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Are your thoughts dragging you down?

Certain forms of negative thinking are extremely common. Here’s how to reverse them and keep a positive outlook on life.


By Karen Lloyd, PhD, LP
November 3, 2017

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When we experience stress, tension, sadness or worry, it’s common for thoughts to become negative and distorted. To make matters worse, it’s easy to make a habit of these thinking errors – and that drags your mood down even more.

The good news is that you can learn skills to give your mood a boost! But first, you need to recognize when you are heading down a negative thinking path.

5 common types of negative thoughts to watch out for:

  1. Black and white thinking

    You jump to a negative conclusion even when there is little or no evidence to support it. Or, you assume you know what someone is thinking.

    Example: If you don’t do something perfectly, you tell yourself you’ve failed. If you don’t work hard all the time, you call yourself lazy.

  2. Jumping to conclusions

    You see things in only two categories – all or nothing.

    Example: You notice two people passing by and think: “They’re laughing at me.”

  3. Magnifying/catastrophizing

    You magnify your problems and minimize your strengths.

    Example: Your boss asks you to re-write a report at work and you think: “I’m going to get a bad review and I will never be promoted.”

  4. Overgeneralizing

    You think that if something goes wrong once, it always will.

    Example: You make a comment which irritates a friend and you think: “I never say the right thing.”

  5. Making should statements

    You set very high standards for yourself and tell yourself: “I should do this.”

    Example: You think you should visit your mother every week and feel guilty if you don’t. You also set high standards for others and then feel resentful when they don’t measure up.

Beating the Blues is possible: How to spot negative thoughts and replace them

Most of us do at least one form of this negative self-talk regularly. And it usually happens automatically, so we might not even realize it.

You can begin to change these thought patterns by asking yourself 4 questions:

  1. Do I ever have any of these types of negative thoughts? Probably, so observe your thoughts and make a list of the forms of negative thinking that you use the most. You’ll probably notice you use the same ones over and over.
  2. What is the evidence for or against your automatic thoughts? Just because you automatically think it, doesn’t mean it’s true.
  3. What are different ways to look at the situation? By being more fair and kind to yourself with your thoughts, you can see the situation in a more balanced way.
  4. What action can I take? Rather than staying hung up on your negative thought, make a positive plan of action.

An illustration of how challenging negative thoughts can help boost your mood

image: how challenging negative thoughts can help boost your mood

Bob doesn’t get a project done on time. He automatically thinks: “I can’t do it. I don’t have what it takes.”

That’s black and white thinking, and it makes him feel miserable.

Bob pauses and takes a fresh look at his situation in a few different ways:

  • He imagines what a friend might say to him. “That was a tough deadline to meet. You made really good progress toward it.”
  • He imagines what he might say to someone in his situation. “I’ve been there, too, buddy!”
  • He realizes he doesn’t always miss deadlines. “I’ve had a lot of past successes and have a lot of knowledge about how to do my job.”

Then he asks himself what action he can take:

  • Can he get more practice with the computer program he was using?
  • Can he ask colleagues if they have had trouble meeting deadlines on this project, too? If they have, maybe the deadline was unrealistic.
  • Can he ask his supervisor for more training?

Bob might still have doubts about himself, but this exercise gives him a more balanced view and it makes him feel a little better.

Like any skill or habit, healthy thinking might take some practice at first. But growing research shows that emotional resilience is a skill we can learn. And like physical activity and healthy eating, we all need healthy thoughts in order to thrive.

Practice building your emotional resilience

This free interactive course takes 12 to 15 minutes to complete. When you finish it, you’ll get a personal plan to help you with healthy thinking.

HealthPartners members and patients: Try out Beating the Blues.

HealthPartners is the first health care organization in our region to offer this type of web-based program to treat mild and moderate stress, sadness, tension, depression or anxiety. There are eight 30-minute sessions that make up Beating the Blues. Most people complete one session each week. But you can go at whatever pace works best for you.

About Karen Lloyd, PhD, LP

Dr. Karen Lloyd is Senior Director for Behavioral Health and Resilience at HealthPartners. She is a past board chair of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and a national speaker on behavioral health topics and emotional resilience. Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her husband at their home in the country where they have three horses.

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