It’s normal to have negative thoughts sometimes. We all experience moments where we may think the worst of a person, a situation, or even ourselves. These negative thinking patterns can lead us to jump to conclusions and make assumptions about those around us. This way of thinking, also known as cognitive distortions, is not based on facts. It often convinces you to believe the negative, even when the situation could include numerous positives. When these negative thinking patterns stick, it can often lead to depression.
Connection Between Negative Thinking and Depression
There’s a vicious cycle between negative thinking and depression. Negative thinking can lead someone to experience deeper feelings of depression. When depressed, you can often find yourself stewing in deep patterns of negative thought too. These two concepts go hand-in-hand, making it hard for an individual to get out of these mindsets.
When depressed, you often feel worthless, helpless, and hopeless. Negative thinking patterns will often try to make you feel that these feelings are the truth, and there is no other option to see yourself. This is completely false, and while these patterns can be difficult to break, it is possible. By redirecting your negative thinking, you can help ease your symptoms of depression, or at the very least see them for what they are and try to change them.
Examples of Negative Thinking Patterns
There are several common negative thinking pattern examples. These can range from minor inconveniences to risking your relationships with yourself and others. You’d be surprised at how many of the most common negative thinking patterns you’ve likely experienced.
With all-or-nothing thinking, everything is black and white — there are no grey areas. With this type of thinking, if something isn’t perfect, then you’ve failed. When you think in these extremes, any minor offense to how you view things could become a big deal. For example, if you’ve been doing well following a new diet plan all week, but one day you have a piece of cake, you feel as though you’ve completely ruined your progress, even though you still did great for the majority of the time.
Another common negative thinking pattern is overgeneralization. This can most often be seen in two ways. Either something happens to you, and you feel as though this “always” happens to you, or something doesn’t happen because it “never” happens for you. This form of thinking sets you up for a cycle of defeat.
If you convince yourself this is how it always is, even if it only happened once or twice, you’ll assume the worst regardless of the situation. An example of overgeneralization is getting turned down for a date. Instead of accepting that this does happen from time to time, you tell yourself this is how it always is. By doing this, you are closing off opportunities to see it happen for you.
The Fallacy of Fairness
As the name suggests, this negative thinking pattern is brought on by measuring every behavior and situation on a scale of fairness. This can lead to conflict because not everyone has the same idea of what “fair” is. What is fair is often dictated by your parameters. This approach can often be self-serving and lead to unnecessary strife with those around you.
Your mindset greatly impacts the way that you see the world. When it comes to mental filters, your mindset focuses on the negative around you, filtering out the positives that exist. With this negative thinking pattern, of all the things going well in your life, you pick one negative detail out and focus all your attention on it.
For example, you receive an annual work review. Even though your boss had nine positive feedback points on your performance, you focus on the one feedback point where you could improve. What you end up taking away is the one negative aspect and not the nine positive ones.
Discount the Positive
Sometimes our negative thinking patterns are so strong that we refuse to accept that there is positivity in our lives or that we are doing well with something. There are feelings of inadequacy or underappreciation. For example, you do a great job building a crib for your growing family, but for whatever reason, it’s still not good enough for you. You always feel as though you could be or do something better.
This negative thinking pattern can be harmful to yourself, as well as those in your life that you are close to. This is relying on feelings or thoughts instead of real evidence. There are two main ways that this pattern tends to work. There is a type of mind reading in a sense where you think that you know exactly how someone is thinking. You feel you know their actions or response, so you conclude you’re not liked, or someone is angry with you.
For example, your spouse has been quiet all day, you feel you know they are mad at you, so you react defensively without evidence. There is also the fortune-telling pattern where you feel you already know you’re going to struggle with something before it’s even started. This could be a project you’ve been putting off because you think you just know it’s going to be a problem.
