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Removing negative thinking patterns

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

How we feel, the thoughts we have, and how we act are all connected. Distressing feelings, negative thoughts and unhelpful behaviours can go hand in hand.

Negative automatic thoughts are those that just pop into your mind. They have little or no evidence to back them up. They can lead to distressing emotions. When your mood is low, you are more aware of these thoughts. This can cause you to spiral further downwards.

This article focuses on helping you become aware of the negative automatic thoughts that underpin your feelings and behaviours.

Negative Thinking & Mood

Many thoughts pass through our mind without us noticing them. Automatic thoughts are thoughts we have in reaction to a trigger or event.

Automatic thoughts can be quite negative. If we can spot these negative thoughts, we can challenge them. We can come up with more balanced alternatives. This can improve our mood. Remember, just because you think it, does not make it true!

When we are in a bad mood, under stress, or worrying, we have more negative thoughts.

If you are struggling with anxiety, low mood, or depression, negative thoughts can happen more often. These thoughts can affect our mood.

Not all negative thoughts are unrealistic. Some can be a reflection of real concerns you may have.

CBT is not about getting rid of negative thoughts. It’s about rebalancing thoughts that are overly negative. Thoughts that do not consider all the facts. As your mood begins to lift, you will find you have fewer negative thoughts.

Thinking Traps

Thinking traps are patterns in our thinking, which lead to negative thoughts. We are more prone to these types of thoughts when we are feeling upset, anxious or low. Sometimes our thoughts are a combination of more than one type of trap. Take a look below at some common thinking traps:


This thinking trap is about making things bigger than they really are. A common feature of this thinking trap is that you make general negative conclusions based on one example or incident.


  • Having a disagreement with a friend and thinking to yourself, "that’s its you’re not my friend anymore".

  • Stumbling over a few words when giving a presentation and then thinking the whole thing was a mess.

  • Burning dinner once and deciding you're terrible at cooking.


This thinking trap is about making negative assumptions based on little or no evidence.


· Believing the entire evening is going to be a disaster when your date is five minutes late.

· Going to a party and assuming the couple you're talking to thinks you're boring when in fact they are just shy.


Seeing only the bad in something or dwelling on negative events instead of positive ones. Explaining away positives for no reason or down to luck.


· Having a really good day out with your friends, but at lunchtime your favourite café was full. When you are asked whether you had a good day, you reply: ‘No. We couldn’t get into the café’.

· Hearing that a boy or girl wants to go on a date with you and thinking: ‘they probably can’t find anyone else to go out with’


Assuming that because you feel a certain way about something then it must be true.


· Waking up in the middle of the night feeling very anxious only to decide that something must be terribly wrong.

· Not having plans for the weekend and therefore thinking that your whole life is a disaster.


Having rules about how you or others “should”, “must” or “have to” behave, and making judgements based on these rules.


· Feeling guilty for getting angry with loved ones and thinking: “I shouldn’t be getting angry with people I care about”.


Putting labels on yourself or others based on one situation or incident.


· Labelling yourself a failure when you forget your keys.

Catching Thoughts

It can be tricky sometimes to spot your thoughts. You may be in the habit of thinking in a certain way. The best time to start catching thoughts is during a strong mood. This is when negative thoughts are easiest to spot. It is helpful to try and catch thoughts while you are feeling the emotion, or immediately afterwards.

Here are some tips to help you catch your thoughts:

· Be prepared - Carry a notebook with you so that you always have somewhere to write your thoughts.

· Take time to notice your thoughts - If you notice that you are feeling low, stop, and take a minute to note down what is going through your mind.

· Thoughts Vs Emotions - Emotions can usually be described in one word. If it is a sentence, it is a thought.

· Don't give up - You will always be having thoughts, even though they are hard to recognise. Keep trying.

Talking Back

Tackling negative, distorted thoughts, and thinking traps will improve your mood and help you to choose more helpful behaviours.

This involves "talking back" to the automatic, distorted thoughts we have when we experience low mood.

You may have already begun to build your own Thoughts Feelings Behaviour (TFB) cycles, of which automatic thoughts are one part.

A hot thought ( ) is the situation-specific thought that carries the strongest emotional charge. It drives emotion in your TFB cycle. One way to recognise a hot thought is that it tends to match your mood.

Generating alternatives for every thought you have is time consuming. Instead you can focus on your hot thought. You can then challenge the hot thought by coming up with alternative thoughts.

Before you get to work on finding an alternative way of thinking about a situation, it is helpful to identify which of your thoughts is your hot thought. Take a look at the examples below. The hot thoughts in each are highlighted.

Challenging Your Thoughts

To challenge or change the way we think, we need to come up with an alternative way of thinking that is more balanced and helpful. Replacing negative, distorted hot thoughts with alternatives is likely to lower your distress and can help you choose a more helpful behaviour.

An alternative thought is another way of interpreting or thinking about a situation

To come up with useful alternative thoughts, do the following:

1. Spot your hot thought

"There is no point getting up, I've already missed the meeting."

"I always mess things up."

2. Examine how fair, balanced and accurate this thought is Finding Evidence:

  • What evidence is there that this thought is true?

  • Am I assuming things?

  • Is this the only possible explanation?

  • Is this completely true all of the time?

  • When I'm not feeling so bad what do I think?

  • When I've had this thought before what did I think that made me feel better?

  • Are there strengths or positives I am ignoring?

3. Replace unfair and inaccurate thoughts with alternative fairer thoughts Finding Alternatives:

  • Is there an alternate explanation?

  • Have I considered both sides of the story?

  • Do I have all the facts?

  • What would I tell a friend?

  • What would a friend tell me?

Coming up with alternative thoughts can take some practice. It gets much easier the more you do it. Look at the examples in the section below to help you get started on your own.

Once you have come up with alternative and more balanced thoughts, it can be useful to take some time to reflect or evaluate the impact of these thoughts on your behaviour and feelings. You may notice that the emotions you feel, or the intensity of these emotions has changed. You may also notice that what you do in response to your unhelpful thoughts has changed, for example you may choose to talk to your friend about how you are feeling, rather than avoiding them.

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