How to counteract negative thoughts

The connection between our thoughts and feelings is undeniable. Things that we do (or things that happen to us) can affect what we think, which can in turn affect how we feel. Our thoughts help us define and organize our experiences, plan, learn, reflect, and create. However, sometimes our thinking can become unhelpful and negatively impact our wellbeing. When this happens, it can be helpful to replace these negative thoughts. But how?

Thought Records are a tool used to identify negative automatic thoughts, notice associations between events and cognitions, and to help people understand the links between thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. They are derived from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is rooted in the idea that our thoughts can determine how we feel and behave.

For example:

Event: A colleague who I usually chat with daily does not acknowledge me today.

Interpretation #1: The colleague no longer enjoys my company.
Feelings associated with #1: Anger

Interpretation #2: The colleague must be busy and distracted.
Feelings associated with #2: Empathy

Challenging and learning to replace these thoughts is one of the best ways to help us deal with stress and anxiety, improve how we sleep and really boost our mood. In time, this can really make a difference to our mental health and wellbeing.

Thought Records

Thought Records are a practical way to capture and examine your thoughts and feelings about a situation, and your evidence for them, using a set of 7 prompts. Doing this can help you understand how linked our thoughts and behaviours can be, and how they influence each other.

Download the Thought Record Template

The CBT cognitive model describes different levels of cognition that underpin how we think about ourselves, other people and the world, shaping our interpretation and response to events.

Moving from the deepest level of thinking to the most superficial, these are:

  • Core Beliefs: These are understood as generalized statements that shape how a person understands themselves, other people, and the world (e.g. “I’m competent”, “I’m unlovable”, “No one can be trusted”, “The world is dangerous and unpredictable”, “I’m adaptable”).
  • Intermediate Beliefs: Intermediate beliefs can often be stated as conditional rules: “If x , then y.” For example, “If I am thin, then I will be loved by others.” Individuals create these assumptions by categorizing the information they receive from the world around them. These rules guide thoughts and subsequently influence behaviors. 
  • Automatic Thoughts: Automatic thoughts that result in negative emotions. They are often inaccurate – biased in characteristic ways – and there is considerable evidence that different mental health problems are associated with particular biases in thinking. For example, people who suffer from certain types of anxiety often ‘catastrophize’, and people who are depressed often discount positive information. 

How to use a Thought Record

Define the Situation: To reframe how you feel about a situation you will need to ‘catch’ your automatic thoughts. To do this, you need to start paying attention to what is going through your mind: particularly at times when you notice a change in how you are feeling.

The most important question that you can ask yourself is: “what was going through my mind just then?”

  • Make a note of the date & time
  • Record where you were
  • Note who you were with
  • Summarize what was happening just before you noticed a change in how you were feeling

Describe your Emotions: What was the shift in emotion that prompted you to complete a thought record? Emotions can generally be described using one word. See this blog post on emotion and use the emotion wheel to help you:

  • Rate the strength of the emotion on a scale of 0-100%
  • Record what you felt in your body (e.g. “I felt butterflies in my stomach”)

Outline Negative Automatic Thought: What thoughts ‘popped’ into your mind when the situation occurred? These need to be captured. They are often judgements or predictions about the future.

  • What was going through your mind as you started to feel that way?
  • What memories or images were in your mind?

Document the Evidence: Is there evidence to support the truthfulness of your thoughts? Is there evidence to disprove your thoughts? Focusing on documenting the evidence that disproves your automatic thought may be difficult, but helpful to help overcome any ‘blind spots’ you may have to information about the situation. Ask yourself:

  •  If a good friend had this thought, what would you tell them?
  • What experiences (even insignificant) indicate that this thought is not completely true, all the time?

Creating Alternative Thoughts: Now that you’ve laid out the details you should write a new thought which synthesizes all of the information. The new thought does not have to be positive, but the aim is to counter the bias in the original negative automatic thought and to think more realistically.

  • Knowing what you know now about <evidence for the thought> and <evidence against the thought>, what would be a more accurate way of responding to that triggering event?

Defining New Emotions or Feelings: Once you’ve completed the other steps, take the time to reflect on how they feel about the triggering situation in the light of this reconsideration.

  • How do you feel about the situation now?
  • How strong is that feeling on a scale of 0 to 100?
  • With this new thought in mind, what do you feel about that situation now?

About the Authors

Renascent Staff
The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.