10 Ways to Stop Negative Thoughts

From chronic worry and self-doubt to rumination and self-criticism, negative thoughts are an inescapable part of life.

Unfortunately, the way most people deal with their negative thoughts only makes them worse in the long run…

  1. Trying to avoid or distract from negative thoughts brings a little relief in the moment, but only makes them more frequent long term because, by running away from them, you’re teaching your brain to fear them and become hyper-sensitive to them.
  2. On the other hand, some people swing to the opposite extreme and obsess over their negative thoughts—basically, they try to think their way out of negative thinking, which not only doesn’t work, but actually reinforces them and makes them more likely.

Luckily, there are healthy and effective ways to deal with negative thoughts that actually make them less frequent.

As a psychologist, I spent years helping people break free from all kinds of negative thinking patterns. And in the rest of this article, I’m going to share my 10 favorite strategies, including things like Functional Analysis, The Other Golden Rule, and some contrarian advice about controlling your thoughts.

But before we do that, I want to set the stage by dispelling a few myths about negative thoughts. Because if your underlying beliefs about negative thoughts are mistaken, it’s going to be almost impossible to start managing them in a healthier way.

4 Myths About Negative Thoughts

1. Negative Thoughts = Negative Thinking

Negative thoughts are inevitable and not something you can control directly. Negative thinking, however, is a choice and something you can change.

Here’s an example:

  • Suppose you’re sitting in traffic on your way to work and a song pops up on the radio that reminds you of your first high school crush rejecting you… You didn’t choose to think about your high school crush rejecting you—your mind chose it for you as a result of an automatic association with a song. That’s a negative thought and it’s not something you can control.
  • However, what you do next is under your control…
  • Let’s say you keep thinking about your first high school crush and how they rejected you and how awful that felt and how you wished you had said something different that time you walked up to her in the gym and how she should have been more sympathetic to you, etc…) This is negative thinking and it is something you decided to do—and could have decided against.

This distinction between negative thoughts and negative thinking is critical because if you spend all your energy trying to control your negative thoughts, not only will you fail, but you’ll also have no energy left to control your negative thinking.

2. Negative Thoughts Are Bad

Not at all. In fact, many negative thoughts are quite good!

Think about this:

  • Suppose you start having serious chest pains and trouble breathing.
  • You start having some negative thoughts about having a heart attack and needing to call 911 and get to a hospital.
  • As a result of this thinking, you feel afraid and anxious.

Of course, thoughts like this—and all the emotions they generate—are really unpleasant. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad.

In fact, many things in life feel bad but are good. Think about exercising, practicing scales on the piano, learning a new language, speaking up during a meeting, etc.

Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.

Unfortunately, a lot of people end up criticizing or getting judgmental with their negative thoughts because they assume they’re bad. The problem is that criticizing your negative thoughts only leads to more negative thoughts.

Instead, when you have a negative thought, you want to ask yourself whether it’s helpful or not…

  • Dwelling on that mistake you made 10 years ago for the 400th time… yeah, probably not very helpful.
  • Reflecting on that mistake you made yesterday for the first time… probably pretty helpful!

So, when you experience a negative through or find yourself doing some negative thinking, rather than focusing on whether it’s a good or bad thought, ask yourself this question:

Is this way of thinking helping me or hurting me?

3. If I Have a Thought It Must Be True

This one sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud. But it’s surprising how often we act as though this were true.

For example:

  • You finish giving a talk to your team at work and ask if there are any questions.
  • Nobody says anything and the thought pops into your mind: Wow, they must have really hated it.
  • Now, instead of pausing to assess whether that thought was true or not, you assume it is and keep thinking as if it were: I knew I shouldn’t have used slides. I’m so boring when I give a talk with slides. No wonder everyone hated it. etc…

Like a good friend giving you advice, your brain is always well intentioned, but frequently dead wrong.

The lesson here is that rather than treating your thoughts as gospel truth, you should think of them as suggestions which you are responsible for assessing as either valid or not.

Put another way:

Listen to your thoughts, but don’t take orders from them.

4. When My Brain Talks, I Need to Talk Back

One of the things I tell my clients all the time is that:

Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you need to keep thinking it.

