely to happen
- Example: “I know that I will be so anxious that I will bomb this test and fail the course.”
- Definition: Defining yourself or others in a rigid way that doesn’t allow for more favorable evaluations
- Example: “I am a total loser.”
Discounting the Positive
- Definition: Looking past and ignoring positive experiences; viewing positive experiences or outcomes as simply being due to chance
- Example: “I got that job out of luck, not because I was qualified.”
- Definition: Thinking that you know what others are thinking
- Example: “I just know that my therapist thinks I am a waste of his time.”
- Definition: Evaluating other people’s behavior as being the result of something you did
- Example: “She wasn’t very polite toward me because I must have done something to upset her.”
- Definition: Believing something is true because it feels that way
- Example: “I must have failed that test because I feel so bad about my performance.”
These are just a few unhealthy thoughts that people commonly experience (you can learn about others from Nancy Schimelpfenig, About.com Guide to Depression).
Addressing Negative Thoughts
The first step in addressing unhealthy thoughts is knowing when you have them. Self-monitoring can be an excellent way of increasing your awareness of your thoughts and how they impact your mood and behaviors.
It is important to keep in mind that everyone experiences unhealthy thoughts like the ones above, and there might sometimes actually be some truth to those thoughts. For example, it is possible that you might have done something to upset another person, and as a result, they were not polite to you. However, we cannot really know if this is true or not unless we have enough information.
Therefore, it can be helpful to ask yourself some of the following questions:
- What evidence do I have for this thought?
- What evidence do I have against this thought?
- Are there times when this thought hasn’t been true?
- Do I have this kind of thought when I am feeling OK as opposed to feeling sad, angry, or anxious?
- What would I tell someone else who was having this kind of thought?
- Is it possible that I am having this thought just out of habit?
- What might be an alternative explanation?
Asking yourself these types of questions can help break the habit of unhealthy thinking and help you be more flexible in your thinking. In the end, this could improve your mood or prevent your mood from getting worse.
In addition, it may also be helpful to practice mindfulness. That is, when you notice that you are having an unhealthy thought, simply view the thought as just a thought and nothing else. It is just something your mind does when you are feeling a certain way or faced with a certain situation. It is a habit and not an indication of truth. Taking a step back from your thoughts and diminish their power over your mood.
If you find that you are having many of the unhealthy thoughts listed above and you find it helpful to address those thoughts, you might consider seeking out a cognitive-behavioral therapist. Cognitive-behavior therapy places a big emphasis on the thoughts we have and how those thoughts influence our emotions and behavior.