How to Overcome the Stress of Negative Thinking

How to Overcome the Stress of Negative Thinking while woman is relaxing and drinking a cup of coffee
by Blisspot Wellbeing

We all know what stress is—it’s a part of life you have to learn to live with, tolerate even. The Global Organization for Stress reports that 75% of Americans experience moderate to high-stress levels. That’s over three-quarters of adults feeling stressed out! 

Stress affects your whole body. It isn’t just all in your head—although it can give you a nasty headache, along with clammy hands, tense muscles, a racing heart, and plenty of other unpleasant sensations too.

Interestingly, your stress level all depends on your way of adapting to a stressor. 

Empower yourself to change how you respond to stress with techniques such as mindfulness. Let go and be in the moment. Passively observe your thoughts and sensations, or do some mindful walking and a guided body scan. Try out some strategies like breathing techniques. Keeping active is key, even if it’s a daily walk. If you don’t have time to hit the gym—no problem! Identify triggers in your life that lead to the stress response and recognize where you’re holding stress in your body.

It’s time to be your own best friend. It’s time to be kind to yourself. 

When they drop in uninvited, let’s turn those pesky negative thought patterns on their head by recognizing, challenging, and rebalancing them to make them less scary. Stress is not some scary monster to cower away from, but a resource to be understood and harnessed. We’re here to help with that by holistically approaching stress through the body and mind, giving you tools for long-term support. Our purpose is to help you self-discover and understand your stress. We’ll help unearth the natural resilience inside your body and mind. We’re here to connect, guide, and support you.

Swatting away NATs

Ever get those pesky thoughts that just won’t leave you alone? Perhaps they come at night just when you’re trying to settle down to sleep or a wave of worries hits you as soon as you wake up. 

The reality is that we’re prone to these nagging, negative thoughts at all times of the day. Sometimes when things happen, we assume the worst about what they mean or what others will think of us—even when that’s not true or very unlikely. It can happen to any of us, but we may not realize when it is happening. 

Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs) share the following common features:

NAT'S Negative Automatic Throughts, a woman holding her head and thinking negatively
  • Automatic and Involuntary: You do not choose to have them, or when to have them. They just pop into your head uninvited, with no effort on your part.
  • Distorted: They do not fit all the facts—often selectively picking the bad bits.
  • Unhelpful: They are unlikely to offer solutions or answers. Instead, they can lead to self-doubt, anxiety, and low mood, which can contribute to the barriers standing in the way of you moving forward and achieving your goals.
  • Plausible: You accept them as facts, and it does not occur to you to question them. Their perceived plausibility makes them dangerous.

NATs can be about small things like “I misspelled a word in an email, now everyone will think I’m sloppy,”—or big things, “My child is disruptive at school and I have to go see a guidance counselor, everyone is going to think I’m a terrible mother!” It’s time to swat away those NATs buzzing around your head. 

The good news is there are plenty of ways of dealing with these intruders. 

Being your own best friend

An effective way of tackling NATs when they ambush you out of nowhere is by being your own best friend. You have to turn those thoughts on their head by recognizing if they’re not true—if they cannot be substantiated with evidence and if they are unhelpful. 

Stand back from your thought and think, “Would I say that to someone else I cared about?” Think about what you would say to a close friend if they expressed a similar thought about themselves. You’d offer support and advice. You’d tell them they’re talking nonsense, that of course those things are not true. You would support and encourage them to see the best in themselves. 

It’s time you apply the same care for yourself—self-care. Once you start to question a NAT you start to challenge it.

Challenging and rebalancing NATs

NATs hit us emotionally, but they rarely stand up to questioning when you bring them to account. Once you recognize a NAT, you can pick it apart, and voilà, it will come apart at the seams. You see, these NATs will fold easily under scrutiny. Then you can lock them away outside your head and throw away the key! 

Explore any evidence you have that the thought is true and you’ll see that often there will be very little substance to it. Now challenge any perceived evidence—are these real ‘facts’ or just your assumptions? The chances are these NATs hold little to no weight when making a viable case. 

How does it make you feel?

Woman thinking about her feelings and reflecting with pencil

Consider how the thought makes you feel. It might be sad, scared, or worried. Is that helpful or how you want to feel? How could someone else view this neutrally or more positively? Is there a different way to think about it that actually fits the evidence? 