Here’s another metaphor:

  • Your brain is like your email inbox: Sometimes you get important messages like notices from the IRS and thoughtful notes from old friends; but a lot of time you get spam and junk mail.
  • But imagine treating your inbox like you treat your brain and responding to every single piece of spam and junk mail like you do an important note from the government or an old friend… You’d go insane!

Like with email, you need to be able to filter your thoughts—responding when helpful and ignoring when not.


Just because your brain talks doesn’t mean you have to talk back.

Okay, now that we’ve cleared up some of the worst myths and misconceptions about negative thoughts, we’re ready to dive in and start learning how to deal with negative thoughts in a healthy and effective way.

And the first of my 10 strategies is a bit strange but extremely helpful…

1. Do Your Negative Thinking on Paper, Not in Your Head

Here’s a fact about thoughts that we don’t appreciate enough… They’re really fast. In the span of a minute or two, you can think dozens if not hundreds of thoughts.

Of course, this is useful in a lot of situations—like when you’re solving problems, for example. But it becomes a huge liability if what you’re thinking about is negative and unhelpful. Because every time you think a negative thought it produces a corresponding emotion

  • Every worry produces some anxiety
  • Every rumination produces some anger
  • Every self-criticism produces some shame or sadness

So, if you’re thinking dozens of negative and unhelpful thoughts every minute, you’re producing an awful lot of unpleasant emotion. Which is why it’s so easy to get overwhelmed by emotions like anxiety or anger—our thoughts are so fast they can generate tremendous levels of emotion in almost no time at all if we’re not careful!

But as fast as we can think in our head, thoughts are a lot slower written on paper.

Think about this:

  • If you set a timer for 30 seconds and tried to think as many thoughts as possible, you could easily think a thought a second.
  • But if you tried to write down as many thoughts as you could in 30 seconds, how many would you get… Three? Maybe 5?

Now, you can harness this discrepancy to manage situations where you feel overwhelmed by lots of negative thoughts by insisting on only doing your negative thinking on paper and not in your head.

For example:

  • Suppose you get into an argument with your spouse over breakfast. And you’re feeling angry and hurt and a little anxious too. Your mind is buzzing with negative thoughts as you get in the car to go to work.
  • Left unchecked, 30 minutes of ruminating and worrying about your argument on the way to work would leave you pretty upset and overwhelmed by the time you actually got there.
  • On the other hand, if you reminded yourself that you only do negative thinking on paper, you could hit the pause button on those thoughts in the car, then make take 5-10 minutes when you first get to work to pull out a sheet of paper and write down all the negative thoughts you can think of regarding the argument with your spouse.
  • There are a lot of benefits to this but perhaps the biggest is that you simply can’t have nearly as many negative thoughts if you confine your speed of thinking to the speed of writing.
  • In other words, you will have given yourself an opportunity to think about and reflect on what happened at breakfast but in a much more controlled way that minimizes the chances of runaway negative thinking and all the excess emotionality that comes with it.

If you struggle with negative thinking, pencil and paper are your best friends.

Try to practice setting good mental boundaries with your mind’s impulse to do lots of negative thinking spontaneously in your head, and instead, insist that you do it deliberately and on paper.

Not only will you end up feeling better, but you’ll probably find that your thinking is a lot clearer and more productive too.

2. Anticipate Negative Thinking Triggers

One of the reasons negative thinking can be so hard to break out of is that it catches us by surprise. And surprise is an emotional amplifier.

For example:

  • Let’s say you get out of a meeting with an important client and it didn’t go very well.
  • Later that day, the client emails you saying only: We need to talk. I’ll ring you tomorrow.
  • You immediately start catastrophizing and thinking about all the worst-case scenarios the call could be about. And as a result, you’re an anxious wreck all evening, you’re short and irritable with your kids, and then have trouble falling asleep because you can’t stop thinking about the call.

Now, a big part of the reason why you fell into so much unhelpful negative thinking is that the email caught you by surprise and at the end of the day when you’re already exhausted and depleted—both of which make it harder to pull out of the negative thinking.

