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July 7, 2021

How to Turn Negative Thoughts Into Positive Actions

Faye Bradshaw


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©© GettyImages/Pick-Uppath

We've been through the wringer this past year and it's fair to assume that we've all had some dark moments. As an introvert, I have a running monolog in my head all day, constantly analyzing situations and other people’s words and actions.

I have to manage the floodgates, to stop negative thoughts ruling my day. Some days, it's exhausting. I'm still learning as I go.

I've struggled with negative thoughts my whole life. Sometimes I've looked enviously at other people who didn't seem to struggle at all.

However, it turns out that little voice in our heads is completely natural, whether you're an introvert or not. Some people have just learned to manage it.

Quiet the Negative Inner Voice

When our brain senses imminent danger, it triggers the release of stress hormones. Adrenalin and Cortisol help keep us safe in an emergency, but we're not running from saber-toothed tigers anymore, and too much of these powerful chemicals can make us ill.

Don't get me wrong, at times this little negative voice can actually be good, "No, I should not eat that entire packet of biscuits and call it breakfast."

That little voice can also keep us motivated toward goals. But, sometimes it says things like, "I'd never be able to do that," or "It's so obvious they all hate me."

Coping Under Negative Pressure

I remember my first time project-managing a huge and complicated web build for a client. I was out of my comfort zone, and every little hurdle triggered, "I'm really screwing this up" thoughts.

Those thoughts knocked my confidence and put me off my game, almost becoming an evil self-fulfilling prophecy. At times, I felt utterly paralyzed by them.

On the last day, once everything had gone live, our account director Neil called me into his office. My heart was in my throat, I was physically shaking as I sat down.

I was certain that he was about to confirm how I'd let everyone down. Just like I'd been telling myself all these weeks. Instead, he told me what an incredible job I'd done and how well I'd coped under all the pressure. He even apologized for not helping more.

Are Negative Thoughts Impacting Every Area of Your Life?

Perhaps those negative thoughts are always there, perhaps they come and go. Sometimes they're a day-ruiner. Sometimes, when they get out of control, you begin to realize that they're a life-ruiner.

Negative thoughts will fester and stop you going for promotions, jobs, friendships, relationships, adventures, and opportunities. They can stunt personal growth, cause us to make bad decisions, and drive us to become the worst versions of ourselves.

They can warp our perception of experiences and even cause us physical and mental damage, feeding mood and anxiety disorders.

I don't know about you, but the worse I feel, the less likely I am to take positive action. I sink into a pit. My sister Laura is a psychotherapist and told me to start writing down every single negative thought I had, as soon as I had them. After a couple of days, I was horrified. It felt like I had no control over my brain; like I was poisoning myself.

Getting to Know Your Inner Chimp

When talking with my friend Ellen about writing this blog, she told me that her negative thoughts have increased in strength and frequency since the start of the pandemic. That's understandable – we've all been working from home, with our personal spaces functioning as workspaces. We've felt bored, isolated, lonely and sluggish. All of which increase stress, anxiety and negative thought patterns.

It was Professor Steve Peters who coined the "Chimp" concept. We all have a Chimp, a part of our subconscious, with us since birth. It told us when to cry for attention. Now it tells us when to get angry at drivers who don't indicate.

It stored our emotional memories and tries to help us avoid emotional pain. The Chimp has its hand hovering above the big red button of anxiety, ready and waiting with a catalog of negative thoughts.

And because it pre-dates the development of our logical minds, the Chimp has cemented beliefs into our internal computers. They can take us over before our logical minds can reassure us that spending a whole afternoon watching Netflix does not mean we will never amount to anything.

Negative Thoughts Can Take Many Forms

The thing about negative thoughts is that they don't usually reflect reality. In the 1960s, U.S. psychiatrist Aaron Beck recognized specific patterns to negative thinking, which he called "Cognitive Distortions" or "Distorted Thinking."

They're common, entirely normal, and not our fault. Beck's pioneering research formed a central part of his cognitive theory of depression and, later, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Since then, researchers have developed his ideas and identified at least 10 common distorted thinking patterns. Below are some examples from my own life – how many sound familiar?

1. Polarized Thinking

When I was in high school and thought, "If I don't get straight As, I've essentially failed."

2. Overgeneralization

When I went through break-ups and told myself, "This always happens, I'll never find anyone," or when I burn the fishfingers and think, "Why does nothing ever go right?"

