When I think of the changes I’ve gone through since childhood, it really does show how malleable the mind is to patterns of ways of thinking, behaviours and being. I think we can connect neural pathways to create more or less positive/negative thinking and bias. Kristin Savage covers this topical subject and provides some excellent tips on how we can deal with negative thinking. She has had a most colourful career in writing for Pick Writers as she majored in Germanic Languages, speaks German and Dutch fluently and is now studying Spanish and planning to obtain her PhD in Applied Linguistics since she is interested in how to use language processes in everyday life.
Do you frequently catch yourself thinking negative thoughts? Do you tend to see everything in the worst possible light? Do you beat yourself up over your mistakes? No one can think positively all the time, but to lead a more contented life, it’s important for us to break any negative thinking patterns we may have.
Negative thinking is often a self-perpetuating problem. The neural pathways in our brain are subject to change throughout our life whenever something new is learned and memorised. This is known as Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity.
The more often we engage in negative thought patterns, the more likely we are to do so in the future.
We also may find ourself thinking negatively about our negative thoughts (self-criticism or judging oneself) which can further compound the issue. Fortunately, we can take back control and adopt a more mindful perspective.
Be Open to Change
In short, we need to take responsibility for our own thoughts – and our own life. This may seem unfair at first. After all, some of our negative thinking patterns may well have come about as a result of how others have treated us. However, the reality is… we cannot go back in time! It’s up to us to work with who we are in the present and learn acceptance. We are under no moral obligation to forgive and forget, but for the sake of our own mental health, we may need a reality check, start living in the present, rather than the past.
Attention to Negative Thoughts
We can’t change what we don’t – or won’t – acknowledge. If we suffer chronic negativity, we may be overwhelmed by the sheer number of our unhelpful thoughts. We need an approach that will let us observe our own thinking processes without judgement. The goal is to recognise negative thoughts and learn to accept how we are feeling or what we are thinking. Mindfulness practices allow us to do just that.
To be mindful is to live in the present, to refrain from worrying about the past or future, and instead observe our negative thoughts ebb and flow.
We can do this by setting aside a few minutes to be quiet and to notice what comes into our head. At first, we may notice that our mind chatters away, and that some of this chatter will be negative and unhelpful. However, regularly practicing mindfulness teaches us to let our thoughts come and go without arguing with ourself or obsessing about whether these thoughts are true. If we find it difficult to sit still, we can try a mindful walk instead.
Identifying Personal Patterns of Negative Thinking
Once we are comfortable with observing our thoughts, it’s time to do a little detective work. We will probably notice that our negative thoughts can often be classified into categories and when we examine them closely, they are often quite unoriginal. When an individual engages in negative, unproductive thinking, we say that they are using a thinking error. In other words, unhelpful negative thoughts are often the result of seeing the world in a skewed way.
Here are a few of the most common thinking errors people fall into:
1. Black and White Thinking: Everything or everyone is completely good or bad. There is no grey area. Example: “I messed up my presentation. This project is a complete failure!”
2. Catastrophizing: When something goes wrong, it feels like the end of the world. Example: “I got into an argument with my spouse today. Our relationship is crumbling! We’ll probably end up divorced!
3. Personalisation: A tendency to believe the world revolves around you and your failings. Example: “My friend didn’t text me back yesterday. I bet I’ve done something to upset them.”
4. Over-generalising: Extrapolating from a single event in an unhelpful way. Example: “I had an argument with a co-worker. My co-workers are very rude.”
5. Emotional Reasoning: Assuming that because something feels bad, it must be so. Example: “I’m worried about going on this date. This must be for a good reason – I’m unattractive and no one will ever want me.”
6. Fortune-telling: Overlooking all potential positive outcomes and focusing on the negative that could happen instead. Example: “I have a job interview tomorrow. It’ll be awful. I won’t know how to answer their questions, and I won’t get the job!”
Do you recognise any of these thought patterns? The next time a negative thought crosses your mind, consider whether it fits into any of these categories.
Challenging Unhelpful Thought Patterns
Having become aware of our negative thoughts, we can start learning how to challenge them. This may require quite a lot of practice, but just a few minutes each day can quickly yield results. The simplest method is to ask ourself some questions, and ponder the answers:
- Is there any objective evidence in favour of this thought?
- What would I tell a friend in this situation?
- What would be a more helpful, yet realistic, thing to think in this situation?
- Is it helpful to hold on to this thought?
Some people find that journaling helps them evaluate their thought patterns. Give it a try.
Changing the Channel
If we are sensitive to bad news and susceptible to anxiety, we can make life a little easier by limiting our exposure to sensationalist news and radio programmes. It is healthy to stay abreast of current affairs, but reading and listening to negative media does not inspire optimism or positivity. We can also consider cutting down on soap operas, violent films, or anything else that leaves us feeling emotionally disturbed.
It’s also worth asking yourself whether the people around you lift you up or drag you down.
We can’t control others, but we can control our reaction to them and their behaviours. For example, if they frequently complain about their lives or the state of the world, try to steer the conversation in a more positive direction. Why waste our time trying to argue someone out of their opinions? Why should we use our energy to try and force someone into giving up their negative thoughts? As we know, change only happens when someone is willing to make a change so we need to focus on ourself instead.
Breaking free of negative thought patterns can be a real challenge, particularly if you have been in a rut for years or even decades. However, by accepting and then challenging your negative thoughts, you can adopt a healthier perspective and find a renewed joy in life.