How to reframe negative thoughts: a clinical psychologist's guide for if you ever find yourself spiralling

Top tips from the experts.

How to reframe negative thoughts: Woman at home looking outside window
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Ever wondered how to stop the constant buzz of criticism, nitpicking, and slurs whirring around in your head? Enter stage right, your expert-led guide to how to reframe negative thoughts, according to a clinical psychologist.

You're only human, after all, and you're far from being alone: as per stats from the National Science Foundation, you think anything from 12,000 to 50,000 thoughts every single day - of which, around 80% are negative.

Surprising? Probably not, given the constant barrage of sad news, societal pressures, and, well, the small matter of our human predisposition to think 80% negative, 20% positive thoughts. That being said, there's a huge amount of power in being able to both identify and further, reframe negative thoughts when they do pop up. After all, as with meditation, the more you practice, the better you'll get, and the more you'll control the negative rhetoric, rather than letting it control you.

To answer all of your questions and more, we've spoken to Andreas Michaelides PhD, chief of psychology at Noom. Here, he shares an expert-led rundown of what precisely a negative thought is, how to identify it, and how to reframe it, too.

If you think you may be suffering from symptoms of depression, know this - you are not alone, and help is out there. Even low grade depression can feel debilitating 

Do read our guides to how to help someone who is suicidal, how to help a depressed boyfriend, and how to find a therapist, while you're here.

How to reframe negative thoughts: A woman thinking

How to reframe negative thoughts: your guide

What is a negative thought?

Good question. "At their core, negative thoughts are unpleasant thoughts that may lead to you feeling worse about yourself, others, or the world in general," explains Michaelides.

Did you know? Most of our negative thoughts are automatic responses and can be difficult to identify. "While they are typically categorised as unreasonable thought patterns, at the time they seem logical to you as the person experiencing them," he shares.

Does everyone experience negative thoughts?

Short answer: yes.

"Negative thoughts are a universal experience that everyone undergoes at some point in their lives," shares the expert.

FYI, these thoughts may be automatic, negative, unreasonable, or a combination of all three, he highlights. One key difference to note between you and, say, your best friend? "Some people are able to transition their thinking away from negative thoughts more quickly or easily than others," he explains.

Reframing negative thoughts: A woman looks out the window

This is where training your brain to be able to reframe negative thoughts comes in, if it doesn't come naturally to you. It's a method that helps you to distance yourself from what can sometimes feel like a barrage of negativity.

So how does it work? Michaelides explains that the process is as follows:

  • First, take a step back and identify your negative thoughts when they occur.
  • Secondly, take the time to evaluate your thoughts and why you may have been thinking that way.
  • Thirdly, reaffirm a positive thought to replace the negative one. "Creating alternatives to your current headspace is key," he shares.

Think of it this way: rather than looking at yourself in the mirror and thinking that you look hideous, your skin is bad, or you don't like your outfit, identify the negative thinking as it happens. Acknowledge that it is independent of you and try and decipher why, exactly, you may be thinking that way.

Did you have trouble sleeping the night before? Did you just receive a text or work request that spiked your anxiety? Or did you not have a lot of time to get ready this morning?

All are valid reasons as to why you may not be feeling 100%, and valid reasons why your negative self-talk may be rearing its ugly head. When you do get better at noticing it, make sure to address it. For example, if "I look ugly" pops into your head, identify it as a negative thought, and instead, reframe with, "I didn't have loads of time to get ready today, but no one would notice the supposed flaws I am criticising myself for."

Got it? Our guide to the meaning of self-love might help, too.

Do note here, too: you won't become a reframing expert overnight. "You can be successful in reframing negative thoughts, but it involves consistency and practice on a regular basis," shares the expert.

How to reframe negative thoughts: a woman making notes

5 ways to overcome negative thoughts and retrain your brain 

1. Identify your thoughts

First things first: when you start to experience emotions of sadness or stress, the expert advises jotting them down in a thought log.

Try this: "Write down the details of situations contributing to these emotions," he advises. "Then, write specifically what thoughts or images went through your mind."

2. Label your thoughts

Next up - begin to work out what kind of negative thoughts you are experiencing.

"Most negative thoughts fall into some common categories," he goes on. Try and determine if your thought is:

  • Unrealistic
  • Overly critical
  • Judgmental
  • Blame-based
  • Fault-based
  • Pessimistic
  • Catastrophic
  • Emotional-based.

3. Identify your emotions

Once you have a grasp on your thoughts, check in with your emotions, advises the pro. "What emotions did you feel and how intense were they on a scale from one to ten?," he asks.

Try this: Become comfortable with labelling the actual emotion you are experiencing. "Remember, emotions are usually one word - for example sad, happy, scared, glad, angry, and so on," he prompts.

How to reframe negative thoughts: A woman meditating

4. Ask questions about your own thoughts

Building up enough confidence to question your own inner dialogue is ket to reframing negative talk, he shares.

Try this: Get comfortable with asking your own thoughts questions. Some of these questions can include:

  • Is there substantial evidence for my thoughts?
  • Is there evidence against my thoughts?
  • Am I attempting to interpret the situation without all evidence?
  • What would a close friend of mine think about the situation?

5. Identify thought distortions

And finally, do make sure to train your brain to notice when you're falling into a thought trap or distortion. "There are as many as ten to twelve different thought traps that can distort your thinking and influence your emotions," he stresses.

A few examples include:

  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Mind-reading
  • Using feelings as facts.

Once you can identify these, you can distance yourself from them and remind yourself that ultimately, you are not your thoughts. Reframing negative thoughts never looked so easy.

A final note: If you find yourself experiencing negative thoughts on a daily basis to the point that it is negatively impacting your mood, making it hard to enjoy things you love, or causing problems in your relationships, work, or daily life, consider reaching out to a qualified mental health provider for additional help.

Ally Head
Senior Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and is a stickler for a strong stat, too, seeing over nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.