Writing Down Your Negative Thoughts Is the First Step in Dealing With Them
As a mental health writer, I’m constantly in conversation with therapists, counselors, and psychologists. And sometimes the same tip pops up frequently enough that I finally have to say, “Okay, I guess this is a big one.” Most of the time, those big tips are actually incredibly simple. Case in point? Keeping a log of your negative thoughts. Experts have recommended this small practice to me for articles on emotional regulation, managing anxiety, mindfulness, practicing self-care, increasing self-awareness, and more—so I figured it was time to dedicate a whole article to it.
If you’re anything like me, you might think that you’re pretty tuned in to your own thoughts at any given time. Like, they’re your thoughts. But the process of taking the nebulous cloud of words and feelings floating around inside your head and translating them into solid, concise statements can be illuminating for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, a lot of us have a habit of taking our thoughts at face value, which can have a negative impact on our mental health given that our thoughts—particularly our negative thoughts—are often distorted and require further investigation.
So next time you find yourself having a negative thought, from a specific anxiety (“My friend hates me because she didn’t respond to my text!”) to a hazy emotion (“I’m feeling really bad about myself today!”), stop yourself and ask, What am I thinking right now? Then write it down, either in a notebook, random word doc, or dedicated app. Here are a few reasons why:
Writing down your thoughts helps you identify patterns.
Like I mentioned earlier, even though it’s easy to assume a thought is automatically true or important just because we think it, our thoughts can often be distorted. “A thought is like a pair of sunglasses,” Regine Galanti, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Long Island Behavioral, previously told me. “If you look at the world through sunglasses, things look a little different.”
That’s because we’re susceptible to “cognitive distortions,” or mental traps a lot of us fall into that impact how we interpret our thoughts and experiences. Some examples you might be familiar with include all-or-nothing thinking (“I’ll either nail this presentation or fail miserably”) or catastrophic thinking (“What if the plane crashes during my flight?”). Seeing them written out might seem dramatic, but if you’ve had these types of thoughts before, you know how real they feel in the moment.
Even if you’re not intimately aware of all the official cognitive distortions out there, you can still start to recognize patterns in your thinking as well as specific triggers. For example, you might notice that you have a tendency to speculate a lot about things that are beyond your control or make yourself feel bad by comparing yourself to others. Whatever you learn, it’s bound to be helpful in learning how to correct and push back against distorted thinking.
It helps you figure out how to feel better too.
So many mental health exercises around dealing with strong or difficult thoughts or emotions start with awareness—you have to know what you’re working with. Specificity is key. As clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D., previously told me, “A big struggle right now is that with all the emotions people are feeling, it can be hard to tease out and identify what’s going on.”
After you name a thought, you can do the important work of investigating it: asking where the thought is coming from, thinking about what might be influencing it, challenging whether it’s true and helpful, and more. Sometimes this is a super-quick and easy process, like realizing, Oh, I’m assuming the person I’m dating is ignoring my text because they hate me even though I know they’re busy at work, or, Wow, that was a really cranky thought for no good reason—I must be hungry.