How To Stop Having Negative and Spiraling Thoughts: Try These 5 Methods

Lauren-Ann

Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health

To combat negative and spiraling thoughts, it’s crucial to introduce positive thoughts as a counterbalance. But how do you effectively channel positivity to disrupt these negative patterns? Is this the sole strategy to curb recurring negative thoughts?

In this article, we’ll delve into five different techniques you can employ to manage and reduce negative, recurring thoughts. Additionally, we’ll examine the impact of constant negative thinking on brain function and emotional reactions. 

Keep reading to discover practical methods to foster a more positive mindset and improve your mental well-being.

 

How to stop bad thoughts: 5 ways to handle them

No one can live without negative thoughts. It’s the natural mechanism of our brain aiming to keep us safe that we can’t control (4). 

Therefore, instead of asking, “How to block out negative thoughts?” let’s shift our focus to “How to stop focusing on the negative?” We can exert more influence over our emotions and choose how we respond rather than reacting.

With our top five techniques, you can keep those unhelpful, distressing thoughts from dragging you down. 

How To Stop Having Negative Thoughts 1

Taking notice of them

First and foremost, stopping negative thoughts begins with knowing that they exist. Simply bringing awareness and mindfulness to our experience is key. It is also important to recognize that we are the ones who give power to our thoughts. 

Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a great tool that allows us to be mindful and aware of our thoughts in neutral, accepting ways, neither viewing them as “good or bad.” Rather, this form of therapy encourages us to take some distance between ourselves and our thoughts, recognizing that we are not the content of our thoughts. 

An exercise that may be helpful in implementing ACT is simply, “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that _(Insert thought here)_.” This helps us pause and create distance between ourselves and our thoughts, recognizing that just because our brain produces certain thoughts does not mean they are inherently true. 

ACT and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which we will get into below, are efficacious in alleviating negative thought patterns (13). 

Cognitive distortions refer to negative thoughts in which your mind distorts how you look at situations and people, including yourself. Hence, you may believe in something that isn’t the truth (4). 

Empower your shield against negative thinking patterns by being aware of those common thinking mistakes (4, 14, 15):

  • Black-and-white (also called all-or-nothing, polarized, or dichotomous thinking): We might limit ourselves to the extremes of success or failure. We might encounter words like all, always, never, none, nothing, no one, everyone, and every time.
  • Mind-reading: We may feel like we can see inside someone else’s mind and know exactly what they’re thinking. These mind readings often tend to lean towards assuming others are thinking negatively about us.
  • Imperatives (‘should’ and ‘must’ statements): We hold a rigid notion of how we or others should behave. Thus, we tend to magnify the impact when those expectations aren’t fulfilled. We might notice words like should, must, ought to, or have to creep into our thoughts.
  • Overgeneralization: When something bad happens, we might think it’s going to happen all the time. This fuels feelings of anxiety and a sense that the bad stuff is bound to persist.
  • Jumping to conclusions: This is even worse than overgeneralization, in which we make negative assumptions about how things will turn out badly without evidence.
  • Personalization or blame: We may take the problems personally. Thus, we start blaming ourselves, even when they have nothing to do with us and are beyond our control.
  • Labeling: We may slap a fixed label on ourselves or someone else without considering the bigger picture. We might even call ourselves a ‘fool,’ ‘bad at,’ or ‘loser’ for making a mistake.
  • Fortune-telling (catastrophizing): We may assume and predict the worst-case scenario and dismiss those more probable and realistic possibilities.
  • Emotional reasoning: We may think something must be true simply because we ‘feel’ it strongly, even when the evidence suggests otherwise. Consider the example of feeling nervous; it doesn’t always mean being in danger, although it might feel that way.
  • Selective abstraction (mental filter or tunnel vision): We focus more on our flaws and fail to see the bigger picture. For instance, if we receive a passing grade in one subject but kill it in others, we may conclude that we are not good students overall.
  • Disqualifying (discounting the positive or minimization): We unfairly discount positive experiences, deeds, or qualities. We don’t give ourselves credit for anything good that happens and always look for what’s wrong and even find problems where there aren’t any.

The more aware and conscious we are of our irrational, negative thoughts, the less likely we are to associate them with negative feelings (unconsciously). Therefore, those bad thoughts may have a harder time getting in there and dragging you down (16).

Remember that you are not your thoughts; you are just holding onto them—they are not even facts. Don’t let your thoughts deceive you since they are a passed–by passenger, not a driver. It is also helpful to remind yourself that our brains always produce thoughts. 

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Practicing mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness is a strong, validated tool for getting out of a negative mindset. 

Even when we know the negative thinking patterns, they can come back out of the blue if we don’t find the root cause. That’s where mindfulness and meditation come into play (17).