3. Mental Filtering

When I was a year into having started my own business and filtered out the fact that I'd managed to achieve that, had wonderful clients, great friends, and a supportive partner. I was only focusing on why I wasn't yet making £x p/a.

4. Discounting the Positive

When I was in a slump last Tuesday and caught myself saying, "Yes, I might be a decent copywriter, but anybody can learn how to do that."

5. Mindreading

When my partner introduced me to his friends and I spent the entire journey home thinking, "They all hate me, I told that stupid story and now they all think I'm boring." A couple of hours later he showed me their group chat, where everyone had been singing my praises.

6. Catastrophizing

The time a client of mine hired a full-time writer and I lost their business and automatically assumed, "I'm going to lose all my other clients, then I'll have to move out and live in my parents' shed."

7. Emotional Reasoning

The time my ex-manager, Steph, suggested I go for a copywriting position, and I thought, "I'm so worthless, there's no point in even trying – I'd never get the job anyway." Spoiler: I got the job.

8. "Should" Statements

When I'm rigid with my ideas about how I should and shouldn't be spending my free time, "I should be getting up early to start every morning with yoga." I then feel anxious and blame myself when I'm too tired to manage it.

9. Labeling

The time I assumed that my ex-colleague Lara was a horrible person because she was a bit "short" with me when we first met. Spoiler: she was just having a nightmare Monday and we became really good friends.

10. Personalization and Blame

When my ex-boss Jo used to look annoyed and I'd instantly shrink into myself and think, "I must have done something wrong, I can't do anything right."

NOTE: If you're constantly experiencing negative thoughts, it's important to seek advice from a mental health professional. People suffering from depression and anxiety often experience destructive thoughts, that can become incessant and painful.

12 Tips to Turn Those Negative Thoughts Into Positive Actions

It was only when I was first getting to know my partner Leo, and he said, "It feels really great to be around a positive person all the time," that it hit home. My efforts had turned into habits.

Over time, due to the process of neuroplasticity, habitual negative thinking patterns wear such a path that they become physical neural traits in your brain. Scientists say that our brains are always looking to make habits because they're always looking for ways to save effort.

But a habit cannot be eradicated; only replaced. You have to go back to the very beginning of the stimulus/response cycle and replace the current response with a different one.

How many times have you listed all the positive steps you're going to take, then not acted on them? That's because the longer you think about doing something, the less likely you are to do it. Negative thoughts will talk you out of it.

Don't make negative thinking a lifelong habit. Here are some tips for getting your brain and mind to work with you. Your actions will prompt more positive thinking too!

1. Start a Journal

Acknowledge negative thoughts, don't try to push them away. You want them resolved, not buried like seeds, ready to rear their ugly heads again. Every day, I record every negative or positive thought, where it happened, why it happened, and who it happened with. It helps me identify triggers and turn negative thoughts around next time.

2. Always Ask Yourself, "What Would I Say to a Friend?"

We tend to find it easier to be kinder to others than ourselves. There's a simple exercise developed to aid children in reframing cognitive distortions, teaching them to recognize "BLUE" thoughts – Blaming myself; Looking for the bad news; Unhappy guessing; and being Exaggeratedly negative.

It also works for adults. Turn those "BLUE" thoughts into true thoughts by imagining that your friend has this problem. You'd probably reassure them. What advice would you give?

3. Say "Stop"

Becoming aware of your Chimp and its patterns takes time. When you spot it, say "Stop," out loud, and tell the Chimp how to behave.

4. Change Negativity to Neutrality

It's a lot easier to turn down negativity than switch it off. Ask yourself, "Is this thought helping or hindering me in my journey to become my best self?" If it's hindering, be gentler with your language. For example, change, "This is impossible," to "Let's try a different approach." Interestingly, when you do this, your brain will come up with answers to your questions.

5. Create an SOS File of Positive Praise

I compile positive emails and comments from clients and friends, to dig out when I'm feeling insecure. Some days it's a lifesaver. I'm always pleasantly surprised at how quickly I bounce back.

6. Breathe

In the words of Mr Miyagi, "When you feel life is out of focus, always return to the basic of life. Breathing. No breath, no life." Every day, I use the 4-7-8 breathing technique that NAVY Seals use. You can do it throughout the day for maintenance, or as an SOS. It'll quickly get you into a calmer state, where you can be more rational.