But now imagine a different scenario…

  • You get out of the same meeting with the important client that didn’t go well.
  • But this time, you immediately send them an email saying something like: Hey, obviously we’ve got a few things to work out based on our meeting today. Let’s set up a follow-up meeting later this week.

Now, a bad meeting with a client is still an unfortunate event. So it’s not like it’s not going to bother you at all. But because you’ve eliminated the element of surprise, and taken the initiative to tackle the problem on your terms, it’s likely to be a lot less overwhelming.

In a sense, what you’ve done is communicated to your brain that Yes, this is a problem, but I’m on it and we have a plan. As a result, your brain is less likely to freak out about it and start barraging you with a flurry of worries, doubts, criticisms, ruminations, and other unhelpful negative thoughts.

In short, if you get better at anticipating the conditions or triggers which are likely to lead to negative thinking, you won’t be as caught off guard by them and you’ll give yourself the chance to strategize how you can manage them productively rather than reacting to them impulsively with lots of negative thinking.

As a practical first step, try this:

  1. Take 15 minutes and think back on any time in the last couple weeks when you’ve struggled with negative thinking and just write them down.
  2. Then, for each one, identify what the trigger or condition for the negative thinking was.
  3. Finally, for each one, ask yourself: When might these conditions or triggers happen again in the near future and how could I do my best to prepare for them well?

3. Call Out Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are errors in thinking that exaggerate our emotional responses and often lead to bad decisions.

For example:

  • Black and White Thinking means putting things into artificially extreme categories: Ugh… This movie is the worst! Or I can’t believe I screwed up that interview. I was for sure the weakest applicant.
  • Mind-Reading means assuming you know what’s going on inside someone else’s mind: I knew I should have kept my mouth shut… I’m sure he thinks I’m a jerk now. Or Why does she always get so angry over little things…
  • Emotional Reasoning is when you use how you feel as evidence for what you should do: I’m just too tired to go to the gym this evening. Or I need to feel less anxious before I have that difficult conversation.

The problem with cognitive distortions like this is that they bias our thinking into unrealistically negative or unhelpful patterns, and as result, make future negative thinking even more likely.

On the other hand, if you can develop the habit of noticing these distortions in your own thinking, you can quickly adjust your thinking and pull out of negative thinking spirals before they get big and overwhelming.

For example:

  • Imagine you’re reading the news and you see a headline about some financial expert’s prediction that the market is heading for a recession… or worse!
  • Immediately, a negative thought pops into mind: What if the market completely crashes?
  • Then, you start elaborating on that initial negative thought with more negative thinking: I’ll lose my retirement and have to work until I’m 80.
  • Now, that’s a pretty bleak interpretation of some already questionable information. But if you continue thinking along those lines, you’ll likely end up pretty freaked out and stressed: We’ll have to sell the house. My parents will think I’m a failure. The kids won’t be able to go to a good college. etc.
  • On the other hand, if after the initial negative thinking—I’ll lose my retirement and have to work until I’m 80.—you paused and briefly reflected on it, you might notice something like: Actually, I’m predicting the future in the worst possible light with very little real evidence. (This is an example of two other cognitive distortions: Catastrophizing and Fortune Telling).
  • Now, having called out that pretty unrealistic line of thinking, you’re on to a new more realistic and helpful path of thinking: My retirement is pretty well diversified. Plus, it’s extremely unlikely that I would lose everything. If there was a recession and I lost 20% of my savings, it’d be hard but we could recover from that.

When you develop the skill of quickly noticing and pointing out cognitive distortions, you’re far less likely to end up spiraling into negative thinking.

The only caution I would give is to make sure that when you call out your cognitive distortions, you do it gently and with compassion, not in a critical or judgmental way, as that will only lead to more negative thinking.

If it helps, think about it like a game: Keep track of which cognitive distortions show up and try to look for patterns. Once you notice one or two that tend to show up over and over again, keep an eye out for them specifically, and practice modifying them to be a bit more balanced and compassionate, which brings me to my next strategy…

4. Edit Negative Thoughts Using the Other Golden Rule

We’ve all heard of The Golden Rule:

Treat other people as you would like to be treated.

But for a lot of people—especially people who struggle with negative thinking—their struggle is flipped…

When other people make mistakes, we’re supportive and understanding; but the second we do something wrong, we’re immediately critical, judgmental, and sometimes downright mean to ourselves!