Mindfulness meditation was originally defined as ‘memory,’ and now we can consider it as ‘clear awareness’ (18). This simple technique will boost your relationship with yourself—the most important relationship you have.

This practice is about detaching yourself from your thoughts and emotions and watching them come and go without judgment (19). You can sit, lie down, or do anything that comforts you. 

When distractions pop up during meditation, simply acknowledge them as passing thoughts or feelings. Gently redirect your focus back to your meditation. There are also many mindfulness apps out there to support you (4). 

By practicing this technique, you will get better at (20): 

  1. Being able to concentrate
  2. Being aware of your senses
  3. Staying calm 

Taking time for mindfulness meditation can let us be more at peace with our inner selves and break free from the cycle of constant negative thoughts or internal noise (4, 21). Undeniably, Mindfulness Meditation can support our DMN in favorable ways over time. 

Mindfulness meditation contributes to an increase of gray matter and thickened regions in the brain, which is important for promoting neural plasticity, memory, learning, regulating mood, and almost everything we do. In turn, this will help protect your brain from insults you receive daily (22, 23, 24).

Release your thought

Negative thoughts often sneak in like unwelcome guests at a party. 

Yet, aiming to resist or eliminate negative thinking is unlikely to succeed; it’s the opposite of mindfulness. After being suppressed, thoughts tend to bounce back, sometimes even stronger. This is called the ‘rebounding effect’ (25, 26). 

According to psychologist Carl Jung, stopping negative thoughts means giving them more power: “What you resist, persists, and gets bigger” (4).

Experts believe that this thought rebounding can be more detrimental to our overall state of mind (25, 27).

It’s time to be kind and compassionate with ourselves, not to build more negative thoughts about ourselves and spiral down another negative rabbit hole. You have to feel it in order to heal it.

Instead of suppressing it, try to release it. 

Just take a step back and observe what is going on. The easiest way to release those negative chatters is to write them down (28). 

All you need is to write whatever is taking up space in your mind right now. What is the scenario? What are you thinking now? Are these thoughts useful? How do they behave in the context of your emotions and your behaviors?

Simply grab a pen and let the words flow onto the paper. Write until you feel a sense of release and lightness within. What about the thought records? It is up to you whether you choose to discard them or keep them as a reminder to reflect upon during brighter moments (28).

Consider opening up to someone you trust about your negative thoughts. Expressing your emotions and concerns can provide relief and create a supportive bond. 

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Learning coping skills

While we can’t control our thoughts or many of the situations we may find ourselves in, we can be proactive about the coping skills we have in our toolbox, utilizing them to improve our tolerance and response to maladaptive thoughts. Effective coping skills can become your first aid to automatic negative thoughts. 

A powerful practice is managing your body language and facial expressions. 

For instance, if you sit in a depressed posture, you will be more prone to stress (29). Making facial expressions (like smiling or frowning) can also strengthen your emotions (30, 31).

The reason behind this is that many of our feelings are derived from and held in our body, not just our brain (32). 

So, next time negative thoughts creep in, straighten up your posture, whether you’re standing or sitting, and put on a smile. It’s a surprisingly effective way to lift your spirits when facing difficulties.

Deep breathing is also an effective method to regulate your body and mind. It can cool the fire and push away any unfavorable response (33, 34).

Moreover, engaging in self-affirmation can strengthen your resilience when faced with challenging situations (35). A gentle touch on a soft surface, like petting your furry friend, can also shift your focus away from negativity.

Deploy positive thinking

Are you the kind who sees a glass as half full or half empty? Despite our brains being hardwired for negativity, a few grateful practices can help bring a positive spin to our thoughts (36).

The practice can take time and effort, but don’t sweat it! Over time, you will naturally own your problem instead of letting the problem own you. 

Things have a way of working out, even when it might not seem that way at the moment. Trust that there’s a greater plan at play. Brighter days are on the horizon. 

To do this, let go of perfection. It’s one of those first steps to rewire your brain and grow your mindset. No one could be right every time (37).

Also, it’s always good to be nice to others. It’s harder when we encounter difficult moments. Yet the choice is always up to you: just find and embrace the good stuff inside the situation or person (4). 

There will always be things to be grateful for. So, never take little things for granted: notice small things, and the fulfillment will come from inside. 

Do you want to spread your thankfulness? Give some compliments to your loved ones. A thank-you note or a gratitude gift will take almost no time but is sure to warm you and the one receiving it (38, 39, 40).

Engage fully in every experience, record it on your phone, or start a gratitude journal to savor and remember it. No matter how rough the situation is, a compliment, a helpful gesture, or any movement with kindness and gratitude can lift our mood. Also, helping those in need can inspire you to create a sense of compassion for others and yourself (4, 41).

