Get a Christian counselor’s favorite tips on quick exercises to stop negative thinking and start enjoying life more.
Looking for a few exercises to stop negative thinking?
Negative thinking is so common, so tricky, and so hard to stop!
It’s also so hurtful to your goal of enjoying family life.
If you ever find yourself stuck in a pattern of negative thinking, or notice that a negative thought is making you feel depressed, anxious, angry, or stressed – today’s conversation is for you.
Today, I’ll share the 5-step process that I use in the counseling room to help people STOP negative thinking and START replacing that with helpful thought patterns instead.
These 5 exercises are really helpful in stopping your negative thinking, but also moving in a different direction! Stopping the negative is good. Replacing it with the positive is even better.
Ready, friend? Let’s dive in.
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Does my negative thinking really hurt my family relationships?
Let’s start this conversation on the same page. YES, the thoughts inside your own brain are impacting your family relationships!
Your thoughts are powerful.
No, your thoughts cannot manifest a life that you want. They don’t have that kind of power. That power belongs to God alone!
But your thoughts absolutely will direct you on a path that creates a certain life. Your thoughts control your emotions, which typically then trigger certain behaviors or actions… which have a huge impact on your family relationships.
It will be very difficult to enjoy family life if you’re always feeling angry, stressed, or anxious. These emotions are hard to deal with, and they lead into behaviors like yelling, worrying, and poor communication. They also interrupt a close intimacy with Jesus, which means your family life is less likely to enjoy the peace and joy that God wants to give you.
How your thought life controls your emotions
Emotions are a tricky thing. They are important, invisible, and very influential in your life. Why is this?
Well, emotions are influential because they typically determine your behavior, actions, and attitudes.
If you are feeling angry, you are a lot more likely to yell at the people you love or give them the silent treatment. Will you enjoy Christian family life if you’re acting this way? And what about if you’re feeling anxious? Then you’re more likely to avoid certain situations, have trouble sleeping, and it will be hard to enjoy the moment with your family because you’re too on edge.
That’s why I spend a lot of time here at Love Your People Well talking about how to manage emotions. It has such a big impact on how you communicate with your family and what those family relationships look like!
But one of the biggest influences on managing your emotions is figuring our how to take control of your thought life.
Because your thought life controls your emotions.
Let’s consider an example together. I could tell you right now: start feeling anxious.
But the only way that you could do that successfully would be to start thinking about things that make you feel anxious.
It’s the same for any emotion. Trying to feel joyful? You’re going to need to think about things in your life that you’re thankful for and which make you feel happy. But if you start thinking about things that annoy and upset you, the emotion that comes up will be more like anger, frustration, or sadness.
What should I be thinking about as a Christian mom?
To manage your emotions well, you need to be able to stop the negative thinking, stop the overthinking, and START taking control of your thought life.
Our conversation today will be building on not only my experience as a counselor but especially from Philippians 4:8.
I turn to this Bible verse again and again in the counseling room (and in my own life!) when we’re fighting against negative thinking. Not because it gives us the direct exercises to stop negative thinking, but because it shows us very clearly where we’re trying to go instead.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)
The goal is not to turn your brain off. And it’s not to pretend that life is all rainbows and butterflies and refuse to think about difficult things.
The goal that God outlines here in Philippians 4:8 is that our thought life should be full of beauty. Full of goodness. Ultimately, of course, this means that our thought life should be filled with Jesus himself! He is true, noble, pure, and praiseworthy. His words in the Bible are right and excellent.
In just a minute, we’re going to walk through a 5-step process that you can use when you need some exercises to stop negative thinking. But I want you know know the end goal.
Yes, you will feel better (and enjoy Christian family life more!) when the negative thinking starts to turn off. But you’ll truly start to enjoy life when the positive thinking turns on. When your mind is running down the path of Philippians 4:8.
