10 Negative Thinking Patterns to Avoid

Posted in Balanced Mind and Soul | May 15, 2010 |

negative thinking

Just as we form habits in the way we act, we also form habits in the way we think. Sometimes these habits are positive, and help us form better relationships and achieve greater success in life. Other times our habitual thinking patterns can be damaging to our own mental health, to our relationships, and even to others around us.

These toxic thinking patterns are usually made up of thoughts that distort our realities, or what mental health professionals call cognitive distortions. And we all have them to some degree or another. But when these patterns become habitual they can lead not only to inconveniences, but outright serious mental health and emotional problems.

The interesting, and scary, thing about cognitive distortions is that most often we don’t even recognize them. That is because when they become habitual, they also become automatic. There is a great deal of research that shows that these automatic thoughts are actually responsible for our moods, states, and general outlook on life. By learning to recognize these automatic thoughts, eliminating cognitive distortions, and reframing them to be positive in nature, we can literally create a more fulfilling and enjoyable reality.

Why are automatic thoughts so powerful?

Automatic thoughts probably originate in the part of the mind that is most directly responsible for emotions – the amygdala. This is the most primitive part of our mind, the part that our distant ancestors relied on to decide whether to flee a perceived threat, or stand and fight; also known as the “fight or flight” response to danger. The amygdala, and its super fast reactionary responses is undoubtedly a major reason why we humans survived and evolved. Without it, we would be kitty food for that sabre toothed tiger…

The reactions of the amygdala are so quick that they are for all intents automatic. The first thing we often recognize when it fires cognitively distorted automatic thoughts into our mind is a physical sensation, like rapid breathing, muscles tightening, temperature rising, rapid pulse, etc. We often do not even recognize the actual thoughts, or self-talk, that is escalating the physical and emotional reaction to whatever is happening around us. For a cave man facing a tiger, this is a very healthy thing. For modern people, in most situations, this is not usually very healthy as our responses are often inappropriate when we are hijacked by the amygdala.

Another reason why automatic thoughts are so powerful is they are directly linked to, if not originated by, the unconscious mind. I would argue that the rapid emotional responses caused by the amygdala are actually the generated by our unconscious mind. The self-talk that happens after the initial, unconscious response, which if it is cognitively distorted, escalates the emotional reactions, may not originate from the unconscious but it is often so hardly noticeable that it must at least form a bridge to the unconscious mind.

In other words, automatic thoughts are so powerful because we typically do not have conscious awareness or control over them. They act directly within our unconscious, which controls our emotions, and our physical responses to our environment. Even more powerful, the unconscious mind actually creates our perceptions of the world around us. It creates our maps of reality, in effect creating our reality.

The 10 most common cognitive distortions

The following is a very brief summary of the 10 most common cognitive distortions.

  1. All or nothing thinking. I also call this “black or white” thinking. Everything is all good, or all bad. There is nothing in between.
  2. Overgeneralization. You tend to view any single negative thing as an eternal pattern of negativity. If one bad thing happens, the world is obviously coming to an end.
  3. Disqualifying the positive. You can’t accept anything positive ever happening. So if something good happens, you always find a way to turn it into a negative thing, or explain why it was a fluke or it doesn’t count.
  4. Mental filter. You filter out all good qualities of something so you can focus on the negative. In this way everything becomes negative.
  5. Jumping to conclusions. You become a mind reader and a fortune teller. You interpret everything in a negative way without any supporting evidence.
  6. Catastrophizing or minimization. You blow minor things out of proportion, and minimize positive things.
  7. Emotional reasoning. You assume that your negative emotions and feelings reflect actual reality. If you feel bad, everything is bad.
  8. Should statements. You try and mold the world to your vision of reality, instead of accepting the world’s reality. A very common version of this in relationships is, “If he (or she) loved me he (or she) wouldn’t ….”
  9. Labeling and mislabeling. Overgeneralization in the extreme. You actually believe the overgeneralizations and make them reality in your own mind.
  10. Personalization. You take things personally. You become very defensive at even the slightest perceived criticism.

How we can control cognitive distortions

While the automatic responses of the amygdala can still be of benefit to us even in modern society, these responses can lead us to overreact, or react inappropriately. This is why another part of the brain, the orbital frontal cortex (OFC), developed as we evolved into social beings. The OFC is the rational mind. It’s the part of the mind that keeps us from overreacting to ordinary stress and challenges. It keeps the amygdala in check… usually.