Constant negative thoughts are often beyond our control due to the inherent negativity bias. Thus, acknowledge their presence without judgment instead of trying to stop them forcefully. You can also cultivate coping skills, such as practicing mindfulness meditation or spreading kindness and gratitude to others.

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The effects of negative and ruminating thoughts

Just like a passing cloud in the sky, negative thoughts often arise in our minds, as our brains are constantly producing thoughts.

Negative thoughts trigger negative feelings. For instance, research highlights associations between perseverative negative thinking or rumination and subsequent feelings of heightened emotional distress, anxiety, and depression (1). 

What’s more, chronic, ruminating thoughts can also impede our physical health, highlighting the connection between the nervous system, hormones, and our immune system, or the emerging field of Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) (2). For instance, immune dysfunction, hormonal imbalance, and elevated markers of inflammation may be evident when we are under significant emotional stress or trapped in the vicious cycle of constant negative thoughts (3). 

However, we can acknowledge these faulty thought patterns without letting them ruin our day or the course of our lives (4).

What causes negative thinking?

In the bustling playground of your mind, more than 6000 thoughts come and go daily. In turn, those negative ones will tag along without our conscious control (4, 5), 

Other factors, such as genetics, learned behaviors, biochemical individuality, and responses to our environment, all contribute to negative ruminative thinking (6). This is because our brain and nervous system are a map of our experiences. 

It is interesting to note that nutrition can be beneficial in combating persistent negative thoughts. Research suggests that adequate levels of folate support pathways involved in anxiety, worry, and ruminative thought patterns. This speaks to the role folate has in serotonin synthesis, especially for those who may have variations in their genetic makeup, affecting pathways that influence thought and emotion. 

Circadian rhythm balance and quality sleep can also support more flexible and adaptable thought patterns, with less restrictive and negative thinking. This highlights the significant role our body’s physiology has in influencing our minds. 

Our brains have evolved to have a default setting that gravitates toward negativity. This reflects an evolutionary adaptation, serving as a survival mechanism to keep us and our ancestors alive (7).

In fact, negative information can alert us to potential dangers and threats. It’s like the built-in caution sign that keeps us on our toes to ensure our safety and survival (8).

As a result, we tend to focus more on negative experiences than positive ones (of equal extreme) to safeguard us from getting hurt. We will also recall the bad events and our emotions associated with them to ward off danger. Experts call this the ‘negativity bias’ pattern (7, 9). If we have more emotionally heightened memories, we are more likely to remember that memory over another memory. 

The Default Mode Network (DMN) is significant in explaining the nature of our thoughts. It describes the brain’s mode in a resting state when it isn’t actively engaged in a focused task. It also highlights the subconscious activity that increases internal thought processes, thought to have evolved from the mechanisms described above. The DMN plays an integral role in interacting with other brain networks and describes how our mind operates the majority of the time, or our “baseline” train of thought (10). 

Another core factor is that our body wants to process information quickly. Our brain will sort it into categories, drawing from our existing knowledge. Yet, when stress enters the picture, this filtering process can lead to distorted interpretations because stress induced in the body can further compound this process (1, 11). 

Moreover, spiraling negative thoughts can act like a contagious wave, rippling from person to person. This is called ‘emotional contagion,’ suggesting that our moods can silently influence those around us (8, 12). 

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Negative thinking disorder: Is it a mental problem?

In reality, excessive negative thinking isn’t classified as a formal or recognized mental health disorder (i.e., ‘negative thinking disorder’). In reality, negative thoughts serve a purpose by keeping us alert and alive (42).

Despite not being a standalone mental health condition, negative thinking can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depressed moods. 

This, in turn, can increase the risk of developing other conditions, such as depression, anxiety disorders, panic disorders, a generally pessimistic outlook, and so on (42, 43, 44).

Negativity is also a common predictor of depression symptoms, such as feelings of guilt, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disturbance (1, 45, 46).

When people get caught up in rumination (constant negative thought), they may struggle with problem-solving and have difficulty in social interactions and relationships (47).

Let’s face it: change isn’t a piece of cake. You may know how to stop dwelling on negative thoughts, but it will work only when you take consistent actions. 

It’s easier for people to make excuses. They allow you to stay within your comfort zone and hold on to your emotions (48, 49).

While excessive negative thinking isn’t recognized as a mental health disorder, it can fuel depression, anxiety disorders, and panic disorders. Automatic negative thoughts are also linked to difficulty with problem-solving and communication.

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Effects of negative thinking on the brain

Overall, constant negative thoughts can be detrimental to our memory, elevating the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and even dementia. This is a result of certain protein deposits in the brain (50, 51). 

When we experience emotions, they are stored in a special area of the brain called the limbic system (52).

Negativity increases the activity in our ‘worry center,’ called the amygdala, which is located inside the limbic system. Suddenly, we find ourselves feeling on edge and extra concerned (53, 54).

