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Breaking Free from Negative Thought Patterns: Cognitive Behavioral Techniques for Positive Change

Written byDesiree Smith

Our minds are remarkably powerful. They enable us to learn and grow as we go through life. But they can also hold us captive. Have you ever found yourself thinking in circles and unable to break the cycle? That’s called a negative thought pattern. Our negative thought patterns can lead to cognitive distortions or errors in thinking, resulting in harmful false beliefs about ourselves, those around us, or our place in the world. In turn, these self-destructive thoughts can cause or increase mental health issues.

But what exactly causes cognitive distortion? It’s often a combination of factors, but there are a few key indicators to watch for. If you notice any of these habits in your life, it may be a sign that you need to break free from your negative thought patterns. 

Regular overthinking can lead to cognitive distortions. If you’re stuck considering every possible outcome for every decision, it may be time to start putting deadlines on your decisions. When you ruminate on potential scenarios for too long, you tend to project your flaws on your vision of the future, meaning you believe your life will only get worse. Left unchecked, this kind of thought pattern can spiral into cynical hostility, which is when you direct anger, mistrust, or judgment toward others. Whether it’s a result of insecurity or past baggage, this harmful thought process calls for introspection — and potentially professional help. But before discussing how treatment can help, let’s review some of the most common negative thought patterns people experience.

10 Common Types of Negative Thought Patterns

Negative thought patterns can have long-lasting effects if left untreated. But in order to get effective treatment, you must first recognize that they are happening. Here are a few common types to consider:

1). All-or-nothing thinking

All-or-nothing thinking occurs when you see things in black and white — often to the extreme. If things aren’t perfect, then they’re a failure. There’s no in-between. Something is either all good or entirely bad. This thinking can lead to unrealistic judgments and heightened stress when things don’t go as planned.

2). Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization involves drawing broad conclusions based on limited evidence. If one bad thing happens, overgeneralized thinking will cause you to believe that it always happens. And if something you want to happen doesn’t, you might think things never go your way. Ultimately, overgeneralization creates a belief that a single adverse event represents a never-ending pattern, fueling pessimism and reduced motivation.

3). Mental filter

A mental filter is when a single negative event taints your vision of reality. This type of thinking can cause you to ignore or downplay any positives, which skews your perception and affects your mood. If you always see things through a negative lens, you’ll have a distorted view of reality and increased feelings of dissatisfaction.

4). Disqualifying the positive

Similar to a mental filter, disqualifying the positive involves only focusing on the negative and disregarding any positive. You may insist that positive experiences don’t count, reinforcing negativity. By disqualifying the positive, you undermine your self-esteem and rob yourself of happiness.

5). Jumping to conclusions

Jumping to conclusions involves having negative interpretations of life events without definite facts to back them up. If you consistently jump to conclusions, you’ll develop misconceptions that can lead to unnecessary worry, misunderstanding, and strained relationships.

6). Magnification or minimization

Magnification occurs when you exaggerate the importance of unfavorable events. Conversely, minimization is when you downplay the significance of positive events. When you magnify or minimize events, you can develop a distorted perception, experience increased stress, and have less confidence.

7). Emotional reasoning

When you believe your feelings reflect the truth of reality, you’re using emotional reasoning. If you associate your feelings with reality, you could make irrational decisions and develop biases. It’s important to remember that your emotions might not always align with factual reality.

8). "Should" statements

“Should” statements involve placing rigid expectations on yourself or others, which can lead to guilt or frustration when those expectations aren’t met. They cause stress, create unrealistic standards, and hinder flexibility.

9). Labeling or mislabeling

You might label or mislabel events using colorful and emotionally loaded language. When you attach a label to a person, you define them without considering the context of the situation. With labeling and mislabeling, you develop the belief that the label assigned to a person reflects who they are at their core instead of in the current moment. This type of thinking affects our perception of who people are and creates an unhealthy gap between reality and what we believe to be true.

10). Personalization

Personalization lends itself to unnecessary blame. You may take responsibility for events or situations that are beyond your control — especially those with negative outcomes. When you internalize or overly personalize external circumstances, you’ll experience unnecessary guilt, self-blame, and stress.

How To Break Negative Thought Patterns

Negative thought patterns can be challenging to break. No wonder we get stuck in them. Thankfully, there are strategies for breaking free from negative thoughts and embracing more positive ones.

First, practice awareness. Take time to identify your negative thoughts, then pause before choosing what happens next. By prioritizing mindfulness and being aware of what’s happening, you’ll be able to take control of your negative thoughts instead of the other way around. 

Second, challenge your thinking. Analyze your thoughts objectively from all angles, and try to adopt different points of view. It can be easy to get stuck in your head without an awareness of the world around you. You can better understand a situation's overall impact by taking a more objective view of your thoughts.

Next, determine if your thoughts are helpful or harmful. If your thoughts are harmful, actively focus on alternative ideas that are more supportive, understanding, or positive.

At the end of the day, you get to decide what you want to believe and think, how you behave, and who you want to be. But this isn’t a one-time decision; it’s an ongoing effort that’s carried into the little choices you make every day. Some thought patterns can be reshaped with minimal effort. Others require more help. That’s when a treatment approach like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be helpful. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapeutic treatment that helps you identify and change destructive thought patterns. It combines cognitive and behavior therapy to evaluate thinking, emotional responses, and behaviors. If you’re regularly getting stuck in negative thought patterns, don’t wait for your negative thoughts to escalate before you get treatment. When left untreated, automatic negative thoughts can lead to depression and anxiety. 

Cognitive behavioral therapists create a supportive and nonjudgmental environment where you can openly discuss your struggles. They are trained to help individuals struggling with various mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Many practitioners will recommend cognitive behavioral therapy due to its speed and effectiveness. Many patients can see practical improvements within 5 to 20 sessions.

Your therapist will start by helping you identify negative thoughts. This process requires introspection, which can be uncomfortable at times, but provides insights that are essential to treatment. Once you identify your thought patterns, your therapist will help you practice coping skills and develop proactive ways to address your triggers. This step could involve setting long and short-term goals and identifying and solving any problems that arise from stressors. 

Throughout your sessions, you’ll be encouraged to implement self-monitoring practices into your daily routine. You’ll likely be asked to track your behaviors, symptoms, and experiences over time and share them with your therapist. By doing this, you’ll better understand yourself and how you respond to negative situations, both of which are essential to breaking negative thought patterns.

If you choose to start cognitive behavioral therapy, keep in mind that it’s not a cure to eliminate negative thoughts or situations. The goal is to help you develop the skills you need to deal with difficulties when they arise. Results may take time, so have patience with yourself. Undoing deep-set thought patterns is far easier said than done. You may have to talk about painful things with your therapist, so be kind to yourself. Remember that your therapist is there to listen and help, not offer judgment. And if you start cognitive behavior therapy and don’t notice any results after several sessions, don’t be discouraged. This is just one of many options, and it doesn’t work for everyone. Your therapist will gladly recommend other approaches that might be more helpful to you.

Have you noticed a pattern of negative thoughts in your life? If so, our team of experts is here to help. Whether it’s getting you started with cognitive behavioral therapy or pointing you toward a more effective treatment plan for you, we’re ready to provide the comprehensive and compassionate care you deserve.

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