10 Ways to Manage Our Negative Automatic Thoughts

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We have inner dialogue with ourselves all the time. While reading this article, your inner voice is probably saying “how long is this article”? That is “self-talk”.

What is negative self-talk? Negative self-talk happens when we talk to ourselves negatively. We may say mean things to ourselves that we would not say to our friends such as “Why are you so stupid? Nobody would like me… I am worthless, untalented and useless.”

Many of us do not pay attention to our negative self-talk because they are automatic thoughts. They are as natural as we yawn.

Jolene Tan

However, many scientific researches have reported that these negative automatic thoughts (NATs) have adverse impact on our overall mental wellbeing. NATs are more prominent in individuals who are experiencing stress, chronic worries, depression, anxiety, eating disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder

In Malaysia, there has been an increasing rise of mental health issues and suicide cases in the pandemic It is becoming more important for us to learn new ways to manage our mental wellbeing.

What are Negative Automatic Thoughts?

In 1976, Dr Aaron T. Beck, a widely recognized psychiatrist and one of the pioneers of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), found that how we look at things influences how we feel and act toward an actual event. When our thoughts are distorted, our emotional and behavioral responses to the actual event tend to be unhealthy, self-defeating and distorted.

Here is the list of common NATs and examples that can help you to identify and manage your own negative thinking patterns. While identifying, jot them down, re-appraise and come up with an alternative thought to challenge these negative beliefs.

1. All or Nothing Thinking

Individuals with all or nothing thinking tend to perceive things with black and white approach. There are no shades of grey.

An example: individuals who have eating disorders may find it difficult to reconcile their food intake and weight. They may go to the extreme thinking eating sugar is bad even though it is a natural part of a normal diet. When people put themselves into absolute expectations, they may get easily disappointed because their expectations do not conform to reality.Another example: “Trust me, the only way to prevent covid infection is to get Brand A vaccination. All the other brands are ineffective.”

2. Overgeneralization: When someone makes a broad statement out of some specific cases, it is known as overgeneralization.

An example: “It is all the Asians’ fault that causes the spread of covid-19 and me losing my job!”

When COVID-19 was declared a novel pandemic on 30 January 2020, it became a catalyst of risk overgeneralization such as anti-asian hate crimes. Because of the disease’s unfamiliarity, the public perceive the risk more often with their current feelings – filled with fear and hatred that resulted in risk adverse behaviors such as racial stereotyping and xenophobia.

3. Mental Filter: You only focus on the negative aspects of an event and filter out all the positive ones.

An example: “There’s still 20k cases today. Why can’t everyone just stay at home??”

During the pandemic, the public focuses mainly on the number of reported daily cases than the daily recovery and vaccinated case. 

4. Disqualifying the Positive: You diminish the positive experiences or turn positive feedback into negative ones. This happens a lot to individuals with low self-esteem.

For example, when you get selected as the employee of the month, your boss and colleagues congratulate you. Instead of saying thank you, you would brush off saying “It’s nothing. Anyone can do that. I am just lucky”.

5. Magnification and Minimization: Magnification is also known as catastrophizing. It is an act of ruminating about irrational, worst-case outcomes and blowing them out of proportions or shrinking them.

For example, an insecure boyfriend may think his girlfriend is breaking up with him when she replies to his text message 10 minutes later.

On the other hand, the girlfriend does not see her boyfriend’s dependent behavior as an issue to their relationship. This is known as minimization.

Another example of catastrophizing is when the public refuse to receive vaccine after learning 

the reported covid-19 cases of vaccinated individuals. 

6. Jumping into Conclusions: You are quick to make negative conclusions about an event without concrete evidence but assumptions.

The two examples are “mind reading” and “fortune telling”.

Mind Reading: Suppose your friend passes by you without greeting, you make an immediate negative conclusion that they do not like you even though there is no evidence to support your belief. For instance, there could be a possibility that the friend is absorbed into his own thoughts when he passes by you.

Fortune Telling: You take prediction or suggestion as a fact. For example, when the doctor tells the patient she may have difficulty bearing a child due to her current lifestyle, she jumps into an immediate conclusion believing she is infertile. 

7. Emotional Reasoning: “I feel, therefore it must be true.” Emotional reasoning happens when you let your emotions decide your reality that oftentimes differ from the actual reality.