7. Talk to Somebody

Whether it's a therapist, close friend, or colleague, with an understanding of the exact boat you are in. As long as it's someone supportive, who will identify the positives, and put any negative thoughts into perspective.

8. Follow a Healthy Lifestyle

I do three 10-minute workouts daily. Exercise positively affects mood and reduces stress. I'm also thankful that my dog Colin gets me outside. More oxygen to the brain improves concentration and memory. Exercise can also lower blood pressure and releases chemicals in the brain that help you feel happier and more relaxed.

9. Identify Areas to Change

Which areas of your life do you most often think negatively about? Perhaps it's work, a relationship, your downtime. Start by focusing on one small area and on how you can approach that in a more positive way.

10. Surround Yourself With Positive People

Negative people will likely increase your stress levels, make you doubt your abilities, and make it harder to manage negative thinking in healthy ways. Instead, seek supportive people who you can depend on to give grounded advice and feedback.

11. Practice Self-Compassion

It's taken me years, but it's never too late to begin. Tara Cousineau's 2017 book, The Kindness Cure points out that self-criticism just makes you feel stuck. But, she says, replacing disapproval and self-judgment with self-compassion allows you to accept in a gentle way that you are flawed – strengthening your mental wellness.

12. Practice Positive Self-Talk Out Loud

Use your name, not "I." Creating emotional distance in our self-talk can help to calm us down, see things more clearly, and think more rationally, according to University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross.

"Stop," Breathe and Be Kind to Yourself

A few weeks ago, I was so tired by the end of Friday that almost all my weekend plans quickly flew out the window. I saw a friend for breakfast the next day, but there was not a lot of anything else. By Sunday night, my brain was awash with negative thoughts, "I've wasted the whole weekend."

So, I told myself out loud to, "Stop." I practiced some 4-7-8 breathing and thought about what I'd say to my friend Sarah if she were in this position.

I could feel my heart rate slow back down to normal as I began to reframe negative thoughts into more caring ones, "It's OK, you needed the rest. Perhaps you worked a bit too hard? Let's think about how you can practice some more self-care." I felt calmer, lighter, and more clear-headed.

Positive Impact of Positive Change

It was a bit of a wake-up call. Now, I'm stricter about when my working days end, and I don't feel so burned out by the weekend.

I've stopped skipping lunches on busy days and started eating healthier food. I feel more creative and confident at work and have the energy to exercise daily and use my free time in a reinvigorating way.

Take it from me – and countless scientists and therapists – changing how you behave will help you to change how you feel. Changing your thoughts will physically alter your brain over time.

Realistic thinking will eventually become second nature, as your brain starts to view you and your talents fairly. Maintain positive actions, and you'll soon notice your confidence increase – along with your achievements and opportunities.

Recommended Reading

For further insight into this topic, see our expert interview blog, Find Happiness: Turn Off the Negative Self-Talk.

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38 comments on “How to Turn Negative Thoughts Into Positive Actions”

  1. Deal with negative thoughts is very important subject, we need more article about this topic.
    thank you for your effort to make our mind clear.

  2. This is really interesting when you say - I was thinking I had botched up everything and instead I was complimented for doing an incredible job. Now if a person cannot even understand by himself/herself the quality of work he or she has done, I had say, it is a real pity.

  3. Very well and excellent article hope more of this in my case is very helps, I was born in place home hard hostile my father death when I was child and mother leave at my grandparents and parent's very negative hostile and give permission to play like normal child just only all day very early work and workings in farm cleaning home was my clothes made food never give change to play even when go school.
    I learned alones during the nigth around 12.00,to 02am study down of bed.

    Many thanks you articles very helpful and excellent some must of time find people very negatively and even clients and parents.

  4. At the place of work i have always been overlooked though i have the ability to work hard and correctly. When promotions and better salary comes, am left out and no reason is given. Currently i work in a Hotel as a Night Manager. I talk to guests, handle complaints, solve their problems, manage staff throuhout the night and write a report for other incoming Managers to read but all in vain. Any help from you will be highly appreciated. Thanks.

    1. Hi Anthony,
      It sounds like you're really doing a great job.
      In my opinion, the way to go is to have a direct conversation with your manager. Ask them what it is you need to do/work on/improve in order for you to get promoted or to get a salary increase. Also, let them know that you'd love to learn from them and that you'd like to be coached in order to further develop yourself.
      I hope this approach helps.
      Feel free to come back any time and browse through the amazing resources we have on our site.

