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Treating intrusive thoughts can involve medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes. You’ll likely require a tailored approach to get the negative thoughts out of your head.

One gradual habit can become a powerful mental tool

With most external wounds, treatment is usually pretty straightforward. For instance, when you cut your finger, you can use antibacterial cream and a bandage, and after some time, the wound will close. You’re pretty much good to go.

Treating your thought processes isn’t as easy or prescriptive. Especially if they stem from general anxiety, depression, or another mental health condition.

Negative thought patterns are like a paper cut you keep getting when you have only a vague idea of what’s causing it. Or maybe you don’t notice the cut at all… until it starts to sting.

Each person, depending on their condition and triggers, will require different approaches to medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes. And when therapy is out of reach, it can be difficult to get fast treatment.

One gradual habit that might help is making mental shifts

Shifting the way you think means you’re consciously stopping an established thought pattern. You re-evaluate how you reflect on a situation, or even what you think about, to focus on something else.

It’s like switching gears in your brain so your train of thought isn’t just looping and relooping.

In a lot of ways, this is about undoing a lot of negative behaviors and mental programming you may have learned from others. For example, if you grew up thinking you had to be the best in school and life, you’re likely programmed for stressful perfectionism.

Making a mental shift is a way to combat your anxiety and stress, or snap out of winding thoughts.

Learn the most common thought patterns, how to recognize automatic negative thinking, and ways to reorient and give yourself the kind and constructive consideration you need.

“I should do, act, or feel better.”

“I should go to the gym every day.”

“I should eat healthier.”

“I should stop thinking this way.”

It’s not that the intention behind these thoughts are bad. Depending on your situation, it can be healthier to eat more whole foods and go to the gym. What’s potentially damaging is the word “should.” This can trigger guilt and send you down a frustrating path of spiraling negative thoughts.

Stop leading your thoughts with “I should”

Should statements can contribute to anxious thought patterns because they put a demand on you that’s sometimes impossible to live up to.

Everyone makes mistakes.

Instead of…Try…
I should go to the gym every day.I will try my best to go to the gym every day. Here’s how…
I should eat healthier.I can eat healthier today by doing these things…
I should stop thinking this way.I see that I’m having anxious thoughts right now. What’s a more credible thought? What would I tell my best friend?
I should be able to get on a plane without anxiety.I wish I wasn’t so afraid of flying, but I accept that I’m working at a solution. What can I do in this moment?

And sometimes, feeling like you should do, act, or feel a certain way adds just enough pressure that you end up procrastinating or avoiding a responsibility or activity completely. For some, this just leads to more anxious thinking.

So, listen to your thoughts. Are you telling yourself you should do things? What’s a kinder way of keeping yourself motivated to stay on track without spiraling through a negative thought pattern?

Reminder: There’s no one right way to do something. Mistakes are a part of growth.

Behind these “should” statements, there may be a form of cognitive distortion known as automatic negative thoughts (ANTs).

ANTs are your first thought when you have a strong feeling or reaction to something, like a reflex rather than free thinking. They’re persistent and learned, often repeating themes such as danger or fear. It’s common in anxiety and depressive thinking.

For people with anxiety, ANTs make these themes the showrunner of your mind, turning thoughts into paralyzing panic attacks.

However, recognizing ANTs isn’t that easy. After all, you may have had them your entire life.

Identify and tackle your ANTs by keeping a thought record

According to “Mind Over Mood,” a hands-on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) workbook, you can do this by breaking down a scenario into three parts:

  • the situation
  • your moods
  • the thought or image that automatically springs to your mind

After you identify these, you need to actively change the thought into a more productive, helpful, or wiser one.

1. What situation is causing your anxiety?

Creating a thought record is essentially putting your thoughts to the test. Start by asking yourself who, what, where, and when. This’ll help you describe what happened while sticking to the facts instead of your feelings.

  • Who were you with?
  • What were you doing?
  • Where were you?
  • When was it?

2. What’s your mood in this situation?

Describe your moods in one word and then rate the intensity of these moods on a percentage scale that equals 100. For instance, if you’re handing in a work project, your moods may include:

  • irritated
  • nervous
  • guilt, perhaps if it’s being handed in late

In this case, if nervousness — which falls into anxiety — is your predominant mood, you’d rate it around 80 percent. Irritation and guilt would then fill up the remaining 20 percent.

The percentage doesn’t have to be perfect — just go with your gut. The main point of rating them is to see how much of your thoughts were influenced by a specific type of mood — an anxious mood versus a guilty one, for example.

