How Negative Thought Patterns Can Make You Ill and Simple Tips to Shift up and out

By Deanna Minich, PhD, CNS


  • Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
  • Watch your words, for they become actions.
  • Watch your actions, for they become habits.
  • Watch your habits, for they become character.
  • Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
  • —Lao-Tzu


What are you thinking right now?

What were you thinking a few minutes ago?

It wouldn’t be a surprise if you couldn’t remember your thoughts. You’re certainly not alone, as most of us are not aware of our thoughts, much less realize their profound impact on our health.

It’s been said that we think something on the order of 50,000 thoughts every day and that most of those thoughts are recycled and negative.1 If we conceive of every thought being powerful enough to change our physiological function as we know from the well-established placebo and nocebo effects, then it would make sense to ensure that we sift through all the mental information that we are feeding ourselves every day, right? Yet, most of us just let thoughts waft in and out without any discretion. For some of us, we might be up to speed on food and food labels, but we aren’t as diligent about “reading our thoughts.”

Similarly, just like eating poor-quality food can lead to unwanted health impacts, so too can thinking poor-quality thoughts take us down a path of possible inflammation and stress, ultimately leading to potential imbalance and illness.

Here’s what the studies tell us about the science of thinking on our health:

  • Negative thoughts, which can be defined as worry, rumination, and obsessions, disrupt the flow and happiness of our lives. When we find ourselves surrounded in negative thinking, we have a greater chance of engaging in unhealthy lifestyle habits like not sleeping well,2,3 being physically inactive,4 and eating fewer fruits and vegetables.5
  • Negative thoughts can also contribute to stress and burnout.6,7 There are already so many things we are confronted with in our lives that lead us to feel like our cup is full. Having negative thoughts about stress only compounds the effects. Worrying is not going to help, but substituting a distraction can lead to a shorter recovery from stressful events.8
  • All of that negative thinking can eventually translate into effects on our health, such as inflammation,9 anxiety, depression, and emotional distress.10-13 If we can turn the tide and create more optimism rather than pessimism, we will possibly have reduced risk of inflammation,14 stroke,15 and coronary heart disease.16,17 Being optimistic seems to be the better choice when it comes to protecting against coronary heart disease.18 But you can’t necessarily force yourself into being optimistic, as some research suggests that “unrealistic optimism” may set us up for failure.19

So, what can you do to escape the negativity?

  • First, know what you are thinking. One easy activity I like to use with groups of people or even with a single person requires a stack of Post-it notes, a pen, and a timer. For five minutes, I have them write down each thought they have—one per Post-it note, even if the thought seems minor or ridiculous. When the five minutes are up, they spread out all the Post-it notes to survey this five-minute window into their thinking. Patterns become illuminated. One simple thing to do is tally the positive, neutral, and negative thoughts to see how you net out and then look for repeated thoughts.
  • Second, use what I call the “cancel-reset technique.” In other words, every time you have a negative thought, pause and rethink that thought. Imagine that you are almost hitting a “cancel” button in your mind, and then reset with either a neutral or affirming thought to reshape what you were just thinking.
  • Third, aside from this unearthing of thoughts and a replanting of new ones, the mind needs constant weeding and seeding. It is essential to sample from a palette of different ways to reshape your thinking on a daily basis. You can choose what is most accessible to you, whether it is a meditation or mindful practice, being still or silent for a few minutes to a few hours every day, eating a variety of plant-based colorful foods to stay in good spirits, or even finding small ways to remain curious, as curiosity has been shown to be an important source of resilience for those at risk of suicide.20

It’s promising to know that we are not stuck in old, negative thinking. Our brains are constantly resculpting based on what we decide to think. We only need to become aware and begin to make small changes to start seeing an impact.