Exercises to Stop Negative Thinking
Updated: Aug 8, 2022
How to recognize stress thinking and exercises to stop negative thinking associated with stress
Your own mind can be your biggest enemy.
You might be wondering-how can my own mind be my biggest enemy?
Well, when we start to get stressed, anxious, or upset, the mind starts to tell us untrue, unhelpful, and negative stories about ourselves, our abilities, our future, and everything else.
"You suck at your job"
"No one wants to spend time with you"
"What's the point of starting this? You always fail at everything"
"You're a horrible parent"
This probably sounds familiar to you since we all fall into these thinking traps, specifically when we are upset.
And as you have likely experienced, these thoughts make it hard to sleep, distract us at work, and lower our self-esteem and confidence.
But, we don't have to let these thoughts run our life. We take back control by:
1) Understanding stress/anxious thinking
2) Learning strategies to prevent, decrease, and stop unhelpful thinking
3) Calming the body and mind
Exercises to Stop Negative Thinking: Start with Recognition
Before we jump into helpful strategies to decrease and stop negative thinking, it's important to first understand why we think in negative and unhelpful ways.
There is a big connection between our thoughts, behaviors, and mood. Anytime our mood changes, our thoughts change with it. When we are in a happy mood, most of our thoughts are likely to be happy and positive.
Alternatively, when we are in a negative, stressed, or anxious mood, our thoughts will also change, but in the negative direction. When we are stressed or upset, not only are our thoughts more negative, but they tend to be unhelpful, untrue, and often are distortions of reality.
Unfortunately, when we are stressed, these thoughts can feel very real and we take them as truth. Therefore, understanding common unhelpful stress thoughts when we are feeling stressed and anxious can give us a powerful tool of recognition.
The earlier we can catch unhelpful thinking, the better we will be able to stop it.
As you have probably experienced, once the anxiety thought train leaves the station, it is very difficult to slow down. However, if we can catch the thoughts when the train is still in the station so to speak, we will be able to manage them better.
Here are some common forms of unhelpful thinking and distortions that are associated with stress and anxiety:
1) All or Nothing Thinking: This is when we look at things in extremes, or black and white ways. We are either perfect or a failure, we are great at our job, or we suck.
2) Mental Filter: This is when we look at things in a filtered way. We tend to hyperfocus or magnify negative things and we disqualify positive things. When the mood is stressed, we tend to focus more on negatives, which can skew our perception of reality.
3) Jumping to Conclusions: This is a common unhelpful thinking style that occurs when stress and anxiety are high. This might look like fortune-telling, in which we predict the future. Or, this could be mind-reading, where we predict what others are thinking.
4) Should Statements: These statements reflect on something that we have not done yet, which can cause us to feel guilty. Although should statements are used in an attempt to motivate ourselves, they often do the opposite since they cause us to feel guilty.
5) Labeling: When our mood is not good, we tend to label ourselves in very negative and unhelpful ways. This might look like labeling ourselves as a loser, failure, bad parent, and other unhelpful labels.
6) Overgeneralization: This distortion involves making a general conclusion or rule about a single event. This might look like making one mistake at work, and generalizing that a person is a bad employee overall.
7) Personalization: This involves taking responsibility for things that are not our responsibility. Or, this might look like putting blame and responsibility on someone else when they are not responsible
It is very common for people to engage in a combination of these unhelpful thinking styles when stressed or anxious. It’s important to determine the thinking styles that are most common to you so you can start to be aware of them and monitor them in your thinking
Learn more about early stress awareness
5 Helpful Exercises to Stop Negative Thinking
Stress and anxious thinking can interfere in so many ways. The good news is, there are many ways to stop negative thinking from interfering in our productivity, mood, and relationships. The following 5 exercises will help you identify, prevent, and manage negative thinking getting in your way:
1. Thought Monitoring
As mentioned above, gaining awareness of the unhelpful thoughts that come up when we are feeling stressed, anxious, or upset is a key to stopping unwanted thoughts.
Thought monitoring can be a great way to gather information and look for themes.
Utilize the following format to record your thoughts:
A: Event/situation causing stress
B: What was I doing?
C: What was I thinking?
This is a relatively straightforward strategy that can be very helpful for gathering information and improving awareness.
Journaling for Beginners to Relieve Stress
2. Thought Stopping
Thought stopping is another relatively straightforward strategy in which we literally tell our thoughts to stop to interrupt them.
It’s important to note that this strategy works best in the earlier stages of over thinking or anxious thinking. This tends to be less helpful if the thoughts have already escalated.
This can be accomplished in the following ways:
A) Yell “Stop” to yourself or aloud if possible
B) Imagine a red stop sign telling you to stop
C) Imagine a hand in your face telling you to stop
3. Labeling the Unhelpful Thought
Another helpful strategy is simply labeling the thoughts. Once you are familiar with the common cognitive distortions, labeling your unhelpful thought with the cognitive distortion that applies can give you distance from the thought and also remind you why this type of thinking is unhelpful.
This might look like, “I’m noticing that I am jumping to conclusions right now. I know that is not helpful for me."
