Five Ways to Challenge Negative Thoughts

After writing my last post about common anxieties during the postpartum period, I wanted to provide some strategies to help challenge these negative thoughts. Irrespective of whether you have a mental health diagnosis or not, it’s easy to fall into unhealthy thinking styles when you feel vulnerable. I hope these five strategies can help you refute negative thoughts and shift into a calmer frame of mind.

1. Finding Evidence

Cognitive-behaviour therapy uses the term hot thought (a.k.a. “automatic thoughts”) to refer to thoughts that pop into our mind after we are triggered. These hot thoughts are often mean, disheartening and self-deprecating. They often express a vulnerable belief we have about ourselves or the world. For example, if you have had a difficult conversation with your partner, a hot thought might be: “My partner is going to leave me” or “My partner is sick of me.”

Because these thoughts make us feel fragile, it is easy to fall into an emotional spiral rather than address the truth of these statements. This is where the strategy of finding evidence for and evidence against a hot thought can be helpful. There is a part of you that truly believes this critical thought to be true. Rather than pretending this part doesn’t exist, it’s more helpful to consider its perspective (don’t worry, we don’t stop the exercise at this step). Write down every fact (statements that are objectively true) that helps argue the validity of this negative thought. For example, if your hot thought is “I’m a crappy student”, then your evidence might include: a poor test score, a lower grade on your report card, your friends’ grades, or difficulty grasping teaching material.

5 ways to challenge negative thought patterns. Kasi Shan Therapy: Counselling support in Kitchener, ON
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Now, pretend you are in a court trial. In order to fairly assess your hot thought, you need to also consider counter arguments. This involves spending time looking at every evidence that refutes this negative thought. It is when we start assessing this counter argument where most of us recognize the fallacies in our hot thoughts. For the most part, our negative thoughts come from a place of emotional reasoning, rather than actual evidence. When we are forced to identify the evidence (or lack thereof) behind our thinking, it becomes clear fairly quickly that our hot thoughts are not valid.

Example of hot thought: “I’m a crappy student.”

Evidence For Evidence Against
– I did poorly on my last test
– I didn’t get an A on my report card
– My friends have higher marks than me
– I didn’t understand the last lesson
– I have a B average on my report card. I am meeting the expectations.
– It takes me a bit of time to review material on my own before I understand a concept fully
– There are some kids who are getting higher grades than me, and there are some kids who are getting lower grades than me
– This is not my strongest subject, but I am doing well in other classes/activities
– When I study with my friend, I’m able to see where I understand and don’t understand concepts fully. This has helped me get better grades in the past.
– I am able to ask the teacher questions if I don’t understand the material
– I take notes in class, do my homework and try my best.

2. Checking for Double-Standards

5 ways to challenge negative thought patterns. Kasi Shan Therapy: Counselling support in Kitchener, ON
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When it comes to giving advice or offering feedback to others, we are usually gently and generous. However, when the same problem happens to us, we become the meanest critics. When we have negative thinking patterns, it’s important to step back and consider how would we talk to a friend in this situation. If the same thought of “I’m a crappy student” was stated by a friend, how would we respond? Would we agree and voice other criticisms, or would we look for evidence that shows a more balanced perspective? Checking for double-standards refer to assessing whether we would respond differently if the same circumstances were happening to someone else.

3. The Survey Method

5 ways to challenge negative thought patterns. Kasi Shan Therapy: Counselling support in Kitchener, ON
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Sometimes our negative thoughts escalate because we feel we are the only ones to be thinking or feeling a certain way. There are times when this assumption is accurate, and there are also times when this assumption is false. By asking others for feedback, we’re able to assess whether there is any truth to our beliefs. The survey method normalizes our beliefs because it helps us recognize we are not alone in feeling or behaving in this manner. The survey method also helps clarify how some of our difficult thoughts are coming from unrealistic expectations.

Let’s consider a scenario where a child isn’t listening to a parent, and the parent snaps. In this case, the hot thought may include: “I’m a terrible parent for getting snappy” or “I’m not allowed to be angry at my child.” If we were to take a survey and ask others whether they also get snappy with their child, what kind of answer would we get? Chances are that other survey takers would acknowledge that they also have moments of frustration while parenting. If we were to share our beliefs that it is not acceptable to be angry with our children, many individuals would question the feasibility in pushing away a normal emotion like anger.

4. What other factors are involved?

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This technique is referred to as “re-attribution”, and it can be very helpful to challenge thoughts about personalization. Rather than assuming that you are solely to blame for a scenario, re-attribution helps us step back and consider all of the factors that could have contributed to a situation. There are many points of influence such as environmental, cultural, physiological, psychological, financial, or social factors.

Many times parents personalize their children’s behaviours. While parents play a pivotal role in their children’s upbringing, they are only one influencing factor. Let’s consider a scenario where a child get into a fight with a classmate. If a parent personalizes this behaviour, hot thoughts may include: “I didn’t teach her the right ways to talk things out… Am I too aggressive at home?… I’ve been too lenient when she’s rough-housed with her siblings.” While these points may be valid, it does not acknowledge the impact of other influencing factors. For example, this child may have gotten into a fight because her classmate was egging her on. This child may have watched a TV show that modelled fighting, or seen peers manage conflicts in this way. Or, this child may have felt threatened, and went into a more subliminal fight/flight mode.

5. Test out your belief

A lot of times or our worries involve catastrophizing that negative things will happen. Unfortunately, because these negative consequences seem so frightening, we give up or give in to our worries. By testing whether your negative thought is likely to happen, you’ll either learn (a) the feared outcome didn’t actually happen, or (b) it did happen, and you were able to survive it.

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For example, many of us feel nervous on a first date. We worry about not liking the person, or whether we’ll do something awkward. Rather than avoiding the date to prevent any negative scenarios from happening, we can actually test out our theory by going on the date. Afterwards, we’re able to make a more informed decision of whether that fear had any evidence to back up its argument. This strategy of challenging our negative thoughts through testing is the hardest to manage, and it’s helpful to connect with a therapist for additional support, such as the use of exposure therapy.

What works for you?

I’m describing these fives tips as if they were simple, and they aren’t always this easy. That’s partly because when we’re anxious, we are so caught in our emotions, that it’s hard to hear that logical part of our mind. However, what I’m hoping this post will offer you is the chance to try something different. You may end up picking one of these strategies and actively trying it, or simply pausing before an anxious moment and assessing if there is any evidence to it. Whatever you choose, I hope that the distress in challenging your fears are short-lived and that you start to see positive turns.

As always, please feel free to reach out or ask any questions.


Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW
Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW

Kasi Shan Therapy is located in Kitchener, Ontario. She offers in-person and online appointments supporting individuals with struggling with trauma and perinatal mental health.