Negative thinking patterns, or cognitive distortions, can manifest as incorrect assumptions, unrealistic self-criticisms, and even the denial of reality itself. Yet, the effects of this thinking can be all too real for someone struggling with their mental health.
Breaking free from negative thought patterns requires learning how to cope effectively with the feelings and triggers that lead to negative thinking. Someone experiencing mental health struggles can be led into a depressive spiral of negative thoughts by any number of possible triggers—from unhelpful advice to minor relationship issues—and those negative thoughts can take on a variety of different forms.
What Causes Negative Thinking Patterns?
There are many theories as to why human beings sometimes seem so hyper-focused on the negative aspects of existence. Our culture and media often glorify struggle and conflict. Our evolutionary makeup is based on a need to fight and survive. Even modern human history is in many ways a tale of violence and terror. It is perhaps no wonder we can be so fixated on the negative things around us.
What is the main cause of negative thinking? There is no single main cause that we can point to, as negative thinking arises from a complex web of dynamic factors. The primary driver of a negative thought pattern will vary greatly depending on the person engaged in the negative thinking, their particular history, their triggers, and their current mental health situation.
Whatever the true root of our negative thought patterns, we can all take steps to empower ourselves to overcome them and break free of their influence.
Cognitive Distortion: When Negative Thinking Forms a Larger Pattern
When harmful patterns of thought occur repeatedly, this meets the definition of a cognitive distortion. The term “distortion” is used because these negative thoughts lead to untrue and unrealistic conclusions or even distortions of reality itself.
In the simplest terms, cognitive distortions are errors in thinking. More specifically, the term refers to insecure, self-destructive, or nihilistic thinking that leads people to hold harmful false beliefs about themselves and their place in the world. This, in turn, can cause or exacerbate mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Learning to identify cognitive distortions can help someone break free of them. By recognizing and coping with the issue when the negative thought pattern is first beginning, you have a better chance of disrupting this pattern before it spirals into a larger mental health crisis.
Common cognitive distortions include thinking yourself unworthy of love or success, believing everyone hates you, blaming yourself for your parents’ divorce, and other self-destructive beliefs. Cognitive distortions are not always self-deprecating, however. They can also be projected onto other people and the world around you, such as believing everyone is lying, blaming a person or institution for your personal problems, or obsessing over a partner’s feelings towards you.
The Connection Between Negative Thinking and Depression
The link between negative thinking patterns and depression is not surprising to anyone who has struggled with depression. The relationship between the two is cyclical, almost paradoxical in a chicken-and-egg way. Is being negative a symptom of depression? Yes, but the opposite is also true – depression leads to negative thinking.
Someone suffering from clinical depression, for example, may struggle to find the energy to get out of bed in the morning, even on a good day. Add a negative thought pattern that leads to a sense of hopelessness (e.g., “What’s the point of getting out of bed at all when nobody cares about me?”), and you have another significant obstacle impairing the depressed person’s ability to function, much less heal.
Examples of Negative Thinking Patterns
What are examples of negative patterns?
Mental health experts have identified many specific types of negative thinking patterns, including:
1. Polarization or Dichotomous Thinking:
When complex issues are oversimplified so that they become black or white, yes or no, good versus bad (or me versus them) matters, that’s dichotomous thinking. This all-or-nothing mindset makes it hard to approach issues with any sort of nuance or room for compromise. The idea that “there is no second place” (i.e., you must be the absolute best to be considered a success) is a common example of harmful dichotomous thinking.
2. Emotional Reasoning:
When a person insists that something is factually true even though their only evidence is their own feelings, they are engaging in emotional reasoning. Someone in the throes of emotional reasoning is difficult to engage with productively because they center their reasoning around negative emotions rather than any sort of logic. The emotional reasoner starts with the premise that their negative feelings must be true and justified simply because they exist and then builds a narrative to support that. “I’m anxious about going to school, therefore going to school must be dangerous,” would be an example of emotional reasoning.
Overgeneralization means fixating on one negative detail or experience and assigning it an overblown significance in your life. For example, a waiter breaks a glass clearing a table which leads them to exclaim, “I’m the most useless waiter to ever live!” This despairing notion is not proportionate to the event that triggered it. Only by overgeneralizing their entire career in the context of this mundane mistake could someone come to such a conclusion.
