Most people have heard plenty of ways to combat negative thinking: Practice mindfulness, go for a walk, call a friend or family member. But the challenge with negative thinking isn’t knowing what you should do when it happens—it’s knowing when to put these tactics into action. Negative thoughts are pretty sneaky. They often start out innocently, but then they quickly intensify and build on other negative thoughts.

This tendency was identified in a 1988 study titled “Depression and mental control: The resurgence of unwanted negative thoughts.” The study concluded that “depression involves an enhanced accessibility of interconnected negative thoughts that can undermine mental control efforts.” What this means for us is that the more we let our negative thoughts occupy our mind without interruption, the more interconnected they will become, possibly even increasing susceptibility to depression.

But what if I told you that you can see the future? That you can know when your negative thoughts are getting worse? It would make it a lot easier to make healthy decisions. You’d be much better at nixing your negative thoughts before they get worse. You would even have more time to “experiment” with different coping strategies. You could even improve your ability to communicate your emotions, and you could give those around you ample notice if you need a break or need to vent.

Negative Thinking Comes With Warning Signs

A red fire alarm.

Much like earthquakes often have “tremors” or foreshocks ahead of the mainshock, people have early, often subtle, signs that their negative thoughts may be worsening.

My negative thought warning sign: I start senselessly criticizing myself. A recent example happened during my weekly pick-up basketball game when I missed an open layup. I cursed myself out loudly instead of quietly laughing it off and running back on defense like I usually do.

For me, it was a sign that I needed to check in with myself about how I was feeling in regards to my goals and responsibilities. After some self-reflection, I found the problem: My to-do list had been piling up, and I was avoiding some tasks that needed to either be delegated or taken head on. Cue the negative thinking.

Much like earthquakes often have “tremors” ahead of the mainshock, people have early, often subtle, signs that their negative thoughts may be worsening.

That check-in allowed me to take earlier action than I might have if I had just ignored my self-insulting behavior. Your warning sign to negative thinking, however, might be different from mine.

Subtle Thoughts and Behaviors to Look Out For:

●︎ Are you a nail biter?

●︎ Hair picker?

●︎ Toe tapper?

●︎ Self insulter?

●︎ Impulse buyer?

●︎ Emotional eater?

●︎ Snooze button smasher?

●︎ Caffeine abuser?

In a lot of ways, these are all “self-soothing” behaviors, even if some of them can cause more problems than they solve. But they are also behaviors that we do often without noticing. Forcing ourselves to pay attention to these behaviors gives us the opportunity we need to use more effective coping strategies.

One of these behaviors on their own might hardly be noticeable or not even considered negative. But when we pay attention to the timing and frequency of these types of behaviors, we can start to pick up on patterns that can inform us exactly where we are headed. They could be early signs of depression, a warning of an imminent panic attack, or just early signs that you’re about to give up on your New Year’s resolution. Either way, when we notice these subtle signs, we can better anticipate increases in negative thoughts and take preventive or healing actions.

Another benefit of noticing these subtle signs: You may start to notice that they happen around certain people, at certain times of day, or even in certain places. If you are able to identify these triggers to your negative thoughts or self-soothing behaviors, you may be able to eliminate the trigger altogether. This may not always be an option, especially if the trigger is an important job or close family member, but it may be a sign that you need to deal with that person or place in a different way.

How to Stop Negative Thinking Once You Spot It

A woman walks in a field.

So let’s say you get really good at noticing your self-soothing behaviors, maybe even to the point of being able to head off negative thought patterns. What can you do to stop the negative thinking once it starts? Well, using my previous example, you could do a check in with yourself and examine your current thoughts and expectations about how things are going. Or, you could also use a popular Dialectical Behavior Therapy technique called “Opposite Emotion Action”. The technique works as follows:

1. Identify your negative feeling.

In my case, it might have been self-loathing or disappointment.

2. Identify an opposite emotion.

For me, it might have been self-love or gratitude.

3. Act as if that is how you were feeling.

This might have caused me to think something like “I’m running really well today.” or “At least I got out of bed this morning to exercise!”

This technique can shift your negative thoughts to more neutral or even positive thoughts, and will certainly help prevent them from getting worse.

Spotting our negative thoughts before they turn us into a ball of stress isn’t easy—but when we pay a little more attention to our automatic thoughts and behaviors, we can start to see the future and prevent negative thoughts from taking hold.

Read next: The 1 Questions That Helps Me Combat Negative Thinking