Journaling Techniques

Journaling Negative Thoughts: 20 Prompts For Deeper Understanding

Journaling negative thoughts provides a safe space to express yourself without shame or judgment. By putting your thoughts down on paper, you can often gain a better understanding of them and find ways to manage them more effectively.

In this guide, we’ll explore how journaling negative thoughts help foster self-awareness and promote mental wellbeing. We’ll also offer 20 journaling prompts to help explore, understand, and reframe negative thoughts.

What is Negative Thinking?

Negative thinking, often also referred to as pessimistic thinking, is a cognitive process where individuals tend to focus on the bad or unfavorable aspects of a situation, rather than looking at the positive or neutral aspects. This kind of thinking can be influenced by a variety of factors including past experiences, personality traits, and psychological conditions.

Negative thinking can manifest in various ways such as:

  1. Catastrophizing – Assuming the worst possible outcome will occur.
  2. Overgeneralization – Making broad conclusions based on limited evidence.
  3. Filtering – Focusing exclusively on the negative details of a situation and ignoring any positive aspects.
  4. Black-and-white thinking – Seeing things in extreme, either/or terms, without recognizing any middle ground.
  5. Personalization – Assuming personal responsibility, including the resulting praise or blame, for events over which the person has no control.
  6. Mind reading – Assuming you know what others are thinking and that they view you negatively.
  7. Emotional reasoning – Believing that because you feel a certain way, it must be true.

Negative thoughts are typically rooted in fear. Fear of the future is associated with catastrophizing. For example, if you believe your future is filled with doom and gloom, you may believe investing in relationships, education, or even caring for your health may seem like a waste of time. 

Occasional negative thoughts are generally nothing to worry about. However, negative thinking patterns can stain how you see yourself, others, and the world. This dysfunctional habit can contribute to the onset of depression and is also a symptom of depression. 

a person journaling negative thoughts

The Power of Acknowledging Negative Thoughts

The idea that negative thoughts could have value might be surprising. “Someone might steal my car if I leave the keys in it” is a negative thought, but that thought also helps you protect your property and maybe even your personal safety.

Acknowledging your negative thoughts provides an opportunity to examine them and decide whether they are useful. Negative thoughts can help you stay safe, set boundaries, and make better decisions. They can also help you look deeper within yourself. 

For example, if you have consistent negative thoughts about your job, your subconscious may be telling you it’s time to consider a career change. Negativity allows an opportunity for critical analysis, but that analysis can’t happen if you ignore internal signals. 

Much attention is given to cultivating positive thinking and with good reason. A positive attitude has been shown to relieve stress, increase immunity, and boost overall physical and mental wellness. However, just because positive thinking is good for you doesn’t mean it’s necessary to suppress negative thoughts.  

Three Benefits of Journaling Negative Thoughts

Journaling negative thoughts is writing about your feelings and thoughts to understand them better. If negative thinking patterns are preventing you from living a happy, healthy life and meeting personal goals, journaling may help. 

A process called “negative journaling” highlights the value of acknowledging uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Writing out your negative thoughts is a way to break the cycle of negative thinking patterns. 

Journaling allows you to follow those negative thoughts back to their original source. For example, when you meet a person for the first time and react negatively to them, chances are your feelings stem from something else. Perhaps that person reminds you of someone you have a conflict with, or maybe they innocently said something that touched on one of your insecurities. Writing about the experience may provide insight that helps you address your own personal growth. 

Journaling about your negative thoughts can also help you plan how to make improvements. Viewing your words on paper or a screen lets you see your emotions more clearly. In this way, journaling is similar to creating a vision board. Seeing your thoughts alive on paper makes them real. Instead of having a tangle of negative thoughts bouncing around your head, you can see the problem more objectively and begin to map out a plan of action. 

1. Improved Emotional Processing

Invasive thoughts have a way of coming to the surface, even if you try to push them down. Writing about them in a journal allows you to process ideas at your own tempo. Journaling creates a sense of space between you and your thoughts, which allows the distance needed for objectivity. Physically writing out what you feel is one more way to fully understand what you’re experiencing. 

Another way journaling helps with emotional processing is by reducing the intensity of your feelings. One study found that recognizing negative emotions helps reduce their impact. Through journaling, you can make complex emotions less overwhelming. You can gain a clearer perspective on the difference between your thoughts and your personal identity. Most importantly, you can grow to learn that these negative emotions don’t have to define you. 

2. Stress Reduction and Emotional Release

Identifying your negative thoughts through journaling can help alleviate the anxiety negative thinking causes. Journaling has been found to decrease mental stress, improve mood, reduce blood pressure, and reduce depression symptoms. 

Expressing gratitude has been found especially effective for reducing stress. Including gratitude in your journal may help you cultivate a more positive mindset. Journaling allows you to express negative thoughts instead of dwelling on them. Writing them down is a form of emotional release. You can write things in your journal that you might not be able to say to others.  

3. Breaking Down the Fear of Judgement

Talking to a therapist or trusted friend about your negative feelings can be helpful. Sometimes the support of a mental health professional is necessary to resolve difficult emotions. It can also be helpful to bring your journal to counseling sessions to help you recall recent thoughts and incidents.

Writing in your journal is like having a private discussion with yourself. You can express your deepest, most negative thoughts because no one can judge you. 

Self-criticism can be an obstacle when journaling. Developing a sense of self-compassion is an important part of the process. Treat yourself the way you would treat a much-loved friend. Allow yourself to write and process your thoughts without judgment. 

