What Causes Negative Thinking and How to Stop It

Negative Thinking

We all have negative thoughts at times. Anger, fear, shame, and other unpleasant emotions are normal when they arise and then fade away. However, if you get stuck in negative thought patterns, not only do they make you unhappy, but they can also cause or worsen anxiety and depression and can even have a negative impact on things like your immune system and overall health.

Identify Causes of Negative Thinking

Negative thinking can take many forms. The most common causes for negative thinking are the following:

Overanalyzing and Indecisiveness

When making important decisions, it is wise to take your time and consider your options. However, assessing the alternatives can evolve into obsessing about them. Set a deadline for deciding. Allow yourself a reasonable amount of time for research and reflection, but then make your choice and stick to it.

Negative Rumination About Past Events

A certain amount of reflection about where you have been and how it affects your life today is healthy. But when those thoughts turn negative and you spend too much time on them, that thought pattern can be unhealthy. To stop dwelling on the past, focus on the present by taking up a new project, interest, or challenge. Doing so can help put past issues into their proper perspective.

Outward-directed Anger

We have all been mistreated by someone, whether a family member, friend, or stranger. In some cases, these experiences cause us to have a negative opinion not only of that person, but everyone like him or her or people in general. Negative feelings like these can cause us to lash out or withdraw. A healthier approach when you are consumed by anger at someone is to try and see the world from his or her point of view. This can bring better understanding and help you see others in a new, less negative light.

Fear of the Future

The future is unknown to us and can be a source of anxiety. In some people this leads to the bad habit of always assuming that the worse is yet to come. This is unrealistic and also a waste of emotional energy. You can limit the impact of negative thinking about the future by accepting that we have only limited control over it and keying in on those factors that we do control.

Negative Self-criticism

Excessive self-criticism can also be a source of negative thinking. Although it is important to be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses, negative self-criticism, if taken to extremes, can reduce your confidence in your ability to tackle life’s challenges. Strive for a balanced view of your character and accomplishments, rather than always highlighting the negative.

Lack of self-confidence

A lack of self-confidence is closely related to being overly critical about oneself. To boost your confidence, remind yourself of what you do well, rather than dwelling solely on the negative. Be sure to give yourself credit for the positive things you have achieved. You could also try getting a fresh perspective by asking a loved one what he or she thinks. You might be pleasantly surprised at the response.

Jumping to Conclusions

Another form of negative thinking is jumping to conclusions regarding what other people think about you. Assuming the worst in their eyes is likely a distortion of what they really think, which might be more thoughtful and nuanced than you realize. If you are unsure, ask the person in question. An honest response can reduce uncertainty and help clear the air.

Self-blame

It is important to take responsibility for the decisions we make over situations that we control. But taking on unnecessary blame for those events that are out of our hands can have a negative impact on our lives. We don’t carry the weight of the world on our shoulders, only those little spaces in which we live, love, and work.

Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is the mental habit of always assuming the worst possible outcome in any situation, even when more realistic possibilities exist. Some people ‘catastrophize’ as a hedge against feeling upset or disappointed if something doesn’t go their way. Catastrophizing is closely related to fear of the future and should be resisted in a similar manner.

Lack of self-confidence

A lack of self-confidence is closely related to being overly critical about oneself. To boost your confidence, remind yourself of what you do well, rather than dwelling solely on the negative. Be sure to give yourself credit for the positive things you have achieved. You could also try getting a fresh perspective by asking a loved one what he or she thinks. You might be pleasantly surprised at the response.

Labeling

Labels are simple judgements that we pass on ourselves, usually to negative effect. After an emotional breakup, someone might say, “I’m just no good at relationships.” That feeling can be used to justify a lack of effort in future relationships. Defeatism of this type is another form of negative thinking.

Negative Thoughts Will Trigger Negative Emotions

Negative thinking doesn’t occur without consequences. It can affect every part of your life, including how you feel, your relationships with others, and the quality of your decision-making. Negative thinking can even impact your health, wearing down your immune and other bodily systems through chronic stress and elevated levels of anxiety. Hypertension, persistent infections, digestive illnesses, and cardiovascular disease have all been linked to chronic stress.

Mental Health Disorders That Intensify Negative Thinking

Negative thinking can have several causes, including personal factors such as undergoing a traumatic experience. That said, scientists are finding evidence that certain mental health disorders play a critical role in the habitual formation of dark or negative thoughts. Researchers have identified three conditions in particular that often have an impact.

Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD)

A third mental health disorder underlying negative thinking is obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD. This condition is defined as the repeated experiencing of intrusive and unwanted thoughts, that lead a person to irresistibly perform certain (often mundane and ineffective) tasks to prevent some harm or mishap. These routine behaviors can be debilitating because they interfere with the normal conduct of life. OCD can generate negative thoughts similar to depression, but these tend to be more blatantly irrational than those associated with the latter.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD, is another potential precursor to negative thinking. Persons with GAD experience a relentless sense of worry and anxiety about every aspect of their lives, even when things appear to be going well. This can lead to the mental habits of fearing the future and catastrophizing, which we’ve already identified as signs of negative thinking.

Depression

Depression is a mental health disorder marked by seemingly inescapable feelings of sadness, lethargy, hopelessness, and a fatalistic view of one’s prospects. Associated with it are physical symptoms such as the lack of energy, reduced appetite, longer-than-normal sleep periods, loss of concentration, and, in some cases, acts of self-harm. The connection between depression and negative thinking is easily made.

How to Stop Negative Thoughts

Fortunately, there are steps and techniques you can use to counteract negative thinking. Doing so can change the neural pathways in your brain to make positive thinking more of the default for you.

Below are simple counteractive techniques that will help you avoid negative thoughts from clouding your mind.

Practice Mindfulness

There is no “quick fix” for negative thinking. Avoiding toxic thought patterns and developing a new perspective on life takes time and effort, but it can be done. One thing that can help is seeing that negative thoughts tend to focus on either the past or the future. By learning to “live in the current moment,” you can avoid getting stuck in regrets or dread.

Start small. See if you can focus solely on the sensations of one activity for 30 seconds or a minute. Feel the warm water on your hands as you wash them, smell the soap, see how the bubbles form and pop. As you start to succeed at maintaining your present-moment focus on these kinds of tasks, you may notice that you feel “refreshed” by them. Extending this practice of mindfulness to longer and longer periods can counteract negative thought patterns and do wonders for your state of mind.

Meditation

Meditation is one of the most powerful forms of mindfulness. It enables you to develop an awareness of your thoughts and feelings by detaching yourself from them. This creates the mental distance you need to properly assess the value and accuracy of recurring patterns. The objectivity that comes from meditation helps rob negative thoughts of their power.

Journaling

Thought journals offer a second avenue to the same end as meditation. You can use them to identify and document negative thought patterns. Once captured on the page, negative thoughts seem shrunken and less persuasive. People who find meditation too cerebral an approach might find the concrete act of writing thoughts in a journal to be more effective.

Gratitude

Developing a sense of gratitude for the good things in life is another means of disarming negative thinking. Focus on, and be grateful for, the persons and pets you love, pleasant memories from the past, and positive achievements in your life (even if some were only temporary). Recording these in a journal can be helpful, especially after you realize just how many reasons you have to be thankful.

Self-compassion and Self-nourishment

One aspect of negative thinking is negative self-criticism. This is that relentless inner voice that details our faults and passes judgments on our failures. It’s important to be aware of our shortcomings but we need an internal voice of compassion too. Self-nourishment is a related concept. It means taking ownership of our wants and needs, while recognizing our partial dependency on others for their fulfillment. Self-nourishment is a more realistic approach to life’s desires than the bleakness of negative thinking.

Talking with Family and Friends

Individuals immersed in negative thinking are often tempted to avoid contact and keep to themselves. Brooding alone over your concerns is usually a mistake. Maintain lines of communication with family members and trusted friends. It can be a relief to express what’s going on in your head but be prepared for some gentle pushback. You may find that the people who love you most will challenge your negative assessments, pointing out more realistic ways to evaluate the issues that concern you.

Physical Activity

Exercise and other forms of physical activity can play a positive role in your life, and not just because they induce weight loss or increase aerobic fitness and muscle mass. Science has shown that exercise is an effective weapon against depression and anxiety by promoting brain health, including neural growth, inflammation reduction, and endorphin release. (Endorphins are natural feel-good chemicals produced by the brain’s pituitary gland.) Negative thinking is a symptom of both depression and anxiety, so exercise is an excellent means of countering negative thought patterns as well.

Spending Time in Nature

If our regular home and work environments are a source of stress, nature is often the antidote. Spending time in nature – or even in the backyard garden – tends to have a calming and healing effect on humans. Medical research has shown that being outside among plant and animal life can reduce stress levels, blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle complaints. Sunshine is more than a match for negative thinking.

Learn More About How to Avoid Negative Thinking with Behavioral Health Services from Baptist Health

Negative thinking can be a difficult thing to face. Just remember: the caring providers at Baptist Health are on your side. If you’re looking for treatment options or more information about the mental health disorders associated with negative thinking, please contact a behavioral health provider with Baptist Health today.