It’s a strange double standard. And it leads to a lot of unnecessary suffering and emotional pain…

  • We criticize ourselves for feeling anxious, which of course only makes us feel even more anxious!
  • Or we judge ourselves for being judgmental, which then leads to even more self-directed anger and shame!

The origin of this problem is that our self-talk tends to be highly negative and critical, especially after mistakes.

But luckily, you can correct this tendency and actually retrain your self-talk to be supportive and compassionate rather than harsh and judgmental.

That is, you can live by The Other Golden Rule

Treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.

Instead of being overly critical or judgmental with yourself after a mistake, you can be supportive and compassionate instead—just like you would to a friend who was in your situation.

The key is to think of your negative thinking like a script or essay that you’re the editor of. And whenever an overly-negative thought runs through your mind, you get the opportunity to pull out your red pen and make a few edits.

For example:

  • If you said something sarcastic in a conversation with your spouse and the immediate thought that goes through your mind is God, why do I have to be a jerk like that?! You could edit that bit of negative thinking to something more compassionate like I shouldn’t have said that. But everyone gets a little sarcastic sometimes. I’ll apologize.
  • Or imagine you are getting ready to go into an important meeting at work and the following thought runs through your mind: Why am I so anxious? Get it together! Well, you could pull out your little red pen and edit it to be something a bit gentler like: I’m feeling anxious, but that’s just a sign that I care a lot. It’s normal even though it feels uncomfortable. I got this.

You are the hero of your life’s story. And sometimes your brain narrates that story in an overly-negative way. What’s key to see is that, in addition to being the hero, you’re also the author of your story, which means you can always edit it to be more realistic and compassionate.

Best of all, if you make this a habit, eventually it will start to influence how your brain narrates things on its own so you’ll need to do less and less editing over time as your self-talk naturally becomes more and more compassionate.

5. Replace Self-Judgment with Self-Curiosity

One of the sneakiest causes of chronic negative thinking is the habit of judging negative thoughts themselves.

For example:

  • As you’re pulling into the supermarket parking lot, a car ahead of you zooms into the parking spot you wanted.
  • Immediately, the following thought bolts through your mind: That jerk, he just took my spot!
  • But no sooner is that initial thought finished that you find yourself criticizing yourself and your negative thoughts: God, that was rude! Why am I so judgmental of people? What’s wrong with me?!
  • And before you know it you’re off to the races along a different, but equally negative and unhelpful, line of thinking about why you’re such a judgmental jerk.

Now, being critical or judgmental of your negative thoughts usually comes from a good place—you caught yourself thinking something either untrue or unhelpful.

The problem is that your automatic solution to this is to do something equally unhelpful to yourself—criticize and judge, which as we’ve seen, just leads to more negative thinking.

The best way I’ve found to break this habit of judging your negative thoughts is to practice substituting self-curiosity for self-judgment.

In other words, when you notice yourself being judgmental of your own thoughts, try to pause, acknowledge what’s happening, then get curious about the thought instead…

  • Huh, that’s weird that I had such a negative reaction to this guy pulling into a parking spot. I wonder why?
  • I wonder what might have happened in my day to predispose me to have a reaction like this?
  • I don’t like it when judgmental thoughts like that happen but maybe my brain’s just trying to help somehow…

Often our habit of self-criticism and judgment is so strong that simply acknowledging it and trying to move away isn’t enough. In this case, transforming your thinking from judgmental to curious can help you let go of an unproductive line of thinking because curiosity is itself motivating and enjoyable.

So the next time you find yourself getting negative about your negativity, try a little self-curiosity instead.

6. Find the Function of Your Negative Thinking

This strategy is actually an extension of the previous one about getting curious rather than judgmental with your negative thoughts.

It’s based on a psychological technique called functional analysis which is traditionally used as a way to modify problematic behavior.

