Dealing with negative thoughts is not a simple task. Every time I hear someone saying, “Just think positively,” I always get irritated. If it were as easy as forcing our brains to change thoughts by mind power alone, life would be a breeze. But in reality, it’s not that simple. The cycle of negative thinking is complex. The good news is that these thoughts are normal. Almost everyone has had less-than-positive thoughts. Things get more complicated when negative thoughts become a habit.
If you are finding it difficult to turn off that mental chatter, you may find it even harder to see any way out of your stress, anxiety or depression. You may also feel overwhelmed, exhausted and unable to shift your thoughts.
Understanding Negative Thoughts
To untangle your overwhelmed mind, it helps to understand negative thoughts. This guide will cover some of the basics. I’ve also added a worksheet at the end of this guide that I hope will help. Don’t worry, you don’t have to sign up for any mailing list or do anything other than download the worksheet.
What are they?
These thoughts take many forms. In most cases, they may feel like a mental chatter that is constantly going on in the background – even when you’re focusing on other things. They may also feel like a loop of thoughts going round and round. In all cases, the thoughts are negative. You might be constantly worrying about work, convincing yourself that you are doing a terrible job, you are going to miss deadlines, minor mistakes are much bigger than they are in reality, you are going to fail or you are going to lose your job. You may also start to get imposter syndrome, feeling that you don’t deserve to succeed or you are not good enough.
Are they normal?
These thoughts are absolutely normal. It would be more unusual if you didn’t have negative thoughts at some point or another. While everyone has these thoughts, some battle to cope with them, getting into a pattern known as a negative thinking cycle. This can also increase the risk of catastrophic thinking (more on that soon). If you find that you are stuck in a loop that affects your overall well-being, things may be getting worse. If you find it hard to see any solutions, it becomes harder to break the cycle. That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get back on track, however.
Where do they come from?
Your brain is a complex machine. It learns very quickly. It also releases chemicals that affect your entire body. These chemicals make it easier for your brain to form thought cycles. As an example, your brain releases stress hormones when you are feeling anxious and overwhelmed. When you feel these emotions on a consistent basis, your brain continues to produce stress hormones. This triggers neural pathways – a system in which the brain links thoughts and makes them more frequent. It’s a little like those annoying ads that pop up constantly based on your previous searches. Once your brain is stuck in a negative cycle, it is difficult to reset the cycle. The thoughts keep spinning around, stress hormones keep flooding your brain and the cycle continues on and on.
How do they affect you?
There are many ways that these thoughts affect your life. They often make it hard to concentrate, which can affect your productivity at work (which in turn makes you more stressed). They also make it difficult to see your way through problems. If you have anxiety, these thoughts can increase your risk of panic attacks and other related issues. You may find it harder to calm yourself when your stress levels are high. If you have depression, these thoughts can be very dangerous. It is essential to speak to your GP, therapist or mental health practitioner if you are having thoughts about harming yourself. Whether you have anxiety, depression, bipolar or any other condition, it is important to speak to someone if you are struggling with thoughts about self-worth or being unable to cope.
Are they real?
One of the things that prevent people from getting help is confusion over whether the thoughts or real or not. You may feel that the thoughts are real. You may start to listen to your brain telling you that you are not good enough, things are never going to change, and there are no solutions or any other thought that continues to go through your mind.
Here’s the thing, though. The thoughts themselves are not real. Your brain is telling you that they are real, and they feel real. However, the causes of these thoughts are real. Anxiety is real. Stress is real. Depression is real. Overwhelm is real. Burnout is real. All of these things are real. What this means is that even if the thoughts themselves are not real, the effects these thoughts have on your brain are real.
What happens when negative thoughts take over?
If you reach a point where you are battling to see any solutions, it’s time to get help. Remember earlier when I mentioned catastrophic thinking? This is a more serious type of negative thinking that can have a severe impact on your mindset. Catastrophising means that you only see the worst-case scenario in every situation. Even smaller problems will become impossible to handle. Once this happens, it gets harder to see any solutions. If you are stressed about an upcoming deadline that you may battle to meet, you will very quickly convince yourself that your client or boss will fire you or that you are a failure for not getting things done on time. In reality, there are many other scenarios in this situation. You could send your client an update asking for an extension, for example.
As a freelance copywriter, I deal with deadlines all the time. I have been working for myself for over a decade. Even I sometimes battle to get things done on time. And yes, I find myself thinking I’m going to lose clients and I feel like I am letting everyone down. When this happens, I have to make a big effort to reframe my thoughts. Once I do that, I start to see other scenarios. Throughout my career (in my agency days and now running my own business), there have been very few clients who have freaked out about changing deadlines. In fact, the thing that matters most is staying calm and updating clients. If you are unable to see any solution, you are unable to find ways to move forward. You may find yourself too scared to send an update about that deadline. Or you may end up with burnout, working all night to finish off your project. You will still convince yourself that it is a disaster. Pretty soon, you’ll find that you start to think this way about other areas of life. Everything will then begin to feel impossible and you will be one step closer to major burnout.
Can they happen without a reason?
You don’t need to have anxiety or depression to have negative thoughts. As we covered earlier, these thoughts happen to everyone. Although they are more likely to happen if you are prone to chronic stress, they can also arise from sudden stress, life changes, divorce or relationship problems, grief and loss or even events that are positive on the surface, such as a promotion at work. These reasons are often overlooked as they are not linked to chronic mental health concerns.
Can you shift thoughts from negative to positive?
And now for the most important question of all… can you shift those negative thoughts to positive thoughts? The answer to this is a little more complicated than yes or no. It is possible to reframe your thoughts – including catastrophic thoughts. However, positive thinking is not going to do much. Toxic positivity is a thing. People may have the best intentions, but telling someone to think positively is like telling someone with a serious illness to try increasing their vitamin intake. Being positive is not a bad thing. If you are battling with negative thinking, you cannot force your thoughts to change. You may end up feeling guilty for not being able to change your thoughts. Your self-worth may be affected by feeling that you are a failure for not suddenly feeling positive.
However, it is possible to reframe your thoughts. This is not a quick fix. CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) is the most effective way to re-train your brain. This is why I am a huge advocate for therapy. Trying to solve problems on your own can have serious effects. Working with a therapist trained in CBT and similar techniques is the best way to learn crucial coping skills. Self care means doing what is best for yourself, not doing everything by yourself.
If you are dealing with thoughts that are starting to feel like they’re turning into a cycle, you can learn a few basic coping skills. One of my favourite techniques that I do when I start to feel like everything is a mess is ‘flipping the script’. It’s simple. Take any situation you’re struggling with right now and flip it around to see it from a different angle. Going back to that deadline example, what would happen if your client or boss was totally fine with an extension? What would happen if they even thanked you for updating them, letting you know that they were grateful for keeping them in the loop? Did you know that time management isn’t only keeping to deadlines religiously but also delivering updates? That client may give you a gold star for being on the ball, while the whole time you’ve been thinking you were about to lose the client or get an angry reply to your email.
I made a worksheet a while back that I use often. It helps to flip the script and look at problems from all angles. Download it, print a few copies and fill it out whenever you need to check your thoughts. You can also fill it in online using your pdf reader.
Please note that this worksheet is not a replacement for therapy. It is simply a helpful tool. Although there are strategies you can do at home, the only way to deal with serious cases of negative thinking that may be impacting your life is through therapy or professional help. Your mental health is far too important to treat as an afterthought. Untreated catastrophic thinking can lead to bigger problems, putting your entire well-being at risk.
I hope this guide has covered some of the questions you have about dealing with negative thoughts that are holding you back from feeling calmer and happier.