“It’s not going to work”, “I’m not good enough”, “They don’t like me.”
Most of us have had negative thoughts like these at some point in our life. But sometimes negative thoughts can start filling our minds, and we feel overwhelmed and distressed. As you can imagine, constant negative thinking can lead to problems like worry, rumination, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. It can also have an impact on physical health and our ability to function well in environments such as home, work and social settings.
“I want to clear my mind from negative thoughts – what can I do?”
The three CBT Therapy approaches described below may be able to help.
1. CBT to Change Negative Thoughts
With this CBT-based approach, you change the negative thought into a more realistic one using these three steps:
Step 1 – Pause and look for unhelpful thinking styles in your negative thoughts.
Step 2 – See if you can gently challenge or undermine the negative thought.
Step 3 – Come up with more realistic alternative thoughts.
See some examples below.
2. CBT to challenge and replace negative thoughts with more positive ones
This second CBT Therapy approach is based on the rationale that if your mind is thinking of something else, it’s hard to also think of that negative thought. Here are some ideas:
3. CBT to change the relationship with your negative thoughts
To learn about the third CBT-based approach, imagine you are sitting somewhere, and a person comes up to you and says, “You’re a loser.” Hopefully, you will question the validity of that statement. However, if the thought “You’re a loser” is your thought to yourself, it’s easier to believe it without question.
A reason we don’t want to have negative thoughts like “You’re a loser” is because we tend to assume they are true. We get “hooked” by the idea, we then don’t want the thought, and we try to get rid of it.
You may have heard of the following thought experiment: for the next 30 seconds, whatever you do, don’t think of pink elephants. It’s virtually impossible not to! This highlights the first problem that this approach addresses: when we try to control thoughts (e.g., make them go away, or deliberately not think about them) it can often seem to make them even more of a problem.
The second problem is that at times our minds can tend to think negatively, and this could be for several reasons. For example, when we were growing up, if our caregivers tended to be negative or critical, then we may have internalised that way of thinking. Another reason could be that we had some painful experiences at times in our lives and our minds either came to certain negative conclusions about ourselves, others, or the world.
So, we can end up with a double whammy: our minds can have a negative bias and attempts to make the negative thoughts go away seem to make them stronger. A way that can help to address this is to think of your mind as an over-active and contrary secretary, frequently bringing you all sorts of negative information. In the same way that you can’t make your mind go away, you can’t make this secretary go away. But what you can do is choose whether to respond to each piece of information, without getting hooked. You can thank the secretary (your mind) and decide whether to act on the information or not.
So, this approach to “How can I clear my mind of negative thoughts?” is something like: don’t try to clear your mind! Thoughts are just thoughts; emotions are only emotions; let them come and let them go. Choose whether to take actions that are focused on controlling negativity or actions that are taking you in valued directions.
CBT Therapy can help identify, challenge and change negative patterns of behaviour and thinking. You could think of the approaches above as tools to keep in your toolbox to be pulled out and tried when required. Perhaps the most crucial step is to be willing to practice stepping back and using these tools, which may help you experience a rich and meaningful life more fully.