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The 3 Steps to Overcoming Negative Thoughts

Have you ever found yourself trapped in an overthinking cycle of negative thoughts, where your mind seems to be its own worst critic, relentlessly feeding you discouragement or anxiety? These insidious mental patterns are known as Negative Automatic Thoughts, and it’s possible to overcome them in three steps. 


What are negative automatic thoughts?


Negative Automatic Thoughts, or NATs, are spontaneous, often irrational, and immediate negative responses to various situations, events, or actions. They are automatic because they pop into our minds without conscious effort, influencing our emotions and behaviours.


Sometimes, we might even mistake them for the feelings they cause, like worthlessness, shame, fear, or hopelessness.


Everyone experiences negative automatic thoughts. But when these negative thoughts become frequent, persistent, and intensify, they are linked to mental health struggles like depression and anxiety.


Examples of negative thoughts linked to depression


  • “I’m worthless and a burden to others.”
  • “Nothing I do ever turns out right.”
  • “I’ll never get better; this pain will last forever.”
  • “No one cares about me; I’m all alone.”
  • “I can’t do anything right; I’m a failure.”

Examples of negative thoughts linked to anxiety


  • “I’m going to mess up and embarrass myself.”
  • “Something terrible is about to happen; I can feel it.”
  • “I’ll never be able to handle this situation.”
  • “People are judging me, and they think I’m incompetent.”
  • “I’m not safe; danger is lurking around every corner.”

Why negative thoughts come into our minds


Negative thoughts are the result of complex psychological mechanisms and various triggers including:


Past experiences: Past traumas, failures, or negative events can shape our thought patterns and make them trend toward the negative.


Perfectionism: Striving for perfection often leads to self-criticism and negative thoughts in the form of belittling self-evaluation.


Catastrophizing: Amplifying the potential severity of a situation can lead to heightened anxiety and negativity.


Negative self-beliefs: Sometimes, we already have deep-seated low self-esteem, which can be a breeding ground for negative thoughts.


Stress and exhaustion: High levels of stress and fatigue can make it more difficult to maintain a positive outlook.


Cognitive biases: Cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias (focusing on information that confirms existing beliefs) and overgeneralization (drawing broad conclusions from specific, minor incidents), contribute to the perpetuation of negative thinking. These biases can reinforce negative thoughts and make it more difficult to find a balanced perspective.


General personality, our environment, and even genetics can also influence how prone we are to negative thinking and related mental health struggles like depression or anxiety.


How to overcome negative thoughts in 3 steps


Cognitive reframing is a crucial technique for challenging and changing negative thoughts. It is a foundational concept of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a mode of therapy that research has proven many times over to be successful in treating anxiety and depression. 


Cognitive reframing involves three steps, which you can think of as the three R’s: 

  1. Recognise
  2. Reassess
  3. Reframe

Step 1: Recognise your negative thought


Many of us are so busy with the outside world – or so overwhelmed by our negative feelings – that it can be difficult to pinpoint specific thoughts. Sometimes our negative thoughts have accumulated into a belief – like low-self esteem – and it’s difficult to separate them out for examination without feeling like we’re cutting away a key part of our identity or personality.


To recognise your negative thoughts, try tuning into your emotions, which can act as clues. If you feel like a failure, or worthless, or ashamed (emotions associated with depression), what thought is causing that emotion? If you are feeling worried or anxious or fearful – what thought is driving those feelings?


If you’re still struggling to identify your negative thought, tune into the beliefs you have about yourself. Absolute statements tend to qualify as negative thoughts, as they tend to frame a negative conclusion as categorically true. Key words and phrases to look out for include:

  • should/shouldn’t
  • never
  • always
  • can’t
  • won’t
  • am/am not
  • are/are not
  • is/isn’t
  • what if…
  • anything/nothing/everything
  • everyone/no one

Once you have identified a negative thought, it’s time for the next step.


Step 1 example:


Feeling: Worthless > Negative thought: “I can’t do anything right; I am a failure.”


Step 2: Reassess your negative thought


Step two calls for reassessing or challenging your negative thoughts. You can do this by looking at the evidence from real life and comparing it to the thought in your head. 


Step 2 example: “I can’t do anything right.” If you can think of any instances of doing a task correctly or effectively – even something as simple as tying your shoelaces – you have challenged and disproved this negative thought.


