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How to Change Your Negative Thoughts

A Writing Exercise to Stop Negative Thinking

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Updated August 30, 2012

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Writing out rational responses can help you to get past your negative thinking.

Photo © Microsoft

Negative thinking is a common problem for people with mood and/or anxiety disorders. Theories of cognitive therapy claim that depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and fears associated with agoraphobia are greatly influenced by the way we think. In summary, we are what we think we are.

Negative thinking patterns, known as cognitive distortions, are a habitual way of thinking that often afflict people with panic disorder. Cognitive distortions contribute to feelings of fear, low self-esteem, and hopelessness. People who are frequently afflicted by cognitive distortions typically think that the “glass is half empty” in every situation and often feel dissatisfied and unfulfilled in life.

Common Cognitive Distortions

The following describes some of the most common cognitive distortions or types of negative thinking patters:

All-or-Nothing Thinking: Everything is divided into two extremes and there is no room for in between. For instance, every situation or person is either good or bad. You may believe that you are either successful or a complete failure. If you make one mistake, you believe you are a failure, despite any past successes you may have achieved.

Overgeneralization: The terms always or never are being used to describe a person’s entire life or personality. For example, a thought might be, “I am always anxious” or “I never win at anything.” You may believe that after experiencing negative event once that it will always occur, such as if you had a panic attack while driving you may come to believe that driving will always lead to panic.

Emotional Reasoning: You base all of your thoughts and beliefs by the way that you are feeling emotionally. For example, you feeling a little anxious on your way to work, you begin to believe that you are in danger and your anxiety escalates. This type of thinking often contributes to panic attacks.

‘Should’ Statements: You use words like “should,” “must,” or ought to describe yourself or your situation. For example, “I should be less anxious,” “I ought to be able to do this without having a panic attack,” or “I must be good at everything I do.” These statements often leave you feeling helpless and dissatisfied.

A Writing Exercise to Stop Negative Thinking

When reading through the different types of cognitive distortions, you may have recognized some negative thinking patterns that describe how you often think. These ways of thinking were learned and developed over time, making them able to be unlearned or replaced with a more positive outlook.

This writing exercise is geared towards helping you replace your negative thought patterns with more realistic ones. Follow these simple steps to begin changing the way you think:

  1. Monitor Your Thoughts
  2. To overcome negative thinking, you need to first start recognizing when it is happening. Over the next week, start noticing all of your negative self-talk or inner dialogue. To further keep track, try to jot down negative thoughts as they occur throughout the day. It may be helpful to keep a small notebook with you so that you quickly write down your negative thoughts as they occur.

  3. Write Down Your Cognitive Distortions
  4. At the end of each day, recall all of the negative thoughts you had throughout the day. Get out a blank sheet of paper on write down all of your negative thoughts. Try to leave some space under each negative thought, as you will be adding more information as you continue through this exercise. If you wrote them down in a notebook throughout the day, take them out and look them over.

  5. Identify the Type of Cognitive Distortion
  6. Now that you have written down your negative self-talk, try to identify what type of cognitive distortion it is. For example, lets say that you wrote, “I should not feel so anxious all the time.” You would then write, “should statement” underneath it. Labeling each cognitive distortion will get easier over time and will also help you to more readily recognize when they are occurring.

  7. Dispute and Replace It
  8. Once you have identified your cognitive distortion, it is time to dispute it. This means that you are going to argue against each negative thought and replace it with a more rationale one. Let’s dispute our example, “I should not feel so anxious all the time.” On your piece of paper, start arguing against your negative thought. You may begin by asking yourself questions, such as “Is it true that I am anxious all the time? Am I taking every situation into account?”

    Start coming up with more realistic thoughts, such as “I really am not always anxious. I have been working on my anxiety issues and I am getting better all the time.” Try to come up with as many replacement statements as you can and write all of these more positive statements on your paper.

    Continue to go through all of your negative thoughts you had throughout the day. Repeat this exercise as often as you need to until you are more easily able to recognize and replace your negative thoughts without having to write them all down. With patience and practice, you may be able to stop and change your negative thoughts as they occur.

Sources:

Bourne, E. J. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. 5th ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2011.

Burns, D. D. (2006). When Panic Attacks: The New Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life. NY: Broadway Books.

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