Dealing with intrusive
negative thoughts, worries, doubts
and what ifs.

Six decades of innovation
February 2022 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

Everyone will experience doubts about themselves and imagine how terribly wrong things could go, such as an exam, a job interview, going on a date or taking a trip.  Sometimes those thoughts can be critical and unfair to yourself (e.g., how could I be so stupid) or others (e.g., my friends must think I am a loser). These kinds of doubts (e.g., “I am just not smart enough), worries (e.g., “I am going to fail the test”), and what-ifs (e.g., “what-if I wrote down the wrong time for the exam and missed it — I’ll get a zero”) intrude on our days, often at the worst possible time. They can take the fun out of activities, avoid doing things, and saddle you with lasting guilt, shame and regret about things that have long since happen and in many instances, been forgotten.

Since the 1950s, mental health experts have been working hard to develop strategies and interventions on how to treat and manage negative thoughts, whether they occur alongside depressed or anxious moods, interfere with your sleep, or undermine the quality of your life. Six decades of innovation have created a wide variety of effective treatments and methods, all of which can be acquired relatively quickly and which have been shown to benefit large numbers of people. 

These approaches are not perfect — they do not always work for everyone and don’t always work as well as anyone would like. They are best viewed as different tools, all of which work in slightly different ways but which can be the right tool for you in different situations and at different times of your life.  

These are great strategies that everyone should know about and consider using when dealing with intrusive negative thoughts. We would like to give you an overview of what they are and how they may work for you. 

They are as follows:

#1. Challenging the truth of intrusive thoughts 
#2. Rethinking situations and thinking more positively 
#3. Interrupting intrusive negative thoughts
#4. Displacing intrusive negative thoughts 
#5. Challenging the purpose of intrusive negative thoughts
#6. Challenging the ontological status of intrusive thoughts
#7. Changing your core beliefs about who you are

#1.  Challenging the truth of intrusive negative thoughts.

Challenging your intrusive negative thoughts as incorrect is one of the earliest strategies ever developed that continues to be widely used by clinicians to day.  This strategy capitalizes on the simple observation that most negative thoughts, worries, doubts and what-ifs tend to go beyond what is factually correct, in some way, either because they are just plain wrong, far to0 extreme, or because they are not yet know to be correct or incorrect. 

Most of us have made assumptions about other people (e.g., she/he/they don’t like me) or about events (e.g., I am going to fail the test) that turn out to be wrong in someway. This approach focusses on identifying the “errors” in thinking, namely the way in which the different types of thoughts are not supported by the facts and should be given up. 

The key feature, in every one of these cases, is that there is an assumption or a leap in what you believe to be true that goes way beyong the facts.  The goal with this strategy is to challenge those negative thoughts by sticking the facts and showing yourself that those thoughts are wrong in someway. 

Everytime you have a negative thought, doubt, worry or what-if, write down that thought and then fact-check it. Ask yourself what you know for a fact (not what might happen or what could be true- just what you know for a fact in the present moment).  You can complete the daily thought record to help you start challenging your negative intrusive thoughts.


Behaviour experiments

One of the most effective ways to challenge negative thoughts is to ‘test’ them out. See if they are true or not. This technique was first introduced by Albert Ellis, one of the very first psychologists and one of the founders of cognitive therapy. He suggested that we could test out our negative beliefs by conducting a behavioural experiment. He would ask people to test out their worries, doubts and what-ifs by doing exactly what those thoughts were preventing them from doing. 

Here is an example of how it works. A good number of students will never ask for help from a teacher or professor. When asked why not, they say they worry that the professor will think their question is a stupid question or a waste of their time. Many students think that if they did go and ask the teacher a question, there is a very good chance that something terrible would likely happen (e.g., the prof will say it is a really stupid question). Better not to go and ask at all.  

For Ellis, this thought needs to be challenged because it is very, very likely wrong. To challenge this thought, Ellis would ask you to exactly what you were afraid to do — namely to go and ask the prof to find out if something terrible was going to happen. He wanted you to prove to yourself that what ever was going to happen would not be nearly as catastrophic as what you imagined. He wanted to make sure that your fears, worries, and what-ifs would never get in your way.    

