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Overcoming Negative Thoughts: Practical Strategies

Negative thoughts can have a significant impact on our mental well-being, influencing our emotions and overall outlook on life. It's common to find ourselves trapped in a cycle of negative thinking, leading to increased stress, anxiety, and a diminished sense of well-being. In fact, research has shown that more than 80% of the population experiences occasional intrusive negative thoughts (Belloch et al., 2014).

The good news is that there are proven psychological techniques that anyone can use to diminish the power of negative thoughts, cultivate a positive mindset, and develop healthier thinking patterns. In this article, we will explore two of these techniques: cognitive restructuring and cognitive defusion, and explore the findings of a study that tested their effectiveness. Both of these strategies share the common goal of helping people cope with negative thoughts and change their thought patterns, but they take different paths to get there.

Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring is a technique used in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) that focuses on challenging negative, faulty thinking. It involves questioning and examining the accuracy of our thoughts. This is done by looking into the evidence behind them, checking for any thinking errors or biases, and coming up with different, more helpful thoughts that better match what's really happening.

Some of the thinking errors (also called “cognitive distortions”) that cognitive restructuring suggests to look out for are:

  • Catastrophizing: imagining the worst possible outcome, over-exaggerating.

  • Jumping to conclusions: without enough evidence.

  • All-or-nothing thinking: thinking in extremes or absolutes.

  • Overgeneralization: drawing broad conclusions from isolated events.

  • Fortune-telling: predicting the future instead of waiting to see what happens.

  • Mind-reading: assuming we know what others are thinking.

  • Mental filtering: focusing on the negative and ignoring the positive.

  • Disqualifying the positive: discounting or twisting positive information.

  • Labeling: ourselves or others negatively, based on one characteristic.

  • Emotional reasoning: believing something because of your feelings instead of objective facts.

  • Personalizing: taking things personally.

  • Demanding thinking: setting rigid rules using words like "should" or "must".

  • Low frustration tolerance: believing something is too difficult or overwhelming.

By recognizing and challenging these thinking errors, cognitive restructuring seeks to help us transform our thinking patterns and develop a more balanced and accurate perspective.

Cognitive Defusion

Cognitive defusion takes a different approach to handling negative thoughts and stems from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This technique doesn’t focus on challenging or changing negative thoughts, but rather on changing our relationship with them. Defusion aims to help us view our unwanted thoughts as just thoughts rather than absolute truths.

Cognitive defusion suggests many ways to manage negative thoughts and view them as just thoughts. One of these approaches is adding the phrase "I'm having the thought that..." before the negative thought. Another technique, known as "musical thoughts", invites you to replay your negative thoughts using a familiar tune, such as "Happy Birthday". Another technique involves imagining your negative thoughts being voiced by funny cartoon characters. All of these techniques aim to take some power away from our negative thoughts, helping us create some distance and detachment with them, and reducing their impact.

The Study

To further understand the effectiveness of these techniques, a recent study conducted by Larsson and his colleagues (2016) observed their impact on coping with negative thoughts. 83 participants of different age groups were asked to pick a personally relevant negative thought they each experienced, which they would target later. Specifically, they were asked: “Now pick a negative thought about yourself that would rate as extremely believable, extremely negative, extremely uncomfortable and that you are extremely unwilling to be thinking. Make sure that it isn’t to do with any physical properties about yourself.” Then, each participant was randomly assigned to one of three groups: one used cognitive restructuring, one used cognitive defusion, and one was a no-instruction control group.

.... each participant was randomly assigned to one of three groups: one used cognitive restructuring, one used cognitive defusion, and one was a no-instruction control group.

During the study, participants in each the cognitive defusion group and the cognitive restructuring group were taught their respective techniques to deal with their negative thoughts in an instruction session. Then, they were asked to practice these techniques for five days, receiving five daily text reminders relating to their technique (for participants in the restructuring group, this reminder read “Remember to overcome your negative thought by identifying the thinking error and generating an alternative!”, and for participants in the defusion group, it read “Remember that a thought is just a thought”). Additionally, all three groups received a daily request to record their thoughts online.

To understand how effective the techniques were, the researchers gathered data before and after the practice sessions: they measured how much participants believed their thought (believability), how uncomfortable it made them feel (discomfort), how negative they found their thought to be (negativity), and their willingness to have the thought.

The results showed that both cognitive restructuring and cognitive defusion techniques were effective in reducing the believability and negativity the participants experienced with their negative thought. However, the group using cognitive defusion also experienced a decrease in the discomfort associated with the thought, and an increase in the willingness to have the negative thought. Both groups showed an increase in positive affect and a decrease in depression measures.

The researchers state that “the results of the study suggest that both cognitive restructuring and defusion are effective techniques for managing unwanted thoughts in non-clinical populations”, and also note that participants in the cognitive defusion group made greater gains than those in the cognitive restructuring group (Larsson et al., 2016).

When it comes to dealing with negative thoughts, both cognitive restructuring and cognitive defusion techniques have shown promise. By incorporating these practical techniques into our lives, we can take some power away from our negative thoughts.

By challenging our negative thoughts, seeing them just as thoughts, and changing our relationship with them, we can reduce their impact.

Practical Techniques

Based on the strategies used in the study, these are some practical techniques to cope with negative thoughts:

1. Cognitive Restructuring Techniques:

  • Examine the objective evidence for and against your negative thought.

  • Identify common thinking errors (e.g., catastrophizing, all-or-nothing thinking) and come up with alternative, more helpful, thoughts.

  • Challenge the truthfulness of your negative thought by considering alternative perspectives.

2. Cognitive Defusion Techniques:

  • Add the phrase "I am having the thought that..." before your negative thought to create distance.

  • Think your negative thought in funny voices or musical tunes (e.g., funny cartoon characters) to add some humor and make it lighter.

  • Remind yourself that your thought is just a thought, and having a thought doesn't mean it is true.

By incorporating these practical techniques into our daily lives, we can empower ourselves to manage negative thinking, diminish its impact, and cultivate a more positive and resilient mindset.

Main Source:

  • Larsson, A., Hooper, N., Osborne, L. A., Bennett, P. & McHugh, L. 2016. Using Brief Cognitive Restructuring and Cognitive Defusion Techniques to Cope With Negative Thoughts. Behav Modif, 40 (3): 452-82.

Other Sources:

  • Arch, J. J., & Craske, M. G. (2008). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: Different Treatments, Similar Mechanisms? Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 15(4), 263–279.

  • Belloch, A., Morillo, C., Lucero, M., Cabedo, E., & Carrió, C. (2004), Intrusive thoughts in non-clinical subjects: the role of frequency and unpleasantness on appraisal ratings and control strategies. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 11, 100–110.

Article written by Maggie Stilman.

The Considerable Journal.

The Considerable Journal's mission is to bring relevant scientific findings closer to people who seek evidence-based paths to integral well-being, by providing briefed, straightforward expositions of scientific research regarding mental and physical health, relationships, habits, and more.


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