Overcome Negative Mental Filters for a Healthier Mindset

The Dangers of Distorted Mental Filters: How They Affect Our Well-being

June 1, 2024

Francis’ boss knocked on his office door. "Excellent report, Francis," she remarked, placing a neat stack of papers on his desk. "You've done an outstanding job capturing the data and presenting it effectively with the graphs. The investors will find this information very encouraging. However, I'd like you to review the conclusion and incorporate the revisions I've noted. It's crucial that we conclude on an exceptionally strong note.”

As his boss exited the room, Francis felt his heart rate double; he could only concentrate on the fact that there was room for improvement in his report. Despite receiving commendation from his boss, Francis struggled to acknowledge the positive feedback due to a negative mental filter, which promptly shifted his day from being productive to being fraught with anxiety.

When a filter is out of kilter

When looking through a mental filter, the tendency is to single out one aspect of a situation to the exclusion of others that should be considered. A mental filter is like a perceptual sieve through which events pass as they are encountered. The filter through which one views life could also be compared to looking through binoculars. If our binoculars are flipped around, smudged, or broken, the view of life will be skewed.

Since our tendency is to filter new data through old perceptions and models, mental filters can cause even the most objective of data to not be received in a totally accurate way. Individuals who are struggling with depressed thoughts are likely to look at events through a negative mental filter.

Filter fallouts

There are several unhappy outcomes, or “filter fallouts,” associated with seeing life through a smudged or distorted mental filter. Though remorse for past failures can be a positive motivating force, people who focus on previous negative experiences will almost always be disappointed with their performance. The longer we have been immersed in an inaccurate way of thinking, the more likely we are to form distorted mental filters about what is possible or true. Negative thought patterns also contribute to poor decisions by weighing us down with emotional baggage. When our mental plumbing is clogged, the nimble mindset needed to make free-flying decisions and live life to its fullest is missing. In contrast, when the mental filters are clear, our emotional operating system is also clear of concerns, prejudices, negative memories, and cloudy personal beliefs. Free from judgmental clutter, we can now observe the world with clarity, confidence, and unfiltered perceptions.

Danger around every corner

When properly used, mental filters are part of our brain's innate survival instinct. Each of us has been given a drive for self-preservation, which includes looking at the world in which we live for possible dangers. But while healthy mental filters are designed to keep us safe, they can also trigger our fight-or-flight response whenever our minds interpret something as unusual or alarming. This “red alert” stage, which results in a sudden epinephrine rush to the body, has one function—to enable your muscles to work hard and fast in case you need to escape or do battle.

Since your muscles are fueled by oxygen and glucose, your entire physiology changes to enable the speedy transportation of these bodily fuels. Heart rate and blood pressure leap, while anything else going on in the body slows down or stops altogether. It's kind of like a fire alarm going off in a building. As the emergency is dealt with, everything else is ignored. Not until the alarm is over do things return to normal.

Problems arise in the body when mental filters (combined with fast-paced, high stress existence) cause our “fire alarms” to go off dozens of times every day. In such cases, the body never has a chance to calm itself or regain its natural equilibrium. This level of mental stress eventually takes a toll, resulting in high blood pressure, compromised immune systems, or difficult digestion.

Wellness concerns

Pessimists, or those who seem determined to view life through a negative mental filter, do have something to worry about. A study by researchers in the Netherlands found that people who are temperamentally pessimistic are more likely to die of heart disease and other causes than those who are by nature optimistic. [i] Subjects with the highest level of optimism were 45% less likely than those with the highest-level pessimism to die of all causes during the study.  

An optimistic balance

While much has been made of the power of positive thinking, there is also danger involved in unbridled optimism, or positive thinking just for the sake of positive thinking. Rather than looking through the mental filter of a pessimist or pure optimist, the goal should be “realistic optimism” where we always expect the best but prepare for the worst.  

A pessimist who contracts the flu thinks it will progress into pneumonia and may create a self-fulfilling prophecy by conveying the wrong message to her body and mind. In contrast, a purely optimistic person might ignore the symptoms, subjecting her body to overwork at a time when it needs to rest. A realistic optimist would recognize that she has a history of respiratory complications, and while expecting the best, take adequate precautions to prevent progression into pneumonia.  

