Changing Negative Thoughts to Feel Better

By Stephanie McGrath

Thoughts are generated by the mind as a way of giving meaning to and making sense of the world around us. Often, we are unaware that we are interpreting and giving meaning to everything that we see, smell, touch, taste and hear. The thoughts we have about the world is also known as self-talk and is a conversation within our own mind. When faced with an upsetting situation, we are more likely to think negatively about the event and this is known as distorted thinking, also called automatic negative thoughts (ANTS).

When ANTS intrude on our internal conversation repeatedly, thoughts become more believable and happen so fast we may not even realize it. Reality is perceived negatively and this affects our feelings and behavior. ANTS can stem from mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety but ANTS can also play a role in the development of these same disorders and cause unnecessary stress.

Some examples of automatic negative thoughts include:


Catastrophizing: When you take a relatively minor event and imagine all sorts of awful situations resulting from it. “Making a mountain out of a molehill”.

All or Nothing Thinking: Also called “black or white” thinking – involves assuming that a situation is entirely good or bad, leaving no grey areas. E.g., all drivers are careless or all people are mean.

Fortune-Telling: You make predictions about the future and firmly believe that your thoughts are correct. E.g., you want to approach your boss about a raise but predict he will say ‘no’.

Mental Filtering: You only let information through that fits with what you already believe about yourself, others, or the world. E.g., if you think of yourself as boring, you only process information that points to you as boring.

Minimization: Overlooking or underplaying the positive aspects of a situation. E.g., someone tells you that you are pretty, but you pass the compliment off because you think the person said it out of pity.


What can you do about automatic negative thoughts? Become aware of ANTS and change them.

  • Pay attention to your thoughts (self-talk) and notice how you feel when you think something negative about yourself or others. Notice how these thoughts affect your body, mood and behavior.
  • Write down your thoughts and challenge them with rational and balanced responses. Confronting negative thoughts takes their power away.
  • Don’t believe every thought you have. Not all thoughts are true.
  • Think of this simple RULE to help challenge automatic negative thoughts:

R – realistic: are your thoughts truthful, credible or reasonable?

U – useful: how are these thoughts helping you?

L – logical: does your self-talk make sense? Would you think this thought about a friend in the same situation?

E – evidence: can you prove that this thought is true?

Learning to identify and challenge automatic negative thoughts can help to improve mood, change behavior and reduce stress so that you feel better.


Stephanie McGrath, M.Ed, CCC

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