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Depression: Stop Negative Thoughts

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Depression is an illness that makes a person feel sad and hopeless much of the time. It's different from feeling a little sad or down. Depression can be treated with counseling or medicine, or both.

Healthy thinking also can help prevent or control depression.

  • If you have thoughts of harming yourself or others, you need to see your doctor or therapist right away. Healthy thinking can help with depression. But you may also need medicine and therapy.
  • Negative thoughts can make depression worse or can be a symptom of depression.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a type of therapy that can help you replace negative thoughts with accurate, encouraging ones.
  • Changing your thinking will take some time. You need to practice healthy thinking every day. After a while, healthy thinking will come naturally to you.

Healthy thinking is a way to help you stay well by changing how you think. It's based on research that shows that you can change how you think. And how you think affects how you feel and act.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, can help you know what thoughts of yours—both helpful and not helpful—affect problems or feelings that trouble you. With practice, you can replace negative thoughts that discourage you with accurate thoughts that encourage you.

Working on your own or with a counselor, you can practice these three steps:

  • Stop. Notice your thoughts. When you notice a negative thought, stop it in its tracks and write it down.
  • Ask. Look at that thought and ask yourself whether it is helpful or unhelpful right now.
  • Choose. Choose a new, helpful thought to replace a negative one.

The goal is to have accurate, encouraging thoughts come naturally. It may take some time to change the way you think. So you will need to practice healthy thinking every day.

Test Your Knowledge

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that can help change how you think about yourself.


You need to see a counselor to do CBT.


Changing the way you think can help you replace negative thoughts with helpful ones. This can help you cope with depression and may help keep it from coming back.

Maybe you weren't able to close a sale or get a big project done at work. Or perhaps a relationship has ended. It's normal to feel down. But you've had trouble sleeping. You can't enjoy many of your usual activities. And you're blaming yourself. "I'm a failure at everything," you tell yourself.

The more you think about yourself in a negative way, the harder it is to feel hopeful. The negative thinking makes you feel bad. And that can make you feel more depressed, which leads to more bad thoughts about yourself. It's a cycle that's hard to break.

But with practice, you can retrain your brain. After all, you weren't born telling yourself negative things. You learned how to do it. So there's no reason you can't teach your brain to unlearn it and replace negative thinking with more helpful thoughts.

Healthy thinking also can help you manage stress. Stress can increase symptoms of depression. And depression can make your outlook on life negative and daily tasks more stressful. Too much stress can raise your blood pressure and make your heart work harder, which can increase your risk for a heart attack. Stress also can weaken your immune system, which can make you more open to infection and disease.

Although you can use CBT on your own, it's important to talk to your doctor or a counselor if you feel that your mood is getting worse. You may need more help.

Test Your Knowledge

Healthy thinking can help you stop negative thoughts that make depression worse.


Healthy thinking can help your health in other ways.


Notice and stop your thoughts

The first step is to notice and stop your negative thoughts or "self-talk." Self-talk is what you think and believe about yourself and your experiences. It's like a running commentary in your head. Your self-talk may be rational and helpful. Or it may be negative and not helpful.

Ask about your thoughts

The next step is to ask yourself whether your thoughts are helpful or unhelpful. Does the evidence support your negative thought? Some of your self-talk may be true. Or it may be partly true but exaggerated. There are several kinds of irrational thoughts. Here are a few types to look for:

