Get Your Mind Right and Your Health Will Follow


No one can escape their thoughts. All day, every day, your inner dialogue runs in the background of your brain, and for better or worse, it tends to repeat itself, like a record playing on a loop.

Some thoughts are pretty mundane (e.g., “That car is red,”), while others save us from major headaches (e.g., “I should leave early in case there’s traffic,”). Some thoughts are cheerful (e.g., “I had a great time today!”), but some are counterproductive (e.g., “I’ll never finish all this work,”) or even gloomy (e.g., “No one loves me,”).

On their own, thoughts are just statements that may or may not be true. Normally, that’s not a big deal. However, the way we think affects how we feel and behave, and vice-versa. Trouble can start if your unhelpful thoughts and emotions pile up, leading to unhealthy behaviors like avoiding people or situations. Those unhealthy behaviors create more unhelpful thoughts and feelings until you find yourself in a vicious cycle.

The Dark Power Of Unhelpful Thoughts

You may not even realize you’re sabotaging yourself this way. It’s not like you want to — you’re probably just trying to protect yourself. To avoid rejection, you convince yourself that people won’t like you, so why bother trying to make friends? Or you tell yourself you’ve never been able to keep up an exercise routine, so why try again and risk disappointment?

But in trying to steer clear of the unpleasant, we often end up diving into it, head-first.

For example, isolating yourself may stave off rejection, but then you miss out on potentially great friendships and get lonely, which carry consequences of their own. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that loneliness and self-isolation are linked to health conditions like heart disease and stroke. It’s also associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia.1

Similarly, choosing not to do something you haven’t been successful at before may help you avoid frustration, but it can deprive you of health perks, especially when it’s a habit like exercise. The CDC also notes that physical activity keeps your brain sharp, reduces anxiety, and boosts mood2 — all helpful for keeping unhelpful thoughts at bay. So avoiding trying a new physical, because of your negative inner dialogue, has consequences you may not have imagined.

The good news is that you have the power to change unhelpful thoughts, and in so doing, modify your behaviors to improve your physical and mental health.

The Secret To Changing Unhelpful Thoughts

This may sound obvious, but the best way to change unhelpful thoughts is catching them as they appear, and replacing them with positive ones. This technique is a cornerstone of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a psychological treatment that involves changing negative thinking patterns.3

CBT is incredibly helpful for a range of problems, including anxiety, insomnia, depression, chronic pain, alcohol and drug addiction, eating disorders and more. It’s backed by decades of research showing it can boost quality of life and overall function. Plus, many studies found that CBT can be as effective, if not more effective, than antidepressants.4 No matter what issue you’re facing with your unhelpful thoughts, there’s a good chance CBT techniques can help you turn things around.

Note that the goal isn’t to stop negative thoughts altogether — that’s unrealistic — but to develop new ways of thinking that encourage better behaviors.

“Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all linked, so our thoughts impact how we feel and act. So, although we all have unhelpful thoughts from time to time, it’s important to know what to do when they appear so we don’t let them change the course of our day,”

—— explains Rachel Goldman, PhD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine.

A mental health professional can guide you through CBT, but you can also do many of the techniques on your own.

How To Detect Unhelpful Thoughts

Because we often don’t even realize we have unhelpful thoughts, catching these thoughts in the moment can be tricky. It helps to familiarize yourself with the many types of unhelpful thoughts, so it’s easier to spot them when they pop up. Here are what psychologists have categorized as the most common types of unhelpful thinking.


Do you recognize your thoughts falling into in any of these categories? Get in the habit of tuning into your thoughts, and when you notice unhelpful ones crop up. It may feel awkward or difficult initially, but it will get easier with practice.

What Should I Do With My Unhelpful Thoughts?

Noticing unhelpful thoughts is only the first step — the next is figuring out what to do with them. Rather than immediately accepting a thought as truth, dig into it.

“Become aware of how your thoughts are impacting your emotions and behaviors. Observe your thoughts. Ask yourself if this thought is helpful? What purpose is the thought serving you? How does the thought make you feel?”

—— Dr. Goldman says.

You can use a seven-step process to reframe the unhelpful thoughts that dog you. It’s known as a thought record, and it's a practical way of challenging the evidence — or lack thereof — behind your negative beliefs.6

A thought record involves taking an unhelpful thought, weighing the evidence, and brainstorming more realistic or neutral alternative thoughts to replace it with. Do these steps when you encounter a situation that inspires unhelpful thoughts and emotions.

How to Do a Thought Record: Step-by-Step

You can think through the steps in your head, but it often helps to write things down so you can refer back to it later. You can go old-school with pen and paper or use an app on your phone.

For example, the situation could be that you skipped your workout yesterday. Initially, you might feel frustrated, worthless. Your unhelpful thought might be: “I’m useless and can’t keep up with my exercise routine.” You may have missed workouts in the past (evidence to support your thought), but you’ve probably done plenty of them, too (evidence against). Therefore, a better thought might be: “I do far more workouts than I don’t. I may have skipped it, but it doesn’t happen often. Most of the time, I’m a consistent, dedicated exerciser.” Chances are this kinder, more realistic thought makes you feel calmer and more confident.

Get Started - You Can Break The Cycle

Realizing that your self-talk tends is unhelpful, and does not have to be your reality, is the start. You can stop being a victim of destructive thinking whenever you decide it’s time to change. The first step is to catch unhelpful thoughts when they appear. Once you get in the habit of identifying the thoughts that are holding you back, you can do something to change them for the better. The key to change lies in CBT self-help techniques. In future articles we’ll cover proven techniques to accomplish this, with a therapist or on your own.

1 Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Last updated April 29, 2021.
2 Benefits of Physical Activity. CDC. Last updated August 1, 2023.
2 What is cognitive behavioral therapy? American Psychological Association. 2017.
4 DeRubeis RJ, Siegle GJ, Hollon SD. Cognitive therapy vs. medications for depression: Treatment outcomes and neural mechanisms. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. October 2008.
5 Cognitive behavior therapy. StatPearls Publishing.
6 Thought Record. United Kingdom National Health Service.
7 Thought Record. United Kingdom National Health Service.