How To Change Your Negative Thoughts And Behavior Patterns

Updated November 29, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

A person’s thought processes can shape their reactions to the circumstances of life and impact motivation, well-being, and influence behaviors. Negative thoughts can lead to negative behaviors – a concept many people experience daily when faced with life’s obstacles. Changing thoughts or behavior patterns that you know are unhealthy or unproductive can be incredibly difficult. These patterns can grow to be toxic to yourself and the other people in your life. Deciding that you need to change your thoughts and behavior patterns for the better is a huge step, but it can leave you wondering where to start. In this article, the process of negative thinking and behaviors is explored with a discussion on how to develop strategies to intervene and change these thoughts and behaviors. 

Understanding Your Thoughts Through Mindfulness

You Can Break Free From Unwanted Behavior Patterns

To change your thoughts, you need to understand how your thought processes work. This sounds simple, but it is a bit more challenging than one might expect.

The Monkey Mind: Calming The Racing Mind And Retrospection

Like a computer, our minds are constantly running - not just while we are actively paying attention or trying to figure something out. While you are driving, taking a shower, reading, or watching television, your mind is running wild. Mindfulness proponents call this your "monkey mind” - a Buddhist metaphor for the mind’s tendency to jump from one thought to the next like a monkey swings from limb to limb. 

Your brain tends to tune out the monkey mind, yet it still has a huge influence on how you think and feel. One of the best ways to understand your monkey mind is through a process called "mindfulness meditation." Usually used to reduce stress, this thought exercise can also help you to understand and change your thought and behavior patterns. The following are strategies to help calm the monkey mind:

Mindfulness Meditation Technique

To begin, sit or lie down comfortably. Close your eyes. Focus on your breath and attention to how your breath feels as it enters and leaves your body. If your mind wanders, take note of what the thought was about and go back to focusing on your breath. Try to do this for at least five minutes. By the end of your time, you may have noticed a trend in the kinds of thoughts that were distracting you. Try to perform this exercise at least once a week but working up to at least five minutes per day.

Once you have been doing this for a while, you may become more aware of negative thought patterns that tend to cycle through your brain. This awareness can help you to recognize these thought patterns when they arise. Being able to intercept these thoughts can help you prevent them from influencing your behavior.

Understanding Your Behavior Patterns Through Retrospection

Your monkey mind can influence your behavior, but your behavior is more readily observable than racing thoughts. Chances are if you are interested in changing your thoughts and behavior patterns in the first place, it was probably your behavior that warned you that something was amiss in your life.

Monitoring your behavior is an active endeavor and does not have to involve meditation. You can simply pay attention to how your behavior makes you feel. Sometimes, the behavior that you want to change is a behavior that you have made a habit. These habits are difficult to stop, even if they ultimately harm you or others. As a practice, you can treat these behaviors like you treated your intrusive thoughts in the mindfulness exercise above. That is, do not be hard on yourself if you find it difficult to change the habit. Instead, pay attention to how they make you feel and see what kinds of trends you may notice. 

This can accomplish two important things. Primarily, it can help you to understand chains of events that can lead to your unwanted behaviors or to isolated events that can trigger the behaviors. For example, maybe you only behave in an unwanted way when you are with specific people, or if you have been drinking, or when you had a bad day at work. Once you recognize the things that lead to your unwanted behavior, you may find that you can interrupt the chain of events.

Secondly, reminding yourself of the negative feelings that you have after performing the unwanted behavior can help you to steer clear of acting out. At times, we know that in debating whether to engage in negative behavior we may forget the negative consequences. Gently reminding yourself of your past regret over your behavior can help you to convince yourself that the behavior is not worth the cost.

Understanding Your Behavior Patterns Communication And Observation

Understanding Your Behavior Through Those Around You

Sometimes, we do not understand what is wrong with our behavior, but we do know that it hurts those around us. When this is the case, it can be difficult to monitor your behavior patterns and feelings on your own as described above, but that does not mean that it is an impossible task. If you do not understand how your behavior is hurting others or even which behaviors are causing the problem, you can often find out by asking people close to you. If you are genuine with others when you ask them, they will usually understand and offer their advice.

