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Negative thought patterns happen to the best of us.
Whether it’s a bit of bad news in your email, a stubbed toe that sets your mood down the wrong path or the dread of an upcoming event that you just know will be a negative experience, it’s perfectly normal to have negative thinking take the wheel from time to time.
But what happens when the negative thinking patterns become a daily, constant experience?
Whether negativity has been part of your worldview all along, or you’ve just lost your ability to control unhelpful thinking patterns in your day-to-day life, negative thoughts can become a serious problem.
Sure, one bad day can be the foundation from which you rebound the next morning, but over time, the lack of a positive attitude can make your thought patterns a breeding ground for more serious issues, like depression and anxiety—or worse.
If you’ve been having a lot of bad days back to back, if you feel distracted by unhelpful thinking patterns and want to take back control of your thoughts, it may be time to take a simple step to address where the negativity is coming from.
We’ll get to negative thoughts in a moment, but before we break that down, it’s helpful to understand some of the disorders that can cause negative thoughts: depression and anxiety.
Clinical depression is a mood disorder frequently characterized by ongoing patterns of negative feelings—sad, empty and down moments that can affect your ability to function and accomplish the things you want or need to do.
Several types of depression exist, including the environmental Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which typically affects people in the winter months.
Long-term depression or persistent depressive disorder can last two years or more. Meanwhile, major depression is an intense period of at least two weeks of severe depressive symptoms.
Various biological and genetic factors, as well as psychological and environmental factors, can trigger depression—science still doesn’t have a clear understanding of a single root cause, though.
Depression symptoms may include: anger, exhaustion, frequent and unexplainable irritability, sudden reckless behavior and increased substance abuse — not to mention suicidal thoughts.
Someone suffering from anxiety may deal with panic attacks (panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder), and often, panic sufferers will deal with more mild anxiety.
Anxiety symptoms are also typically felt for a pattern of weeks before it qualifies as a disorder—one bad day doesn’t mean you have anxiety.
What may show that you have anxiety are the symptoms—muscle tension, restlessness, fatigue, irritability, as well as difficulty concentrating and uncontrollable worry.
Negative thoughts, simply put, are patterns of thinking focused on negative and consequence-based filtering of events.
This may manifest as thoughts about being depressed or anxious, assuming the other person has a negative mood or that other people believe negative things about you, thinking that meanings or implications of things are due to negative causes, etc.
In many cases, this stress-reactive rumination can become a pattern that, frankly, makes everything a worst-case scenario, or at least leads the negative thinker to assume negative connotations for any and all interactions.
This is a form of cognitive distortion, sometimes called emotional reasoning — it’s reasoning done through an emotional filter, rather than a logical one.
And if you have a negative attitude and tend to have emotional reactions, it can lead you far astray of the healthy thinking you want.
It helps to consider an example. Negative thoughts are when you assume someone hasn’t called you because they’re mad, resentful or don’t value you as a person — even if you have no evidence to back this up.
Negative thoughts happen to everyone occasionally, but when it becomes a pattern of negative thinking, or when the negative thoughts become dominant or the default, it can cause serious problems.
Thinking negatively in patterns has been shown to have significant associations with both depression and anxiety, and evidence suggests that it can contribute to the onset of depression in adults, especially if they establish a negative understanding of important or stressful events in their past.
Over time, it can represent an impairment in which you’re no longer able to see reality objectively.
Furthermore, studies show that the excessive worry associated with repetitive patterns of negative thoughts might contribute to things like generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and both social anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
In other words, being so negative doesn’t just make you appear negative — it could also be having negative effects on you.
So, how do you regulate negative thoughts? Part of it might be therapy, medication or other therapeutic interventions to break an already-established cycle as associated with depression or anxiety.
But negative thoughts also have an immediate implication — and in the moment, you are not powerless to react to negative thoughts.
One study showed that replacing worry with positive ideation can be an effective countermeasure to negative thoughts.
In other words, you might try replacing thoughts like, “how bad will this be?” with thoughts like, “what are some ways this could go well?” and generally move your brain in the direction of “what if” as a positive interaction.
This, by the way, is a perfect time to introduce the concept of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a system of therapy used to sort of “re-wire” your brain away from negative thought patterns, through practice.
One study found that certain cognitive behavioral therapy processes benefitted struggling single mothers through a mixture of affirmation and negative thought interventions.
What’s really important here isn’t just breaking the negative thought cycle— replacing it with other habits or behaviors that are more beneficial, and making that process your default reaction.
Treating both anxiety and depression is complicated, but the good news is that there is overlap.
So, whether your negative thoughts are coming from a place of one or the other (or neither, yet), you or your healthcare provider may consider the same treatments for both.
Many antidepressants offer anti-anxiety benefits — on or off-label — like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.
Depression can also be treated with a variety of therapeutic techniques like psychotherapy and meditation.
One of the most prominent is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, which helps people with mental disorders like depression and anxiety to recognize negative thinking patterns and take control of those patterns.
Healthcare providers may also suggest changes to your diet and lifestyle, including getting more exercise, eating the right foods and reducing activities that might be harming your health (like substance abuse).
Negative thoughts may not yet be a sign of anxiety or depression disorders, but that’s not a call you can make on your own.
If you’ve been having negative thoughts for some time now, a mental health professional should be your next point of contact. They’ll be able to help you explore your treatment options. Ready to act? Consider scheduling yourself a telepsychiatry evaluation today through our online counseling offerings.
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Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.