What Are Irrational Thoughts, And How Can I Combat Them?

Medically reviewed by Audrey Kelly, LMFT
Updated April 9, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Are your thoughts negatively impacting your everyday life? Do you feel like your thoughts control your ability to accomplish goals? Are you unsure whether your thought patterns are normal? Identifying irrational thoughts, understanding how anxiety disorders may play a role, and recognizing the causes and symptoms of a worrying thought pattern can help most people gain insight. Learning to cope with these specific fears and developing strategies to manage this mental health condition can lead to a better experience in your daily life.

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What are irrational thoughts?

Irrational thoughts are thinking patterns that may cause stress and affects our lives. These thoughts may feel annoying, disheartening, or scary when they come up. Anyone can experience irrational thoughts, even without any specific context.

In some cases, an irrational thought may be an intrusive thought, which is a thought that repeatedly enters your mind about something that causes you extreme distress. For example, you may worry that you'd do something against your moral code, even though you know it doesn't align with your values.

It may be beneficial for your mental health to work on combatting persistent negative thoughts if they consist of the following:

  • Thoughts of harming yourself or others
  • Constant thoughts of others falling ill or dying
  • Unjustified worry of financial hardship
  • Fears that no one likes you and that you will always be alone
  • Any repetitive subject or belief that causes you distress

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 988 to talk to someone over SMS. Support is available 24/7.

It's important to recognize and identify these thought patterns and learn strategies that help reduce anxiety and improve overall well-being.

What can cause irrational thoughts?

You may have more frequent irrational thoughts when under emotional distress or when you experience feelings of worry. During these times, you could feel more pessimistic or worried about what may happen next. People prone to pessimism or highly resistant to change may be more likely to struggle with irrational thoughts.

A professional term for irrational thinking in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are biased negative thinking patterns that can develop over time or come on suddenly, often caused by the brain attempting to simplify complex information. Common cognitive distortions include:

  • Polarized thinking: Believing something is entirely good or bad or "black and white" thinking
  • Overgeneralization: Taking adverse events and applying them to the whole rather than a part of a situation
  • Disqualifying positive attributes: Rejecting optimistic thoughts due to negative self-beliefs
  • Mind-reading: Believing you know what someone else will think, do, or say without communication with them

All cognitive distortions can be irrational or false, often stemming from faulty logic. However, when addressing these thoughts, many people focus on the harmful impact the ideas may have as a motive to work through them, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. By learning to recognize these thought patterns and understanding what causes irrational thinking, individuals can begin to act to replace them with more accurate and reality based perspectives, ultimately improving their overall mental well-being and the way they perceive the world.

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When do irrational thoughts emerge?

Because these thoughts often emerge during moments of emotional stress, they may be born from the intensity of your emotions rather than logical reasoning. For instance, someone who constantly experiences fear may develop fearful thoughts about their environment or the things that scare them. Anger may also cause cognitive distortions to establish.

If you or someone you know has these thoughts, intervening may be necessary, especially if you are experiencing adverse effects. Some other causes of irrational thoughts may include:

  • Poor self-esteem
  • Past traumatic experiences
  • Bullying or being treated unkindly by others
  • Certain mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder

Potential risks of continued negative thinking

You may find that negative thinking can start to impact you negatively. Over time, you may experience anxious thoughts, question the behaviors of others, and assume the worst intentions. 

If left alone, irrational thoughts could multiply, which may cause mental health concerns such as feelings of low self-esteem, urges to try to numb the thoughts, or relationship problems. 

Challenging negative thought patterns

There are several ways that you may be able to challenge negative thought patterns and find relief from these thoughts. Consider the following.

Confront the thoughts

Directly confront these thoughts. Write them down and question whether they are helpful to you. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • How realistic is this thought?
  • What evidence do I have that this can happen in the present? 
  • Why am I having this thought?
  • Is there a better way to phrase this?
  • How does this thought impact me emotionally?
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This exercise might help you move out of an emotional state and into a more logical one. It can give you some time to analyze your thinking. If you have recurrent negative thoughts, consider journaling. Studies show that expressive writing and journaling are beneficial for your mental health.

Challenge your thoughts

Many people believe they don't have any control over what pops into their heads. However, thoughts may be able to change with some work. Try this exercise:

  1. List your current negative thoughts.
  2. Think of as many positive or neutral rebuttals to these thoughts as possible.
  3. Ask yourself the facts of the situation. What is real? What is happening? What are you feeling?
  4. Repeat the thoughts to yourself with their new positive spin.

Let's consider an example. Say you find yourself thinking a negative thought like, "I do not deserve love." A possible rebuttal to that thought could be, "I want to find ways to care for myself so that I can feel lovable." Next, ask yourself the facts. Maybe it is true that you feel unlovable right now, but feelings are often temporary. It could also be the case that past experiences have influenced you to feel unlovable. Reflect on what resources are available -- could it be possible to feel better when you use those resources? Your facts and rebuttals may look different depending on your situation and the negative thoughts you're experiencing.

Practice gratitude

Gratitude exercises can be another effective way to counteract negative thinking patterns. Write down three things you are grateful for every day. It could be your pets, someone who complimented you, or your outfit. Think of what makes you happiest, or something that you can appreciate.

This exercise may allow your mind to consider more positive alternatives to common negative thoughts. Expressing gratitude has been shown to impact life quality and mental health positively.

Practice meditation

Many people use daily meditation to reduce negative thought patterns and quell worries. A short daily meditation practice may help keep your thinking more grounded. It doesn't have to be a long, drawn-out session. A ten-minute meditation exercise every day can help restore emotional balance.

Meditation reduces stress, as well. Over time, you may feel a more profound sense of serenity and calm in your life. Meditation may help with intrusive thoughts, as it can take the focus off your mind. If meditation doesn't work, some people find mindfulness to be just as helpful.

Find support

Finally, it might help to seek an outside perspective. You may speak with someone who knows you, such as friends, family, or coworkers. Get their opinion about the thoughts you're having. You might discover that they struggle with these types of thoughts as well.

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Teresa Adams, LPC
Teresa is very supportive and provides tools to help improve your outlook on life. She also helps to ground me whenever I have irrational thoughts.”

A support group is another option for those looking for social connections. Support groups for anxiety, substance use, or depression may help you find others who understand what you're going through. Many support groups are led by a mental health professional or held in a professional and guided environment.

You're not alone if you're struggling to work through negative thoughts. Online or in-person counseling is another support option available to you. Studies show that online mindfulness-based therapy has greatly benefited those seeking support for anxiety or depression.

Through online sites such as BetterHelp, you can work through negative thought patterns with a mental health counselor. Your therapist may bring up exercises or worksheets you can try to practice further reframing unwanted thoughts.

Whomever you decide to confide in, getting another's opinion could help provide an insightful and professional perspective to help get you on the healing track. 

Takeaway

Cognitive distortions or negative thought patterns may feel isolating. However, you're not alone. If you're feeling overwhelmed by irrational thoughts, consider contacting a counselor or signing up for a support group. You can also try any of the coping skills listed above.
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