For example:

  • Let’s say you have a habit of drinking a couple of glasses of wine most evenings when you get home from work. And you want to stop because it’s extra calories and you’re trying to work on your weight.
  • One way to approach drinking less is to ask what function or job does my drinking serve? That is, if something’s a habit, it’s sticking around for a reason. Might not be a good reason, but you’re getting something out of it.
  • In this case, after some reflection, you realize that in addition to just tasting good, your two glasses of evening chardonnay help you destress after a long day at work. So the function of your drinking is stress relief.
  • Once you know this, you look for alternative and healthier ways to get this stress relief function met. Maybe you join a yoga class that meets every day after work and that helps you destress. Or you convince a couple friends to be walking partners and you go for walks together most evenings as a way to wind down after work.
  • Once you get in the habit of applying a new behavior to that need, you effectively put the old, problematic behavior out of a job. This indirect way of breaking bad habits is almost always more effective than the frontal assault approach to breaking bad habits.

Now, I’m telling you about functional analysis because it applies just as well to mental behaviors and physical ones.

If you’ve developed a bad habit of negative thinking—say chronic worry or rumination—often the best way to break that habit is to put it out of a job by understanding what need it fills and developing healthier ways to get that need met.

Your mind isn’t some sadistic maniac that throws negative thinking at you just because it wants to be mean or cruel. If you’re experiencing negative thinking your mind is doing it for a reason.

For example:

  • Worry is usually a sign that your mind thinks there’s something dangerous you need to be aware of in order to stay safe.
  • Angry rumination is usually a sign that your mind thinks an injustice has occurred and that you should do something to rectify it.
  • Self-criticism can be a sign that your mind thinks you made a mistake and can learn to not make the same mistake in the future by reflecting on it and learning from it.

Now, the key point to realize here is that your mind isn’t always correct. In fact, it often gets confused…

  • It thinks something is dangerous even though it’s not.
  • It thinks you can do something about a past injustice even though you can’t.
  • It thinks more analysis of that mistake 20 years ago will be helpful, even though that’s highly unlikely.

Negative thinking is always well-intentioned, but frequently misguided.

So, when you find yourself in a pattern of negative thinking, it can help you to be less reactive and judgmental by asking yourself:

What function does this negative thought serve? How could my mind be trying to help me with this negative thinking?

For one thing, it instantly puts you in a compassionate and nonjudgmental mindset which is already half the battle.

But the other benefit is it could actually help you identify a root cause of your negative thinking.

For example:

  • Let’s say you tend to worry excessively anytime your kids go on trips without you.
  • Instead of criticizing yourself for being too worried or overprotective, you might ask yourself: What function is my worrying serving? What job is it doing?
  • For a lot of people with chronic worry, for example, the function is to alleviate helplessness. They understandably feel helpless when their kids are out of reach. And they’ve developed a coping mechanism of worrying as a way to numb that helpless feeling—because despite not being very productive, worrying often feels productive.
  • Once you know this, you can look for alternative ways to deal with helplessness. Maybe you start a parent’s mastermind group where a few of you meet monthly, discuss a difficult topic in parenting, and share your best ideas and experiences with each other.

If you take nothing else away from this strategy, remember this:

Your mind is not an enemy. It’s a well-intentioned friend who, like the rest of us, makes mistakes from time to time. And the more you treat it like a friend, the more it will start to feel that way.

7. Validate the Emotions Behind Your Negative Thinking

How you think determines how you feel:

  • If you’re constantly worrying, you’re going to feel pretty anxious.
  • If you’re chronically ruminating on how someone hurt you, you’re going to feel pretty angry.
  • If you’re constantly criticizing yourself, you’re going to feel pretty sad and ashamed.

This is obviously a big part of why it’s so important to get better at dealing with negative thinking…

If you’re constantly thinking negatively, you’re going to constantly feel negatively!

But the arrow goes both ways…

While negative thinking leads to painful emotions, painful emotions can also trigger more negative thinking!

So you can see how this quickly turns into a vicious cycle of thinking negatively, feeling bad, thinking more negative thoughts, feeling worse, and round and round you go until you’re just totally overwhelmed with difficult thoughts and emotions.

So, how do we break out of this cycle?

Well, most of the strategies we’ve talked about so far involve becoming more aware of and changing how we relate to our thoughts. But an equally effective way to break out of the cycle is to change how you relate to those painful feelings.

