Skip to Content

Menu Icon
Menu
Menu Icon

Anxiety: Stop Negative Thoughts

Introduction

Anxiety is having too much fear and worry. Some people have what's called generalized anxiety disorder. They feel worried and stressed about many things. Often they worry about even small things. Some people also may have panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden feeling of extreme anxiety.

People who have social anxiety disorder worry that they will do or say the wrong thing and embarrass themselves around others.

Anxiety can cause physical symptoms like a fast heartbeat and sweaty hands. It can make you limit your activities and can make it hard to enjoy your life.

Healthy thinking can help you prevent or control anxiety.

Key points

  • Negative thoughts can increase your worry or fear.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a type of therapy that can help you replace negative thoughts with accurate, encouraging ones.
  • Changing your thinking will take some time. You need to practice healthy thinking every day. After a while, healthy thinking will come naturally to you.
  • Healthy thinking may not be enough to help some people who have worry and anxiety. Call your doctor or therapist if you think you need more help.
 

Healthy thinking is a way to help you stay well by changing how you think. It's based on research that shows that you can change how you think. And how you think affects how you feel.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, can help you know what thoughts of yours—both helpful and not helpful—affect problems or feelings that trouble you. With practice, you can replace negative thoughts that discourage you with accurate thoughts that encourage you.

Working on your own or with a counselor, you can practice these three steps:

  • Stop. Notice your thoughts. When you notice a negative thought, stop it in its tracks and write it down.
  • Ask. Look at that thought and ask yourself whether it is helpful or unhelpful right now.
  • Choose. Choose a new, helpful thought to replace a negative one.

The goal is to have accurate, encouraging thoughts come naturally. It may take some time to change the way you think. So you will need to practice healthy thinking every day.

Test Your Knowledge

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that can help change how you think about yourself.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a type of therapy that can help change how you think about yourself.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a type of therapy that can help change how you think about yourself.

  •  

You need to see a counselor to do CBT.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    You don't need to see a counselor to do CBT. There are techniques you can learn and practice on your own.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    You don't need to see a counselor to do CBT. There are techniques you can learn and practice on your own.

  •  

Continue to Why?

 

Changing your thinking can help you stop the worry by replacing negative thoughts with helpful ones. It's also helpful in controlling panic attacks.

Healthy thoughts can help stop the "fight or flight" feelings that you have with anxiety. In a fight-or-flight response, your body senses danger and the need to fight or run away. Your body releases hormones like adrenaline, which makes your heart beat fast and your blood pressure rise. Healthy thoughts can calm you and stop this response.

For example, maybe you are about to have a job review. It's normal to be a little nervous. But you have trouble sleeping and have a fast heartbeat and sweaty hands. You think constantly about the review. You've been telling yourself that your boss is going to say bad things about your performance—even though you haven't been getting bad comments from her.

Or perhaps you have a doctor's appointment coming up. And you're worried that he may find something wrong.

If you have anxiety, you may worry a lot about many things. You are sure that something bad is going to happen, even though you have no proof that something bad will happen.

The more you talk in a negative way to yourself, the harder it is to keep a healthy outlook. The negative thinking makes you feel bad. And that can make you feel more anxious, which leads to more bad thoughts about yourself. It's a cycle that's hard to break.

But with practice, you can retrain your brain. After all, you weren't born telling yourself negative things. You learned how to do it. So there's no reason you can't teach your brain to unlearn it and replace negative thinking with more helpful thoughts.

Healthy thinking also is good for your health in other ways. If you feel bad about yourself, you could get depressed. Healthy thinking also can help you handle stress better. Too much stress can raise your blood pressure and make your heart work harder, which can increase your risk for a heart attack. Stress also can weaken your immune system, which can make you more open to infection and disease.

Test Your Knowledge

Healthy thinking can help you stop negative thoughts that make you anxious.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Healthy thinking can help you stop negative thoughts that make you anxious. It also can help you replace those negative thoughts with thoughts that are more helpful.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Healthy thinking can help you stop negative thoughts that make you anxious. It also can help you replace those negative thoughts with thoughts that are more helpful.

  •  

Healthy thinking can help your health in other ways.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Healthy thinking can help you prevent or cope with depression. It also can lower stress. And less stress can lower your blood pressure and make your immune system stronger.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Healthy thinking can help you prevent or cope with depression. It also can lower stress. And less stress can lower your blood pressure and make your immune system stronger.

  •  

Continue to How?

 

Notice and stop your thoughts

The first step is to notice and stop your negative thoughts or "self-talk." Self-talk is what you think and believe about yourself and your experiences. It's like a running commentary in your head. Your self-talk may be rational and helpful. Or it may be negative and not helpful.

Ask about your thoughts

The next step is to ask yourself whether your thoughts are helpful or unhelpful. Look at what you're saying to yourself. Does the evidence support your negative thought? Some of your self-talk may be true. Or it may be partly true but exaggerated.

One of the best ways to see if you are worrying too much is to look at the odds. What are the odds, or chances, that the bad thing you are worried about will happen? If you have a job review that has one small criticism among many compliments, what are the odds that you really are in danger of losing your job? The odds are probably low.

