Feeling Negative? How to Let Go of Unhelpful Thoughts

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 24 June 2024
  • 12 minute read
Feeling Negative? How to Let Go of Unhelpful Thoughts | The Health Sessions

This article contains some affiliate links to resources you may find useful, at no extra costs to you. All opinions are my own. 

When you wake up feeling sick and miserable most mornings, it’s not hard to see how your thoughts could spiral into negative thinking patterns. “How will I get through this day? Everything hurts, I’m never going to be able to do what I had planned. Oh, everybody will hate me for canceling again!”

Even though it’s totally normal that this goes through mind when you’re living with chronic illness, having these unhelpful thoughts will probably only make your feel worse, mentally and physically.

That’s because negative thinking on a regular basis raises your stress levels (which has a bad impact on your blood pressure, sleep and overall health) and makes you prone to worrying, depressed mood and lower self-esteem. Being more optimistic, on the other hand, is linked to better heart health, improved immunity, less pain and greater mental wellbeing.

But that doesn’t make it easy to actually think more positively when you’re exhausted and in pain. And we also don’t want you to deny your harsh reality and suppress how you truly feel inside.

If you easily get sucked into negative thinking patterns, what can you do to let go of these unhelpful thoughts? Let’s take a look at different strategies from psychology and philosophy to slowly release the negative from your mind.

1. Put your ‘negative’ thoughts to good use.

Negative thoughts aren’t harmful in itself. In fact, they are necessary for survival – to point out what’s wrong, to get motivated to take action and to make changes over time. Plus, going over sad, frustrating, disappointing and anger-evoking events in your mind is a normal part of being a human being.

It’s only when you start to have automatic negative thoughts that appear immediately when something happens, that it affects your wellbeing in a bad way.

But according to the ancient stoics as well as modern-day researchers, vividly imagining the worst-case scenario could actually be a useful coping strategy called ‘defensive pessimism. Instead of (unconvincingly) trying to console yourself that everything will be alright, consciously considering how badly things could turn out can give you a more realistic picture of the situation and therefore minimize your fears and anxiety.

Sometimes, doing this ‘premeditation’ will help you realize that even if everything goes wrong, you’ll still be ok. Other times, your negative thinking can pinpoint obstacles on your way, so you can try to overcome them or take preventive measures.

So try to put your negative thoughts to good use. Identify your recurring thought patterns and the feelings they trigger. Do the defensive pessimism exercise mentioned above to put things into perspective or schedule a worry session. You will either feel relieved or motivated to take action and make changes. Make sure you do try to let go of the unhelpful thoughts after your scheduled moment of ‘negativity’, and don’t keep worrying.

Feeling Negative? How to Let Go of Unhelpful Thoughts | The Health Sessions
Photo by Michael Burrows; top photo by Katrin Bolovtsova, both via pexels.com

2. Challenge and change negative thinking patterns.

Another psychology strategy to let go of unhelpful thoughts is to challenge your automatic negative thinking with techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

We all tend to think we’re logical beings, but each and everyone of us makes ‘thinking mistakes’ from time to time. In the 1960’s, psychiatrist Aaron Beck noticed that his patients showed specific patterns in negative thinking, which he named cognitive distortions. Here are 10 common examples.

  1.  All-or-nothing thinking: Seeing things in black or white, good or bad, success or failure, without a shade of grey. For example: “My diet is already ruined because I had a piece of cake with my coffee today. Might as well just give up today, order take-out and try again tomorrow.”
  2. Overgeneralization: Considering a onetime event as your norm from now on. You can recognize overgeneralization by thinking in terms of ‘always’, ‘never’ and ‘all the time’. For example: “My date didn’t understand at all what it’s like to be chronically ill. I’ll never find somebody who loves me.”
  3. Mental filtering: Focusing on one negative detail, even though there were plenty of things going right too. For example, you’re so hurt about your friend not inviting you to their party (maybe because they thought it was too taxing for you?) that you forget all the sweet things they did do for you.
  4. Labeling: Make a judgement about yourself or others, instead of seeing their behavior in the specific context. For example: “Man, I’m such an idiot!” when you make a simple mistake, or thinking you’re lazy when you’re simply having a bad day.
  5. Jumping to conclusions: You try to read people’s minds or predict how things will go, without any real evidence to support these thoughts. For example: “Wanna bet this new doctor won’t take my symptoms seriously either?” 
  6. Personalization: Taking things too personal, or blaming somebody else, without considering other factors at play. For example: “See, they ignored my text, they don’t care about me” while your friend’s just busy or forgot to reply.
  7. ‘Should’ statements: Having a fixed idea how things “should” or “must” go. For example: “I should just do these chores I’d planned, even though I’ve been up all night feeling sick. You shouldn’t lie in bed watching TV in the middle of the day.”
  8. Minimizing/Magnifying: You exaggerate your shortcomings or mistakes while downplaying all the things you do do well. For example, thinking “I can’t play sports with my partner like we used to, why would they want to stay with me?” while you express your love and support every day, just in different ways than before you became ill.
  9. Emotional reasoning: Assuming your thoughts must be true because of your emotional reaction to them. For example: “I feel so guilty for not being able to attend my kid’s school play, I’m just a worthless mother.” 
  10. Catastrophizing: Always expecting the worst possible outcome. For example, “Oh no, my head’s playing up. This will turn into a full-blown migraine attack that will have me stuck in bed for days, I just know it.” 

We’re all guilty of making cognitive ‘errors’ every now and then, but when these thoughts automatically pop up all the time, it’s helpful to challenge and change your thought patterns. Let’s take a look how you can do this:

First, identify your default distortion. Make time in your day to become aware of your thought patterns. Practicing mindfulness or journaling each night are useful tools to help you figure out if you tend to think all-or-nothing or mentally filter out the negative details.

