Changing unhelpful thoughts

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There are various things you can do to stop or change unhelpful thoughts. These techniques include mindful observation, replacing unhelpful thoughts with more helpful ones, thought stopping, and behavior rehearsal.

Mindful observation

Mindful observation means recognizing or observing your thoughts and then letting them go. If you’ve had a unhelpful thought, it does not mean that you must feel badly. Thoughts only become important if you let them become important.

For example, have you ever had a song stuck in your mind? Did the song change your plans for the day or how you did things? A thought, like an annoying song, isn’t really important. Once we notice it, we move on with what we were doing.

One way to observe your thoughts is to imagine that they are scrolling across a screen, like the text on the bottom of the screen on some TV news channels. The words just keep flowing and disappearing.

Another way is to imagine standing beside a running stream or river: the flowing water represents your thoughts, always flowing past you, not standing still. In the same way you can observe your thoughts flowing through your mind and then disappearing.

When you have a unhelpful thought, try to view it as an annoying song. Recognize the thought. Realize that thoughts are just thoughts and let it go. Then the thought will have less of an effect on your feelings and mood. It might even help if you try to coordinate this letting go of the unhelpful thought with some slow deep breathing. Breathe in, when you notice the thought, and breathe out when you let the thought go.

Replacing thoughts

Another way to decrease your unhelpful thoughts is to replace them with positive ones. When you can turn unhelpful thoughts into positive ones, you will feel less worried and happier.

Here is an example of replacing an unhelpful thought:

  • Unhelpful thought: I just can’t do math!
  • Helpful thought: Math is not my best subject, but I can handle this. Maybe I can ask my teacher or friend for some extra help.

Here is another example:

  • Unhelpful thought: This flare will never go away!
  • Helpful thought: I can get through this! I’m in a lot of pain but I will still pay attention to what I’m doing and maybe start to enjoy it.

Now it’s your turn. Think about how to replace the following unhelpful thoughts with a positive one.

  • “I got a low grade. I’m so stupid!"
  • “I will never be able to play sports again because of my JIA!”

Thought STOPping

Another way to change your attention away from unhelpful thoughts is by using a technique called “thought stopping.”

Here are three steps to help you use thought stopping:


  • Write out a unhelpful thought, and then think of this thought to yourself.
  • Now say "STOP!" in a loud voice. It’s important to say it out loud, so you can remember what your voice sounded like.
  • Each time you have that unhelpful thought, shout out "STOP!"
  • Do this a few times.


  • Try saying STOP to yourself in your mind, and not out loud.
  • As you are practicing, imagine your voice just as it was when you were saying STOP out loud.
  • Now, practice this a few times as well.


  • Picture a big red stop sign in your mind. Imagine the bright red colour with the white letters and the shape of the sign.
  • Now when you have a unhelpful thought, say STOP to yourself and picture that stop sign in your mind.
  • Practice a few times until the thought goes away.

Behaviour rehearsal

Behaviour rehearsal is another great way to help change your unhelpful thoughts.

Behaviour rehearsal helps you to prepare for an event that you think will be stressful, before it even happens. Since most young people know ahead of time what situations will cause them stress, preparing helps to reduce that stress. Behaviour rehearsal involves imagining the event before it happens, and then using relaxation methods you’ve learned to help you relax while imagining the event.

You can use behaviour rehearsal to prepare for a challenge. This means practicing success in your mind.

Here's one example: You want to shoot a basket. Picture the way you'd stand and jump, the way your hands would cup the ball, and the way the ball would fly from your hands straight into the basket. You are practicing success in your mind.

Here's another example: You want to play a piece of music for a recital. Picture getting your instrument ready. Imagine what it feels like to hold or touch the instrument. Imagine playing the first bar of the music. Imagine looking out at the audience. Now picture the audience applauding your performance and thinking, “I did a really good job!”

Here's another example: You’re preparing for a math test. Imagine sitting down and looking at the exam paper. Imagine reading over the whole paper to see how to budget your time. Say to yourself, “I’ve studied so hard, I know I’ll do well on this test!” Imagine finishing the first question. Imagine finishing the last question. Imagine looking over the whole test again to make sure you haven't missed anything. Imagine handing the test paper in, and saying to yourself, "I did a good job -- I did my best work."

Remember - you are practising success in your mind. It is important to try out each of these strategies so you can figure out which ones work best for you.​​​

Last updated: January 31st 2017