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

Updated November 7, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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, what causes them, and how to overcome them may help you gain insight.

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What Are Irrational Thoughts?

Irrational thoughts are thinking patterns that may cause stress. These thoughts may feel annoying, disheartening, or scary when they come up. Anyone can experience irrational thoughts.

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
  • Fear that no one likes you and that you will always be alone
  • Any repetitive subject that causes you distress

What Can Cause Irrational Thoughts?

You may have more frequent irrational thoughts when under emotional distress. 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. 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. However, when preventing 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 true.

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 or question the behaviors and intentions of others.

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. 

If you feel suicidal or have the urge to harm yourself due to these thoughts, reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is available 24/7. 

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? 
  • Why am I having this thought?
  • Is there a better way to phrase this?
  • How does this thought impact me emotionally?

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.

Here's an example:

Negative Thought: “I do not deserve love.”

Rebuttal: “I want to find ways to care for myself so that I can feel lovable.”

Facts: “I feel unlovable right now, and feelings are often temporary.” “I have past experiences that may explain why I feel this way.” “I have many resources available to me to get help, and I plan to use them.” “Feeling better is possible.”

Your facts and rebuttals may look different depending on your situation and the negative thoughts you’re dealing with.

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.


Many people use daily meditation to reduce negative thought patterns and deal with 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.

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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.

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.

Get Support From Counseling

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. Below are some counselor reviews from those who have reached out for help for similar reasons.

Counselor Reviews

"Shana has helped me tremendously over the past few months. She has assisted me in changing my thought patterns and bad habits. She is very caring, a great listener and is not judgmental. It is clear how much she cares about her patients. I appreciate her and would recommend her to anyone searching for a counselor."

"Rickie is very good at understanding what you are trying to convey and provides constructive ways in which to change your thoughts and behaviors. She is kind and supportive in her communications. She likes to get you to figure out why you are doing certain behaviors so that you can change any negative behaviors."


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

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

Speak with a Licensed Therapist
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