One way to cultivate self-compassion in journaling is to practice stream-of-consciousness writing. Stream-of-consciousness (SOC) is a writing technique that prohibits any type of correction or rereading. To try SOC, set a timer for five to 10 minutes and begin writing. Don’t stop writing until the timer goes off. If you run out of words, write nonsense like, “I’m out of words,” until your thoughts return. 

Being kind to yourself is especially important when journaling negative thoughts. Remember, you’re allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and that takes courage. 

20 Prompts for Journaling Negative Thoughts

Journal prompts are thoughts, suggestions, or exercises to inspire your journal writing. Prompts are useful when you can’t think of anything to write about and need help getting started. Choose a prompt when your emotions are high, and you can’t focus, or use them when another perspective besides your own might be helpful. 

Prompts to consider for journaling negative thoughts:

  1. What negative thoughts are recurring in my mind lately?
  2. When I am having negative thoughts, how do I feel them in my body?
  3. What is a situation where I experienced negative thoughts?
  4. How might someone else perceive the situation? Would they have the same negative thoughts?
  5. How do my negative thoughts affect my behavior and emotions?
  6. What are the triggers for my negative thoughts?
  7. What patterns can I identify in my negative thoughts?
  8. Choose a specific negative thought. What evidence supports this thought?
  9. What evidence contradicts this thought?
  10. In what ways do negative thoughts limit me?
  11. What negative thoughts might I be holding onto from my past? What are they?
  12. How has negative thinking impacted an important relationship of mine?
  13. Can I identify any cognitive distortions in my negative thoughts? (e.g., overgeneralization, black-and-white thinking, etc.)
  14. What are some positive thoughts that can counteract my negative thoughts?
  15. How can I reframe a negative thought to make it more balanced or positive?
  16. How might my negative thoughts help me stay safe, set boundaries, or make better decisions?
  17. What would I say to a friend who was experiencing similar negative thoughts?
  18. What would happen if I let go of negative thoughts?
  19. Can I find a silver lining or a learning opportunity in the situation?
  20. What positive action can I take about a negative thought today?

Try meditating on the suggestion for a few minutes before answering to get the most from journaling prompts. Spending even a short time combining meditation and journaling can clear your mind and help you focus. 

Overcoming Common Obstacles in Journaling Negative Thoughts

Confronting your own negative thoughts and feelings can be frightening. Looking at your less attractive traits can bring up feelings of shame and may trigger painful memories. No one wants to admit they are petty, judgmental, or cruel, but the fact is that everyone thinks and acts negatively sometimes. 

Fear is an obstacle that can prevent you from learning from your negative thoughts. 

Consider these tips to reduce fear and increase self-compassion:

  • Remember that your shortcomings are a natural part of being human
  • Approach the process with curiosity 
  • Keep the perspective that negative thoughts don’t make you a bad person
  • Give yourself credit for being willing to learn and grow

Some people worry that writing about their negative thoughts will cause them to fixate on negativity. While this is a valid concern, the opposite seems to be true. If you’ve ever realized you’re stuck in a loop of negative thinking, you may have fallen into the trap of rumination. Rumination, specifically, is difficult to control because it’s an unconscious habit. 

Thinking about a problem to find a solution without overthinking is a difficult balancing act. Journaling allows you to explore your negative thoughts and end that exploration on a positive note. For example, you might express all your negative thoughts about a current relationship issue you’re dealing with and end your journaling session by writing about one positive step you can take to make things better. 

Transforming Negative Thoughts into Positive Action

Cognitive reframing is the clinical term for shifting your mindset so you can look at a situation from a different perspective. It’s human nature to see things from only one point of view, but every person’s perspective is biased by their beliefs and experiences. Reframing is an opportunity to challenge your negative beliefs and build emotional resilience

Two of the main steps in reframing are increasing awareness of your thoughts and questioning them. Journaling gives you a chance to do both of those things. Once you have written about and identified negative reactions you have, use this list of questions to reflect on them:

  • Are my thoughts on this topic realistic?
  • Is this thought based on facts or on my feelings?
  • Do I have evidence that supports this thought?
  • Could I have misunderstood the evidence?
  • Is it possible that I’m viewing the situation as black and white and missing the shades of gray?
  • Do I think this because it’s my habit, or is there more to the story?

Thoughts can come and go so quickly in your mind that you may not even notice them. Your journal is a record of thoughts you can refer to as often as needed. 

Journaling not only helps you see things from a different perspective, but it’s also a tool for planning actionable steps. Use your journal to record personal development goals and the steps you will take to achieve them.  

Recognizing Progress and Growth as You Journal

Keep in mind that the road to self-growth can be slow. When a new set of negative thoughts pops into your head, it’s easy to become frustrated or think you’re not making progress. Journaling negative thoughts allows for tracking your personal growth. By reviewing past journal entries, you can see the improvement you’re making. 

While many people might think it’s a good idea to immediately dismiss all negative thoughts, the reality isn’t quite that simple. The truth is that negative thoughts can either be helpful or destructive, depending on what you do with them. 

Journaling negative thoughts is a constructive way to learn about yourself and inspire self-growth. Journaling also relieves stress and helps people cultivate a more positive attitude.

About the Author

JD McKelvey, MCMHC, is a passionate mental health advocate dedicated to promoting well-being and resilience. Combining professional education with active duty military experience, he strives to inspire positive change, destigmatize conversations around mental health, and foster a community of support and understanding.

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