When we’re confronted with a difficult emotion like anxiety or shame, our natural tendency is to either fight it or flee, which means we try to get rid of the feeling or avoid it altogether.

The problem is, while both of these approaches might give you a little relief in the short term, if your brain constantly sees you either fighting with or running away from difficult emotions, then it’s going to start to believe that difficult emotions are dangerous. And if your brain thinks its own emotions are dangerous, you’re going to feel chronically anxious and ashamed about feeling any emotion…. Another vicious cycle!

The antidote to this dilemma is simple, though not necessarily easy…

Stop fighting or fleeing your emotions and learn to validate them instead.

Validating your emotions simply means reminding yourself that, even though an emotion might feel bad, that doesn’t mean it is bad—or that you’re bad for feeling that way.

The good news is that this is a skill you already have because you do it with other people. When a good friend feels anxious, you don’t start criticizing them for feeling anxious or telling them to stop. No, you’re supportive and validating… You probably remind them that it’s normal to feel that way or share how you would feel the same in their situation.

Once you’ve validated your emotions, the final step is to tolerate them willingly. So, instead of insisting that they go away, invite your difficult emotions to stick around, then shift your attention onto something meaningful or important to you.

In the long-run, this attitude of emotional validation and tolerance will train your brain to stop feeling threatened by difficult emotions, which means that you’ll be much more confident and resilient when they strike and those emotions will be less likely to trigger lots of negative thinking.

In short:

  1. Negative thinking is often an unhelpful coping mechanism for painful emotions.
  2. But if you build emotional resilience by practicing validation and tolerance, you won’t need your negative thinking nearly as much.


When you feel bad, stop running and start validating.

8. Accept Your Thoughts, Control Your Focus

One of the reasons negative thoughts are a tricky thing to deal with is because you have some control over them but nothing close to complete control.

As we discussed earlier, you can edit or modify a particular thought. But you can’t control whether that thought pops into your mind in the first place. This is why we said in the beginning that negative thoughts are different than negative thinking—one you can control, one you can’t.

That said…

One thing you always have control over is your attention—what you choose to focus on.

For example:

  • You can’t choose whether a painful memory comes into your consciousness. But you can choose whether you continue to focus on that memory and think more about it. Or whether you shift your focus to that game of Monopoly you’re playing with your kid.
  • You can’t choose whether that old resentment against your spouse pops into mind. But you can choose whether you continue to elaborate on that resentment in your mind or redirect your attention to that report you’ve got to finish writing for work.

Of course, shifting your attention and focus in the face of negative thinking isn’t always easy. But it is always possible. And if you want to get better at managing your negative thinking, it’s critical that you remember that distinction…

I can’t always control my thoughts, but I can always control my focus.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself:

But if every time a negative thought pops into mind I just focus on something else isn’t that just distracting myself? And I know you’ve talked earlier about distraction or running away from thoughts and emotions not being a good way to deal with them.

Great point!

It’s true: If your immediate reaction to a negative thought is to simply shift your attention elsewhere that’s not a very helpful response because it’s signaling danger to your brain, which makes you more reactive to that thing in the future.

So, before you shift your attention elsewhere, it’s important to accept your negative thinking.

By acceptance I mean that you take a second to remind yourself of three things:

  1. First, simply acknowledge that you are experiencing negative thinking. If possible, label what type of negative thinking it is specifically: worry, rumination, self-criticism, catastrophizing, etc. For example: Okay, I’m worrying right now.
  2. Second, validate the negative thinking by reminding yourself that just because you don’t like that negative thinking, it doesn’t mean it’s bad or that you’re bad for having those thoughts. Negative thoughts are not dangerous or a sign of moral failing. Thoughts are just thoughts. For example: I don’t like dwelling on my mistakes, but it’s not surprising given that reminder I just saw.
  3. Finally, be willing to have negative thoughts and get on with your life despite them. Instead of insisting that your negative thoughts go away before you move on, you can agree to let them “come along for the ride.” This sends a powerful signal to your brain that you don’t see your negative thoughts as enemies. And when your brain really starts to believe this, those negative thoughts become much less powerful and impactful. For example: You’re welcome to hang out, worries, but now I’m getting back to work.