This negative thinking pattern can work in two ways. Either you magnify an issue by making it bigger than it is, or you minimize the situation as well as any positive qualities that can be drawn from the situation. An example of this could be as simple as forgetting to put the milk back in the fridge after making a bowl of cereal. Instead of accepting that mistakes happen and there is no harm, you scold yourself for being so unreliable and disorganized. You allow something small to represent larger negative thoughts you have about yourself.
When you reason with yourself, you’d normally want to rely on the logistical approach to whatever the situation is. In certain negative thinking patterns, emotion replaces logic. You believe that whatever you are feeling must be the way that it is. If you find yourself anxious about driving, even if there is no clear reason why, such as bad weather, night-time, etc., then in your mind driving is unsafe.
It is estimated that only a third of individuals struggling with anxiety actually seek medical attention for their disorders. That means that the other two-thirds are in need of serious help. They are also at a high risk for developing co-occurring anxiety and substance abuse problems.
Fallacy of Change
This negative pattern causes you to expect that others will change their ways to suit your expectations or needs. With this mindset, you ignore the truth that you can’t make others change. You are only responsible for your actions and responses. This mindset can lead you to not only expect people to change for you, but you may also convince yourself it is okay to try to pressure a person to change.
With this mindset, you feel as though you have a clear idea of how things should and shouldn’t be. This feeling doesn’t necessarily rely on the logic of the situation, but often the emotions of it. When a person feels this way and something doesn’t turn out, they blame themselves or others. This is often projected through the phrase “Should have done it my way…it’s your fault it didn’t work.”
This is similar to the all-or-nothing negative thinking pattern. You negatively label yourself when you’ve done something you or those around you don’t like. With this pattern, you don’t realize that you are not your behavior. One behavior doesn’t define who you are as a person. This labeling can be used with how you see yourself, or how you see others. With yourself, you may give the wrong directions to someone and label yourself a liar. Or, someone provides you with wrong directions so you label them a liar. In this situation, it was most likely a simple mistake that shouldn’t define anyone.
Personalization and Blame
This form of negative thinking can be draining on an individual. In instances of this thinking, you hold yourself responsible for events or things that you simply don’t have full control over. This often involves the blame game where you blame someone else without looking at your part of the situation, or you take full blame when that is also not the case. For example, you have a child who gets in trouble at school.
You may blame yourself and tell yourself you must be a terrible parent. You may also blame the teacher or principal that is speaking to you since they should be in charge of your child during school hours. Ultimately, it is your child who is responsible for their actions, but you take on the negative situation yourself.
Always Being Right
It feels good to be right, but it shouldn’t be such a mental driving force that it means more than anything else in a situation. This could mean that being right is more important than the actual evidence of the situation, or the feelings of other people involved. In this mindset, you see your own opinions as facts, and you’ll go to great lengths to prove it.
Breaking Negative Thinking Patterns
You may be asking — how do I get rid of negative thinking patterns? The answers aren’t necessarily simple, but with time and self-awareness, you can catch yourself when these patterns start. Thoughts are what create your feelings. If you can change your thoughts, you can change your feelings. This will allow you to adjust your mindset towards positivity. While this may take some active work at first, soon you’ll naturally catch yourself and positive thinking will become the norm. There are several different strategies you can try to help you break the pattern of negative thinking.
Identify the Negativity
To make changes, you first have to be aware of where the problems start. These negative thinking patterns are just that — patterns, which means that they can be monitored and assessed.
You can do this by keeping a journal. In this journal, you can start writing down the moments where you feel negative thoughts coming. Write down your thoughts as well as what pattern they seem to fall under. This will help you to start keeping track of the thoughts and feelings that trigger your negative feelings. It’s helpful to remember that it’s not necessarily the events but your thoughts that upset you in many instances. While you can’t always change the situations around you, you can redirect your thoughts.
When you write instead of think, you are helping yourself to purge the thoughts. When it’s on paper, you have a better chance of analyzing what you’ve written down and made sense of it. Once it’s written down, challenged, and redirected, you can move forward.
