How to stop automatic negative thoughts (3 steps)

This post is about how to stop negative thoughts.

If you want to find a simplified explanation of what negative thoughts are, please read my last post: What are automatic negative thoughts?

My goal is to provide a simplified yet in-depth post. I hope that by the time you are done reading, you will have a good grasp of the 3 steps that explain how to stop automatic negative thoughts.

Why should we evaluate automatic negative thoughts?

As we start, I would like to mention that it is essential to evaluate and respond to negative thoughts. Why?

  • Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean it’s true. That’s why we need to evaluate the validity of a thought.
  • The process of identifying and evaluating negative thoughts can potentially help a person stop them.

Thoughts vs. Emotions

Another thing to note is the fact that there is a difference between emotions and thoughts.

An emotion can be you feel (e.g., Frustrated) vs. a thought (e.g., I know she didn’t call back because she didn’t enjoy the date)

evaluate negative thoughts

3 steps: How to stop automatic negative thoughts

It’s important to give credit to the father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)! CBT is an evidence-based treatment that helps someone identify and change disturbing thought patterns.

Dr. Aaron Beck pioneered the principles mentioned below in the 1960s. When I was studying my master’s, his teachings were central to understanding the below concepts that I will be explaining.

Other newer therapies have borrowed from the wealth of knowledge from this evidence-based therapy.

Ok, so here we go…

We would need to do the following to stop automatic negative thoughts:

  1. Identify the automatic thought.
  2. Evaluate the thought.
  3. Respond to the thought.
How to Control Negative Thoughts

Let’s quickly review them:

1. IDENTIFY AUTOMATIC THOUGHT

As mentioned in my last post, cognitive distortions or cognitive errors are essentially negative thinking styles.

The first step to addressing an automatic negative thought is to identify the cognitive distortion that is there.

For example, it could be:

  • Black or White/ All-or-nothing, i.e., “ If my boyfriend doesn’t buy me flowers, he doesn’t love me.”
  • Catastrophizing/ magnifying, i.e., “ If I fail this exam, I will for sure fail in life!”

Please read Good Therapy for a list of cognitive distortions.

2. EVALUATING AUTOMATIC THOUGHT

The following are questions that one can ask to evaluate a negative thought:

Examine the evidence of the thought by asking:

·  What is the evidence that supports this thought?

·  What is the evidence that is against this thought OR shows that the thought is not true?

Explore other explanations:

·  Is there any other reason as to why this happened?

Separate yourself from the thought:

·  If a friend in this situation had this thought, how would you respond?

Example 1:

So back to our original example, a person feels that the date didn’t call back.

Thought: I know she didn’t call back because she didn’t enjoy the date.

Possible question [Evaluating Automatic Thought]: Is there any other reason as to why this happened?

Possible answer: She may have had an emergency

3. RESPOND TO AUTOMATIC THOUGHTS

The goal here is to obtain a more balanced (or alternative) thought by asking yourself what best reflects the situation.

Back to our example earlier. This is the balanced thought that will result:

Example 2:

So back to our original example, a person feels that the date canceled

Thought: I know she didn’t call back because she didn’t enjoy the date.

Possible question [Evaluating Automatic Thought]: Is there any other reason as to why this happened?

Possible answer: She may have had an emergency

Balanced thought: Although my date never called back, there may be other reasons as to why she didn’t like perhaps she had an emergency.

As you can see, once you ask yourself relevant questions against that negative thought, you can stop negative thoughts.

Additional Resources

Common resources can respond to automatic thoughts: Coping cards, Thought records, etc. Although the resources mentioned are somewhat different, When they are used, the idea is to find a more balanced thought.

Here is another example:

Example 3:

Automatic thought being examined:

“I won’t be able to keep my grades up, and I am going to end up being kicked out of school.”

Balanced response:

“There is no evidence that I will drop out of school.  I have been doing my best and getting good grades. I have been told by peers and teachers that I am very hardworking. For the class that I am concerned about, I can reach out to student services. It is unlikely I would be kicked out of school.”

Negative Thoughts Animation Video

This video created by happify is excellent. It gives a simplified explanation of how to combat negative thoughts.

It asks us to think of the analogy of taking the negative thought to court, and you have to provide evidence against it.

Importance of seeking professional help

As you can imagine, the process of stopping negative thoughts can be long and arduous.

Sometimes some negative thoughts are persistent and affect your day-to-day living and quality of life. This is when you may need to reach out for professional help.

These professionals can carefully use other tools (in addition to other evidence-based therapies) in treatment to assist you, i.e., Role-playing, Mindfulness, Guided Imagery, Meditation, etc.

And that’s it, how to stop automatic negative thoughts!

I hope this post has enlightened you to understand the topic better!

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