How To Change Your Negative Thoughts And Behavior Patterns

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Negative thoughts can lead to negative behaviors, which is a concept some people may experience when faced with life’s obstacles. However, changing unhealthy or unproductive thoughts or behavior patterns can be difficult. When patterns become habits or personality traits, they may cause relationship conflict and low self-esteem.

Changing your thoughts and behavior patterns is often a significant step forward. However, it may leave you wondering where to start. Mindfulness, retrospection, asking loved ones for their input, and seeking professional support are a few areas to consider.

You can break free from unwanted behavior patterns

Calming the racing mind and retrospection

A person’s thought processes can shape their reactions to the circumstances of life, potentially influencing behaviors and impacting motivation and well-being. To change your thoughts, it may be helpful to understand how your thought processes work. There are a few areas to consider when doing so, including the following.

Like a computer, the human brain tends to run constantly—not just while you are actively paying attention or trying to figure out a problem. While driving, showering, reading, or watching television, your mind may have hundreds of thoughts you don’t pay attention to. Mindfulness proponents often call this your "monkey mind.” The monkey mind is generally considered a Buddhist metaphor for the mind’s tendency to jump from one thought to the next, like a monkey swings from limb to limb. 

Ways to change negative thought and behavior patterns

Your brain may tune out the monkey mind, yet it may still influence your thoughts and feelings. One way to understand your monkey mind may be through a process called "mindfulness meditation." Frequently used to reduce stress, this thought exercise may help you understand and change your thought and behavior patterns. The following are strategies to help calm the monkey mind.

Mindfulness meditation

To begin a mindfulness exercise, sit or lie down comfortably and close your eyes. Focus on your breath and pay attention to how it feels as it enters and leaves your body. If your mind wanders, try to take note of what the thought was about and go back to focusing on your breath. You can go through this exercise for at least five minutes. By the end of this time, you may have noticed a trend in the themes of thoughts that were distracting you. It can be beneficial to perform this exercise at least once a week, potentially working up to at least five minutes daily.

When adding mindfulness to your routine, you may become more aware of negative thinking patterns that may cycle through your brain. This awareness can help you recognize these thought patterns when they arise. Being able to intercept these thoughts may also help you prevent them from influencing your behavior.


Your monkey mind can influence your behavior, but your behavior may be more readily observable than racing thoughts. If you want to change your thoughts and behavior patterns, it may mean you noticed that these behaviors weren’t serving you somehow.

Monitoring your behavior can be an active endeavor and does not have to involve meditation. You can pay attention to how your behavior makes you feel and whether it has become a habit. Habits are often difficult to stop, even if they ultimately harm you or others. As a practice, you can treat these behaviors like you treated your thoughts in the mindfulness exercise above. Try not to be unkind to yourself if you find it difficult to change the habit. Instead, pay attention to how they make you feel and see what trends you may notice. 

Retrospection may help you understand chains of events that can lead to unwanted behaviors or isolated events that act as cues for the behaviors. For example, maybe you only behave in an undesirable way when you are with specific people, if you have been drinking, or when you have had a difficult day at work. Once you recognize what leads to your unwanted behavior, you may interrupt the chain of events and change your actions.


Social proof

In some cases, it may be difficult to understand why you act the way you do. However, knowing that your behavior is negatively impacting others can be a motivator for making a change. If you do not understand how your behavior is hurting others or which behaviors are causing the problem, you might start by asking the people closest to you.

If you know the specific behavior you want to change, reach out to the people it impacts. Start the conversation with phrases like, "I'm trying to change X about myself. I think it will be easier if I understand how it makes you feel when I do X."

It may be difficult to ask your loved ones if you are unaware of a negative behavior that needs to be changed. However, they may have a more comprehensive idea of what has impacted them. Consider beginning a conversation with phrases like, "I'm trying to grow as a person, but I don't know where to start. Are there any behaviors I have that have been difficult for you?”

These types of questions may seem to open you up to hurtful feedback. Facing the benefit of changing your behavior can be difficult, but you’re not alone. If you are honest with someone when you are asking for their help, they may see your vulnerability and try to help you. Consider that they may have your best interests at heart, even if they give feedback that may be challenging to hear. If this process continues to be difficult for you, talking to a couples, family, or group therapist with these people may be valuable.


Understanding where your thoughts or behavior patterns come from may help you change them. You may be able to notice behaviors or patterns in yourself by observing negative behaviors in loved ones. In addition, identifying where you picked up an unwanted behavior can help you understand how to avoid it.

Why are some behaviors difficult to change?

Even if you understand your negative behaviors, where they come from, and what leads to them, they may still be difficult to change for various reasons, including but not limited to the following.

Social acceptance

Some thoughts and behavior patterns can be challenging to change because, even though you may not want to engage in them anymore, they may be socially acceptable or encouraged. Examples may include substance use, overeating, and bullying. Whatever the behavior, it may be encouraged in specific environments or social settings. If this is the case, removing yourself from that environment or social group may be healthiest to avoid urges.

Physical causes

Negative behavior patterns can be encouraged by your body, potentially making them more challenging to overcome. These negative behaviors can cause positive sensations if they are based on or mimic a healthy behavior and may 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 (mainly dopamine), sometimes leading to a behavioral addiction chemically similar to a substance use disorder. People can develop behavioral addictions to certain foods, playing video games, having sex, and partaking in other activities that stimulate the body’s reward system pathways.

You can break free from unwanted behavior patterns

Support options

In some cases, despite your best efforts and intentions, you may find it increasingly difficult to overcome your unwanted thoughts or behavior patterns. The thought pattern may seem ingrained in your mental processes, or the behavior may be attached to your reward centers. When this is the case, reaching out to a licensed mental health professional may be beneficial.

You might consider an in-person or online therapist when looking for professional support. Online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may be more affordable and convenient than meeting with a mental health professional in person. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions with your therapist.

Studies also back up the effectiveness of online therapy. In one study, participants reported that online therapy allowed them to have more personal conversations. 96% of people using online therapy generally reported experiencing a personal connection with their online therapists, as opposed to 91% who saw face-to-face therapists. They also tended to be more invested in completing the homework the therapists assigned them and occasionally reviewed correspondence between them and their therapists.


Changing negative thoughts and behavior patterns may be challenging, but it can be possible via various methods. For instance, you might engage in mindfulness meditation or retrospection or ask family and friends for their opinions and advice. However, if you’re finding this process difficult, you can also reach out to an in-person or online therapist at any time for professional guidance.

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