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A quick way to change your negative thoughts

This technique has 3 simple steps to challenge your negative thoughts.

This article was originally published by All Mental Health, a technology-driven nonprofit with a mission to increase access to cognitive behavioral therapy skills.

If you missed it, we've been talking about something called cognitive reframing.

For this technique, you can get a pen and paper and write down your answers, type them somewhere and save them, or just think or speak aloud. Whatever you do, make sure you complete each step with an answer that's specific to you.

Step 1: Identify the thought that's making you feel anxious or down.

If you're feeling a strong negative emotion now, focus on that one. If you're doing OK right now, think of the last time you felt really nervous, hopeless, agitated, or down.

Then, see if you can dig a layer deeper. What thought is underneath that feeling? We call those thoughts automatic thoughts, or "hot thoughts". They're automatic because we usually don't even notice we're having them. We just notice that we feel crappy.

For example:

Feeling: I'm feeling agitated.
Hot thought: I'm definitely going to fail this test.

Feeling: I'm feeling hopeless.
Hot thought: People always reject me.

Feeling: I'm feeling nervous.
Hot thought: I'm not smart enough to do this job.

Step 2: Introduce other possibilities.

Okay, before we get into this, let's just be clear: you might be having a strong negative reaction because something bad is going on. So, we're not trying to pretend everything's okay, or that a negative thing is a positive one. But, introducing the shadow of a doubt can help you find more balance in your thoughts.

Let's take a look at those same examples.

Hot thought: I'm definitely going to fail this test.
More flexible thought: This isn't my strongest class, but I studied as much as I could. I might not get an A, but I'll probably at least pass.*

Hot thought: People always reject me.
More flexible thought: I'm feeling lonely right now because no one seems to be free to hang out. But I do have close friends who care.

Hot thought: I'm not smart enough to do this job.
More flexible thought: This project is really intimidating. But the interview process was intense, and they hired me because they believe I can do it.

All we're doing is zooming out, and seeing what else might be true. Usually we're unfair to ourselves when we're anxious, and we see things as entirely negative, or hopeless. Cognitive reframing can help us be a bit more flexible in our thinking.

Step 3: Notice how you feel.

Let's check in. Read your initial automatic, or, "hot" thought. Remember how you felt – the intensity of the emotion, what it felt like in your body...

Now, read your newer, more flexible thought. And notice the same: how intense is that emotion? What does it feel like?

For example:

Feeling: I'm feeling hopeless.
Hot thought: People always reject me.
More flexible thought: I'm feeling lonely right now because no one seems to be free to hang out. But I do have close friends who care.
Check-in again on feeling: I'm still feeling sad, but not quite as hopeless as before.

Hopefully, your newer thought leaves you feeling a little bit more balanced. (And it's okay if you feel the same – this process is something we have to practice over and over.)

Our feelings are not facts. But they do give us clues about what's going on underneath. Exploring and challenging the thoughts that make us feel bad can help us feel better over time.

Next up, a deeper dive. Learn about the tricks our brains play on us.

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