Ask yourself, whenever you are avoiding something because of a fear, to go and do exactly what you are avoiding to do.  

#2. Rethinking situations and thinking more positively

The next strategy involves learning to change the way that you think about yourself, other people around you, even the world you live in. This skill that is often referred to a cognitive restructuring. It is different from fact-checking, as it involves changing how you think about setbacks or failures in a class, for example.  Getting a 50% on a test is a fact.  It’s a fail. You cannot really fact-check that.  But you can change the way that you think about it, which is less negative and a bit more favourable.

This can be very challenging and hard to do. But it is important to learn how to do it. Finding a way to think a bit more optimistically about even terrible situations can be the difference between giving up and persisting. You probably know someone who is just positive no matter what happens. It is extraordinary and sometimes a bit annoying. Some of us are natural at it. The rest of us need to learn how to do that, just a little bit more. 

The immediate reaction for most people when they fail a test is to go negative–really, really negative. That bad grade can leave you thinking that you are no good at something, will never learn it, or are a failure. All of this is unfavourable and excessively harsh. 

The goal when rethinking a negative situation is to see the 50% on the test in a different way, for example, as a problem to be solved or as an opportunity to do betterAfter all, it is only one bad grade on one test.   If you get a 50% on a test, you could see it as a ‘failure,’ but it would be better if you could see it as ‘just a 50’ and as an opportunity to get some help and study a bit more.

Some people get very good at seeing everything that has gone wrong during the day, so good that they overlook what went well. If you only see what went wrong (i.e., the black dots, blemishes and mistakes ), you will miss out on the things that can make your day great. So, in every negative situation, ask yourself what is the better way of looking at it and try to find the good things that you are overlooking.  Finding three good things and accomplishments each and every day is a good exercise to help you restructure your thinking. 


#3. Interrupting intrusive negative thoughts

One other very effective strategy for dealing with intrusive thoughts is relaxation breathing and mindfulness.  This is ideal for the time that those negative thoughts, worries and what-ifs turn into a flood of negative thinking. In fact, you may be among those people who, when they come to the end of an entire string of negative thoughts, actually go back to the beginning and run the same negative thoughts over and over again.

At this point, you are not only thinking negatively, but you are also getting really, really good at thinking negatively. Going over and over and over those negative thoughts will squeeze our other activities and pleasant thoughts and reinforce the strength of those thoughts. You may even start to believe them more just by going over and over them repeatedly. 

If you are not careful, thinking negatively could become a full-time job, and they need to stop. Relaxation breathing and mindfulness is one of the oldest skills used to relax the body and calm the mind, which is now being used to treat a number of mental health difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and panic disorder, but have also been used to reduce math anxiety and improve math performance. 

The next time you get stuck in a flood of negative thinking, try to interrupt the thought will some relaxation breathing and when you are done, use one of the other strategies, such as fact-checking, rethinking or challenging its purpose. 


#4. Displacing intrusive negative thoughts

One of the consequences of having a lot of negative thoughts during the day is that they can squeeze out and leave no time for pleasurable thoughts, feelings and activities. Indeed, over time, negative thoughts can rule your day and take over your life. For individuals dealing with depression and anxiety it can be demoralizing and paralyzing. 

In the 1970s, clinical psychologists, such as Peter Lewinson, observed that many clinical difficulties, such as sad and depressed mood, often resulted in an extremely loss of pleasurable activities. Rather than address the symptoms of depression and anxiety, they proposed a new approach that would deal with the loss of pleasurable activities, namely, to
increase the frequency of pleasurable activities

It is deceptively simple. Decreasing your negative thoughts by increasing you positive ones. That’s right. Regularly scheduled activities that provide you with pleasure and enjoyment will interrupt and displace intrusive negative thoughts, especially if you can locate those activities during the time of day when your intrusive thoughts are particularly frequent (e.g., afterwork, early evening). But if you stick to a schedule (e.g., go for a walk every day from 4 pm to 5pm), regular pleasurable activities can displace those intrusive negative thoughts and make your day more about positive things.  

