As you go through your day and you’re presented with different challenges and opportunities — do you tend to think on the bright side? Or the dark one? We skew negatively more often than not, and while it can be a downer, it’s also for our own sanity.
Believe it or not, our brains are wired for survival based on our evolutionary and human design, and our negative thoughts can help keep us safe, explains Susan Zinn, a licensed psychotherapist, certified trauma specialist and the founder of Westside Counseling Center. However, the caveat here is most of this negativity is actually imaginary fears and stressors — not actual danger.
“Those who get in the habit of focusing on their negative thoughts can create negative bias, focusing more on their negative thoughts, which has a powerful effect on their actions, behavior, decisions, and relationships,” she explains. “This bias towards negative thoughts can lead you to pay much more attention to the bad things that happen in your life, making them seem much more important.”
Here, a guide from experts on how to break through the cycle of negativity and find realism — and maybe even a little positivity:
Try reframing the negativity.
Do you have one of those friends who always plays the devil’s advocate? They flip every coin, push your buttons, and can cause quite the upset in an otherwise normal dinner conversation. Though it may not always be fun to be on the other side of their antics, this approach can be beneficial for combating negative thought patterns. In psychology practice, it’s a technique called reframing, where you challenge yourself to look at something from a completely different angle, explains psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D.
Say you’re attending an outdoor event, and there’s a chance of rain. ‘I’m so upset’, you reframe the thought to be ‘It might rain, I’ll bring an umbrella, and it’ll become a memorable experience.’ Rather than saying, ‘Ugh, my day is ruined.’
“When we approach thoughts from a new angle, we get a fuller perspective and view things more accurately,” Dr. Thomas says. “Sometimes, reframing means to look at things from a more positive light. Reframing helps you not to get lost in the negative of a situation and to start loosening your grip and letting go of your negative thoughts.”
Start a meditation practice.
Maybe you’ve given your ‘om’ practice a shot. Or perhaps you don’t believe in its impact. Whatever the case, if you want to cut those negative thoughts out, you need a way to center, calm and ground your mind. And meditation is one of the very best scientifically-backed ways to train the brain to let go of negative thoughts, according to Dr. Natalie Christine Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist and the founder of Priority Wellness Consulting.
“Through meditation practice, we gain greater awareness of our thinking patterns and can ‘observe’ our thoughts better,” she continues. “When we observe our thoughts in a non-judgmental or non-reactive manner, we are better able to decide whether a thought is useful to us, and if not, let it go.”
Challenge your thoughts.
When you’re going through a difficult period, it may feel like your thoughts control everything you do, feel or experience. However, it’s vital to take back control and remember that you are in the driver’s seat — not your spiraling negative thoughts. The goal is to analyze and learn from these ongoing thoughts rather than stop them. As Zinn says, if we try to go cold turkey, it can cause us to cling to more negative thought patterns because we are so hyper-focused on ‘not’ being negative.
Instead, pausing and recognizing that you are experiencing a negative thought can be the first step in shifting them. This is called ‘cognitive restructuring’ and teaches you to challenge your mind. When you feel them coming, she suggests asking yourself these questions:
- Are the thoughts realistic?
- Are they accurate and facts?
- What do you gain or lose by continuing to believe your thought?
- Is there an alternative explanation?
- What would you consider telling a friend who may have similar thoughts?
“Being curious about your thoughts and how they are servicing can be incredibly helpful,” she continues. “Once you understand the meaning you have assigned to them, it gives you the ability to choose to continue to focus on them or not. We only have so much energy every day, and negative thoughts can deplete us, draining our energy.”
Train your brain to think positively.
Dr. Dattilo says another way to let go of negative thoughts is to train your brain to think more positively. For example, studies show that their ‘explanatory’ style heavily influences a person’s outlook on life.
What does this mean? In short, Dr. Dattilo explains it has to do with the words we choose to frame how we react to a situation. If we use words like ‘forever’ or ‘this will never get better’ or ‘everything is wrong’ — we are more likely to feel negative and anxious about the experience.
However, it we take a step back and make our outlook less ultimatum and more fluid, we will start to see the positive side. This means reminding ourselves that ‘nothing last forever’ and ‘there are silver linings in most trials.’
Commit to a ‘brain dumping’ ritual.
One of the reasons we cling to negative thoughts is because they’re stuck in our minds. And like tumbleweed, they tend to feel bigger and bigger as we give them more time and energy. That’s why ‘brain dumping’ or journaling can be tremendously helpful. It’s also super simple: when you feel overwhelmed, write it down. That’s it!
“Making a list or a plan is more action-oriented, and that can calm our ruminating brain a bit, too,” Dr. Dattilo says. “It usually provides some clarity. Our goal ultimately is to develop greater cognitive flexibility — seeing the bigger picture, different perspectives, not so black and white, less rigidity, adjusting expectations.”
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