  5. I work in customer service where you are bombarded with negative emails daily. I realised that every time I was opening an email from a customer I heard a voice in my head annoyed saying "What now?". This started to affect how I was answering our customers in a negative way. I wouldn't say I was rude but not very friendly either.
    Now I am making an effort to use a different phrase e.g. Let's have a look at this and put a positive tone on it.
    It really helps to communicate with our customers in a more positive way.

  6. Thank you for that inspiring article Faye. It really helped with you giving authentic examples from your life to demonstrate the different points, and just generally sharing bits of your journey from negative to positive. Gave me hope! 🙂

  7. Thank you for your healthy tips over negative thoughts!
    As we are all leaving in a more and more sophisticated world where perfection is becoming an obsession.

  8. This article was mind blowing for me. I couldn't believe how many of the examples I related to. This girl will definitely be taking some of those tips on board, and hopefully will have more confidence in the future.

    Thanks for writing and posting this.

  9. Really useful and pertinent at this time. I got a lot from it. Regards Clement

  10. I am very grateful to you for this article. I relate to almost all the examples of negative thoughts stated. I have felt so small of myself since childhood. I have low self-esteem and i securities. At first, i thought it was because I am an introvert, but i realize that isn't so. I am always feeling nervous. I always get scared when I think about the future because I feel like there's nothing good I can make on my own. And i am battling with indecisiveness too. I have tried many times to change my mindset but it seems the more I try, the harder it gets. Please I need help. Thank you.

    1. Hi Opuni Dominic Tuffour,
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts here with such honesty. I wonder whether you have shared your insecurities and concerns with someone you trust? Sometimes simply sharing and talking things through can be enough to help shift your mindset to a more positive state. Of course, there are some very helpful resources in the MindTools Club which offer useful tips and strategies for working on your self-esteem and confidence, as well as overcoming indecision. If you don't feel in the right mindset right now to work through some techniques on your own do consider asking someone who knows you well to work through them with you. A coach or mentor could really help you work through things but this needn't be anything formal, a friend, family member, trusted colleague or manager could help you? Wishing you well.

  11. Dear sir/mam, the way you realized the problems and the way you found the solutions for every obstacle is really enlightened........the article was master gave me some pleasure and motivated me a lot....... but many innocent people don't realise this, especially those negative emotions affected by external influences and environment......... hope something could be solved in near future..... pleasure, happiness and love is what every living being deserves on this planet 🙂

  12. Loved your article- very insightful. I started writing the most frequent negative thoughts and could see it was in my comparison to other people- they are such triggers when talking with friends and saying I didn’t have a loving grandmother or we didn’t have many relationships with others over our lives- schedules and distance didn’t seem to allow for much. I am aware of this but little I can correct about it other than to say, a rode not travelled but would have liked.

    1. Hi Evelyn,

      Thank you for viewing this article; we're glad you found it helpful. If you ever need to pose some interactive questions, we'd love to hear from you in the Mind Tools Club forum.

      Mind Tools Coach

  13. Thank you for this article. All my life I've suffered from constant negative thoughts to the point that it has affected my personal life. Reading your article has open my eyes as I learned that so many people are dealing with the same thing. Your advices are very concrete and I will start applying them. I need to change so I can find myself.
    Thank you

    1. Hello Maria,

      We're glad you found this blog post useful!

      Mind Tools Coach

  14. I think my negativity is caused by Loneliness also I was married to a man who was always negative about everything

    1. Hi Doreen,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It can certainly be more difficult to turn negativity into positive actions when the people around you also have a tendency towards negativity. I hope you found something useful in the article to help.

      Mind Tools Coach

  15. Thank you for your exceptional article. I am having constant negative thoughts due to my brother -in law and my sister-in law behaviour towards me. They resist me in every single thing. I barely talk to them but whatever happens in the family always comes down on me. I tried talking to my husband a million times but always ending up fighting. I have be doing yoga, mediation and at some point I can tell my mind to stop thinking negative but then my in-laws again does something and the cycle begins again. Please advise!

    1. Hello Janet,

      Glad you enjoyed the blog post. Thanks for your comment. I'm sorry to hear about this dilemma.

      Have you been able to try and apply any of the tips listed in the post above?