Challenge Your Thinking
Not all of your thoughts are true, especially when it comes to negative thinking patterns. Many of these patterns force you to think or react in ways that are not based on logic or reason. When you are writing down your negative thoughts, question yourself along the way. Is this true? Am I relying on facts? Should I be reacting this way? Is this the full situation? You want to dive as deep as possible into the whys or what you are feeling. Stepping back and assessing is a great way to start shifting your mindset away from the negative rut it may be in.
When you assess your thinking, it helps to focus on the positive and negative outcomes of sticking with your current perspective. Are your feelings helping or hurting the situation? Is your thinking bringing you closer to who you want to be or further? How is this going to impact my relationship with myself and others?
Speak Kindly to Yourself
We can be extremely hard on ourselves. Most of the self-talk that happens throughout the day is negative. We can be our harshest critics. Self-talk can be negative, and sometimes even abusive. It is important to become aware of this negative self-talk and put a stop to it. When this happens, try to slow down and redirect your thoughts. It can help if you try to think of how your best friend or a loved one would speak to you. Odds are they would never be as harsh as you are to yourself or vice versa. Practice redirecting your self-talk to be more compassionate of your faults whether they be real or perceived.
Try Different Exercises
There are several helpful mental and physical exercises that can help get your mind focused on positivity versus getting stuck in negative thinking patterns. One strategy is negative thought time. The purpose of this strategy is to help gain control over the thinking by committing only 10 minutes a day to review your negative thoughts. If you find yourself experiencing thoughts throughout the day, jot them down quickly and tell yourself you’ll get to them during your next negative thought time. This will help you to gain control of the negative thoughts and put a stop to them.
Another great strategy is replacing negative thoughts. There are four main steps that include noticing when you start experiencing a negative thinking pattern, acknowledging that there is a thought pattern you want to change, articulating to yourself what you want to be different, and choosing a different behavior.
You can also establish new habits. Replacing the negative with positive won’t happen overnight, but you can actively move the process along in a variety of ways. When you feel negative thoughts coming, purposely redirect your attention to subjects that you already feel positive about. The more positivity you look for in situations, the more you’ll begin to see and experience it.
Many individuals find peace and positivity through the use of affirmations. These don’t have to be complicated, and you can tailor them to your needs. There are several books and websites completely dedicated to affirmations. The main goal is to set your mindset for the day. Focus on what you want to accomplish. There is always something good going on around us, it helps to remind yourself of that good, even when it takes work.
Physical exercise can also be helpful when trying to overcome negative thinking patterns. This can be mindful breathing exercises and meditation, or actual body movement through yoga or other mindful activities.
There are several ways to find support. You can turn to someone you trust who can help you on your journey of challenging your assumptions and negative thinking patterns. Having someone who can help you question your motives and reactions can help shift your perspective. When you can rethink your direction of thought, you can lower your stress levels and shift away from the negative mindset into something positive. A mental health professional can also help you, especially if the process feels too overwhelming.
When someone has an addiction and a mental health illness, it is called a dual diagnosis. About one-third of people dealing with a substance abuse problem also suffer from some form of mental illness.
Negative thinking patterns can greatly impact your life, especially when you find yourself dwelling on these thoughts and allowing them to dictate your reaction to the people and the world around you. These negative patterns can become so intense that they lead to deeper feelings of depression.
When experiencing depression, you continue to dwell on the negatives of life, reinforcing your feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. It is important to remember that any pattern can be broken and redirected. You have the power to stop the cycle and keep negative thinking patterns from dictating your life and relationships.
Dr. Bhalavat is Board Certified in General Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine, and provides inpatient evaluation and consultation services at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, University of Maryland Harford Memorial Hospital, Maryland Recovery Partners, and Citizens Care & Rehabilitation Center. Dr. Bhalavat’s background includes treatment of depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia spectrum disorders, bipolar disorder, substance abuse and dementia.