Reframing Negative Thoughts

By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Identify and give examples of the 10 most common unhelpful thinking styles.
  • Challenge unhelpful or negative thoughts.
  • Reframe negative thoughts into balanced thoughts.
Man sitting down looking sad

Unhelpful Thinking Styles

Unhelpful thinking styles describe negative thoughts that people often have without even realizing it. These unhelpful thinking styles can make you feel anxious or depressed. By learning about the different unhelpful thinking styles, you can begin to challenge negative thoughts and reduce your anxiety.

This table includes the most common unhelpful thinking styles. Everyone has unhelpful thoughts sometimes. Do you ever experience some of these thinking styles and patterns?

When people use black and white thinking, they see only one extreme or the other. This thinking style does not leave any room for in-between grey areas.

If you are assessing your loved one’s home for safety hazards, and find even one safety hazard, you might think: “We failed the home safety test.”

When people use over generalization, they take one situation and apply it to all other situations.

If your sibling had to prioritize an important work meeting and couldn’t make it to Dad’s adult day program orientation, you might think: “My sibling always prioritizes their career over helping me with caregiving.”

When people use a mental filter, they tend to only focus on one part of a situation. People tend to focus on the negative parts and ignore the positive parts.

If you were able to help Dad brush his teeth, but don’t know how to help him shave, you might think: “I’m not capable of helping Dad with personal care.”

When people disqualify the positive, they ignore good things that have happened or good things they have done.

If you hired someone to install grab bars in Dad’s shower, but there are still other safety hazards that need to be addressed, you might think: “I haven’t made the shower a safe place for Dad.”

When people jump to conclusions, they assume that they know what others are thinking or what will happen in the future.

If Dad experienced his first fall and had to go to the hospital, you might think: “This means that he is going to have to be moved into a long-term-care facility.”

When people magnify and minimize, they magnify other people’s positive attributes and minimize their own.

If you attend a caregiving support group and hear other caregivers talking about what has helped them, you might think: “These people are such good caregivers; they know exactly what to do. I would have never thought of something like that.”

When people use emotional reasoning, they assume that something must be true because they feel a certain way.

If you feel like you keep making mistakes while caregiving, you might think: “I can’t do anything right. I must be worthless.”

When people use “should” and “must”, they can unintentionally place unreasonable demands or pressure on themselves.

If you haven’t arranged a family dinner in a few weeks, you might think: “I must organize a family dinner soon.”

When people use labelling, they assign labels to themselves or other people based on behavior in certain situations.

If the lightbulb in Dad’s room needed to be replaced and you had to call for help to replace it, you might think: “I’m completely useless.”

When people use personalization, they blame themselves for everything that goes wrong even if they are only partly responsible or not responsible at all.

If Dad gets agitated because the home health aide hasn’t arrived to help him take a bath, you might think: “It’s my fault he’s agitated. I should have told the home health aide to come fifteen minutes early.”

Identifying Negative Thinking

When you have a negative or upsetting thought, try to take a step back and see if you can identify any of the unhelpful thinking styles. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Am I thinking in black and white and using words like “always”or “never”?
  • Am I jumping to conclusions?
  • Am I labelling myself?
  • Am I only focusing on my weaknesses and ignoring my strengths?
  • Am I placing unreasonable demands on myself and using words like “should” or “must”
  • Am I blaming myself for a situation that I do not have control over?

Challenging and Reframing Negative Thoughts

There are two main strategies you can use to challenge and reframe negative thoughts.

1. Using Evidence

  • During stressful times, people’s emotions and opinions fuel one another and create a vicious cycle. You can lower your level of distress by realizing that some thoughts are opinions, rather than facts. Ask yourself if you are confusing a fact with an opinion. A fact is indisputable and based in rational thought. An opinion is arguable and driven by a personal view or emotion.
  • Ask yourself what evidence you have that supports your negative thought. Remember that only facts, not opinions, count as evidence.
  • Ask yourself what evidence you have that goes against your negative thought. Are there any small things that contradict your thought?

2. Identifying Alternative Perspectives

To reframe negative thoughts, it can be helpful to identify alternative perspectives. Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • “If my best friend was having this thought, what would I say to them?”
  • “Do I have any experiences that indicate this thought is not completely true all of the time?”
  • “Is this thought helpful?”
  • “What are the chances of this thought coming true?”
  • “Could there be any other thoughts besides this one?”
  • “Five years from now, if I look back on this situation, would I look at it differently?”

Using Coping Statements

When you identify, challenge, and reframe negative thoughts, you will often come up with balanced coping statements. It can be useful to remind yourself of your coping statements during times when you feel too anxious to challenge a negative thought. Think about what you might like to tell yourself when you are feeling anxious.

For example:

  • “No one can predict the future, so I shouldn’t try to.”
  • “Making one mistake does not mean that I am worthless.”
  • “Even if I make a mistake, I am still a good spouse.”
  • “Just because I feel bad now, doesn’t mean that something bad will happen.”


A. Black and white thinking
B. Over generalization
C. Labelling
D. Should and must thinking

Answer: C

A. “Is this a fact or an opinion?”
B. “If my friend had this thought, what would I say?”
C. “Is this thought helpful?”
D. All of the above

Answer: D

A. Mental filter
B. Personalization
C. Magnification and minimization
D. Disqualifying the positive

Answer: B

Additional Resources

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