      You mentioned that you have constant negative thoughts because of your inlaws' (your husband's siblings) behavior.
      -- Where are these negative thoughts directed: toward them or other areas of your life?
      -- Beyond the people involved, have you identified the root of the conflict (the issue) itself?

      When speaking with your husband,
      -- how is the timing?
      -- is the communication clear mutually, meaning, do each of you understand what the other is saying with the intended tone and language?
      -- does he listen attentively?
      -- does he understand your point of view?
      -- does he place responsibility/blame anywhere?
      -- does he support your mental health?
      -- is he open-minded?
      -- is the fighting you mentioned related directly to the negative interactions between you and his siblings?

      Please let us know. Best wishes.

      Mind Tools Coach

  16. Hello,

    I am having these negative thoughts about everything now. I am going to start a new job in few months, but not confidant enough about it. Because of the lack of my confidence, I have started to avoid the classes too by finding some excuses everyday. It's like something has sucked all my confidence out of me and I am just a hollow thing with negative thoughts.

    A little help from your side will be appreciated.

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Aakanksha,
      So sorry to hear you've been down lately. I'd like to help if you would allow it. You have landed on the right resource on this site. Is there anything in this article I could help clarify for you? It does provide several practical steps that you could apply right away.

      Mind Tools Coach

  17. That's a great article on positivity there. Not only that, but you also covered how to turn negativity into positivity. Cheers.

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Shivam. Let us know if you have any questions.

      Mind Tools Coach

  18. I appreciate all the points with experience and self medications you went through from, every point was very convincing and prompting. 🙂 thank you , I read it all!

    1. Thanks for your comments Micheal, we're pleased it was helpful.

      Mind Tools Coach

  19. I think that this article is affective to all people who can not think positively and have an abundant amount of aggression. I also find that this article is very upsetting and nonhelpful.

    1. Hi Jessika, thank you for providing feedback. What part(s) of the article do you find to be upsetting and nonhelpful?
      Zala - MT Coach

  20. I can relate to a lot of what is said in the article. I suppose it’s helpful to realize others go through it too. The 12 steps feel daunting … other than writing down negative thoughts (which seemed a natural first step), I’m a bit lost on where to start.

    1. Hi Birdie,

      When you're trying to overcome negative thoughts it is only natural that it may feel a bit daunting to start to confront your own thinking.

      But I think you are absolutely right, the first natural step that may help is to write your thoughts down. That way you can get them out of your head, you can then look at them a bit more objectively if you feel able and that process can help you neutralize the negative aspects.

      I personally think it is also a good idea to try step 2 - what would you say to a friend with these thoughts? We are often kinder to our friends than we are to ourselves so it can be a good strategy.

      The first step is often the hardest, so I'd encourage you to start journalling and take it from there one step at a time. Any steps forwards are positive progress.

      Hope this helps,

      Mind Tools Coach

  21. I can relate to a lot of what is said in the article. I suppose it’s helpful to realize others go through it too. The 12 steps feel daunting … other than writing down negative thoughts (which seemed a natural first step), I’m a bit lost on where to start.

    1. Hi Birdie,

      When you're trying to overcome negative thoughts it is only natural that it may feel a bit daunting to start to confront your own thinking.

      But I think you are absolutely right, the first natural step that may help is to write your thoughts down. That way you can get them out of your head, you can then look at them a bit more objectively if you feel able and that process can help you neutralize the negative aspects.

      I personally think it is also a good idea to try step 2 - what would you say to a friend with these thoughts? We are often kinder to our friends than we are to ourselves so it can be a good strategy.

      The first step is often the hardest, so I'd encourage you to start journalling and take it from there one step at a time. Any steps forwards are positive progress.

      Hope this helps,

      Mind Tools Coach

  22. I difficulties in projecting positivity to myself. Sometimes I feel hate towards the people closest to me. I also have issues with doubt, I feel like nothing will ever turn out good to me and it was always make me think negatively about myself. I tend to have suicidal thoughts too. I’ve tried out everything but it seems like nothing works.

    1. Hi Precious,

      I'm very sorry to hear you have these thoughts.

      Please think about getting some professional support to help you process these feelings and develop some different strategies to turn your thinking into some more positive actions.

      Unfortunately through the blog we are not able to offer you more specific mental health support but I'd encourage you to seek out that support if you haven't already got something in place.

      Best wishes for a positive future,

      Mind Tools Coach

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