Keep in mind: Not all activities (e.g., substance misuse) are going to be beneficial, even if they bring you momentary relief. Sometimes, it can be hard to come up with a pleasurable activity, especially if you have gotten out of practice. If you are not sure where to get started, check out our Big List of Pleasurable Activities

#5. Challenging the utility or purpose of your negative thoughts

One of the more recent strategies to be developed over the past several decades has focussed on understanding and challenging the utility, purpose or usefulness of intrusive negative thoughts.  This approach sets aside the question of whether or not your doubts, worries and what-ifs are true or not and focuses on the emotional, social and behavioural costs to you of the worry that other people might not like you. 

Imagine that you believe you are the ‘worst hockey player on the team.’ Every time you are on the ice, see your teammates or see anything at all that has to do with hockey, you have this thought, ‘i am the worst.’ You can debate this thought as much as you like, and you still might even reach the conclusion that you are, in fact, the worst hockey player on the team. 

Some truths are hard. 

Challenging the utility or purpose of thoughts focuses more on the emotional, social and behavioural cost of your negative beliefs about yourself or others.  

Even if you are the worst player on the team, holding that belief, debating that belief, mulling that belief over and over in your head, is going to cost you. It is going to get in the way of enjoying the game, enjoying your teammates, and doing even doing your best in a game. Aside from how go or bad you are, you can still make a good pass, you can still score goals and you can still have fun.  The thought that you are the ‘worst hockey player on the team’ will just get in the way. Hanging on to this belief (right or wrong) is costing you and you need to give it up. 

However, the cost of negative thoughts can go well beyond the situation in which they arise. Off the ice, if you persist in thinking you are the ‘worst hockey player on the team’ this thought can quickly get in the way of you thinking about yourself in more favourable ways (e.g., I am a good friend, a serious student, enjoy playing music). Thinking of yourself as just a terrible hockey player isn’t fair because it ignores all of the other good things you are doing. 

This illustrates the point that holding beliefs can be very, very costly and not worth it in the end. When you catch yourself thinking negatively, ask yourself what the purpose of the belief is, what the cost to you and other of holding this belief is, how it gets in the way and if there is a better, more favourable, fairer way of thinking about yourself. 

Give yourself a break. Be kind to yourself. 

Keep in mind:  Sometimes negative thoughts (e.g., if this isn’t perfect, people won’t like me)  seem to serve a purpose (e.g., to do better) and they may even seem to work. Still, even if they do work, ask yourself at what cost, what emotional costs (e.g., stress), what social costs (e.g., people won’t get to know me for who I am) and behavioural costs (e.g., cannot be myself, no time for other activities). In striving to be perfect, you may in fact do well but there may be other ways of doing well that are not so stressful or put so much pressure on you.  

#6. Challenging the ontological status of intrusive thoughts. 

This strategy has become increasingly prominent with the emergence of mindfulness-based forms of psychotherapy, as well as new versions of cognitive behavioural therapies, such as Act and Committment Therapy, pioneered by Stephen Hayes and his colleagues. 

Ontological status is not commonly used day to day. It is a technical term for the ‘nature of something.’ If you believe that you are a ‘failure,’ this approach asks you to consider what is the nature of that statement.  Is it a fact that you are, in fact, a failure, or is it just a thought that you are having about yourself? Psychological interventions, such as mindfulness-based forms of psychotherapy and Act and Commitment Therapy, emphasize this critical insight, namely that all of our beliefs, thoughts about ourselves, and statements of fact about ourselves and the world around us, are just thoughts — at times factual, at times wrong, at times pleasurable and at times very, very painful. 

But they are just thoughts.  

Understanding this fundamental truth offers all of us a slightly different strategy. Reminding yourself that you are having a thought, ‘I am worthless’ is different than just believing that you are worthless.  Reminding yourself that it is (just) a thought allows you to step back and focus more on what you are doing and enjoy it more. 


#7. Changing your core beliefs about who you are. 

One of the most central ideas to most of the approaches ever developed to deal with intrusive negative thoughts is the concept of ‘core beliefs’. Core belief are the most important thoughts we hold about ourselves, others and even the world around us.  Core beliefs can be positive (e.g., I am a good friend, a good student, an honest person). But, they can also be negative (e.g., I am worthless, unloveable, a fraud).  They can be about other people (e.g., people don’t like me; I cannot trust others; I don’t matter to other people) and about the world (e.g., the world is a dangerous, hostile place). 