For example, an unmotivated person may say “I feel unmotivated to do anything, I think it is better that I stay in bed until I feel better”. 

8. Should Statements: Many who often use “I should” or “I must” statements to motivate themselves tend to generate a lot of unnecessary turmoil in their daily lives. These statements often tie to feeling pressured, regrets and resentment especially when you fall short of your expectations. Similarly, you may feel bitter and disappointed when you direct these statements to others.

Here are some of the examples of should statements.

  • “I shouldn’t have bought groceries from this market. Because of my carelessness, I am now infected with covid-19.
  • “I should be safe but why am I still getting infected even after completing the full vaccination?”
  • “You should have stayed at home instead of going out all the time. Now everyone in this house is at risk because of you!

9. Labeling and Mislabeling

Labeling is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of focusing on the problem, you see and label yourself or others as the problem. 

“I am a bad person. Because of me, everyone at home is now at risk of covid-19 infection.”

“He is a sloth because he is always late to work.”

Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

“Anti-Asian hate is an example of mislabeling. Instead of focusing on the disease, some individuals label Asians as the cause and the pandemic.’

10. Personalization: You take things personally. You see yourself as the cause of a negative event even though it is not within your control. For example, when your child fails to do well in her exam, you blame yourself for not putting in enough effort to guide her.

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

Overcoming NATs is not an overnight success as these thoughts usually stem from dysfunctional assumptions and core beliefs. Other than having effortful personal reflection, working with a cognitive behavioral therapist can be a rewarding journey.

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

CBT is a step-by-step guide to help clients to identify, challenge and replace their existing negative thought patterns with more objective and realistic ones. The therapist would use various cognitive and/or behavioral techniques in the process.

CBT has been an effective therapy, both short term and long term, to address anxiety, depression, anger management, bipolar disorder, eating disorder, panic attacks and many more. Need to vent your problems to someone who would not impose their unsolicited advice to you when all you need is for someone to listen to you? Or, are you curious to learn more about yourself? Make an appointment today to see one of our Board-Certified Counsellors or Clinical Psychologists. If you are not sure what to expect from our psychotherapy session, check out our article on How to Prepare for a Therapy Session.


[1] Chahar Mahali, S., Beshai, S., Feeney, J. and Mishra, S., 2020. Associations of negative cognitions, emotional regulation, and depression symptoms across four continents: International support for the cognitive model of depression. BMC Psychiatry, 20(1).

[2] Iancu, I., Lupinsky, Y. and Barenboim, D., 2010. Negative and positive automatic thoughts in social anxiety disorder. European Psychiatry, 25, p.348.

[3] Zarychta, K., Luszczynska, A. and Scholz, U., 2014. The association between automatic thoughts about eating, the actual–ideal weight discrepancies, and eating disorders symptoms: a longitudinal study in late adolescence. Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 19(2), pp.199-207.

[4] HASSAN, H., 2021. Malaysia sees rise in suicides and calls to helplines amid Covid-19 pandemic. [online] The Straits Times. Available at: <https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/malaysia-sees-rise-in-suicides-and-calls-to-helplines-amid-covid-19-pandemic> [Accessed 19 August 2021].

[5] Lee, S., Huang, J. and Schwarz, N., 2020. Risk Overgeneralization in Times of a Contagious Disease Threat. Frontiers in Psychology, 11.

[6] Fordham, B., Sugavanam, T., Edwards, K., Stallard, P., Howard, R., das Nair, R., Copsey, B., Lee, H., Howick, J., Hemming, K. and Lamb, S., 2021. The evidence for cognitive behavioural therapy in any condition, population or context: a meta-review of systematic reviews and panoramic meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, 51(1), pp.21-29.

[7] Fordham, B., Sugavanam, T., Edwards, K., Stallard, P., Howard, R., das Nair, R., Copsey, B., Lee, H., Howick, J., Hemming, K. and Lamb, S., 2021. The evidence for cognitive behavioural therapy in any condition, population or context: a meta-review of systematic reviews and panoramic meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, 51(1), pp.21-29.

[8]  Hofmann, S., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I., Sawyer, A. and Fang, A., 2012. The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 36(5), pp.427-440.

Jolene Tan is a provisional counsellor who completed her Master’s in Counselling at Monash University and she holds a Bsc. Environmental Science in University of Nottingham. She is a content creator who is passionate about sustainable lifestyle and mental wellbeing.

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