Putting negative labels on yourself and the people and things around you is another very common type of harmful thought pattern that many people engage in every day without really thinking about it. If someone consistently sees themselves as “a loser” or “stupid” or “a bad father,” they can eventually grow into that mold because their negative perception leaves them no room to live outside those labels or grow beyond them.
5. Jumping to Conclusions:
Most of us have been guilty of a mistaken assumption at some point. However, when someone experiencing mental health struggles jumps to a negative conclusion about something—usually themselves—it can become extremely difficult to correct or change that belief.
6. Mental Filtering:
When someone chooses (consciously or otherwise) to remember only the bad parts of a situation, they’re engaged in mental filtering. A depressed athlete who forgets their many excellent plays and instead rants about one blown assignment and how it cost their team the game would be an example of mental filtering.
Another type of negative thought pattern involves repeatedly predicting that situations will turn out poorly.
Projecting pessimism onto the future can create a self-fulfilling prophecy where your negative vision of the future is so strong it impacts your ability to behave in a way that would lead to positive outcomes. For example, a student with an upcoming test believes they’re going to fail, so they don’t bother to study, which does indeed lead to a failed test.
Fortune-telling and mind-reading may sound like amazing psychic abilities, but when we’re talking about cognitive distortion, neither of them are particularly helpful. Mind reading in this context means assuming you know exactly what someone else thinks and feels, especially what they think and feel about you. Assuming someone hates you because they gave a short, hurried response to a question (when perhaps they were just flustered by something unrelated) would be an example of negative mind reading behavior.
9. Magnification or Catastrophizing:
Most of us have been guilty of this in a heated moment. Magnification, sometimes called catastrophizing, simply means blowing an issue out of proportion. Allowing a bad taxi ride to ruin an entire vacation is an example of catastrophizing.
10. Inability to Be Wrong:
Everyone likes to feel correct, but this desire becomes a cognitive distortion when the need to be right outweighs evidence, logic, and material reality. Growth—including the growth needed for mental health recovery—requires allowing yourself the room to be forgiven and to grow. If you can never be incorrect in the first place, there’s no space for that growth to occur.
11. Control Fallacies:
A control fallacy can manifest in two possible forms. One is that you despair because you have no control over anything in your life and are therefore powerless to change it. The other is that you despair because you have absolute control over everything in your life and are therefore entirely to blame for any negative or difficult circumstances.
12. Fairness Fallacies:
The age-old adage “the world’s not fair” is usually spoken in response to someone struggling with a fairness fallacy. Analyzing situations in terms of how just or unjust they are might be a worthwhile socio-political exercise, but it’s often not helpful in the context of personal mental health.
13. Change Fallacies:
Believing or assuming that someone or something will eventually change to suit your needs is a fallacy of change. This is essentially a matter of projecting your own needs and desires onto the world around you.
14. Minimizing or Discounting:
Not all negative thought patterns are actually centered on negative thoughts. Another form of cognitive distortion occurs when someone fails to appreciate positive things in their life and instead ignores or marginalizes them. This refusal to acknowledge the good allows negative feelings to flourish unchecked. Writing off all of your accomplishments as “luck” is an example of minimizing.
15. Personalization and Self-Blame:
When you take issues or details that have nothing to do with you and make them all about yourself, your feelings, or your role in matters, you are experiencing the cognitive distortion called personalization. A ubiquitous example of personalization is a child blaming themselves for their parents getting divorced.
Framing things in terms like “should” or “must” can be a big part of negative thinking. For example, someone who gets nervous talking on the telephone might berate themselves because they believe they “should” be able to make a simple phone call without feeling anxious. This minimizes their ability to accept that it’s okay to feel anxious, and in turn, prevents them from doing the work of actually coping with anxiety. Instead, they remain uselessly distraught that the anxiety exists at all.
Not every pattern of negative thought will fit neatly into one of the above definitions, and oftentimes two or more forms of cognitive distortion will manifest together. In other cases, one type of negative thinking will lead directly to another, creating larger and more complex patterns that can require a lot of hard work and support to break.
