We all have negative thoughts sometime, but when they cycle through your mind over and over again, they can cause problems and they can be a sign that you have a more fundamental problem for which you need to seek help. Recurring negative thoughts can be a symptom of both anxiety and depressive disorders.
Science has recognized two different forms of repetitive negative thoughts: rumination and worry.
Worry is defined as having recurring thoughts that create apprehension within you and an expectation that surely something negative will occur in the future. Worry is worry about the future. You might worry about what will happen the next time you see that person you are interested in dating. Or you might worry about whether or not the shortness of breath you are experiencing is a sign of heart disease. For decades now, science has seen worry as a symptom of anxiety. But it definitely occurs in depression as well.
Rumination is slightly different and is characterized as having negative thoughts about something that happened in the past. It typically involves thinking about how you were not as good at something as you would like to be. In rumination, you might think over and over again about how badly you played in that last tennis match; or how badly you feel about ignoring someone at the opera last night. Rumination has been seen as more of a symptom of depression, but it also occurs in anxiety.
Worry and rumination are different, but they are also similar in that they are both form of repetitive thoughts that are unproductive. They both involve having intrusive, repetitive, prolonged and uncontrollable thoughts about future or past experiences. More than that, they often occur together in the same person.
In other words, rumination and worry are both symptoms of anxiety. And they are also a problem that can be improved with treatment.
Examples of Negative Thoughts
There are many kinds of negative thoughts, and if you learn how to recognize them, it will easier to diminish them and the impact they have upon you. Here are some examples of negative thoughts:
- Thinking that the person who wouldn’t let you into the luxury department store after hours was a bad person because they didn’t recognize how important you are.
- Worrying, if you're out late, that you'll get in trouble with your spouse if you don't rush home and soon.
- Worrying over and over about whether or not your boss will think that the presentation you are going to make tomorrow is good.
- Worrying that the weakness in your leg is a sign that you are developing multiple sclerosis.
- Worrying that you will have nothing of interest to say to anyone at the party you are going to this evening.
Repetitive Negative Thoughts Create Negative Emotions
There is an emerging stream of research that is showing that recurring negative thoughts can cause anxiety and depression. Try doing it consciously. Think about and remember a negative situation that happened to you recently — maybe an upsetting argument with a friend or someone in your family. Remembering that argument will make you feel bad.
On the other hand, if you sit down and purposefully think positive thoughts — maybe you imagine the day of your marriage to the person you love, and that will make you feel happy and good inside.
So your thoughts do play a role in determining your mood, and scientific studies have shown that there is an association between negative thoughts and anxiety and depression. In other words, people who have a recurring cycles of negative thoughts, are more likely to be anxious or depressed. However, if you think positive thoughts, you will be more likely to be happy.
Your negative thoughts don’t cause you have have a bad mood in the first place. But what they do is this: once you are in a bad mood — be it anxiety, depression or both — your negative thoughts will maintain and deepen your bad mood.
This is a good reason to find a way to diminish the power your negative thought have over your life. You can either try to stop having negative thoughts, replace your negative thoughts with positive or most of all, to simply stop believing your negative thoughts.
Recurring Negative Thoughts Create Stories and Then You Live in Those Stories
Recurring cycles of negative thoughts creates stories. They are just like films inside of your mind. Maybe a stream of thoughts will create a story in which everyone thinks you’re stupid. Or maybe a stream of thoughts will create a story in which criticize yourself for something you said to your boss the other day.
Streams of negative thoughts also distort and tarnish the good intentions of your true self. Negative thoughts create negative stories, and you live in those stories instead of being your true self.
Suppose, for example, you see a tourist being abusive and superior to a person who lives in the country he is visiting. He is ordering the local person around and criticizing them. You have the impulse — out of goodness — to stop this abuse. You walk over to the tourist, and in a kind and respectful manner ask him to be kind and gentle, and although he is a bit abashed, everything works out just fine. The tourist realizes he is being unkind and stops.
But suppose you are in the same situation and a stream of negative thoughts is running through your mind that depicts the tourist as a bad person who is typical of the people who come from his country, and you get angry. You march over to the tourist, and in the full flush of your righteous indignation you are haughty and critical with him, and he becomes resentful and defiant. Now he turns on you.
In that moment, you were living in a story created by your negative thoughts and the anger they generated, and by acting out that story, you created another problem.
This is a second reason to find a way to diminish the power of your negative thoughts.
There are Good Techniques for Disempowering Your Negative Thoughts
Recurring negative thoughts are a problem when you believe they are true. If you are aware of your negative thoughts and don’t believe them, they will not cause any problems. They will just float by in your stream of consciousness and dissolve.
