4 Ways to Challenge Negative Thoughts: How To Do Cognitive Behavioral Therapy At Home

Wednesday, November 01, 2017 by Meg   •   Filed under Treatment Techniques

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a set of techniques often used to treat scary thoughts and the depression and anxiety that stem from those thoughts. The premise is simple: if you can find a way to change you thoughts, you can change the way you feel and the way you behave. Everyone responds a little differently to these techniques, but there should be at least one that clicks.

It’s kind of like my jokes. They aren’t for everyone. Just ask my mother in law. (Which is why I have a whole series of these posts, several of which are listed at the end of this article.)

So let's get right down to it.

How To Get Rid of Negative Thoughts

1. Shades of Gray Thinking

Sorry to those who thought this would be an exciting sexual exercise based on the Fifty Shades of Grey series. While we haven’t all busted out the whips and Ben Wa Balls, most of us have, at one time or another, used this technique to calm ourselves down. And some of us use the whips too. (wink, wink

In When Panic Attacks1, Dr. David Burns discusses shades of gray techniques as a way to avoid "all-or-nothing" thinking. Perfection is not only overrated, it can be downright impossible, especially in arenas like parenting and cooking. 

Maybe sex too. But I digress. 

For this technique, try to focus on the pieces of an event when you find yourself being overly critical inside your own head. In the example of a daily to-do list, you can embrace the day as a series of events, some good, some less than ideal, but overall with a better rating than outright failure. And your inner voice should reflect that.


“You didn't mop? At least you made meals, did the laundry and took the kids to school.”

As opposed to:

“You didn't mop? You're an asshole.”

Focusing on those aspects that did work may help one to avoid all-or-nothing dead ends. 

  • Did you let the kids eat Oreos for dinner? At least they ate. 
  • Did you burn the chicken at dinner? At least you had a stockpile of Oreos to lessen the blow and avoid starvation. 
  • Did you fall asleep during sex? At least you managed to do it at all. 

There's always next week. And for that last one, Fifty Shades of Grey

2. Self-Evaluation and Language

While I am surely the worst person to talk about language, I don’t direct it at myself. Rush Limbaugh, yes. Myself not so much. But I am not a dick as often as that guy either. Maybe if I were Rush, I would would find myself in a massive, swear-filled, self-induced shame spiral. 

But I am not that douchebag (thank god) and colorful language directed inwards can be hard to take due to the social taboos surrounding it. In When Panic Attacks, Dr. Burns refers to these techniques as “semantics”; simply reframing things using nicer words. 

From, "I'm a fucking idiot," to "I'm not very smart."

Even though both of these are negative and need work, there is still a difference in the level of harshness. I just cope by putting all that language on paper. And maybe by bashing idiot radio show hosts. 

3. DefineYour Words    

According to Burns, some people use words that are not actually correct in meaning. If you are calling yourself a "slut", a "bitch" or “lazy", really think about what those words mean to you and decide whether you are using the correct terms. Since most negative inner conversations are harsh and over-exaggerated, many find that the terms they are using are undeserved, which makes altering them easier. 

To change negative self-evaluation from toned down to positive, thought replacement and compassion may be helpful here as well. Changing self-evaluation can bring a person from "asshole" to “hero" (or at least from “asshole” to “not that bad of a guy”). 

If only someone could do that for Rush. 

But keep in mind, regardless of what technique you choose, changing your thoughts won’t happen overnight. Some days, you will feel like a failure. 

You aren’t. 

4. Reframing “Failure”: Process Versus Outcome

One of the ways we hurt ourselves during self-evaluation is that we focus on the end result and not the process. For example, if someone is working hard to change negative thoughts, they might feel like a failure each time a negative thought arises. This, all by itself, can lead to a new cycle of self-depreciation:

"I suck at this being nice to myself thing!"

"Oh, fuck, I did it again! What an idiot!"

Instead of focusing on the end result, try looking at the process, or break things down into manageable pieces.  In When Panic Attacks, Burns suggests counting the number of negative thoughts you have each day to see the overall pattern 1. If that number isn't decreasing at all over time, you can decide to use a different CBT technique until you get to: 

"I suck at this being nice to myself thing!"

"No big deal. I know I'm improving.”

Once that magic number does start to gradually decrease, keeping track of progress can help encourage feelings of success, and hopefully decrease self-attack. And if you need more help, self compassion and mindfullness techniques (discussed here) may also be of assistance in decreasing the aggression in your inner dialogue. 

Plus, there’s always the Oreos and Fifty Shades of Grey. Sounds like a damn fine Monday night to me. 

Related Posts:


1. http://www.amazon.com/When-Panic-Attacks-Drug-Free-Anxiety/dp/076792083X

Topic-Relevant Resources

The Mindfulness Solution
Meditative and cognitive techniques for everyday use

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns

The Art of Happiness
Eastern religion and psychiatry merge in this collaboration that focuses on the nature of happiness.

Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior
Useful information and tools for addressing obsessive or scary thoughts and the behaviors that go with them.