You can also reassess your negative thinking by evaluating whether the statement relies on an assumption. If it does, you have successfully challenged it, as assumptions are beliefs we hold without having any proof.


Step 2 example: “I am a failure.” This statement assumes that failure is an absolute state and identity, which it is not.


Once you have reassessed your negative thought, it’s time to reframe it.


Step 3: Reframe your negative thought


Step three calls for reframing, that is rewording, your original negative thought into a more balanced, accurate, and/or positive interpretation informed by your reassessment.


Step 3 example: Original thought: “I can’t do anything right.” > Reframed thought: “I make mistakes and errors like everyone else.”


Original thought: “I am a failure.” > Reframed thought: “I have had a setback, but it does not determine my worth as a person.”


The reframed thought changes our feelings. When we consciously and actively reframe our negative thoughts, our emotions and mood change as well.


Where “I can’t do anything right; I am a failure” may prompt feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, by contrast, “I make mistakes and errors like everyone else. And I have had a setback, but it does not determine my worth” may prompt feelings of compassion, connection, growth, and hope.


2 ways to stop overthinking negative thoughts


Sometimes, negative thinking starts to feel overwhelming or out of control. We may start ruminating – dwelling in the past, replaying every mistake or bad experience over and over. Or we may start worrying about more and more possible negative outcomes and disasters.  


When negative thinking starts to feel like a never-ending cycle, there are two things you can do to help break the cycle.


1. Do a grounding exercise


Grounding exercises are techniques that reconnect you with your physical surroundings and help you regain control over your thoughts. When you’re starting to feel overwhelmed by negative overthinking or the resulting negative emotions, try one of the following:


5-4-3-2-1 technique: Name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This exercise helps you get out of your head and instead focus on your senses and your immediate environment.


Deep breathing exercises: There are many that are effective, but an easy one to try is breathing deeply into your belly in the following pattern:

  • Breathe in for a count of four
  • Hold your breath for a count of four
  • Breathe out for a count of four
  • Pause for a count of four
  • Repeat as needed until you feel calmer

This pattern of breathing (a) helps you refocus on your breath instead of your thoughts and (b) physiologically calms your nervous system and reduces stress, stopping negative thoughts from spiraling.


Progressive muscle relaxation: Tense and then release different muscle groups in your body, starting from your toes and working your way up to your head. This exercise relieves physical tension and can help ease the mental tension of overthinking.


2. Practice mindfulness


Mindfulness is the skill of being fully immersed and present in the current moment. It helps us break out of our negative thoughts and experience life fully with our body, senses, and observations. Mindful meditation as a daily practice can be helpful in building this skill.


Alternatively, taking regular, short breaks throughout the day to tune into your physical sensations, your breath, and really pay attention to the world around you can also be helpful in balancing your thoughts.



Mindfulness is a long game – it takes regular practice. But once a habit is established, it becomes an easier and easier choice to be present and subdue a negative thought spiral.


4 things to do when all you have are negative thoughts


When you’re overwhelmed by negative thoughts, try the following four things:


  1. Acknowledge your feelings: Sometimes, negative thoughts emerge as a response to suppressed or unacknowledged emotions. Take time to identify and accept the feelings related to your negative thoughts. Allow yourself to experience them, but also remember that they don’t define you.
  2. Practice self-compassion: Be kind and understanding toward yourself. Treat yourself with the same compassion you would offer a friend who is struggling in a similar way. What warm, supportive things would you tell them?
  3. Reframe your thoughts: When faced with catastrophic or worst-case-scenario thoughts, challenge their validity using the steps above. Ask yourself for evidence to support or disprove these thoughts. You’ll often find that reality is far less dire than your mind might lead you to believe.
  4. Reach out for support: Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts and feelings with trusted friends or family members. Sometimes, just talking about your concerns can provide relief.

And of course, if negative thoughts feel out of control or overwhelming even after all of these steps, please consider therapy, whether conventional in-person therapy or digital therapy.


Remember that negative thoughts are a part of the human experience, but they don’t define you or your future. And you have the capability to build skills that can help you take back control of your thoughts.



Raksha Rajesh (M.Sc., M.Phil., CRR No. A80195) is a clinical psychologist licensed by the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI). She has 5+ years of experience in helping people from diverse backgrounds build skills to understand and manage their emotions.




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