Original thought: “I am no good at public speaking, I’ll never get a promotion to a more senior role”. 

Rebalance thought: “I speak to my colleagues one-on-one or as a team every day. What’s the difference between speaking in front of them for a presentation? With a little practice and confidence, I’ll be able to bring my public speaking skills up to the required level to get a promotion.”

Consider how you feel about the thought now you’ve rebalanced it and replaced it with a positive alternative. Here’s an example.

Writing your NATs down in a log can be very effective in showing them the door as it externalizes the thoughts from inside your head and onto paper. Once you’ve done that you can rip up and throw away the paper to say goodbye to any unwanted thoughts.

Calling out NATs

Labeling types of NATs is another great way of dealing with your negative automatic thoughts so that we recognize them as they follow a few common patterns. 

Recognizing the type of thought you are having and giving it a label can give you some power over your thought patterns and help you understand the best way to deal with them. For example, “If I’m late for work they’re going to fire me!” To which your cognitive response could be, “Oh… that’s just a fictional disaster movie playing out in my head, it’s not fact. It’s not reality. It’s not true. I’ll just ring the office to explain that I might be late.” 

Labeling the types of NATs makes them less scary. Another official label they have is ‘cognitive distortions.’ 

Let’s look at ten commonly recognized NATs and distortions. Maybe you recognize some of them?

Woman negatively thinking in the warm golden sunshine
  1. All-or-nothing thinking: Extremes, black-and-white thinking, no shades of grey, only absolutes – “If I can’t get slim enough to fit my favorite bathing suit, I can’t go on holiday.”
  2. Discounting the positives: Ignoring or discounting the positives – “People say my work is of a high quality, but they are only trying to make me feel better.” 
  3. Personalization: Blaming yourself for things that are not your fault or responsibility – “My husband is in a terrible mood. It must be something I’ve done.”
  4. Emotional reasoning: Believing something because you feel it – “I feel ugly, so I must be.”
  5. Mind reading: Believing you know the thoughts of others – “My mother-in-law doesn’t like me. She doesn’t think I’m good enough.”  
  6. Labeling: Attaching a negative label to a person (including yourself), a situation, or a thing so that it cannot be viewed differently – “I didn’t land the contract, so that proves that I must be a useless employee.”  
  7. Imperatives: Rigid rules of musts and shoulds: “I must join the gym by next week.” 
  8. Fortune-telling: Predicting the future: “My stress level will never get any better.”
  9. Overgeneralization: Making sweeping conclusions, based on little information: “The staff on the front desk were young. It’s a young company. I won’t apply there as I’m too old.”   
  10. Catastrophizing:  Assuming the worst of situations and your ability to cope: “I’m going to get ill with all my work and family commitments: I can’t cope.”

3 Ways to identify and manage stress triggers

Stress triggers might sound scary, but there are ways of dealing with them, some of these include:

  • Rationalization: As with NATs, think about whether the trigger is rational or not. Challenge and rebalance the trigger by pulling it apart, question it, and bring it to account. Challenge any evidence you have that the trigger is true and has any bearing on the here and now? 
  • Alternative coping strategies: Problem solve to find a way to deal with the trigger that gives you a sense of control. You have control, not the trigger. You’ve got this.
  • Emotional control: Use your breathing, body scan, or positive visualization techniques in response to the trigger. As you practice these more and more, you can hopefully build in a positive automatic response, making those triggers a lot less scary—remember, they’re not real. They are just thoughts and you can change your thoughts. You are in control.

To bring this to life as a real-world example, here are all three different types of strategies applied to someone who gets stressed out by receiving bills in the mail. 

  • Rationalization: “All bills need to be dealt with. I know how much money I have. Delaying looking at the bill will not make it go away. Therefore, I need to open and deal with it. I can ask for advice or help if I need it and will find a way to manage. The fear I have of ending up destitute or on the street is not real. It is just a thought, which I can change. I am in control and can look at options. I will find a way to manage this.”
  • Alternative coping strategies: “How can I deal with this in a way that makes it more manageable? I will open my bills after dinner with my partner, so we can deal with them together. I am not alone in this, everyone gets bills. We can write a list of options.”
  • Emotional control: “I know that we cannot think straight when we are in a stress response or panic, so I can calm my body and mind in order to look at the facts. Any time I get a bill, I can do a breathing exercise before I open it. When I control my breathing, I feel more in control.”

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