How to deal with negative thoughts

The problem

People who are depressed typically think in a biased, negative way. They have negative views of theselves (e.g. `I'm no good'), the world (e.g. `Life has no meaning') and the future (e.g. `I will always feel this way')

Negative thoughts like these have several characteristics. They are:

they just pop into your head without any effort on your part;
they do not fit all of the facts;
they keep you depressed, make it difficult to change, and stop you from getting what you want out of life;
you accept them as facts, and it does not occur to you to question them;
you do not choose to have them, and they can be very difficult to switch off.

Thoughts like these can trap you in a vicious circle. The more depressed you become, the more negative thoughts you have, and the more you believe them. The more negative thoughts you have, and the more you believe them, the more depressed you become. The main goal of cognitive therapy is to help you to break out of this vicious circle.

Overcoming the problem

You have probably already discussed examples of your own negative thoughts with your therapist, and looked at the effect they have on how you feel and what you do. The time has now come to make negative thinking your main focus. This is the heart of cognitive therapy: learning to recognize when you are thinking negatively, to look for more positive and realistic ways of viewing your experiences, and to test these out in action.

At first, you may not find it easy to catch and answer your thoughts. Answering negative thoughts is like any other skill - it takes time and regular practice to be able to do it with ease. So do not feel discouraged if you have difficulties to start with. In sessions, you and your therapist will work together on identifying and answering thoughts, and your homework assignments will give you plenty of opportunity to practice on your own. The more you practice, the sooner answering thoughts will come naturally to you. The steps involved are described in turn below.

Step I: Becoming aware of negative thoughts

The first step in overcoming negative thinking is to become aware of your thoughts, and of their effects on you.

Negative thoughts make you feel bad - anxious, sad, depressed, hopeless, guilty, angry. Instead of being overwhelmed by these feelings, you can learn to use them as a cue for action. Notice when your mood changes for the worse, and look back at what was running through your mind at that moment. Over the course of a few days, you will become more sensitive to changes in your feelings, and to the thoughts that spark them off. You may well find that the same thoughts occur again and again.

How to do it

The best way to become aware of negative thoughts is to write them down as soon as they occur. You can to this on a Dysfunctional Thoughts Record (you will find an example of a completed record below). Write down:

  1. The date
  2. The emotion(s) you felt. Give each one a rating out of 100 for how bad it was. Zero, for example, would mean no emotion, 50 a moderate degree of motion, and 100 an emotion as strong as it could be. You could score anywhere between 0 and 100.
  3. The situation. What were you doing when you started to feel bad? This includes, in general terms, what you were thinking about at the time. only put down the geneal topic here (e.g. `Thinking about how difficult life is'). What precisely was going through your mind should go in the next column.
  4. The automatic thought(s). What thoughts were running through your mind at the time you started to feel bad? Try to record them as accurately as possible, word for word. Some of your thoughts may take the form of images in your mind's eye, rather than words. You might for example imagine yourself being unable to cope with a situation in the future. Write down exactly what the image was, just as you saw it.

There may be times when you cannot identify any thoughts or images as such. If so ask yourself what the meaning of the situation is. What does it tell you about yourself, your situation, your future? This may give you a clue as to why the situation is so depressing, or what is making you so anxious, or angry, or whatever. An argument, for instance, might mean to you that a relationship is at an end, of even that you will never be able to have a proper relationship with anybody. Once you can identify the meaning, you will be able to challenge it just as you would be able to challenge any other thought. (Details on how to do this are in `Step II: Answering negative thoughts' below.)

When you have written down your negative thoughts, images or meanings, give each one a rating out of 100 according to how far you believe it. One hundred would mean you believed a thought completely, 0 that you did not believe it at all, 50 that you half believed it, and so on. You could score anywhere between 0 and 100.

Common problems in recording negative thoughts

Ideally, it is best to record your thoughts and feelings immediately they occur. But of course this is not always possible. It would look odd, for example, if you got your record sheets out in the middle of a party of meeting! In this case, make a mental note of what has distressed you, or jot down a reminder on any handy piece of paper. Then set aside time in the evening (say, 20 minutes) to make a proper written record. Run through an `action replay', trying to recall in as much detail as possible what happened, how you felt and what your thoughts were.
Avoiding writing down your negative thoughts
Beware of excuses that keep you from focussing on your thoughts and emotions. You may say to yourself, for instance, `I'll do it later', or `It would be better to forget all about it. You may find that you are very unwilling to look your thoughts in the face. Perhaps you are afraid that they will overwhelm you, or think that they are stupid. It is quite natural to want to avoid thinking through unpleasant experiences, but doing so is the best way to combat your depression. If you find yourself making excuses, this is probably because you have hit on something important, so make yourself write it down. You can then divert yourself by engaging in a distraction exercise if you want to. But ignoring the thoughts will not make them go away.

Example records

What do you feel?
How bad is it (0-100)?
What were you doing or thinking about? What exactly were your thoughts?
How far do you believe each of them?
Tense 90
Angry 90
Despair 75
Dog next door barked for half an hour I can't stand this. 80%
Why can't they shut it up? We've saddled ourselves with a house that will always be spoiled by that dog barking and we'll never get away from it. 80%
Panic 80
Anxiety 80
Car engine overheating. Long road, getting dark. I don't know what to do. 100%
It's too dangerous to go on -- I'll do something terrible to the car. 80%
But I can't stop here -- if I do I'll cause an accident. 80%
Lonely 70
Helpless 60
Unhappy 90
At work. People grumbling, not wanting or trying to make things work. I don't want to be here. 60%
I can't leave because I need the money. 100%
They don't care, so I have to everything. 90%
I have nothing in common with anyone here. 90%

John C. G. Sturdy
[John's home] Last modified: Sun Jun 10 18:17:20 GMT Daylight Time 2007