So if you need a place to start, here it is: Dive into the Bible. Spend time in God’s Word. Think about him, talk to him in prayer, memorize Scripture, and sit at the feet of Jesus. When this fills your thought life, your emotions will be far easier to manage.
Exercises to stop negative thinking
As a counselor, I spend a lot of time helping people work through their thought life and start changing those automatic patterns.
Because it is always an automatic pattern!
Right now, your brain is probably stuck on autopilot in some ways. When your kids start arguing, certain thoughts pop into your head. Is that thought “Geez, I’ll never be able to get my kids under control” or is that thought more like “Geez, today is a tough day, I wonder what I could do to help change their behavior.”
One of those thoughts is far more negative than the other. And each of those thoughts will walk you down a different emotional path!
So when you notice that negative thought popping into your head, pause and try this 5-step process to move your thought life in a new direction.
Step 1: Recognize the current negative, unhelpful thought.
You can’t change anything if you haven’t even recognized that the negative thought is happening.
So notice it! This doesn’t change it, but that step comes later.
And in reality, putting specific words to the thought popping into your head is a powerful exercise to stop negative thinking – all by itself!
Because right now, the negative thinking is probably operating under the radar. You don’t question it. You don’t even notice it. But it is influencing you. So putting specific words, maybe writing them down, give you more power and control over the negative thinking, instead of letting the thoughts control you: your emotions, behaviors, and attitude.
Some examples of negative thinking might include thoughts like:
- “I’m not good enough.”
- “I’m failing as a wife.”
- “My husband will never understand me.”
- “My kids are so (fill in the blank with a negative word here).”
- “God doesn’t even care, He’s just ignoring me.”
- “I’ll never be able to do this.”
- “Nothing is working, I shouldn’t even try anymore.”
- “I can’t trust anyone.”
The list could go on and on! Do any of those thoughts sound familiar? Or maybe the better question is: do any of those thoughts sound in line with Philippians 4:8 that we looked at above?
Time to move into step #2.
Step 2: Refute the thought.
It is helpful to recognize the thought, but you can’t stop there. You have to refute the thought! Challenge it. Question it. Don’t just assume that negative thinking is true, good, and helpful.
Refuting the thought means that you are challenging the thought and finding holes and flaws with what the thought is.
Because here’s the thing: your emotions are going to tell you that the thought is true. You’ve probably been stuck in some patterns of negative thinking for a long time! We often think of our emotions as facts, but they actually can change based on what we think about and focus on.
So, how might you challenge your negative thinking and refute those thoughts? Ask questions like:
- Is this thought really true?
- Is it true 100% of the time?
- Can I think of any examples when this thought was not true, even if those examples seem small and unimportant?
- Is this thought leading me toward helpful action?
- Would my best friend or husband tell me that this thought is helpful?
- Does this thought really line up with what God thinks about me or what He says in the Bible?
- If your best friend was thinking this thought, would you tell her that she was right on track?
Let’s use this example thought and consider how to refute it. “My kids are fighting right now and it seems like this always happens and nothing I do helps.” Well, I notice a few problems with this negative thought.
First of all, it might be true that the kids are fighting right now, that this happens often, and that you’ve already tried a lot of things… yet the fighting is happening again. But that does not mean this thought is true, helpful, lovely, and excellent!
You might refute this thought by asking yourself question like:
- Do my kids ever have moments when they aren’t fighting? When they get alone okay together, even if that’s short?
- Have I ever tried to change the situation and it helped, even if only for 60 seconds?
- Would my best friend agree with this thought? What about my husband? Or God?
- How often do other siblings argue? Is it realistic to think my kids will never argue?
- If I continue thinking this thought every time my kids do fight, how will that impact my relationship with my kids? Their growing up?
If you try this exercise to stop negative thinking, you’ll start to realize that these unhelpful thoughts are not 100% true, rarely helpful for positive family relationships, and ultimately could be changed to something more helpful.