I can’t always control my thoughts, but I can always control my focus.

9. Use the 3Ms to Move Past Negative Thinking

Someone wise once said:

I can think my way into almost any unhappiness. But I’ve rarely thought my way out.

The implication here is that often the best solution to negative thinking is behavior, not more thinking.

For example, suppose one Saturday evening you found yourself in a spiral of self-criticism and shame about some mistake you made at work earlier in the week.

Which is going to be more productive in the moment:

  • Trying to analyze why you’re always so hard on yourself after mistakes?
  • Or putting on your tennis shoes and going for a walk around the neighborhood with your partner?

Thinking is a powerful tool. But when you’re already stuck in a cycle of negative thinking, more thinking often just makes things worse.

Instead, it’s important to remember that you can simply do something else. And specifically, doing something physically active is especially good at breaking us out of unhealthy negative thinking patterns.

Of course, you don’t want to use behavior as an excuse to simply avoid your problems. But if it’s clear that more thinking is probably not going to be helpful right now, then getting physically active can be a very helpful alternative.

If nothing else, moving your body for 20 or 30 minutes often clears your mind and gives you a fresh perspective with which to deal with whatever issues were bothering you.

If it helps, I have a little framework for doing this called The 3Ms…

The 3 Ms stands for Move, Make, and Meet.

I’ve found that these three types of behaviors—moving your body physically, making or fixing something, and interacting socially in a meaningful way (meet)—seem especially good as ways to move on from unhelpful negative thinking.

But remember…

Do not use this as a way to distract from or avoid the negative thinking.

The key is to briefly acknowledge and validate your negative thoughts first, then shift your focus and behavior onto something more productive.

For example: Let’s say you find yourself worrying about some aspect of your business in the future. You catch yourself, validate the fear or anxiety behind the worry, then decide to move.

So, you might…

  • Move. Head to the gym and get a quick workout in.
  • Make. Go bake a batch of your daughter’s favorite cookies.
  • Meet. Text an old friend and see if they’re up for a quick chat.


Often the best way out of negative thinking is to get out of your head and into your body.

10. The Final Strategy: Relax…

If you’re the kind of person who struggles with negative thinking, there’s a good chance you’re a striver—ambitious, hard-working, goal-oriented, and damn good at thinking critically and solving tough problems.

And while these traits are extremely helpful in most aspects of life—they can paradoxically backfire when it comes to managing your mind well, including negative thinking.

Here’s why:

The more you treat your mind like a problem, the more like a problem it will feel.

But no part of your mind is a problem.

Your mind isn’t an enemy out to get you; it’s a friend trying to help. And even when its “advice” is utterly wrong and unhelpful, no good will come from trying to solve it or fix it or eliminate it. That will only train your brain to view itself as a problem, which is a root cause of suffering.

So, try to relax into managing your negative thinking.

Just like an athlete or a musician performs best when they are alert and strong but also relaxed, you will have a much easier time managing your mind if you approach the goal from an attitude of relaxed striving.

With that in mind, I’ll leave you with one very simple and very practical way to embody that idea.

As you reflect on all these strategies, give yourself permission to ignore nine of them and just focus on one.

Choose the one that resonates with you the most and gently try implementing it in a small way. Don’t rush. Don’t try to transform yourself in 48 hours. Just pick one small thing to focus on and try to practice a little bit every day.

You’ll be surprised how a small thing compounded consistently leads to much bigger results than you’d imagine.

All You Need to Know

Everyone experiences unhelpful negative thinking like worry, rumination, or self-criticism.

What matters is how you respond to it.

Here are 10 healthy and effective ways to respond to negative thinking:

  1. Do Your Negative Thinking on Paper, Not in Your Head
  2. Anticipate Negative Thinking Triggers
  3. Call Out Cognitive Distortions
  4. Edit Negative Thoughts Using the Other Golden Rule
  5. Replace Self-Judgment with Self-Curiosity
  6. Find the Function of Your Negative Thinking
  7. Validate the Emotions Behind Your Negative Thinking
  8. Accept Your Thoughts, Control Your Focus
  9. Use the 3Ms to Move Past Negative Thinking
  10. Relax

Learn More About Managing Negative Thoughts