6 Simple Strategies to Break the Cycle of Negative Thinking

Managing our negative thoughts is absolutely essential. Here’s how to stop them before they spiral into full-blown depression.

#1 Distinguish between what you feel and what is real

Our moods can easily blur our vision. Feeling depressed often means feeling life is hopeless, but it’s important to realize these views are symptoms of bipolar and do not reflect reality. “In other words, it’s the depression talking, not an objective picture of your situation,” psychologist Elizabeth Saenger, PhD, explains. She suggests we think back to a time when we were optimistic about the future, and tell ourselves that what we thought then about our life was more accurate.

#2 Shift your focus

When we disregard the positive and instead concentrate on the unfortunate aspects of a situation—dwelling on soccer games lost, and forgetting our victories—we do ourselves a tremendous disservice, asserts Saenger. Instead of focusing on our limitations, we can think about what a friend would say to us to contradict this negative line of thinking.

#3 Ban overgeneralizations

How many times have you concluded, on the basis of a single failure, that you will always fail? Don’t fall prey to overgeneralized thoughts such as “No one cares about me” and “I’m never going to be able to get a job.” Instead, let the words always, everybody, never, and nobody serve as red flags that you’re probably overgeneralizing.

#4 Create alternatives to mind-reading

When we’re depressed, we may be apt to misread or try to “mind-read” how people feel about us. If we automatically conclude someone does not like us because they didn’t say “hello,” rather than considering whether it was because they didn’t see us, this is mind-reading. Saenger says it can help to fold a piece of paper into three columns, then write down the behavior that discouraged us in the first column; our automatic interpretation of it in the second; and multiple alternative explanations in the third.

#5 Create a gray continuum when you have black-or-white thinking

Black-or-white, or all-or-nothing, thinking involves inappropriately categorizing objects, situations, or people into one extreme or another. When we are depressed, it is easy to think of ourselves as a total failure, or as completely worthless. Remind yourself that the world is made of shades of gray, and people who are all good or all bad are rare.

#6 Break up catastrophizing

Catastrophizing involves noticing one unfavorable fact or unfortunate situation and making it mushroom in our minds into a chain of hypothetical circumstances that end in disaster. Observed symptoms of a cold lead to an imagined death from pneumonia; a minor mistake at work results in nightmarish visions of getting fired. When we predict calamities, we can ask ourselves: How probable is each event in the chain that leads to disaster? And how likely it is they could all occur together?