If you know the specific behavior you want to change, it can be easy to reach out to the people that it impacts. Try starting the conversation with something like, "I'm trying to change X about myself. I think that will be easier for me if I understand how it makes you feel when I do X."

If you are unaware about a negative behavior that needs to be changed, it can be difficult to ask people with whom you are close. Nonetheless, the close people in your, like family and coworkers, know these behaviors the best and how it negatively affects you or them personally. Consider beginning a conversation like, "I'm trying to be a better person, but I don't know where to start. Are there any things that I do or say that upset you?"

This may seem like opening yourself up to some hurtful feedback. Facing that you need to change your behavior can be difficult, but it is a journey that you have already started. If you are honest with someone when asking for their help, they are not likely to use it as an excuse to make you feel bad about yourself. Try to remember that they have your best interests at heart, even if they give some feedback that may be hard to hear.

Understanding Your Thought And Behavior Patterns Through Observation

Understanding where your thought or behavior patterns come from can help you to change them for the better.  Often, we do not know where our thought or behavior patterns come from. Other times, however, we may be able to recognize our negative thoughts or behavior patterns in those around us. Sometimes we pick up negative behaviors from parents, coworkers, or friends. Often, we understand that we have been behaving unacceptably when we recognize ourselves in someone else. Identifying where you picked up an unwanted behavior can help you to understand how to avoid it as well as where not to go for advice on fixing it.

Why Some Behavior Patterns Are Hard To Change

Even once you understand what your negative behaviors are, where they come from, and what leads to them, thought and behavior patterns can be hard to change. The reason for this can be complicated, but there are a few basic trends.

Some thought and behavior patterns are hard to change because, even though you may not want to engage in them anymore, they are socially acceptable – or even encouraged. Prominent examples include things like drinking or substance use, overeating, and other activities. Whatever the behavior, it is probably encouraged in specific environments or social settings. If this is the case, you may need to remove yourself from that environment or social group to avoid prompts for engaging in your unwanted thought or behavior patterns.

You Can Break Free From Unwanted Behavior Patterns

Negative behavior patterns can be encouraged by your body, making them even harder to overcome. These negative behaviors make us feel good because they are based on or mimic a healthy behavior and confuse your body's chemical reward system. If you indulge in this behavior chronically, your body can come to associate it with feel-good hormones (especially dopamine), leading to a behavioral addiction chemically similar to substance use disorder. This can be the case with eating certain foods, playing videogames, having sex, and other activities that stimulate our body’s reward system pathways.

When You Need Professional Support

Sometimes, despite our best efforts and intentions, we are simply unable to overcome our unwanted thought or behavior patterns. The thought pattern may be deeply ingrained in our mental processes, or the behavior may be strongly drilled into our reward center. When this is the case, you may need professional help to ease your journey to free yourself from unwanted thoughts and behaviors.

Talking to your healthcare provider can be a good place to start, especially if your behavior is harmful to your health. They will be able to direct you toward community resources or refer you to a specialist. Another option is to investigate online support groups, community centers, and local mental health services. Many unwanted thoughts and behavior patterns are more common than we think, and many communities have support groups for people experiencing them. Finally, you may want to meet with a counselor or therapist. This can seem scary and can be expensive. However, looking for a therapist or counselor online can help to solve these problems. Online therapists and counselors may be more affordable and convenient than meeting with counselors or therapists in person.

A study has shown that online therapy can feel more personal than traditional therapy. Ninety-six percent of people using online therapy reported feeling a personal connection with their online therapists as opposed to 91 percent who saw face-to-face therapists. They were also more invested in completing homework the therapists assigned them and occasionally reviewed correspondence between them and their therapists, leading them to move forward with their lives.

How BetterHelp Can Support You

If you find yourself falling back into old thought and behavior patterns, reach out to BetterHelp. You will get matched with a licensed therapist or counselor who can teach you techniques to challenge and change unwanted thoughts and behaviors while offering emotional support and understanding. You will be able to meet with your online therapist in the comfort of your home and at a time that’s convenient for you. 

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