Next, challenge common negative thoughts. Is there any evidence that what you’re thinking is accurate? Actually, with chronic illness, there probably is some truth into your negative thoughts about your health, practical abilities or strained relationships. But that doesn’t mean that it’s always true or fully true.

Plus, is it helpful to be thinking this way? Can you choose a more constructive thought that’s still true but that hurts or stresses you less? For example, instead of ruminating “I feel so awful for canceling plans last minute, it’s just impossible to do something fun”, could you say to yourself “It’s sad and disappointing that I had to stay home again, but I’m prioritizing my body’s needs in this season of life and I’ll come up with a more doable, robust plan for next time.” 

Finally, try to reframe your thoughts over time. If you notice you’re labeling yourself in your internal monologue or expecting the worst, imagine what you would say to your best friend if he or she would voice those same thoughts out loud to you. I bet you would be a lot less critical, and more supportive and understanding. So talk to yourself the way you would talk to someone you car deeply about.

You could even create helpful mantras for recurring situations or themes you’re aware of. Like “I know it’s overwhelming, but somehow I will find a way to get through this, I always do.” Or, “Everyone’s busy living their lives and wrapped up in their own problems. There’s probably an understandable reason why someone acts the way they do. It’s not personal.” 

Challenging and changing negative thought patterns takes time and hard work, so don’t hesitate to reach out to a psychologist trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help you with this process when you need to.

Feeling Negative? How to Let Go of Unhelpful Thoughts | The Health Sessions
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3. Let go of unhelpful thoughts.

Challenging your cognitive distortions isn’t the only strategy to combat negative thinking. Another school of thought (pun intended) doesn’t focus on changing your thought patterns, but neutrally accepting them as they are.

The aim of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is to notice your thoughts, good or bad, come and go, without getting caught up in negative thinking or letting it dictate your behavior. Instead, you try to put some distance between yourself and your thought patterns, as if you’re an observer who doesn’t judge or react, but simply watches thoughts pass by.

Like psychiatrist Viktor Frankl famously said,

“Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”

There are many different metaphors you can use to practice thought defusion, from vividly imagining you’re lying on your back watching your thoughts pass by like clouds in the sky to picturing yourself writing your thoughts down in the sand and letting them fade away when the waves roll in. Whether you prefer birds flying by or trains riding in and out of the station, you can choose any analogy that helps you to mentally take a step back and create some space between your thoughts and how you feel and act.

After practicing thought defusion for a while, you may start to identify stories you keep telling yourself, about yourself, the world and your place in it. Eventually, you’ll be able to become aware of these narrations or thinking patterns when they pop up in your mind and neutrally point them out to yourself. “Aha, there’s that story again that I must be high maintenance when I’m only trying to set boundaries and protect my health.” 

Feeling Negative? How to Let Go of Unhelpful Thoughts | The Health Sessions
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio via pexels.com

4. Need help now? Try thought stopping.

Do you need to let go of unhelpful thoughts as soon as possible to prevent spiraling down?

Taking your mind off your problems is not the ideal long-term strategy, since you’re not dealing with underlying thought patterns and core beliefs. But sometimes, you need short-term solutions too to deal with negative thinking and emotions.

Though stopping tries to put a halt on intrusive, repetitive thoughts by mentally telling yourself “stop” and redirecting your attention to a helpful visualization, mantra or activity. When you notice you’re getting stuck in negative thinking patterns, you can pretend you’re pausing your internal dialogue, then exhale slowly and choose a soothing affirmation like “I will be ok, I can handle what comes my way”. 

You can literally shake things off or clear your mind with a short walk outside. Positive distractions like singing along to your favorite song, doing some easy crafting or practicing yoga can also break the negative thinking cycle you’re in.

As long as you don’t use thought stopping techniques to avoid identifying root causes and doing the work that produces lasting change, you can ease anxiety, overwhelm and depressive thoughts by focusing on more positive phrases and activities.

5. Take a look at your core beliefs

The psychological techniques we discussed can surely help you to let go of unhelpful thoughts. But sometimes, the root cause for our negative thought patterns lies deeper.

Most of us are unaware of the core beliefs we have about ourselves, our lives and the world, but they influence our thoughts, emotions and eventually our actions in many ways. They shape how we interpret everything that happens to us. For example, growing up with the idea of “In life, you’re on your own kid, nobody’s coming to save you” can stop you from asking for and accepting  (practical) help when you desperately need it, while believing “I’ll never fit in” will probably contribute to feeling lonely.

That’s why it can be helpful to identify your deepest beliefs related to your negative thought patterns. How do you see yourself? What impact did your life experiences have on your self-image and the way you see the world and the future? It’s not easy to spot your own core beliefs, so ask a therapist to guide you through this process.

Want to explore your deepest beliefs on your own (too)? You could try to read widely, from novels related to your problems to philosophy and religious texts to open your mind to more explanations for your situation. Get a different perspective on the core beliefs you’re struggling with by watching documentaries, learning new facts from non-fiction or the news, or talking to others who’ve had similar experiences, but perhaps another view on that topic.

Feeling Negative? How to Let Go of Unhelpful Thoughts | The Health Sessions
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Ruminating the past or worrying about the future?

Do you find yourself going over and over things that have happened in your mind? Or are you playing out different scenarios about coming events? If you regularly ruminate about the past or worry about the future, you may find these tips helpful to improve your mental health:

No matter which unhelpful thoughts you’re dealing with, there are different psychological strategies to help you get unstuck, let go of your negative thinking patterns and replace the with more constructive thoughts that support your health and happiness.

What helps you most to let go of unhelpful thoughts? 

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