Reframing Negative Thoughts

Not all of our thoughts are true. 

Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to our thoughts ever. But it’s important to take a step back and consider what our thoughts are telling us and why. It’s also not to say that our thoughts are only valuable to us if they are 100% accurate–because that’s not true either! All of our thoughts are providing us with some sort of information or data. However, that information isn’t always accurate to the situation or environment around us. In those cases, the date we get from our thoughts isn’t about the world around us–it’s about ourselves. What we like, what we don’t like, what we’re afraid of, how we react to things, etc. 

It’s important to listen to all of our thoughts–not because they are correct, but because getting curious about what they’re telling us and why can help us understand ourselves better. And it can help us hone the skill of pausing and reflecting before reacting. 

Because–unfortunately–sometimes our thoughts are lying to us. When we experience negative thinking patterns (or cognitive distortions) our brain is making connections that just aren’t true. An example of this: 

You’re waiting for a friend you haven’t seen in a while at a coffee shop. It’s 15 minutes past when you were supposed to meet. At seeing how late they are, you think to yourself “they don’t even want to come/they’re just showing up late so they can spend less time with me/they must think I’m needy and annoying for suggesting this.” 

These are all examples of your mind taking the limited information you have (friend is late) and assigning it meaning based on your own fears and insecurities (they don’t want to come/don’t like you). While your mind jumps to this as the most obvious or only explanation, there are actually a lot of other reasons your friend was late! They might have set an alarm wrong, gotten stuck in traffic, had a personal emergency–or they might just be someone who runs a little late! 

This is a common pattern for negative thinking–a period of stress occurs, which triggers and exacerbates negative thoughts, creating a spiral. When we’re experiencing negative thinking, it can feel like our thoughts are out of our control. It can feel like your mind is always jumping ahead of you and landing on the worst case scenario. 

You might think the antidote to all of this is positive thinking, however–though positive thinking can be a powerful tool when used intentionally–it’s also not realistic or healthy to ask someone to be positive 100% of the time either. In fact, putting pressure on yourself to be happy 100% of the time can make you feel worse when you’re going through a hard time–like if you tried harder you would be able to just get over it. Instead it’s about reframing those negative thoughts into something more realistic. 

The first step to doing this is developing a sense of awareness when your negative thought spirals do occur. Ask yourself: 

  • Do you know your negative thinking traps? If you know what triggers negative thinking, you can be more proactive about getting curious and reflective when it happens. It can help slow you down before the spiral gets out of control. 
  • What are your body sensations when you’re in a negative thought spiral? Sometimes we might not notice consciously when something triggers a negative thought spiral–or we don’t realize until we’re already in it. Knowing how your body reacts in situations of high stress and negative thinking can help you identify those instances. 
  • Could something else be influencing what you’re feeling/thinking at this moment? Is this negative thought coming from what’s going on right now, or did something happen earlier that upset you, and now your emotional capacity is lower, so this feels worse than it is? 
  • Is this [thought] really true? What am I basing this on? What evidence in real life is there to support this? Am I projecting something? 
  • Is this thought really helpful? What purpose is it serving? 
  • What are some other possibilities? 

Then, take that last question and think about those alternatives. Which one makes the most sense given the information you actually have? Which one is the most reasonable? What’s a better option than the current thought? Let’s take our coffee shop example. The most likely explanation there is probably that your friend got caught in traffic–that explains both why they were late and why they were unable to text you to let you know. There is a lot less mental gymnastics involved in making that explanation make sense than the initial thought of “they’re late, so they must hate me.” 

And finally, remember that reframing negative thoughts is a process! Even looking at the list of questions above you can see it’s a slow moving thing. You might not recognize your thought traps right away, or your body’s reaction. Be gentle with yourself as you learn your responses. Each time negative thoughts come up you can notice one more thing about your cognitive and body responses. A tip to help this process is to practice mindfulness; it will help you become more aware of yourself in the present moment. 

If you’re looking for support reframing your negative thoughts, our counselors can help! Get in touch with us today

-Lindsay N Sanner, LSCSW, RPT