negative thoughts depicted in paper cutouts

How to Identify and Challenge Negative Thoughts

Identifying and challenging negative automatic thoughts can significantly improve our emotional and mental health. Negative thoughts, often referred to as negative automatic thoughts, are involuntary and automatic patterns of thinking that can plague our minds.


We all experience negative thoughts from time to time, but when left unchallenged, they can wear down our mental and emotional well-being. Understanding how to identify and challenge these thoughts is essential for nurturing a positive mindset and improving our overall quality of life.


What are negative automatic thoughts? And why do we get them?


Automatic thoughts are subconscious mental processes that spontaneously come to our awareness in response to various situations or triggers. Sometimes, these automatic thoughts can be positive or neutral.


But many times they are negative — distorted and irrational perceptions that originate from unacknowledged beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world. These thoughts tend to be formed by past experiences, societal pressures, or internalised beliefs.


Negative thoughts can create a vicious cycle, affecting how we perceive ourselves, others, and the world around us. When not addressed, they may lead to low self-esteem, body image issues, self-doubt, shame, anger, and even anxiety and depression. These experiences in turn can prompt more negative automatic thoughts.


How can we identify negative thoughts?


Recognizing negative automatic thoughts is the first step towards challenging them effectively. Negative thoughts tend to focus on either the self, others, or the world. Here are three examples of identifying negative thoughts:


Negative thought example 1: “I’m not good enough.”


Negative thought example 2: “You can’t trust other people; everyone is looking out for themselves.”


Negative thought example 3: “The world is a dangerous place, and nowhere is fully safe.”


In these examples, a person automatically assumes generalised negative beliefs about themselves, others, or the world, without concrete evidence. These thoughts can trigger feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and fear.


What is challenging negative automatic thoughts?


Challenging negative automatic thoughts involves actively questioning their validity and looking for evidence to support or refute them. It’s a process of self-inquiry aimed at uncovering the underlying beliefs that fuel these thoughts and replacing them with healthier, more balanced perspectives.


Here’s a 3-step example of identifying and challenging a negative automatic thought.


Step 1: Identify the thought: Catch yourself when a negative thought arises. Be mindful of the emotions it evokes. Example negative thought: “I can’t do anything right.”


Step 2: Evaluate evidence: Assess whether there is any evidence supporting or disproving the thought. Ask yourself if you are making assumptions or generalisations.


Most of the time, the thought “I can’t do anything right,” is in response to a single, isolated mistake or error – and no consistent pattern of ‘not doing things right’ exists to prove the validity of your thought.


In fact, there is the opposite – most of us have many small and large examples of success. You may realise that your achievements, compliments, and positive feedback from others contradict this belief. You are assuming one moment or action in time reflects our ability over a lifetime.


Step 3: Generate balanced alternatives: Look for alternative explanations or ways to view the situation more objectively. Consider the perspectives of others who care about you. Consider what you would tell a friend in the same situation.


Example: Since there’s no evidence of our inability to do anything right, we can reframe the thought in the following way: “I may feel I haven’t done this one thing right. But everyone makes mistakes; it’s part of being human.”


Here’s another 3-step example of challenging a negative automatic thought.


Step 1: Identify the thought: Notice when you feel inadequate or unworthy. What is your inner dialogue saying? Example negative thought: “My partner never listens to me.”


Step 2: Evaluate evidence: Ask yourself, “What evidence is there to support this thought?” Reflect: In your history with your partner, have they ever changed their behaviour in response to your needs? Have they ever asked questions about how you feel and waited for you to respond and explain?


No one will have a perfect record, but if you can think of instances when they have responded to your needs, then this negative thought is proved inaccurate.


Step 3: Generate balanced alternatives: Replace the negative thought with a more realistic one, such as, “My partner doesn’t always do as I ask, but we both have equal rights and autonomy in this relationship. I would like them to consider my perspective, but their past behaviour shows they do ask about me, try to hear me out, and address my needs.”


Here’s a final 3-step example of challenging a negative automatic thought.


Step 1: Identify the thought: “The world is a dangerous place, and it’s impossible to be safe. 


Step 2: Evaluate evidence: Reflect: Are there people in your life with whom you feel safe and supported? Are there physical spaces where you feel at peace?


Step 3: Generate balanced alternatives: While the world is unpredictable, there are ways to navigate it.


For example, a more balanced interpretation could be, “The world is an uncertain place, but I am capable of navigating it when I focus on what I can control and develop my ability to adapt to changing situations.” 


Why challenging negative thoughts is important


Negative automatic thoughts are often closely tied to anxiety and depression. Constant negative rumination can amplify anxiety, leading to excessive worry and fear. In depression, these thoughts reinforce feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, shame, and despair, making it challenging to see the potential for positive change.


By challenging negative thoughts, we can manage feelings of anxiousness and sadness more effectively. By replacing distorted thoughts with healthier ones, we can build resilience and improve our emotional well-being.


When to seek therapy for negative automatic thoughts


The good news is the above process of challenging negative automatic thoughts is a key component of a type of therapy known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is a well-established therapeutic approach that helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviours – and in doing so, change their emotions and mood.


If you find negative thoughts are significantly impairing your daily life, or you struggle to challenge them on your own, consider seeking digital or in-person CBT therapy.


Besides CBT, other therapeutic approaches can help you manage negative automatic thoughts, whether we engage with them via digital self-therapy or conventional in-person therapy. These include:


  • Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) combines elements of CBT with mindfulness practices to help manage negative thoughts and emotions.
  •  Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) focuses on accepting negative thoughts and emotions while committing to actions aligned with personal values.
  • Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) can support people with complex emotional challenges, helping them manage negative thoughts through skill-building and acceptance.

We are all more than our negative automatic thoughts.


Challenging negative automatic thoughts is a powerful tool for personal growth and emotional well-being. By recognizing these thoughts, evaluating their validity, and replacing them with more balanced alternatives, we can break free from the hold of negativity and cultivate a healthier mindset.


Remember, challenging negative thoughts takes time and practice, but with dedication and patience, it becomes a transformative journey of self-discovery, improved mood, and emotional empowerment.



For further reading on negative automatic thoughts:



Vidula V Sawant (M.A., M.Phil., CRR No. A80980) is a clinical psychologist with  4+ years of experience and a passion for understanding the complexities of our minds and behaviours.


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