Core beliefs influence influence everything that we do — how we processes information, what we consider an achievemet, even how we talk about ourselves and interact with others.  If, for example, your core belief about yourself is that the ‘you do not matter to other people’ or that ‘you are worthless,’ then you are going to be less likely to accept a compliment. You might not even notice a compliment if you were given one. 

Again, if you think you are ‘worthless,’ then you are not going to believe that anyone would ever compliment you. After all, why would they? Worthless people don’t get compliments. And if you did get a compliment (and you noticed), chances are you are going feel very uncomfortable, not very deserving and be very awkward accepting it. 

Core beliefs can also influence your recall and memory of events. If you think you are ‘worthless’ and look back on your day, then you will likely be able to recall every one of your mistakes, blunders or shortcomings.  Core beliefs work like a filter.  Noticing an accomplishment or even something that you did well will be difficult because it doesn’t align with the core belief that you are worthless. 

Changing your core beliefs. 

There are three steps to changing your core beliefs. 

Step #1: Identify your core negative beliefs about yourself, others or the world around you. Here is a list of negative beliefs that may help you identify your core negative belief about yourself.  Read through the lefthand list and circle the ones that describe you. 

Step #2: Identify a more favourable, more positive view of yourself, others and the world around you. In the right column of the same list, you will find a list of more favourable, more positive views of yourself.  Circle one or two that you feel make sense for you.  Be sure to pick one that is reasonable and attainable. People will often say that they would like to be the best at something (e.g., student, employee). Being the best at anything is very hard to achieve and, frankly, never ever needed. Being competent, thorough, innovative or creative is more realistic and more attainable. 

Step #3: Exercise this new view of yourself. There are a number of ways to do this. One way is to find and write down experiences during your day that support this view. This is often called an evidence record. The goal is to find one or two pieces of evidence each day that support the positive view. This can be hard because all of those negative thoughts (e.g., telling yourself it is no big deal, anyone can do it works against you). 

Another way, is to participate in activities (new or old) that will reinforce this view of yourself (e.g., if you want to strengthen a view of yourself as helpful and generous, then you could volunteer with an organization that helps other people). 

One other way to reinforce this view of yourself is to imagine what it would be like going through your day viewing as a competent student, an effective computer technician, and a helpful co-worker. Here the goal is for you to start to experience how much better you could feel while practising holding this more positive view of yourself. 


The high cost of negative thoughts

Frequent and severe negative thoughts affect people in many ways. Constant worry about what might go wrong can take the pleasure and enjoyment out events or activities. Harsh criticism of the way you look, your abilities or value as a person over long periods of time destroy your self-worth and contribute to the onset of depression.  Over time, negative thoughts, such as ‘I am worthless’ can become believable and treated as if they were facts. 

Decades of research have documented the negative impact of intrusive thoughts on our mental health, relationships and success at work. 

Although these skills can be helpful, sometimes they will not be enough on their own. If you are dealing with long-lasting negative thoughts that have undermined your self-worth and ability to function well at work or in your relationships, then it is time to consult a mental health professional who can help you acquire and get the most out of these skills. 

Worksheets and quizzes. 

We have assemble a number of worksheets and quizzes to help you get started on leraning about the different types of negative thoughts you have and well as how to get started managing them in new ways. 

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Brewer, J. A., Worhunsky, P. D., Gray, J. R., Tang, Y.-Y., Weber, J., & Kober, H. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(50), 20254–20259.
Cairncross, M., & Miller, C. J. (2020). The Effectiveness of Mindfulness-Based Therapies for ADHD: A Meta-Analytic Review. Journal of attention disorders, 24(5), 627–643.
Kabat-Zinn, J., Massion, A. O., Kristeller, J., Peterson, L. G., Fletcher, K. E., Pbert, L., Lenderking, W. R., & Santorelli, S. F. (1992). Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 149(7), 936–943.
Luders, E., Cherbuin, N., & Kurth, F. (2015). Forever Young(er): Potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.
Sharp, C., Coltharp, H., Hurford, D., & Cole, A. (2000). Increasing mathematical problem-solving performance through relaxation training. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 12(1), 53–61.


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