While a simple strategy, labeling the unhelpful thought can be a great way to recognize this as stress thinking rather than something that is reality.
4. Separating Facts from Thoughts and Emotions
An important strategy is differentiating between facts, thoughts, and emotions. Under stress and anxiety, these attend to blur together, which can make unhelpful thoughts feel like facts when they are not.
First, it’s important to identify what is a fact. A fact is something that is not debatable or opinion-based. A fact is something that would stand up in a court of law.
A thought however is not always fact-based. We have a lot of different thoughts, and as you have seen, some very unhelpful and untrue thoughts when we are feeling stressed and anxious.
We also have emotions. Emotions are concrete words that describe how we are feeling. This might include happy, sad, worried, disappointed, etc. While emotions are valid, they are not facts, and we do not want to make conclusions based on how we are feeling.
Next time you are having anxious thoughts, separate what is a fact from a thought and a feeling. This strategy will give less weight to the thoughts and give them less power by separating them from the facts of the situation.
Example: I got a bad review at work. I am so disappointed in myself, and I just know that I will get fired now. My boss probably thinks that I am useless.
Fact: I got a bad review at work
Unhelpful thoughts: I know that I will get fired (fortune telling) and my boss probably thinks that I am useless (mind reading)
Once you have separated the unhelpful thoughts, this gives you more room to question them with the following strategy, Socratic questioning.
5. Socratic Questioning
Socratic questioning is a helpful strategy that allows us to question unhelpful thoughts. This is a more advanced strategy since it involves first identifying and labeling unhelpful thinking.
Once you have identified and labeled the unhelpful thought, ask yourself the following questions to analyze the validity and truth of the thought:
· How do I know this thought is true?
· Do I have any evidence to suggest this thought is true?
· Do I have any evidence that this thought is not true?
· Am I basing this conclusion on feelings, thoughts, or facts?
· What are the facts of this situation?
· What would a friend say about this situation?
· Could I be misinterpreting the information that I have?
Manage Stress to Stop Negative Thinking
One of the best ways to decrease and stop negative thinking is to manage stress. As described above, when stress and anxiety increase, unhelpful and untrue thinking is more likely to occur.
Therefore, it is important to manage stress overall to prevent, decrease, and manage unhelpful thinking.
It in addition to the cognitive strategies above, it is important to address other aspects of stress management. This includes managing the stress response and addressing lifestyle factors related to stress.
A Calm Nervous System for Stress Relief
Manage the Stress Response
One of the most important aspects of preventing and managing high stress, and unhelpful thinking associated with it, is managing the stress response.
When we get stressed and anxious, the sympathetic nervous system is activated in the body. This leads to a series of physiological changes that cause the body to be in a state of activity. The more activated the body, the more activated the mind and stress thinking.
Therefore, managing the stress response is crucial for decreasing negative thinking. The best way to do this is with deep relaxation.
Deep relaxation activates the parasympathetic nervous system in the body, also known as the calm response. The best way to do this is with deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
How to Relax with Progressive Muscle Relaxation
One of the best things that we can do to manage stress, improve our emotional well-being, and improve physical health is to engage in physical activity.
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of physical activity for adults for optimal health. If you are not there yet, start by slowly incorporating exercise into your routine.
Physical exercise calms the stress response in the body, which helps decrease nervous system activation and over activation of the mind.
Sleep and stress are highly related. When we don’t sleep well, the body releases more of the stressful hormone, cortisol. Therefore, regularly skipping sleep or sleeping poorly can further increase stress and anxiety, which makes negative thinking more likely.
When we are exhausted, we also have less cognitive resources to address unhelpful thinking. Therefore, improving sleep quality is an important aspect of reducing stress overall and managing anxious thinking
How to Stop Mind Chatter for Better Sleep
Negative and anxious thinking interferes in our productivity, mood, and so much more. The more anxious we are, the more likely we are to experience unhelpful thinking, and the more likely it is to interfere in our lives.
General stress and anxiety management is an important part of managing unhelpful thinking. Take inventory of the areas listed above to determine where you can make changes.
Practice the cognitive strategies discussed to help you prevent, decrease, and manage stress and anxious thinking. It's time to make your mind your ally, rather than your enemy.
Sick of negative thoughts interfering in your mood and productivity? My 8-week, Master Stress Method coaching program will help you prevent and manage unhelpful thinking (and so much more) getting in the way of your productivity, happiness, and true potential.
Book a discovery call so we can talk about how to take charge of your life and stop stress from getting in your way.
------About Dr. Julia
Hi! I'm Dr. Julia. Health psychologist, stress and sleep expert, and creator of the Master Stress Method.
I have worked with thousands of individuals in major hospitals, university medical centers, and primary care settings to improve their stress levels, sleep, and overall emotional and physical well being.
My current focus is helping busy professionals prevent and manage the high stress that is getting in the way of their productivity, mood, sleep, and their ability to reach their full potential.
My 8-week, 1:1 coaching program has helped hundreds of stressed out, overwhelmed, and burned out clients significantly reduce their stress and anxiety, improve their sleep, and maximize their productivity, in just 8 short weeks.
I can't wait to help you stop the struggle with stress, for good. Let's chat :)