Step 3: Replace the thought with a positive, helpful thought.
Yes, the first 2 exercises will help you stop negative thinking. If you catch it and challenge it, you’ll be in a much better head space!
But step 3 is the secret sauce to changing the overall patterns of your thought life.
“Take every thought captive to Christ,” the Bible tells us in 2 Corinthians. Jesus is good, true, lovely, and always helpful – take every thought in your head captive in a similar way!
When you recognize a negative thought, refute it and realize it’s not totally true or helpful, you can then identify a NEW thought that is true, lovely, helpful, and admirable.
Now, there are a few things to note about your new positive thought.
- It isn’t enough to think about a generic self-affirmation.
A thought that’s super general, like “you can do it” or “you’re good enough” won’t last very long. It lacks the emotional power to get you through really tough emotions. Plus, it might not be totally true either! Sometimes, we really are facing situations that we can’t handle on our own… we need God.
- Your new thought should still be connected to the situation you’re struggling with.
Again, a really general thought – even if it is positive and true – won’t help in the heat of the moment if it feels totally disconnected to the current negative situation.
If we stick with the example of your kids fighting and you’re thinking “Nothing I do works,” it won’t really help to think about something like “I’m really good at cooking healthy meals for my kids.” That might be true, but it won’t make a big emotional impact in the moment when your kids are fighting!
Step 4: Remind yourself of TRUTH.
We’ve already looked at Philippians 4:8 and acknowledged that the gospel is the best and most beautiful thing you can think about.
And that might have sounded like a bible cliche to you. Like the boring Sunday school answer that everyone knows is true but doesn’t really matter in regular life.
Well, step 4 is for you.
This exercise will help you stop negative thinking because you’ll be filling your mind with the beautiful truths of the gospel. If this fills your mind, there isn’t as much room left for the negative thinking!
Step 5: Rehearse the situation.
You know what I’m going to say. Once you’ve recognized your negative thought, refuted it, replaced it, and reminded yourself of truth… rehearse it. Practice.
I won’t make the argument that “practice makes perfect”… because it doesn’t. Your brain has already practiced! The negative thinking that you’re struggling with is probably happening a lot, without you being intentional about it, because your brain has practiced it so many times. It’s become normal and routine.
But that’s what you want to change.
So now, you have to try practicing something different.
You can rehearse the situation by repeating the new positive thought again and again to yourself. Or you might rehearse the situation by saying the negative thought out loud and then telling yourself out loud (maybe in front of the bathroom mirror): “Stop. That isn’t true.”
Sometimes, it’s helpful to rehearse the situation by imagining a time when the negative thought would be likely to pop into your brain and then you can think through how you would handle it, to go in a different direction.
Using these exercises to stop negative thinking in real life
Let’s face it: In real life, plans never work out like you expect.
You might have the best intentions for using these 5 exercises to stop negative thinking… and then life happens.
The kids get sick or you get in an argument with your husband or there’s a huge thunderstorms and the dogs are barking all night. That can happen! (And it probably will trigger some negative thinking along the way.)
When you forget to challenge your negative thoughts, just realize it and then start over.
And when you try these exercises and they just don’t work that well (especially at the beginning), pat yourself on the back for giving it a try, and then try again tomorrow.
You’ll find these exercises are most helpful when you really do try all 5, together, as a 5-step process. Recognize. Refute. Replace. Remind. Rehearse.
Through it all, as you’re working on your thought life so that you can manage your emotions well and build strong Christian family relationships, don’t forget the most important part of it all.
Ask God for wisdom. Pray that He will grow his fruit in your life, his patience and compassion and kindness and self-control. Ask him to take charge of your thoughts, your heart, and your life.
Listen to Episode #135
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Disclaimers: I am a licensed therapist but my podcast, blog, and resources are not professional or personal advice. I am an affiliate for many of the resources that I link to, and may earn a small commission if you purchase through my link. Read my full disclaimer here.