Identifying Negative Thoughts: How to Spot the Lies that Depression and Anxiety Tell You

The first step to thinking differently is learning to hear and confront false beliefs.

Depression and anxiety can put some heavy thoughts into your head. And the more you believe those negative ideas, the more anxious or depressed you become. The good news is that you don't have to stay in that cycle of negativity. Every time you confront a negative thought and replace it with something true, your depression or anxiety loses a piece of its power.

Types of Negative Thoughts

The first step to confronting these sneaky negative thoughts, or cognitive distortions, is learning how to spot them. Here are a few cognitive distortions to watch out for:

Mental Filtering: Magnifying the negatives and ignoring, or filtering out all the positives. Example: "That party was awful; one of the people there didn't want to talk to me."

All or Nothing Thinking: Everything is wonderful or terrible, you're either a success or a failure, and there's no in-between. Example: "There are good people and bad people. If he did a bad thing, then he must be a bad person."

Overgeneralization: One unpleasant moment is proof of an ongoing cycle of failure. Example: "I got a bad grade on my first assignment. I must be an awful student. I should quit school before it gets any worse."

Mind Reading: Assuming you know what other people are thinking when you haven't talked with them. Example: "I don't have to ask Steve if he's mad at me. I just know."

Catastrophizing: Expecting disaster to strike or the worst-case scenario to happen. Example: "What if the airplane engines die? What if there's a tsunami?"

Personalization: Believing that everything is all about you, or taking everything personally. Example: "Julie looks nice today. She probably did that to get revenge on me." OR "If only I hadn't been late to the party. Everyone had a bad time because of me."

Control Fallacies: We either feel controlled by others (example: "I'm just fated to be unhappy, there's nothing I can do"), or we feel responsible for things outside our control, such as other peoples' feelings. Example: "You look so sad. What did I do?"

Should statements: These distortions tell you that if you don't meet the standard, you deserve to feel guilty. Example: "I’m so lazy! I only walked for 30 minutes when I should have exercised for an hour."

Emotional Reasoning: Believing that if you feel a certain way, it must be the truth. Examples: "I feel like I got a bad grade, so I did" or "I feel stupid and lazy, so I really am."

Negative Thoughts Are Learned

All those negative thoughts that jump into your head were learned – possibly from someone important to you when you were younger. You've heard people say these things often enough that you accepted them without question. And by now, you've probably repeated them so many times that they're automatic – they pop into your head before you even realize it.

You can unlearn and replace negative thinking

It might be tricky at first. Once thoughts have become automatic, they can be slippery and slide into your head before you notice. But with time and patience, you can learn to spot them and retrain your brain to think differently. And one day, they won't be automatic anymore. You'll have completely replaced them with new, positive thought processes.