What Causes Negative Thoughts and How to Stop Them

Negative thoughts can be destructive, and life-limiting. Learn how to stop your negative thoughts on HealthyPlace.

Negative thoughts often seem to arise of their own volition. We could be going about our day, seemingly chirpy and confident, when a barrage of upsetting thoughts stops us in our tracks. However much it seems that your thinking patterns are outside of your control, this is not always the case. While negative thinking can be symptomatic of a mental health issue that requires treatment, there are also techniques and exercises you can try to control your own thought patterns. With this in mind, let's look at the causes of negative thoughts, and how to banish them for good.

What Causes Negative Thoughts?

There are many different causes of negative thoughts, including stress, worry and upsetting life events. Although many of us feel negative now and again, constant negative thinking can distort your perception of the world until everything seems hopeless. Often, this cycle of negative thinking is linked to depression, though it can also be a sign of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Aaron Beck, one of the founders of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) back in the 1960s, coined a term for these intrusions: automated negative thoughts, also known as ANTs. This term is still used to describe negative thoughts in CBT today. Whatever the original cause of our ANTs, the more we let them in, the more persuasive they become. Our brains get stuck on the same old neuron pathways, causing the negative thoughts to arise again and again ("What Negative Thinking Patterns Should I Avoid?").

Luckily, with time and treatment, negative thought cycles can be unlearned, and even severe depression can be overcome. If negative thoughts are accompanied by mania or hallucinations, however, it’s important to talk to your doctor immediately. Similarly, if you experience suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or dial 911.

How to Stop Thinking Negative Thoughts

Learning how to stop thinking negative thoughts isn't easy. As much as we would like to be able to flick a switch to alter our views, changing a destructive habit is rarely so simple.  

One way to counteract negative thoughts is to imagine that negative voice in your head has a human presence. John-Paul Flintoff, author of How to Change the World (2012) endorses the technique of “naming your inner critic,” and perhaps even drawing him or her as you imagine the personification to look.

You too can benefit from this technique by completing the following exercise.

Naming Your Inner Critic

  • Start by taking a pen and paper. Then, write down the kinds of thoughts that come into your head when you’re feeling negative.
  • Next, imagine there is a negative person inside you who is responsible for telling you all these destructive things. Imagine what that person might look like.
  • Sketch your inner critic and give him or her a name. Your inner critic might be named after a character from a TV show or a teacher you disliked at school.
  • Draw speech bubbles around your character and fill them with your negative thoughts. What do they look like on paper?

Next time your inner critic starts up, stop and imagine the character you created. Try arguing back. For instance:

Inner critic: Your friends only spend time with you because they feel sorry for you. No one actually likes you.

You: So, every single one of my friends only spends time with me out of duty? Not likely. They're busy people. Besides, my friends often tell me how funny I am or how much they value my advice. My friends are my friends because they like me and enjoy my company.

If you struggle to come up with a counter-argument, or if your inner critic is winning, try imagining that someone else is fighting in your corner. This can be someone you admire, such as a literary hero or celebrity, or it can be someone who knows and loves you personally, such as a parent, best friend or partner.

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APA Reference
Smith, E. (2021, December 31). What Causes Negative Thoughts and How to Stop Them, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 15 from

Last Updated: September 5, 2022

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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