However, if you are not aware of your thoughts and they remain unconscious, then you do believe them. This is just the way the mind works. If you are not aware of your thoughts you believe the contents of those thoughts.
By the same token, if you are aware of your negative thoughts then you believe them too.
In both of these situations, you sink into and get lost in your thoughts and the stories they create. If your unconscious thoughts are telling you that you are worthless, you believe them. If your unconscious thoughts are telling you that you are the most beautiful woman in the room, you believe them.
The import of understanding that it is the act of believing your thoughts that make them problematic and pathogenic is that most of the therapeutic techniques for treating and disempowering negative thoughts are techniques that help pull you away from believing those thoughts. Here’s an explanatory list of those techniques:
- Meditation Meditation changes your mind in several different ways. One of the first things it does is create a situation in which you stand outside of, and become aware of, your stream of thoughts. In this situation, there are two entities present in your experience of your mind. There is your stream of thoughts, and there is the awareness — which is you — that is watching the stream of consciousness. It is akin to the experience of standing on a bank next to a river and watching that river flow by.
By standing outside of your stream of thoughts, you remove yourself from the midst of those thoughts, and this gives your the opportunity to stop believing them. You can just watch them go by without believing them. This will both diminish and disempower your negative thoughts. Less negative thoughts will arise, and when they do arise you will have the option of not believing them.
The first step in this process is to learn to meditate on an object and let your stream of thoughts go by without repressing or holding onto any of them. Next you can learn to identify the negative stories that your thoughts are telling you. And that sets you up to just stop believing that they are true. This is liberating.
- Thought Journals Thought journals work on the same premise. They give you the opportunity to get outside of your thoughts and get a more objective perspective on them. First you identify the contents of your negative thoughts, and then you write them down in your journal. This makes you aware of your thoughts, gets you outside of them and allows you to assess them and decide whether or not they are true.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Restructuring Cognitive restructuring can be done in cognitive behavioral therapy, or you can do it on your own. However, it is strongly recommended that you do this process with a therapist.
Cognitive restructuring is a process in which you identify your negative thought patterns and then dispute them. In other words, cognitive restructuring is a process in which you investigate your negative thoughts and establish that they are not true.
There are five stages to cognitive restructuring:
- Identify and Record - The first thing to do is to identify your negative thoughts and record them in a journal. Alsom record the situation in which you had each bout of negative thoughts and how the thoughts made you feel. This will start the process of separating yourself from your negative thoughts.
- Analyze - Analyze the thoughts in your thought journal. Look for patterns in the themes of your thoughts. Do your thoughts create negative images of yourself? What are the negative images the create? Look to see what kinds of situations trigger your negative thoughts. Most of all, analyze the thoughts to see if they are really true.
- Dispute - This is just what it sounds like. Critique your negative thoughts if you think they are not true. Challenge them. If you tend to think you are a failure, recall to mind times when you were not a failure. If you tend to think that you are always a failure in social situations, recall to mind occasions in which you and another person felt close to one another. Once again, this is about finding a way to stop believing your negative thoughts.
- Positive Thoughts - When negative thoughts come up, replace them with positive thoughts. “I did enjoy myself at that last party I went to.” “At last week’s meeting, everybody thought my business plan was excellent, and we used the plan with a few slight modifications.”
- Realistic Goals - Negative thoughts are often the handmaiden of having unrealistic images of and goals for yourself. Either you need to be great in everything you do. Or you might be asking yourself to be someone you aren’t. This kind of self image is a setup for negative thoughts. You will often be a failure in your own eyes, and this will give rise to negative thoughts. Develop realistic goals for your work life and your social life. This will lessen your negative self images and negative thoughts.
A Couple of Things Not to Do
- Do Not Judge Your Thoughts - A very helpful thing to do is to be sure not to judge your negative thoughts. If you judge them, you will only make more of them come. Plus, you will feel bad about yourself as a result of your judgments. Make friends with your negative thoughts. Don’t be afraid of them. Accept them without judging them, and learn instead to stop believing them.
- Don’t Try to Stop Your Thoughts - Don’t try to stop your negative thoughts. This will only make more of them come. Again, the essence of what you want to be doing with your negative thoughts is to stop believing them in one way or another.
Anxiety causes people to worry and imagine bad things. Some forms of anxiety, like OCD, are also based on unexpected or unwanted thoughts causing distress. All of these are related to anxiety. There are several techniques that can be used to reduce the frequency of bad thoughts, and treating anxiety should provide additional relief.