Optimists believe Murphy's law that whatever can go wrong will, but they also act as if they're bound to succeed. Accurate in their estimations, they anticipate hurdles but also believe in their capacity to overcome. Motivated by the taste of success, they achieve it more often than their less accurate counterparts. Realistic optimism has also been strongly associated with better stress management and the tendency to seek social support, both of which contribute to health and longevity. [i] Perhaps realistic optimists fare better because they are better able to cope with adversity or tend to engage in more health promoting behaviors.

While a cheery, optimistic spirit is certainly something worth striving for, researchers have correlated a positive impact for individuals who simply try to avoid negative thinking. [ii] So if becoming a sunshiny optimist seems like too much of a stretch at the moment, you may improve your health by simply cutting off negative thoughts. Over the years, a 14-day plan to eliminate negative thoughts has been extremely helpful to many of my patients.

14-day Plan to Improve Thoughts

  • For 2 weeks (14 consecutive days), decide to say nothing critical or negative about anything or any person
  • Not one critical word is allowed to be spoken to others (not even “constructive" criticism)
  • Speak to others using positive or neutral words or speak nothing at all (use the same rule for thoughts)
  • If you slip up on any day during the two weeks, you begin counting again until you achieve all 14 consecutive days

Don't get discouraged if you must start things over; things will get easier as you become more aware of your thoughts. After completing 14 consecutive days, constructive criticism is allowed, and you will be a far better judge of what that really means. This exercise may seem impossible for those who are raising children or leading in a business environment. It is possible, however, to communicate expectations and enforce consequences without critical words.  

The power of positive filters

Mental filters are not, of themselves, always a negative thing. As we live each moment, events that make up our lives pass through the mental filter of our beliefs, values, and expectations, creating our daily reality. Every time we make a decision in life, we have to wiggle through this gamut of established belief systems and thought associations created by a lifetime of feelings and experiences. If our mental filter only lets in negative things, life will be truly depressing. In contrast, if our filters are set up to look for more positive things, life takes on a happier hue.  

Strategies for success

Even if your mental folders have become steady or clogged, they don't have to stay that way. With a strong dose of discipline and a well thought out plan, the smudges and dust can be cleared away. Some of the best advice for seeing things clearly is found in Philippians 4:8, which details 7 positive mental filters.  

Ask yourself if you are taking the entire picture into consideration, if there is a positive side to the situation that you were overlooking, or if you are engaging in too many activities that dwell on the negative. When you catch yourself with a negative “mental filter,” replace the unhealthy thoughts with ones that balance the story. There really is a silver lining behind every cloud. There are “hidden positives” in just about every situation. If you look hard enough, you will find them. Train yourself to recognize unhealthy thoughts right away for what they are–a type of thinking that leads to poor self-worth and an even worse mood. When you think more balanced thoughts, your brain will release neurotransmitters that make you feel better.  

A balanced view, or clear thinking, in turn soothes the mind, and as the mind is soothed, you will be able to enjoy what is good about life. Yes, you can have a mental and emotional operating system that is clean, healthy, and running at maximum capacity, even amid great trials. Why not get started today?


This article is adapted from The Lost Art of Thinking, by Neil Nedley, MD. Learn more about mental filters and other cognitive distortions in this book from Nedley Health.


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[i] Friedman, RA “Yet Another Worry for Those Who Believe the Glass is Half Empty.” The New York Times. 9 Jan 2007.

[ii] Robinson-Whelen, S., Kim, C., et al. (1997). Distinguishing optimism from pessimism in older adults: is it more important to be optimistic or not to be pessimistic?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 73(6), 1345–1353.

About the author

Neil Nedley, MD, is a practicing physician in internal medicine. He has given numerous mental and emotional health educational lectures to physicians and caregivers of all specialties for attendees to receive the top category 1 of American Medical Association continuing medical education credits. Dr. Nedley has served as an adjunct clinical professor of Medicine at Loma Linda University and has been the clinical instructor for numerous resident physicians, medical students, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners. Dr. Nedley has presented and published numerous scientific studies in the medical literature and is well known internationally as a public speaker, teacher, and author.