3. What are the automatic thoughts running through your mind?

This is the most important step in your thought record: List the thoughts and images that popped into your mind relating to that situation. Try to remember what you were thinking at the time.

Automatic thoughts can include:

  • I’m so dumb.
  • I’m going to mess this up.
  • Nobody likes me.
  • The world is an awful place.
  • I can’t cope with this.
  • I’m going to end up alone.

If you find yourself caught with ANTs like these, breaking down the situation into “tasks” may help shift your mindset away from the predominant mood controlling your thoughts.

For example, evaluate why the situation is causing you to think “I’m going to mess this up” before you begin.

If it’s a work situation, ask whether you’re afraid because of past projects that have gone awry? How is this situation different from past projects?

Play out the worst-case scenario and see how you feel about it. Break down your emotions and moods to see if your anxiety or automatic thoughts have any legs to stand on.

As you dig into the details, you might discover that this work situation is independent of your past and future.

Identifying your automatic thoughts is the first step in gaining control of your emotions. What are you telling yourself? Now how can you change it?

Once you discovered your automatic thoughts, it’s time to put them on trial.

Is there evidence to support this thought? If this evidence is based on the past, why does this apply to this new experience?

You want to focus on credible evidence — not feelings or thoughts. Then it’s time to focus on evidence that doesn’t support your thought.

Let’s run through one to show you how it works.

Thought: I’m going to mess this up.

Credible evidence for my thought:

  • I made a mistake early on that set this project back by a few weeks.
  • I don’t have strong skills as a presenter.
  • I’ve never done this big of a project on my own before.

Credible evidence against my thought:

  • My manager and I discussed the timeline of the project and came to an understanding.
  • I’ve been practicing my presentation for over two weeks and have practiced in front of a co-worker who gave me helpful feedback.
  • I know the topic, so I should be able to answer any questions that come up.

Now it’s time to find an alternative to your original thought

You have your evidence for both sides, so now it’s time to be a judge. A helpful tip is to act as if you’re judging the thought of a friend rather than your own thought.

Now, you can find an alternative, more balanced thought. This new thought will consider all of the evidence for and against you and give your wiser mind a shot at running the show.

For instance:

“I have made mistakes, but in general I work very hard.”

“I’m genuinely trying my best.”

“I’ve gotten good feedback so far and my manager trusts me to do this.”

Reminder: Everything can be broken down into smaller, more manageable tasks. Find a place where you can pause and check-in with your thoughts to see where in the process you may be able to give yourself a break.

Like recognizing ANTs, there’s also power in simply acknowledging that you feel overwhelmed. Don’t automatically put yourself in defensive mode and whirl into an anxiety tailspin. Whether it’s from stress, anxiety, or another condition, the first step to combatting mental strain is welcoming it.

I know what you’re thinking: Why would I ever welcome all the shakes and jitters that take over my brain and body?

Because embracing it can take a lot less energy than dreading it.

Instead of using extra energy to forcibly fight back, realize that this reaction means you’re encountering something that’s important to you. It also means you may not have to force yourself to operate at 100 percent all the time. That’s exhausting.

Understanding your anxiety and what it means is one of the first steps to managing the stress that comes with it. You may discover that there’s a trigger. When you find it, you can act to avoid or you may find yourself spending less time dreading it.

Spend more time asking yourself, “Oh, hello anxiety, what do we need to do to function together today?” and you might end up fighting against yourself less through the stressful event.

Reminder: There’s always another option — even if it means opting out or saying no. If your anxiety or stress is based on a situation, ask yourself if you can opt out. Chances are you can!

Making mental shifts isn’t about turning “I feel sad” into “I feel happy.”

First off, if this worked, general anxiety would be far easier to treat and could be thought out of existence.

There will be times when, no matter how hard you try to change your thought pattern, you can’t. And during those times, it’s important to remember that simply recognizing the thought, or acknowledging it — as mentioned above — is enough.

It’s OK to feel sad. It’s OK to feel anxious. Take a break and give yourself another day.

When you do have the energy, you can slowly work toward moving past initial thoughts of “I feel sad” to recognizing there may be a problem and considering a workaround.

The more you remind yourself of these things, the more your thoughts will untangle so you can reach the next stage of growth and strength.

Reminder: It’s OK to ask for professional help. Forcing positive thoughts isn’t authentic or helpful, especially if you live with anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. If you find yourself in a thought pattern that you can’t shift out of, consult a mental health professional.