How to manage negative thoughts

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The way that we think can influence our response to pain and how we behave when we are in pain. Most of our thoughts are automatic – they just pop into our heads throughout the day. For example, you might be eating dinner and suddenly remember that it’s your friend’s birthday next week. These automatic thoughts are harmless. The trouble begins when an automatic thought that is negative pops into your head and you allow it to take over.

While it is very difficult at first to stop negative thoughts from happening, a key is to focus on managing the thoughts that follow them. People who are able to recognize initial negative thoughts and change the way they think after recognizing those thoughts become better at managing their moods. Over time, many of them have fewer initial negative automatic thoughts.

Mindful observation

Mindful observation means recognizing or observing your thoughts and letting them go. If you’ve had a negative thought, it does not mean that you must feel bad about yourself or the situation. Thoughts only become important if you let them become important. For example, have you ever had a song stuck in your mind? Did the song change your plans for the day or how you did things? A thought, like an annoying song, shouldn’t throw off your whole day or your life.

Challenging your thoughts

Oftentimes, negative thoughts can also be unrealistic; if we challenge their validity, we can usually find another, more positive, way of looking at a situation.

The first step is to challenge the negative thought. When we challenge our thoughts, we may catch ourselves distorting a problem situation by thinking of it in a more negative way than it really is. Some questions that you should ask yourself to challenge your thoughts are:

  1. “What fact(s) support or do not support this thought?”
    • “Am I forgetting important facts or focusing too much on information that isn’t important?
  2. “If a friend came to me with this thought, what would I tell them?”
  3. “Am I setting myself a standard that is unrealistic?”
  4. “Is there a different way of looking at this situation?”
  5. “How did I deal well with a problem in the past?”
  6. “What would you think if someone else was in the same situation?”
  7. “Am I thinking in ‘all or nothing’ terms?”
  8. “Am I taking on too much responsibility for how things work out?”
  9. “What if it happens? Would it be a complete disaster?”

Replacing negative thoughts with balanced ones

One way to decrease your negative thoughts is to replace them with more balanced ones. When you can change your negative thoughts, you will feel happier.

Here is an example of replacing a negative thought with a more balanced one. Tip: The table is best viewed in landscape mode if you are accessing this page on a smartphone, tablet or other mobile device.

Negative thoughtBalanced thought
I just can’t do math. I’m having trouble with math right now, but I will get the hang of it with some help from my teacher/professor or a friend.
This pain will never go away! My pain might be very difficult to deal with right now, but it always improves with time and physical activity. I can get through this.

Realistic versus unrealistic beliefs

When you’ve repeated the same negative thought to yourself for a long time, it might lead you to develop an unrealistic belief about yourself or the world around you. An unrealistic belief is something that you may think is true, but it actually is not.

Unrealistic beliefs can lead to negative thoughts, stress and an increase in your pain and other symptoms. Here’s an example. Read it from left to right to see how unrealistic beliefs can cause tension and pain. Tip: The table is best viewed in landscape mode if you are accessing this page on a smartphone, tablet or other mobile device.

SituationUnrealistic beliefEventNegative thoughtResult
Sam was playing in a basketball game. Sam believes that good basketball players never miss a basket. Sam misses a basket. “I’m a horrible basketball player because I missed that shot. I lost the game for the team and I let them all down.” Stress, tension, pain

In this example, the unrealistic belief caused the negative thoughts. The belief that good basketball players never miss a shot is clearly wrong or unrealistic. All basketball players, even the very best, miss a shot once in awhile.

As these negative thoughts build, feelings of stress, tension and pain may arise. Unrealistic beliefs can be turned into realistic beliefs. This can help to make you feel better about yourself.​​

Last updated: May 2nd 2016