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What is Negative Thinking? How It Destroys Your Mental Health

Negative thinking can be incredibly destructive to your mental health, so how can you change it? Find out here at HealthyPlace.

Negative thinking is something we all engage in from time to time, but constant negativity can destroy your mental health, leaving you depressed and anxious.

Science shows that positive thinking can improve mental wellbeing, minimize stress and even lead to better cardiovascular health, yet many of us are stuck following patterns of negative thinking. Let’s explore the effects of negativity on mental health while looking at ways to end the cycle.

What Counts as Negative Thinking?

If you're someone who analyzes your thoughts, it can be challenging to differentiate negative thinking from the regular worries that everyone has. Feeling sad about an upsetting event is normal, just as worrying about financial burdens or relationship troubles is something we all do from time to time. It’s when those feelings are repetitive and pervasive, however, that problems arise ("Why Am I So Negative and Angry and Depressed?").

The negative thinking definition from Rethink Mental Illness stipulates that:

"Negative thinking refers to a pattern of thinking negatively about yourself and your surroundings. While everyone experiences negative thoughts now and again, negative thinking that seriously affects the way you think about yourself and the world and even interferes with work/study and everyday functioning could be a symptom of a mental illness, including depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders and schizophrenia."

Not everyone who engages in negative thinking has a mental illness, just like not everyone with a mental illness has constant negative thoughts. However, negative thinking can be detrimental to your mental health and quality of life, particularly when you can’t stop. Luckily, there are ways to end negative thoughts, but you must first look at what causes them.

What Are the Causes of Negative Thinking?

Negative thinking has many different causes. Intrusive negative thoughts can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or another mental health condition. Negative thinking is also symptomatic of depression ("Negative Thinking and Depression: How One Fuels the Other"). While negative thinking can be a sign of mental ill health, it can also be a regular part of life. Negative thoughts can impact your life severely, however, so it’s best to get to the bottom of them, whatever the cause.

According to the Power of Positivity, there are three leading causes of negative thoughts.

  1. Fear of the future: People often fear the unknown and are unsure what the future might bring. This often leads to "catastrophizing," which means always predicting failure and disaster. Whichever way you look at it, worrying about the future is a waste of time and energy. The key to letting go of these negative thoughts is to accept there is a limit to what you can change in the future and strive to focus on the present instead.
  2. Anxiety about the present: Anxiety about the present is understandable. Many of us worry about what people think of us, whether we’re doing a good job at work and what the traffic will be like on the way home. Negative thinkers often come up with the worst-case scenario: that no one in the office likes us, our boss is about to tell us we’ve done terrible work, and the traffic will make us late to pick up the kids. Again, this derives from fear of losing control. Organization and routine can help with banishing negative thoughts, but you may also need to try practical therapy techniques.
  3. Shame about the past: Have you ever lain awake worrying about something you did last week, or even last year? Everyone does and says things they feel embarrassed about, but negative thinkers tend to dwell on past mistakes and failures more than others. Of course, a more constructive way to approach mistakes is to accept that the event happened and consider how you could prevent it from happening again in the future.

How to Stop Negative Thinking Once and For All

You don’t have to succumb to a life of negative thinking. With some basic countering techniques, you can learn to get rid of negative thoughts by intercepting them before they become all-consuming.  The key is to practice countering exercises every time you have a negative thought, and not to give up if you have a blip.

With this in mind, here are five questions to ask yourself next time negative thoughts arise. You can do this exercise in your head or by writing down your answers in a journal.

  1. Is the thought true? Is there a basis for this negative belief?
  2. Is the thought giving you power, or is it taking your power away?
  3. Can you put a positive spin on this thought or learn from it?
  4. What would your life look like if you didn’t have these negative beliefs?
  5. Is the thought glossing over an issue that needs addressing?

Remember that countering negative thoughts takes time and commitment. Often, people require ongoing help from a mental health professional to change their negative thinking patterns for good ("How to Create Positivity in Life When You Have a Mental Illness").

article references

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2018, December 11). What is Negative Thinking? How It Destroys Your Mental Health, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, October 19 from https://www.healthyplace.com/self-help/positivity/what-is-negative-thinking-how-it-destroys-your-mental-health

Last Updated: June 19, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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