But we must make an effort to actually engage the OFC. It does not often respond to our environment as automatically or as quickly as the amygdala seems to. The best way to start developing a habit of recognizing your automatic self-talk (thoughts) is to consciously think about the thoughts that are going through your mind at the very first sign that emotions are welling up inside you. This first sign is usually physical, as discussed above.

When you first recognize that your breathing is becoming rapid and shallow, or your temperature is rising, or your pulse is rising, etc., STOP. Take a deep breath, or two or three, until you feel yourself start to calm down, and listen to your inner self-talk. What is it telling you?

Most likely a large portion of that talk will fall into one of those 10 cognitive distortion categories. Once you can recognize the thoughts, try and label them. Are they emotional reasoning, catastrophizing, personalization, or one of the other cognitive distortions? Once you know what they are, then counter them with a “cooling” thought. Let your OFC do its work by bringing logic and rationale into those thinking patterns.

With time you will get very good at recognizing and cooling those hot automatic thoughts. In doing so you will become a more productive problem solver, and a much happier person as your reality will be filled with glasses that are half full.

Author Bio: Chris Akins is the author of the personal development blog ChrisAkinsdotCom. You can follow his blog and learn skills for successful living that Chris shares with all his readers.

Smart Thoughts (12)

  1. Very informative post! I totally agree about the “fight or flight” response being totally black or white. There is no in between. You know right away if it’s time to stay and fight or if you need to run. There’s no second guessing. Unfortunately we’ve formed a bad habit of negative thinking and attached it to this response. Very thought provoking!

    Thanks for sharing!!

    • Chris Akins says:


      Thanks for commenting. The fight or flight response has been with us since the very beginning of our species, and is one of the strongest of our instincts. It predates the development of our executive centers of the brain. We must always be vigilant if we are to counter and moderate the strong instinct to simply react.


  2. Mandi says:

    This explains so much for me. Thank you for this post!

    • Chris Akins says:

      You’re welcome Mandi. If you tend to over-react meditation and journaling are good ways to learn to moderate your reactions. But don’t worry, over-reacting is human… and it can be unlearned.


  3. Excellent and indepth post Chris – and one that I will be referring back to in the future.

    Great to know the actual science behind all our negative talk – and thanks for your tips on how to recognise such talk and to transform it.

    I have been applying the teachings of Eckhart Tolle in his book “Power of Now” and lately have become more and more aware of just how much small talk goes in my head. Now to quieten this negative voice down, using your tips:-)

  4. Chris – a terrific post. You really covered the bases. Let me add one more to your list – Identifying with (or believing) most of your beliefs. Somewhere in all that neural networking, beliefs get emotionally “fused” and then start triggering feelings. Your perscription for identifying the emotions that can be triggered with the corresponding (driver) thoughts is right on, and I’d add beliefs to the formula.
    Glad to find your post here – and will follow. Always interested as we work to bring in more of the basics of neuroscience into the workplace. Amazing how the business world lacks the basic knowledge of how human dynamics work!
    Thx, Louise

    • Chris Akins says:


      Beliefs are the filters through which we pass information received by our senses. Im actually working on a book right now that addresses the roles of beliefs in reality creation.

      Its very interesting stuff!

      Thanks for the comment.


  5. What a great piece! Automatic thinking can help us, hinder us or neither. But one thing’s for sure – it will always “be.” I think everyone can benefit from examining ways they might fall prey to distorted thinking. We all do, it’s a matter of degree. The first step is awareness – the hardest is changing it! But thankfully it can.

    I shared your piece on my fan page as well!


    • Chris Akins says:

      Thanks Lisa. I appreciate you sharing the piece.

      Ive found the best way (for me) to manage automatic thoughts is through meditation and journaling. If I can reflect on situations where I was angry or in some other way did not respond as well as I would have like, I can almost always identify distortions and try and counter them, usually in my journal. This is sort of like “practicing” for the next situation to respond better.


  6. Chris –

    I really enjoyed this practical guide to our thoughts and emotions. I know that the automatic click-whirr patterns that everyone learns can be unproductive in many situations. Stepping back and taking a more rational approach puts us back in control and in a position to CHOOSE. I really like the 10 negative thoughts and one I’d add is perfectionism. Great article – thank you.


  7. charito says:

    This is an informative post- I just wish you’d go more into what ‘cooling thoughts’ mean and give us some examples to counter any one of the 10 categories- since, when I find myself overly emotional at times I don’t know exactly how or what to think in order to calm myself.