The amygdala normally helps us react to scary or unpleasant things (55). It is either where the brain stores ‘fear’ or the most important part of a ‘fear’ circuit. It is linked to anxiety disorders (53, 56).

When negative emotions shift back and forth, our thinking center, the lateral prefrontal cortex, may not function as smoothly. This can make it more challenging to focus on tasks, think logically, and make wise choices (57, 58, 59).

People who have more negative thoughts might also have their serotonin function running low. Serotonin, the happy hormone, usually keeps our mood in check. But when it’s not doing its job properly, it’s harder to put the brakes on feeling down and unmotivated. It’s like a vicious cycle of spiraling thoughts (55, 60).

Thinking more negatively is also linked to higher levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and alpha-amylase, even when you are at rest (61). 

For this reason, it makes people more sensitive to stress, hampering their brains in the long run (62, 63).

Negative thinking can compromise our brain function and overall well-being. It can disrupt the functioning of the amygdala and the lateral prefrontal cortex, affecting focus and decision-making. Moreover, it can lead to elevated stress hormone levels, inflammation, and reduced serotonin.

Automatic negative thoughts and spiraling thoughts

Automatic thoughts are the ideas that are spontaneously and unconsciously in our minds. They can be positive, negative, or neutral (64). 

Automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) are unfavorable thoughts that occur when you have a strong feeling or reaction to something. They are more like a reflex rather than free-thinking (65). ANTs often reflect our judgments about different areas of our lives. 

These thoughts might be exaggerated, distorted, or useless. They can affect our moods, emotions, and feelings (65, 66).

Negative thoughts about our failure can make us feel down. ANTs about social threats are tied to feeling anxious. Thoughts related to hostility or revenge are often associated with anger or aggression (67).

ANTs can also be driven and often influenced by cognitive biases—the patterns of thinking that can make us see things in a distorted way, not quite matching up with reality. Hence, you might make a worse decision (68, 69). 

Automatic negative thoughts and spiraling thoughts, or rumination, are closely related and often go hand in hand. 

In other words, spiraling thoughts occur when negative thoughts repeat themselves over and over. They can intensify negative feelings and lead to more automatic negative thoughts. It’s like a vicious cycle and an overwhelming cycle (17, 47). 

Spiraling thoughts are persistent and learned, resulting in overthinking and, in turn, depression (11, 65, 70).

How To Stop Having Negative Thoughts and Spiraling Thoughts 02 1

An automatic negative thought (ANT) reflects our way of reacting negatively to unfavorable scenarios. These thoughts can exaggerate or distort the truth. Spiraling thoughts involve repetitive and intensifying ANTs, creating a vicious cycle that can contribute to depression and overthinking.

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What are examples of negative thoughts in depression?

Depression can be broken down into helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness. They may entail an automatic negative thought like: “I can’t do anything,” “I’m a failure,” “It’s just luck, I’m not that good,” “I will be so upset,” or “It can’t get better.” In the worst case, they may include thoughts of suicide (14, 45).

Why do I have negative thoughts about others?

We are hardwired for negativity, so insults stick with us more than compliments. Sometimes, we tend to notice people’s negative aspects more often than their positive sides. Negative emotions about others can also stem from feeling a lack of control in our relationships (71, 72).

How to redirect negative thoughts?

A helpful approach is to reframe your thoughts by questioning if they’re really true. By doing so, you can challenge the negativity and replace it with a more realistic perspective. Another technique is mindfulness meditation, where you focus on the present moment and observe your thoughts without passing judgment (14, 73).

How to stop overthinking and negative thoughts?

Practicing mindfulness meditation encourages you to observe your thoughts without being too hard on yourself. Creating space to focus on your thoughts makes it more challenging for overthinking to take over. Plus, when you cultivate a sense of gratitude, it becomes harder to fixate on the negative (4, 21).

How to remove negative thoughts from the mind permanently?

Unfortunately, permanently stopping negative thoughts may seem like an impossible task: thoughts naturally come and go. Yet, there are ways to lessen their impact and foster a positive mindset. You can start by considering their validity. In the long run, mindfulness practices and nurturing a sense of gratitude can help (4, 7).

Summary

Constant negative thoughts are often beyond our control, owing to our natural bias towards negativity. They can fuel many mental disorders and hamper our memory.

Learning how to get rid of negative thoughts can be tough, but we can explore techniques to avoid getting caught in them. Paying attention to your posture, facial expression, and breathing can make a significant difference.

It’s helpful to simply acknowledge their presence without judgment. To foster this mindset, you can try practicing mindfulness meditation or spreading kindness and gratitude to others.

However, you can minimize spiraling thoughts if you dedicate time to release them. You could try putting them down in a journal or sharing them with your loved ones.

How Do You Feel About This Article?

Lauren-Ann

Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health

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