Habits that Lead to Cognitive Distortion
Working on your mental health involves identifying patterns within patterns. There are some attitudes and mental habits you may be bringing into your day-to-day life that lead to cycles of negative thought. You can help yourself by learning to recognize them as they occur and stop them before they lead to a negative place.
It’s good to be thorough when making important choices, but if you can’t decide where to go for lunch because you’re wracked by insecurity and doubt, you’re engaging in a harmful thought pattern. Overthinking involves looking at your role in every decision from every possible angle and trying to model every potential outcome in your mind. This can be exhausting at best and devastating if your carefully considered predictions turn out completely wrong. Avoid overthinking by imposing limits on it. Give yourself deadlines for making choices and stick to them. You can also try yoga, working out, or breathing exercises for a healthy way to drive some of that excess thought from your head.
Self-reflection and self-awareness can be beautiful things, but if your thought process is distorted by negativity and depression, they can be devastating. Do you find yourself dwelling on flaws and mistakes instead of ways to improve things? Negative rumination is itself a cyclical pattern that projects your flaws onto your vision of the future, making you believe that your life will only get worse. Break the cycle by doing something else when you first notice yourself fixating on negative thoughts. Don’t allow yourself to be alone with your thoughts. Read a book, watch a movie, work on a hobby, or visit with a friend (but don’t simply use them as a convenient outlet for the negative thoughts in your own head). Avoid food and alcohol as diversions. Overeating and intoxication can worsen the situation.
4. Cynical Hostility:
Cynical hostility is a type of thought pattern that involves directing anger, mistrust, judgment, or disdain at other people. These feelings may be borne of insecurity, projection, or past baggage. This type of thinking makes it hard to maintain a support system because you see people as inherently dangerous, evil, or untrustworthy. Studies have linked this sort of hostile demeanor to heart disease and increased blood pressure. Combat cynical hostility with empathy. Instead of defaulting to distrust, try to see a situation from every possible perspective. Find ways to re-frame situations as cooperative rather than competitive.
Breaking Negative Thinking Patterns
Healthy coping mechanisms:
Schedule your negative thinking. Deliberately setting aside time in your day to have negative thoughts may seem counterproductive, but doing it in a structured, routine way allows you to compartmentalize and most past your negative feelings rather than wallow in them. Keep a negative thought journal and give yourself a 10- or 15-minute block each day to simply feel those feelings.
Replace the bad thoughts. Easier said than done, replacing negative thoughts is a habit that requires practice and repetition for success. You must learn to identify when negative thought patterns begin, disrupt them, and replace them with a pleasant or productive thought that you’ve chosen ahead of time and have in mind.
Love yourself. Some studies show that up to 90% of “self-talk” is negative talk. Feel your negative and insecure feelings, but don’t dwell on them. Instead of criticizing yourself, imagine yourself as your own best friend, either a real one or an ideal best friend you’ve built in your mind. Instead of pitiful self-talk, envision how this friend would speak to you about the issues you’re having and find ways to uplift and encourage you.
Keep a journal. Keep a notebook or document for your negative thoughts. Write down the thought, then write down why you believe you’re having that thought and any word associations you might have along with it. Getting things down on the page helps you organize and analyze your thoughts and feelings more productively than simply running them through your mind in circles.
Find the beauty in the world. Sometimes breaking negative thought patterns can be as simple as reminding yourself of the good things in the world. Make time for the things you enjoy and the people you love.
Be honest with yourself. Often negative thoughts and defense mechanisms are wrapped up in complex systems. For example, if you dwell on a parenting mistake to justify an extreme and despairing belief that you’re the worst parent ever, you can avoid looking at the more complex and serious issue of how you could improve your parenting style. Be willing to ask yourself difficult questions and allow yourself patience and understanding when the answers are complicated or uncomfortable.
Take a break from the news and social media. The outside world can be overwhelming, especially when you’re invested in working on yourself. It’s okay to shut it off and have some “me time.” An encyclopedic knowledge of current events isn’t necessary, and even in this plugged-in world, you don’t owe anybody 24/7 availability at the expense of your own mental health.
Exercise and meditation. Learning skills to keep your brain quiet and your body active can play a crucial role in breaking negative thought patterns. Yoga and breathing exercises are particularly useful.