There are several kinds of irrational thoughts. Here are a few types to look for:

  • Focusing on the negative: This is sometimes called filtering. You filter out the good and focus only on the bad. Example: "I get so nervous speaking in public. I just know that people are thinking about how bad I am at speaking." Reality: Probably no one is more focused on your performance than you. It may help to look for some evidence that good things happened after one of your presentations. Did people applaud afterward? Did anyone tell you that you did a good job?
  • Should: People sometimes have set ideas about how they "should" act. If you hear yourself saying that you or other people "should," "ought to," or "have to" do something, then you might be setting yourself up to feel bad. Example: "I have to be in control all the time or I can't cope with things." Reality: There's nothing wrong with wanting to have some control over the things that you can control. But you may cause yourself anxiety by worrying about things that you can't control.
  • Overgeneralizing: This is taking one example and saying it's true for everything. Look for words such as "never" and "always." Example: "I'll never feel normal. I worry about everything all the time." Reality: You may worry about many things. But everything? Is it possible you are exaggerating? Although you may worry about many things, you also may find that you feel strong and calm about other things.
  • All-or-nothing thinking: This is also called black-or-white thinking. Example: "If I don't get a perfect job review, then I'll lose my job." Reality: Most performance reviews include some constructive criticism—something you can work on to improve. If you get five positive comments and one constructive suggestion, that is a good review. It doesn't mean that you're in danger of losing your job.
  • Catastrophic thinking: This is assuming that the worst will happen. This type of irrational thinking often includes "what if" questions. Example: "I've been having headaches lately. I'm so worried. What if it's a brain tumor?" Reality: If you have lots of headaches, you should see a doctor. But the odds are that it's something more common and far less serious. You might need glasses. You could have a sinus infection. Maybe you're getting tension headaches from stress.

Choose your thoughts

The next step is to choose a helpful thought to replace the unhelpful one.

Keeping a journal of your thoughts is one of the best ways to practice stopping, asking, and choosing your thoughts. It makes you aware of your self-talk. Write down any negative or unhelpful thoughts you had during the day. If you think you might not remember them at the end of your day, keep a notepad with you so that you can write down any thoughts as they happen. Then write down helpful messages to correct the negative thoughts.

If you do this every day, accurate, helpful thoughts will soon come naturally to you.

But there may be some truth in some of your negative thoughts. You may have some things you want to work on. If you didn't perform as well as you would like on something, write that down. You can work on a plan to correct or improve that area.

If you want, you also could write down what kind of irrational thought you had. Journal entries might look something like this:

Thought diary

Stop your negative thought

Ask what type of negative thought you had

Choose an accurate, helpful thought

"I get so nervous speaking in public. I just know that people are thinking about how bad I am at speaking."

Focusing on the negative

"I'm probably better at public speaking than I think I am. The last time I gave a talk, people applauded afterward."

"I have to be in control all the time or I can't cope with things."

Should

"I can only control how I think about things or what I do. I can't control some things, like how other people feel and act."

"I'll never feel normal. I worry about everything all the time."

Overgeneralizing

"I've laughed and relaxed before. I can practice letting go of my worries."

"My headaches must mean there is something seriously wrong with me."

Catastrophic thinking

"A lot of things can cause headaches. Most of them are minor and go away."

Test Your Knowledge

Which of these thoughts is an example of healthy thinking?

How can a daily journal help you have more accurate, rational thoughts?

Continue to Where?

 

Now that you have read this information, you are ready to practice healthy thinking to help you prevent and control anxiety.

If you would like more information, see the topic:

Click here to view an Actionset.Stop Negative Thoughts: Getting Started.

References

Other Works Consulted

  • Hart SL, Hart TA (2010). The future of cognitive behavioral interventions within behavioral medicine. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 24(4): 344–353.
  • Layous K et al. (2011). Delivering happiness: Translating positive psychology intervention research for treating major and minor depressive disorders. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 17(8): 675–683.
  • Lightsey OR, et al. (2012). Can positive thinking reduce negative affect? A test of potential mediating mechanisms. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 26(1): 71–88.
  • McKay M, et al. (2011). Changing patterns of limited thinking. In Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life, 4th ed., pp. 27–45. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  • McKay M, et al. (2011). Coping with panic. In Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life, 4th ed., pp. 85–104. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  • McKay M, et al. (2011). Uncovering automatic thoughts. In Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life, 4th ed., pp. 15–25. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  • Newman CF, Beck AT (2009). Cognitive therapy. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol 2., pp. 2857–2873. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Catherine D. Serio, PhD - Behavioral Health
Specialist Medical Reviewer Sue Barton, PhD, PsyD - Behavioral Health
Last Revised August 3, 2012

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

© 1995-2013 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

Decision Points

Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.

You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:

Interactive Tools

Get started learning more about your health!

Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.

Symptom Checker

Feeling under the weather?

Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.

Health Library

  • Anxiety: Stop Negative Thoughts