  • Focusing on the negative: This is sometimes called filtering. You filter out the good and focus only on the bad. Example: "I'm sad that I don't have many friends. People must not like me." Reality: You have some friends. So that means you're likable and can make more friends if you want them.
  • Should: People sometimes have set ideas about how they "should" act. If you hear yourself saying that you or other people "should," "ought to," or "have to" do something, then you might be setting yourself up to feel bad. Example: "I should get married before I'm 30. If I don't, it means I'm a loser." Reality: There's nothing wrong with having a time line in mind. But you're not being fair to yourself if you make your self-worth depend on meeting a deadline.
  • Overgeneralizing: This is taking one example and saying it's true for everything. Look for words such as "never" and "always." Example: "I got laid off. I'll never get another job." Reality: Many people lose their jobs because of downsizing and other things beyond their control. It doesn't mean that you won't be able to get another job.
  • All-or-nothing thinking: This is also called black-or-white thinking. Example: "If I don't get a big raise at my next review, then it means I have no future with this company." Reality: There's nothing wrong with wanting a big raise. But if you don't get the raise, there may be reasons for it that have nothing to do with you.

Choose your thoughts

The next step is to choose a more helpful thought to replace the unhelpful one.

Keeping a journal of your thoughts is one of the best ways to practice stopping, asking, and choosing your thoughts. It makes you aware of your self-talk. Write down any negative or unhelpful thoughts you had during the day. If you think you might not remember at the end of your day, keep a notepad with you so you can write down any irrational thoughts as they happen. Then write down a helpful message to correct the unhelpful thought.

If you do this every day, accurate and helpful thoughts will soon come naturally to you.

But there may be some truth in some of your negative thoughts. You may have some things you want to work on. If you didn't perform as well as you would like on something, write that down. You can work on a plan to correct or improve that area.

If you want, you also could write down what kind of irrational thought you had. Journal entries might look something like this:

Thought diary

Stop your negative thought

Ask what type of negative thought you had

Choose an accurate, helpful thought

"I'm sad that I don't have many friends. People must not like me."

Focusing on negative

"I have some friends, so I know I can make friends."

"I should get married before I'm 30. If I don't, it means I'm a loser."


"There's no guarantee that I'll meet the right person by the time I'm 30. If I don't get married by then, I still have time to find a good relationship."

"I got laid off. I'll never get another job."


"Our company ran into financial trouble, so I got laid off. It may take some time to get another job, but I know I will."

"If I don't get a big raise at my next review, then it means I have no future with this company."

All or nothing

"I would love to get a big raise. But it might not be in the company's budget this year."

Test Your Knowledge

Which of these thoughts is an example of healthy thinking?

I've had a couple of bad relationships. I know I'll never have a good relationship.
I feel bad that I didn't get as big a raise as I wanted. But there may have been reasons that had nothing to do with me. I'll talk to my supervisor to see if there is anything I can do to get a bigger raise next time.

How can a daily journal help you have more accurate, rational thoughts?

It makes you aware of your self-talk and can help you come up with helpful thoughts to correct an irrational thought.
Writing in the journal every day will help healthy thinking come naturally to you.

Now that you have read this information, you are ready to practice healthy thinking to help cope with depression.

If you would like more information, see:

Click here to view an Actionset.Stop Negative Thoughts: Getting Started.

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Other Works Consulted

  • Hart SL, Hart TA (2010). The future of cognitive behavioral interventions within behavioral medicine. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 24(4): 344–353.

  • Layous K, et al. (2011). Delivering happiness: Translating positive psychology intervention research for treating major and minor depressive disorders. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 17(8): 675–683.

  • Lightsey OR, et al. (2012). Can positive thinking reduce negative affect? A test of potential mediating mechanisms. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 26(1): 71–88.

  • McKay M, et al. (2011). Changing patterns of limited thinking. In Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life, 4th ed., pp. 27–45. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

  • McKay M, et al. (2011). Coping with panic. In Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life, 4th ed., pp. 85–104. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

  • McKay M, et al. (2011). Uncovering automatic thoughts. In Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life, 4th ed., pp. 15–25. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

  • Newman CF, Beck AT (2009). Cognitive therapy. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol 2., pp. 2857–2873. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerCatherine D. Serio, PhD - Behavioral Health
Specialist Medical ReviewerSue Barton, PhD, PsyD - Behavioral Health
Last RevisedAugust 3, 2012

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