How to Deactivate Your Automatic Negative Thoughts

What do you do with your negative thoughts? We all have them, but it's important to know how to relate to these debilitating images that erode your potential and well-being. Here are a series of strategies to handle them.
How to Deactivate Your Automatic Negative Thoughts
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 14 March, 2023

Stop what you’re doing for a moment and take a look inside your mental universe. What thoughts are living inside you right now? Are they friendly? Do they have a sense of hope, positivity, and calm? Or, do you perceive chaos, disorder, and an atmosphere of stifling negativity?

We all produce a significant number of automatic negative thoughts every day. This is completely normal. After all, no one is immune to feelings of insecurity, fear, or anguish. The difference lies in the way we relate to this type of mental activity.

Thanks to a more rational approach, some people can disable them almost instantly. For instance, when they’re faced with thoughts like “I’m never going to find a job again” they reply with something like “I’ve been through situations like this before and I’ve come out of them successfully.” In fact, we should all have strategies in our psychological pockets to effectively manage these kinds of mental dynamics.

These kinds of thoughts consist of images, ideas, and states that don’t contribute in any way to our well-being. Quite the contrary, in fact. Therefore, in this article, we’re going to explain five useful strategies to adopt to deactivate them.

“The work of thought is like drilling a well: the water is cloudy at first, but then it becomes clearer.”

-Chinese Proverb-

Fragmented mind symbolizing automatic negative thoughts
If we let negative thoughts gain power over our minds, it can lead to depression.

How to turn off automatic negative thoughts

Where do negative thoughts come from and why are they automatic? This is a question that’s often asked. A study conducted by Soflau & David in 2017 claims that from a clinical point of view, we see this type of reasoning, along with adverse images and ideas as the foundations that gradually build depressive and anxiety disorders.

However, it’s important to understand their origin and triggers. According to these authors, automatic thoughts derive from our beliefs and conceptions about ourselves and the world. They’re cognitions that take root in our consciousness. They emerge as inferences, descriptions, and evaluations without our realizing it.

It should be noted that it isn’t easy to regulate or take control of such mental processes. In fact, it takes time, commitment, and a series of basic tools. The following strategies will be extremely useful if you’re struggling to deactivate your automatic negative thoughts.

Negative thoughts can’t be erased or eliminated, they must be reformulated in healthier approaches.

1. Cognitive restructuring

Cognitive restructuring is a process widely used in therapy. It consists of identifying and confronting negative and irrational thoughts. As Dr. Debra A. Hope, from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (USA), explains, the steps required in this model are the following:

  • To identify any automatic negative cognitions.
  • To be aware of the cognitive distortion that reinforces the negative thoughts. For instance, many thoughts are dominated by mechanisms of catastrophizing, overgeneralization, and ‘all or nothing’ type of thinking.
  • To confront the negative thoughts. Are they helpful?
  • Finally, to make way for healthier reasoning by refuting the automatic negative thoughts.

2. Ant technique

This is a really effective strategy that requires a visualization exercise. You must see your dysfunctional thoughts as ants, like little insects that move aimlessly and fill every corner of your mind. The goal is to remove them from within to regain harmony. This is done by:

  • Detecting any automatic negative thoughts.
  • Discovering their triggers. Where do these ‘ants’ come from?
  • What effect are they having? How do they make you feel when they dominate you?
  • Shaping a more adaptive mental approach. How should you rephrase your ideas to feel better?

3. Negative thoughts and emotions record sheet

The most decisive step in deactivating your automatic negative thoughts is to become aware of their existence and how they impact you. In effect, you often let yourself be carried away by the inertia of the mental forces that condition you. These range from your emotions to your behaviors and decisions.

A simple strategy is to write a journal in which to record the following dimensions:

  • Debilitating reasoning.
  • Catastrophic ideas.
  • Negative reviews.
  • Irrational thoughts.
  • Negative images.

In this journal, it’s important that you also describe how these thought processes make you feel. Talk about your emotions and associated feelings.

If you don’t stop the cycle of irrational and debilitating thoughts, you might find yourself developing at least one mental health problem. In addition, you’ll weaken your human potential and will be a prisoner of defenselessness.

4. The technique of challenging questions

Have you heard of the Socratic dialogue? It consists of a conversation between two or more people that encourages reflection, confrontation, and the ability to mobilize new approaches to any problems. It’s an extremely enriching resource that you can transfer to your mental universe. Here’s how.

When a negative thought appears in your mind, confront it with the following challenging questions:

  • What use is this idea, image, sensation, or reasoning to me?
  • Is it useful? Where does this thought come from?
  • Should I listen to it? If I do, what might happen?
  • What’ll happen if I think exactly the opposite?
Woman writing about automatic negative thoughts
Keeping a record of our thoughts can allow us to become aware of those more irrational approaches.

5. Worksheet to replace debilitating thoughts with healthy approaches

Improving the atmosphere of your mental universe requires daily work. However, you need to find the strategy that best suits you. One simple and practical exercise only requires paper and a pencil. Divide a worksheet into two columns consisting of:

  • Thoughts that weaken you.
  • Healthy reformulation of them.

The goal is to turn off your automatic negative thoughts and replace them with more adaptive and healthy approaches. In effect, it requires applying a more flexible, innovative, and positive outlook.

Invest in your quality of life

It’s really easy to become captive of a negative psychological filter. You do so because of deep-rooted beliefs, your education, personality patterns, or poor coping strategies. However, in these cases, the result is always the same: your health, well-being, and potential all suffer.

Taking care of everything that happens inside you means investing in your quality of life. Remember that you can’t eliminate your negative thoughts from your mind. But, you can lower their volume. How about starting today?

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Beck, A. T., Rush, A. J., Shaw, B. F., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive Therapy of Depression. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Boyraz, G., & Lightsey, O. R. (2012). Can Positive Thinking Help? Positive Automatic Thoughts as Moderators of the Stress-Meaning Relationship. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82(2), 267-277.
  • Riley, K. E., Lee, J. S., & Safren, S. A. (2017). The Relationship Between Automatic Thoughts and Depression in a Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment for People Living with HIV/AIDS: Exploring Temporality and Causality. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 41(5), 712-719.
  • Soflau, R., & David, D. O. (2017). A Meta-Analytical Approach of the Relationships Between the Irrationality of Beliefs and the Functionality of Automatic Thoughts. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 41(2), 178-192.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.