Renew’s happiness challenge: Silence your inner critic

It’s Day 2 of the Feel Happier & Healthier in 7 Days challenge. Today, we’re finding the bright side with an exercise that helps you break free of a common mental trap.

Nancy Fitzgerald
Woman on outdoor couch with man

The Feel Happier & Healthier in 7 Days challenge is the newest challenge from Renew by UnitedHealthcare® to help inspire you to take charge of your well-being every day. All week, we’re sharing fun and easy activities to help you strengthen your body, refresh your spirit and connect with the things you love. After all, when you make your own happiness a priority, it’s a win for your overall health.


“My best is never good enough.”

“There’s nothing for me to get excited about.”

“No one wants my opinion.”

“Why did I say that?!”

“It’s too late for me to make friends.”

Feelings such as anger, resentment, sadness and regret are all too common — and completely normal. In fact, sometimes it’s helpful to feel heightened emotions, according to a report from Harvard Medical School.

In the heat of the moment, the body releases stress hormones that prompt the heart to start racing and the lungs to pump harder. This response can help provide energy needed to handle a stressful event, the report explains. But when negative thoughts keep replaying in your head, it can take a toll on your mental health.

Getting stuck in a maze of catastrophic thinking reduces activity of the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which handles the relaxation response. Over time, an overly talkative inner critic can have a negative effect on physical health, according to an article in Innovations of Clinical Neuroscience. It can even lead to anxiety and depression, reports the Association for Psychological Science.

But even if you’re not experiencing those extreme outcomes, a repeated pattern of negative thoughts can keep you from living the happy life that you really want to live, says Kerrie Smedley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in Annville, Pennsylvania.

How to spot — and reverse — a pattern of negative thoughts

You can help quiet your inner critic with a technique called cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT. It’s a set of techniques that can help you focus on the moment to see the ways that your thoughts, feelings and actions are related. Change one and — bingo — you change the others, too.

“CBT is very present-focused,” says Smedley. “The goal is to find practical solutions to help you return to and experience the life you really value. With CBT, you can learn how to go toward your feelings and picture a way to deal with them.”

When it comes to putting together a toolbox to help with mental health issues, CBT is the gold standard, says Smedley. CBT is effective for a wide variety of concerns, from anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder and substance abuse, according to a large review of data published in Cognitive Therapy and Research. For example, the review states that as many as 87% of people experiencing depression saw improvement with treatment by CBT alone.

The Sanvello app can help on your mental health journey

Peer support, relaxation and coping tools, a place to track your mood — it’s all at your fingertips with the Sanvello app. And it’s included with many UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage plans. To learn more and get started, sign in to your plan website and go to Heath & Wellness. Then search Sanvello. Not a member? Learn more here

The best part: It can work quickly. “It can make a huge difference in a short time,” says Smedley. “Sometimes people are afraid to go to a therapist because they’re afraid someone’s going to dig around in their childhood and analyze them — or that it’ll take years. But with CBT, there’s no analysis going on — it’s all about problem-solving. You can start to see improvement after just a few sessions.”

You can do CBT with a trained therapist. Or you can do it on your own. Either way, it could make a big difference in your life. “Not everybody needs therapy,” says Smedley. “We all go through times of grief or depression or anxiety, and sometimes we can handle it ourselves. But if you’re continuing to be depressed or struggle with a relationship, then maybe you should give it a try.”

6 steps to help change a negative thought

Today, your challenge is to try a simple CBT exercise to see how it can help you identify the mental trap of negative thinking — and reverse it. Using the Feel Happier & Healthier in 7 Days Activity Guide, which you can download here, follow these simple steps:

1. Find Day 2 and look for the 4 columns labeled:

  • Situation
  • Thought
  • Feeling
  • Behavior

2. Think about a recent moment when you’ve felt upset. Maybe you’ve been trying to reach a friend all week but they’re not returning your calls. Write that down in the Situation column.

3. Write down what you’re thinking about. Maybe you decide your friend is selfish or ignoring you. Whatever it is, write that in the Thought column. 

4. Examine your feelings. Are you angry, anxious, hurt or feeling betrayed? Your feelings go in Column 3.

5. Jot down how you acted on those feelings in the Behavior column. Did you send your friend an angry text? Vow to never speak to them again? Dive into a pint of ice cream?

6. Look back at your chart. “You’ll begin to see just how closely connected your thoughts, feelings and behaviors actually are,” says Smedley.

Try making a few changes. As you examine your Thought column, ask yourself: Is this thought accurate? After all, your friend has been with you for years. So try replacing that inaccurate thought — My friend is ignoring me — with a different and perhaps more accurate one — I know they’ve had a lot going on. They probably want to call but haven’t had a minute.

Next, look at your Feelings column. Does changing that thought also change your feelings? Maybe instead of feeling anger and resentment toward your friend, you might begin to feel compassion. After all, it’s no fun when life gets so busy there’s no time to chat with friends.

Finally, go to your notes in the Behavior column. What could you do differently? Knowing your friend might be feeling overwhelmed, you might send a kind “thinking of you” text. Or you might let them know that you’re there for them, too, whenever they’re ready.

That’s what CBT is all about. It can help you notice those negative patterns and stop them in their tracks. And that can help make you happier and healthier.

“Now that you’ve got the hang of it, you can start to be aware every time you have a strong negative emotion,” says Smedley. “You’ll begin to realize that your thoughts, feelings and emotions are all part of a system.”

Pay attention to them. Start to make little changes. Pretty soon you might start noticing some big differences.


Keep up with the challenge: 

Download your Feel Happier & Healthier in 7 Days Activity Guide 

Day 1: Commit to your mental well-being