Changing unhelpful thoughts

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Find out how you can replace unhelpful thoughts with helpful ones and practice mindful observation to help reduce stress and anxiety.

Key points

  • Replacing unhelpful thoughts with helpful ones can help you reduce stress and anxiety and feel happier.
  • Mindful observation is the practice of recognizing an unhelpful thought and then letting it go so that it does not cause you stress.
  • You can practice mindful observation in everyday activities or by practicing deep breathing or meditation to help you notice and let go of any unhelpful thoughts.

There are things you can do to stop or change unhelpful thoughts. These techniques include replacing unhelpful thoughts with helpful ones and mindful observation.

Replacing unhelpful thoughts with helpful ones

Turning unhelpful thoughts into helpful ones can help you feel happier and less worried.

Here is an example of replacing an unhelpful thought with a helpful one.

Unhelpful thought: "I just can’t sit still for an MRI!"

Helpful thought: "Staying still is difficult for me, but I can do it. Maybe my child life specialist or nurse can give me some extra help. With practice and some answers to my questions, I will make it through this MRI."

Here is another example.

Unhelpful thought: "This round of treatment will never end!"

Helpful thought: "I can get through this! I’m feeling bad right now, but I know I need this treatment to kill the cancer cells. I will feel better again once I get through the treatment."

Now it’s your turn!

Replace the following unhelpful thoughts with helpful ones.

  • "I’m so far behind in school because of my treatment. I’ll never catch up!"
  • "I won’t be as good at sports anymore."

Mindful observation

Mindful observation means recognizing or observing your thoughts and then letting them go. If you’ve had an unhelpful thought, identify what it is and let it go.

Your thoughts can only have power if you let them! For example, when you have an unhelpful thought, try to view it like an annoying song.

  1. Recognize the thought.
  2. Realize that thought is just a thought, and let it go without paying it much attention or beating yourself up for having it.

Then the thought will have less of an effect on your feelings and mood. Deep breathing may also help. Breathe in when you notice the thought, and breathe out while you let the thought go.

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

You can also get rid of unhelpful thoughts through quiet meditation. You might find the following exercise useful.

  1. Find a quiet place and close your eyes.
  2. Imagine a running stream or river.
  3. Picture the unhelpful thought on a leaf. Hold that leaf steady in your mind, keeping the thought just as it is.
  4. Then, picture yourself dropping the leaf into the water and letting it flow down the stream, into the distance and out of your mind.

Try doing this for 10 minutes when you are feeling worried or stressed.

You can get other meditation tips in the section on relaxation and distraction.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019